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Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy

3.73  ·  Rating Details ·  575 Ratings  ·  138 Reviews
It's easy to dismiss taxidermy as a kitschy or morbid sideline, the realm of trophy fish and jackalopes or an anachronistic throwback to the dusty diorama. Yet theirs is a world of intrepid hunter-explorers, eccentric naturalists, and gifted museum artisans, all devoted to the paradoxical pursuit of creating the illusion of life. Into this subculture of insanely passionate ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published March 8th 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2010)
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"What you need for this kind of work is a strong stomach and lots of patience."
94-year-old Lillian Schwendeman, skinner and creator of artificial ears.

I'm pretty sure everything you will ever need to know about taxidermy (unless you decide to try it for yourself,) is contained in this book. From its beginnings to its staggering popularity during the Victorian Era to its use in contemporary art - it's all here.

Here are just a few fun and amazing things to be learned:

---The jackalope was invented
Jul 15, 2011 Donna rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
While this book definitely has its moments, it's more about telling tales from the world of taxidermy and the author's time spent in it than providing a broader view of the subject. The writing style frequently got in the way of the content thanks to jumpy chapters, sentences that were sometimes unclear, and awkward transitions between the author's experiences and her research.

My biggest issue with the book was that the author didn't seem to care much about her subject. She brushed right past a
Ethan Gilsdorf
Imitation of life

A tour of the hidden subculture of taxidermy — with recipes

By Ethan Gilsdorf | Boston Globe, March 14, 2010

When the Parisian taxidermy shop Deyrolle went up in flames two years ago 90 percent of the inventory was lost to the fire and smoke — thousands of specimens, from fossils to beetles, rabbits to polar bears, some reaching back to the store’s 1831 origins.

The loss touched not only natural history buffs, but casual window shoppers like myself. When I lived in Paris, I’d bring
Jun 02, 2012 Virginia rated it it was amazing
I bought this book in a gift shop at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, which I did not think was that far a stretch at the time, but looking back, this was an interesting decision on the part of the Smithsonian. Chapter 4 of this book covers in detail the ways in which the Smithsonian, in revamping their displays in the early 2000’s, systematically and needlessly destroyed irreplaceable artifacts of great historical, artistic, and biological value in the name of “co ...more
Feb 16, 2012 Danelle rated it really liked it
In Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, Melissa Milgrom takes us on a journey that's equal parts fascinating and disturbing. There's a journalistic feel to the writing; it's not a manual and it's not a history, but it is a little of both. Milgrom spent years researching this book; it's both informative and interesting - a 'behind the scenes' glimpse into a world you're typically not allowed to peek at, or perhaps, would even want to.

I am a huge museum geek - I love visiting museums. I blame my t
Aug 15, 2011 Laura rated it liked it
For a peek into the world of taxidermy and the history of natural history museum exhibits, this isn't a bad place to start.

However, I'm losing patience with books where the writer is so busy inserting herself into the story that she becomes the focus instead of her subject. Milgrom's constantly creeped-out reaction was distracting to say the least. It's as if she wasn't quite comfortable with the fact that she was publishing a book on taxidermy and wants to make sure the readers know that she i
Mar 07, 2016 Ana rated it really liked it
Enjoyable book about an often misunderstood craft which sometimes aspires to art.
I'm of two natures when it comes to taxidermy. I hate seeing trophies on walls and the recent 'renaissance' of taxidermy a a decorating trope left me cold and sad. But I also love natural history museums and the amazing examples of taxidermy that can be found at good ones.
This book made me realize the tremendous amount of work and knowledge that goes into making an exemplary piece of taxidermy.

The chapter on Emily M
The material about taxidermy itself was pretty interesting, but I had a hard time warming to most of the people we meet and Milgrom's hesitance, reluctance, and discomfort with the whole concept never really got resolved, which I guess is the point but also made me never really buy into it either.
Nov 26, 2016 Mary rated it really liked it
Wow! I found this book in a free library in Santa Fe and took it mainly to gross out my hostess. Then I started to read..... so interesting and widely divergent. We are treated to meet Damien Hirst's taxidermist, the ChairBitch of the English taxidermists professional organization. Then we journey to Cornish to watch the auction of Mr. Potter's museum, in which resides dioramas of a bird funeral and one of a cat wedding. I even found a picture book of Potter's creations! Total score!
Robert Beveridge
Melissa Milgrom, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

For some reason, I always seem to leave nonfiction to stew for quite a while before I review it. I finished this book close to two months ago (April 24th, and I'm writing the opening of this review on June 22nd) and still am not entirely sure what to say about it. I had the same problem with Bella Bathurst's The Wreckers, and while I didn't like this one quite as much as I liked that one, I still enjoyed this a
French Giant
Feb 10, 2011 French Giant rated it liked it
I've always had an odd fascination with taxidermied animals...Maybe it stems from my childhood crush on dinosaurs & my associated yearning to become a paleontologist, or perhaps it's because my dad was a somewhat avid hunter who had one of his deer heads mounted and placed directly above our living room TV. It used to stare down at us day after day and every Christmas we put a Santa hat on it. It did not seem amused.

With all of that said, I never acquired a taste for hunting and never went d
Jan 21, 2013 Chloe rated it it was amazing
Oftentimes when I pick up a book of non-fiction, I'm filled with a mixed feeling of dread and excitement. Because I'm picking up the book in the first place, I'm obviously excited to read it and learn about the particular subject. On the other hand, I dread the very plausible and unsavory potential of the book: an interesting subject which has been somehow written into a book that is an utter bore. Luckily, this book turned out to be worth the excitement and not a let-down in the least.

Apr 02, 2010 g rated it liked it
Taxidermy came up in several books I read recently ( Beatrice and Virgil and Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing ), and I love places like the Bone Room and Paxton Gate, so after I saw this announced as an Amazon Best Book of the Month, I put my name on the library queue for it. It's a fun and easy read, and I like how the author moves back and forth between present day and historic taxidermists. The affection the author has for the art form is in most cases quite understated, though, and ...more
Jan 11, 2013 Danny rated it really liked it
I was rummaging in an antique store in Alabama when I came across a plaque with two deer hooves sticking out of it. "That's weird," I thought, and proceeded to buy it. Because why not? Only later did I find out it was intended as a novelty gun rack. I never had a gun to put in it, and I've since lost the thing, but I remember those hooves clearly. They held a bizarre fascination. But aside from rabbit's feet I got for a quarter from vending machines, and visits to natural history museums and ...more
Apr 16, 2011 Tiffany rated it really liked it
Right, so ... taxidermy. Why pick up a book on taxidermy, of all subjects? I'll read just about anything, frankly, and when I saw this book on the New book shelf at the library, I remembered that I'd also wanted to read "Stiff" by Mary Roach (who I've also recently read) and never got around to it. So I picked up "Still Life," and I was very pleasantly surprised through the entire course of the book. While Milgrom goes out of her way to clarify how taxidermists feel about themselves (conflicted, ...more
Lee Anne
Backstory: There's a new book out called The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy by Dave Madden. When I read about that book in BookMaster (the in-house Barnes & Noble computer system), it mentioned Still Life. I vaguely remembered it, and I thought I'd get them both from the library, flip through them, and pick one to read. When I got them, I thought I'd just read both, starting with Milgrom's, since it came first and has a better cover, and see how two books o ...more
Jul 12, 2010 Carin rated it really liked it
Oh, I wanted to read this book from the minute I heard about it! What's not to love? A short nonfiction book about a random, bizarre hobby that is weird and strange. I was guaranteed to learn new useless facts, my favorite!

And Ms. Milgrom doesn't disappoint. The world of taxidermy is isolated and closed-off. Understandably so, since it's also really misunderstood, and the participants feel a little self-conscious about their world. Ms. Milgrom has managed to penetrate the insiders and really giv
Nov 02, 2015 Steven rated it it was ok
I do love to read some of the weirdest books. "STIFF: the Curious Life of the Human Cadaver" comes to mind. And that book was incredible: funny, informative, insightful, and packed with details that, for better or worse, illuminate a dark and mysterious subject.

STILL LIFE did not go quite as far. It is not still born, but it does not thrive. It begins healthy enough, loaded with many of the most unusual facts about taxidermy. The book brilliantly explores the question of whether taxidermy is art
Jul 30, 2010 Joyce added it
Shelves: librarybook
I had assumed taxidermy would irresistibly appeal to the Brooklyn hipster through its combination of painstaking labor and massive ironic potential. But although the author certainly lives in the proper borough and appears to be of the proper background, she works hard to approximate the kind of unmediated emotion -- shivery fear, creeped-out-ness, abandon -- in which she evidently finds true beauty.

There are sizeable historical loops here, but the two biggest storylines concern two very differe
Jun 09, 2010 Az rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Still Life takes an unsettling topic, admits that it's unsettling, and moves on from there. I think Milgrom's writing works because she sounds like a regular person--sure, she has third generation Smithsonian taxidermists to show her around, but she isn't one herself. Nor does she strive to be. She views many of taxidermy's practices with a mix of wonder and revulsion.

I think taxidermy fits a discussion I once read about anatomical drawing--that it is intensely difficult because the goal is th
Mar 22, 2010 Misa rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: the curious
Recommended to Misa by: Goodreads win
Won from Goodreads

I had no previous interest in Taxidermy, yet how could I resist such a title if there was a chance I'd win it as a freebie. (If anything, it'd be a great gag gift for someone.)

After receiving it I read reviews of it to see if it would be worth my time reading or if it was so destined to be a gag gift...& it got some good reviews & I ended up intrigued by the subject matter so I decided to read it...& I really enjoyed it!

While I can't say this is a *MUST READ*, &
Jul 21, 2012 Erica rated it liked it
If you're looking for a book about contemporary taxidermy, this is your book. Milgrom treats her subject (its practitioners and their craft) just right--with a bit of fear and skepticism, but also with dignity and awe. I gave it only three stars because I really, really yearned for more on the history of taxidermy in America--especially its roots with Charles Willson Peale in his early national Philadelphia museum. There was only one page on him, and honestly, if I wanted a historical study ...more
Jul 26, 2011 Anna rated it really liked it
I picked this book up in the used book section of a book retailer. I had no idea how interesting it would be! I've never given much thought to taxidermy beyond the popular belief that hunters love to stuff their kills. And, growing up in a small town, there ARE definitely a few taxidermy shops run out of peoples' homes.

But what I didn't even consider before now was the rich (and sometimes dark) history of taxidermy, and the roles that it plays all over the place even today. Milgrom uses most of
Mar 27, 2013 Kris rated it it was amazing
This book is very entertaining and very interesting. If you've ever liked a diorama in a natural history museum, you'll love reading about how it was created, and the passion the taxidermist put into his/her work, bringing this animal to life in the most realistic way possible. Having said that, the chapter on Potter's collection of taxidermy is totally worth a google image search, because he did a lot of non-realistic taxidermy. And that leads me to my only objection about this book. There are ...more
Audacia Ray
Oct 23, 2010 Audacia Ray rated it it was amazing
Favorite non-fiction book I've read so far in 2010!

I first learned of this book last fall at The Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest at Union Hall in Brooklyn, when the author Melissa Milgrom gave a short talk and then acted as a judge of the contest. I went right home and put it on my to-read queue and then patiently waited for the book to make its debut this spring.

I totally loved the book - the behind-the-scenes stuff about taxidermy shops, conventions, and natural history museums is really
Aug 26, 2016 Xzs rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'll give this book 4 stars because I found the subject matter so fascinating. I wasn't sure what to make of the author or some of her tangents, but in spite of it all, I was engrossed in the read. I found myself googling lots of mounts and species mentioned in the book such as the Irish elk, Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities (cock robin, bunnies, etc.), okapi, mara, etc. Taxidermy is gruesome, fascinating and artistic all at once; you want to look away but can't. I've always been somewhat ...more
Jul 19, 2010 Oana rated it liked it
In the vein of Susan Orlean's Orchid Thief, this is one of those nonfiction books where the author is very visible. Which is to say, if you like your nonfiction authors keeping a distance, you might be irked. However, I did find Ms. Milgrom likeable and humble when her attempt at a taxidermied squirrel faced the judges at the taxidermy championship.

Aside from that, I left this book with a lot of questions I wished had been answered. I appreciated the author's postscript for the aftermath of the
Bookmarks Magazine
Apr 06, 2010 Bookmarks Magazine rated it liked it
Shelves: may-jun-2010
Although some critics initially wondered if they would find the subject matter interesting, all seemed fascinated by Milgrom's look at the craft of taxidermy. Certainly, it's a quirky book, filled with bizarre, proud characters and gruesome details. Yet while most reviewers praised Milgrom's clear-eyed, compassionate reporting, a few quibbled over the uneven prose, the weak links between chapters, and the lack of personal insight into Milgrom's choice of topic. A couple also commented that the ...more
Jul 08, 2010 Vanessa rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
If you dare to read this book, you will discover an abundance of facts, insights, and experiences into the relatively underground field of taxidermy and its application as an art form. It's also one of those books that makes you interrupt your reading to find out more about things such as Walter Potter's anthropomorphic wedding and funeral scenes or Damien Hirst's artwork.

I thought the book might be gross, but it ended up not being so. If you are disturbed by the idea of taxidermy in general tho
Apr 22, 2010 Karen rated it liked it
I read the first two sections in this fascinating look at the life of taxidermists and history of taxidermy. It's packed with information and the author recreates her subjects with the same respect and artistry that taxidermists use toward their animals.

The first story is about a father-son team of taxidermists, one of whom worked at the American Museum of Natural History in its diorama heyday. Even though I've been to the AMNH many times, I never thought about the exhibits and the stories behi
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MELISSA MILGROM has written for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Travel & Leisure, among other publications; she has also produced segments for public radio. She has a masters degree in American studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Milgrom resides in Brooklyn, New York. "
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