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Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  1,946 ratings  ·  342 reviews
A former ocean scientist goes in pursuit of the slippery story of jellyfish, rediscovering her passion for marine science and the sea's imperiled ecosystems.

More than a decade ago, Juli Berwald left a career in ocean science to raise a family in landlocked Austin, Texas, but jellyfish drew her back to the sea. Recent, massive blooms of billions of jellyfish have clogged po
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published November 7th 2017 by Riverhead Books
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Average rating 3.73  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,946 ratings  ·  342 reviews

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Sep 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science, animals, oceans
What I wanted from this book:
Jellyfish science.

What I got:
Some science, and a lot of memoir about travels, college crushes, the author's children, her insecurities, and commentary on other people's body shapes and clothing.

Summary: More Jelly / Less Juli
Amy (Other Amy)
The taste of the jellyfish was so subtle as to be almost nothing at all. I ate some more. It was a tasty, light, savory salad. In spite of all my anxiety about buying, soaking, preparing, and then eating it, jellyfish was completely unremarkable.

I had a review typed up and the wi-fi crash at the library ate it, and I don't really feel like messing with this much more, so I'm going to go with pros and cons and be done with it.


★ There is some nice jellyfish science in here.

★ Dr. Berwald does
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was ok
Positives: Spineless is written in a very approachable manner and is easy to understand. Part science/part memoir, a person who does not normally read science topics or who knows nothing about jellyfish will find the writing easy to understand and quite fascinating at times.

1. This book needed to go through another round of editing as there were several easily identifiable grammatical errors that really should have been fixed before publication. It actually made me wonder if this was
Rachel Smalter Hall
Oct 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
I was completely charmed by this science memoir about jellyfish and chasing your dreams. Juli Berwald’s love of marine biology was reawakened when she started contributing to National Geographic to help support her family. Quickly becoming obsessed with jellyfish, she set out on an unexpected journey to find out if jellies thrive in climate change — and whether or not that’s disastrous for humans. The result is this audiobook, full of charming anecdotes about what happens to baby jellies hatched ...more
Jan 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I knew next to nothing about jellyfish before reading it and I learned a lot. Berwald's focus in the book is the connection between climate change and jellyfish, and she meets and interviews scientists and researchers from all over the world in order to learn more. I thought the book was a really nice blend of science, travel, and memoir. Although some reviewers thought the personal part of the story was too much, I enjoyed Berwald's stories recounting her education, ...more
Peter Tillman
Jan 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: sci-tech
Good introduction to the biology of jellyfish. Definitely aimed at the general public, and usually pretty clear, though the book could have used more illustrations. Her interviews and interactions with jellyfish biologists are the highlight of the book. The memoir and travelogue (which are intertwined with the science) were pretty good, although I was getting a little tired of the details of daily life with young children by the end. So, 3.8 stars for the science, 3 stars for the personal stuff. ...more
Jan 28, 2018 rated it liked it
3 stars. While I was very excited about this book, I got off to a rough start with it. I found a typo on the second page (and several more throughout the book) and the author used the word "landlocked" 3 times in as many pages. I knew then that this book, as several others have noted, could have used some more careful editing (personally, I think it could have easily been trimmed by 50 pages or more). Also, as a few other reviewers have noted, the memoir parts of this book weren't very engaging. ...more
There's not a whole lot to learn here about jellyfish EXCEPT that there's actually little to learn about them because they're not studied very much. This is part science, part memoir, about Juli's love and fascination with jellyfish and the lengths she's gone to to learn more about the illusive creatures. I listened to it on audio, and Juli reads it herself. At times, it's clear how much she's enjoying reading the book and more, how much she loves the story she tells....and even if it's not perf ...more
Jul 02, 2020 rated it it was ok
I’m obsessed with marine life in general and jellyfish especially. Subsequently, I loooooved this book when it was nerding out about jellyfish, which was, sadly, most prolific in the early chapters then tapered off significantly. The author is truly skilled at presenting marine science in a way that’s engaging and accessible. Unfortunately, she filled too much of the book (I’d say about 75%) with the most banal personal narrative. There are stories about her elaborate “strategy” to find a boyfri ...more
Seth Turner
Sep 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
A fantastic book to understand a species not discussed that often unless you're a marine biologist or a scientist in a connected field. This book is definitely a passion project for the author with cultural history, scientific history, scientific discoveries and so much more. With a genuine grasp and love for her subject, the journey she takes the reader on is a fascinating one. ...more
Robert Sheard
Dec 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Part memoir, part science, part call-to-arms. A little bit of the science is lost on me but that's because I have zero background in biology, but the second half of the book, as Berwald travels to Japan, Israel, and Spain, is fascinating. ...more
Leah (Jane Speare)
Oct 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is amazing! Now I kind of want to be a marine biologist when I grow up.....

Are you worried about a world jellyfish takeover? I went into this thinking I'd learn some cool jellyfish facts and came out of it confident these amazing ocean dwellers will soon be ruling the planet. This story follows the author's journey to study jellyfish; she consults jellyfish scientists on evolutionary history, learns how to properly eat jellyfish (ew), and explores the endless possibilities these creatures b
Nov 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: no-one
This book is more of the author's personal memoir than any type of science book about jellyfish. Berwald's enthusiasm for jellyfish is obvious and the writing style flows nicely. She includes some incredibly interesting information about the creatures, but there is simply too much personal "stuff" about her, her kids, her husband, her travel trips adn the people she meets to wade through. After a while the biographical pages became boring and wading through all the irrelevant "stuff" to get to t ...more
Charles Dee Mitchell
Jan 12, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
Reading a book about jellyfish seemed like the perfect way to start a new year. Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be quite the book about jellyfish I was looking for.

Spineless is good, but like most creative non-fiction, or the New New Journalism, or whatever we call it today, it followed the mandate that the info on jellies must be interwoven with the story of the author’s own journey into this gorgeous and very strange gelatinous world. I wanted more jelly fish and less personal journey.
Victoria R.
Feb 06, 2021 rated it it was ok
Increase, decrease, searching, evaluating, asking, questions, data, statistics, numbers - overly descriptive anecdotes about a person wearing a hat or a room or eating jelly-fish - then back again to research, numbers, data, and more questions. These themes, mixed in with some vague statements about ocean pollution and travel were the main points I took away from this book. This may sound harsh but hear me out - I am one of those people that find strange sea creatures fascinating (don’t get me s ...more
Jul 31, 2021 added it
Lost my meme i downloaded before the pandemic hit so really i only have myself to blame for taking 2 years to read this
Kinda meandering i did learn a few fun facts but it was pretty mediocre but tolerable which is why i kept at it. Another book that would benefit from more aggressive editing. Also would have appreciated a glossary & also a list of people mentioned? Part of it is because i took for fucking ever to read this but also there are really only so many scientists i can keep track of and
Mar 18, 2019 rated it liked it
I learned a lot about these amazing creatures, but the book was just missing something that I can't quite put my finger on. ...more
Jul 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Actually one of the better pop science books that I've read. Berwald mixes her personal narrative with information about jellyfishes in an engaging way - her life adds to the science rather than detracting from it, and she presents the science in an understandable and simple way without resorting to gimmicky metaphors or analogies. I also appreciated that there were many women characters throughout the book - often reading these sorts of things I have to read through many many chapters before se ...more
Jul 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I originally went back to college to study marine biology. How I ended up wrenching on aircraft is a convoluted story, one I don't have the patience to explain nor do I think you want to hear/read. But this book helped satisfy that craving and tugs at my heart strings. My heart will always be with marine biology over all else. Juli Berwald is now my hero for doing what I can't/couldn't. Thank you for such an amazing book, Mrs. Berwald! You are truly inspiring. ...more
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Four stars at least if you are into ocean stuff (which I very much am). If you are not into ocean stuff, some of the minutia might get tedious, or perhaps she's interesting enough to suck you in. Hard for me to gauge because I am very much here for all marine biology details.

Top two super cool things I learned listening to this book: stinging cells move with incredibly fast G-force, the fastest of any living thing. Jellyfish can reverse their life cycles. There's so much more.
Jan 27, 2019 rated it liked it
I did enjoy learning more about jellyfish, I'd always wondered how they survive considering they have no brain! Jellyfish are more advanced than they appear, and I think the author does a good job helping readers empathize with jellyfish.

I think this book had some weaknesses, mainly the editing seemed weak, and the parts of the book that were more of a memoir were dull and at times could be pretty trite.
Madeleine Senko
Apr 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful read! Published in 2017 this book covers much of the current science and understanding of jellyfish. But this is not a technical slog by any means, instead it is a joyous and personal travelogue of a woman compelled by the mysteries of the ocean. Juli Berwald is a wonderful writer and whether or not she intended it, it made me so happy to see female scientists highlighted consistently and effortlessly. Great non fiction for the citizen scientist.
Jan 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
A huge thank you to Juli for making sure I was equipped each day with amazing new jellyfish facts to tell my (gently exasperated) coworkers! As a child of marine biologists, I was already excited to learn more about jellyfish, but the scope of the story ranged far beyond lifecycles and scientific names, asking thoughtful and relevant questions about humans and our relationship with the ocean.
May 26, 2019 rated it liked it
This book was okay. The subtitle doesn't match the book's contents. This is about the science of jellyfish and the impact of our environment on them. Growing a backbone, while in the title, was not prominent. Overall, it was a fairly engaging read on the science side but it was a bit long. ...more
Stephanie Froebel
Aug 16, 2021 rated it liked it
Spineless is a great introduction to the world of jellyfish. Going into this book, I knew only what Finding Nemo taught me and the moon jellies I saw in Virginia Beach.

I listened to this book on audiobook, and honestly, the narration was ehhhh. I do respect Juli Berwald's extensive research and personal journey, but her narration skills are not great.

My other issues with Spineless is the jump in narrative. I felt that the narrative was quite choppy and did not flow well at all. At one moment sh
Jun 12, 2021 rated it it was ok
Too much memoir, too little science. A very misleading book title. Did not finish. Gave up at around 200+ pages. Could have pushed it to the end if I wanted to, but I don't think it will be worth my time. Not bad writing, just not what I was looking for. Too 'conversational', like as if the writer was writing this to/for a friend who has zero science background, (specifically someone who is actually interested in her life story). Unfortunately this simply wasn't what I was looking for, but it's ...more
Aug 05, 2021 rated it it was ok
I have to say the best parts of this book were the subtitle and the cover (along with the other illustrations inside).

The book itself was pretty meh. With an increasing number of nonfiction books blurring the lines of memoir and science, I am increasingly critical of them and this new genre. I felt like this book should have either included much more memoir elements or none at all. Most times the author talked about her life I was confused why it was even there and it didn't feel engaging or lik
May 03, 2020 rated it liked it
I was hoping for a little more science within the memoir, but it was still an interesting read!
Jul 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Overall interesting read, who knew jellyfish could provide such a fascinating view into how our oceans.... Ebb and flow? :)

The author weaves in her own storyline, which at times felt forced or out of place, but it did provide some nice breaks to the science talks. I didn't necessarily agree with the authors conclusions/views/thoughts on some areas, but it did force me to reflect on my own ideas.

interesting book that combines science and personal life in a pretty little package
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Juli Berwald received her PhD in ocean science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has contributed to many science textbooks and written for The New York Times, Nature, National Geographic, and Slate, among other publications. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.

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“And in a study in the United States, collagen from the cannonball jellyfish, which was currently marinating in my refrigerator, suppressed rheumatoid arthritis in rats. These results are thought to be related to the ability of jellyfish collagen to act as an antioxidant.” 0 likes
“She’d been so brutally stung by box jellyfish on her third attempt that she almost died. Her arms, legs, back, and neck were lashed by the fiery tentacles of box jellies, which caused her to feel as if her entire body was dipped in hot oil. Over the phone, Diana told me about the incident: “If you are going to go out in the open ocean, all kinds of things are going to be out there, known and unknown, and you are just going to have to accept that as part of the sport and the adventure that you’re a part of. But I must say, when I was stung by those box jellyfish. . . . I wouldn’t ever wish that on my worst enemy. It was the stuff of science fiction.” 0 likes
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