Robert Beveridge's Reviews > Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom
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's review
Jun 23, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: amazon-vine, finished, owned-and-still-own

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 great deal. So why is it that once again I find myself with so little to say that I'm padding this review with a paragraph of, essentially, nothingness? I don't have an answer. You probably don't either.

In any case, I once again discover evidence of my phenomenal thick-skulled-ness as it relates to certain issues. One of the prevailing themes of Milgrom's book is that taxidermy has been a fringe trade at the best of times over the centuries (and an outcast one at the worst of times), and she traces the history of the discipline with that thought never far from the surface. You know what? I never noticed. I always figured taxidermy was confined to hunting lodges and silly restaurants because that's where the hunters were, rather than there being some sort of invisible/artificial class barrier keeping stuffed animals out of finder drawing rooms everywhere. (As always, I'm simply ignoring the existence of the groups who try to have it criminalized, etc. They're not worth noticing, unless they're flinging paint on your fur.) And in that regard, this was quite an eye-opening book. Sometimes prejudice has to be pointed out to you before you see it.

The other tack Milgrom takes as she illuminates this much-neglected world is “taxidermy is an art, just as much as, say, sculpture.” (Not a tossoff comparison, that, as Milgrom spends a decent amount of time with Damien Hirst's go-to taxidermist.) If you've read some books on the creation of art, you'll recognize Milgrom's language here, and to me at least it's a convincing argument; there's a lot of know-how and more than a little “you've gotta be born with it” to be had from everyone Milgrom spends time with. Ultimately, that's what art is.

I sometimes go out of my way to read books on subjects that normally I don't think I'd find interesting. I like to test my philosophy that any subject can be made interesting given the right author. And so far I've batted a thousand, whether it be microscopic parasites, the history of sewers, or an overview of taxidermy. There's a lot of fun nonfiction out there, and this qualifies. Worth checking out even if you don't think you have an interest in the subject. *** ½

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