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Sharona Muir – Invisible Beasts

July 28, 2014

LibraryThing Early Reviewers58. Invisible Beasts: Tales of the Animals that Go Unseen Among Us by Sharona Muir (2014)

Length: 256 pages
Genre: Fantasy

Started: 13 July 2014
Finished: 14 July 2014

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.
Why do I have it? The description said it combined fantastical animals with musings about evolution and natural history, so I was sold.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 June 2014.

We have a hard time
seeing other animals,
visible or not.

Summary: Sophie was born, like others in her family before her, with the ability to see animals that are invisible to most people. This book is a bestiary, organized by Sophie according to the prevalence of each invisible animal she describes, from the common Truth Bats, which cling to our clothes and give our words their ring of truth, to the (thankfully) much rarer Hypnogator, and covering such creatures as the Foster Fowl, which (the opposite of a cowbird) incubates the eggs of other species, and the Fine-Print Rotifers, which feed upon the ink of the words of legal documents and excrete gibberish in its place. Along the way, though, she touches on issues of love, evolution, sex, family, truth, ecology, and the need of humans to become more aware of the living world around us, both the visible and the invisible.

“To know that an extinction is coming and be unable to sound an alarm, because the creature is invisible . . . But most beasts are invisible, more or less – people don’t know about them, or don’t pay attention to them, and then they disappear, invisible forever and to everyone. It’s no consolation to think that even if most people saw invisible beasts, they still might not care.” –p. 143, from “Beanie Sharks”

Review: What a strange, lovely, odd, charming, quirky, beautiful book. And, moreover, what a strange, lovely little book that seemed at times as though it was written expressly for me.

This is fiction (I’m assuming; it’s possible it’s nonfiction and I just can’t see the invisible beasts Muir describes), but is not a novel. Short story or essay collection would be a more appropriate description, but it is, by and large, a bestiary. It’s a collection of little short pieces describing the natural history of each species of animal, and using that animal to ruminate on some aspect of the human condition, sometimes humorously (as in the case of the Fine Print Rotifers), and sometimes philosophically (the “Think Monkey”, for example), and sometimes quite seriously (the Foster Fowl in particular got under my skin). Some are more story-like than others, and bits of Sophie’s life seep in to the various pieces (particularly her relationship with Evie, her scientist and non-invisible-animal-seeing sister). The language is beautiful, with its own slightly odd rhythm, almost like poetry at times, saying things exactly the right way and yet not in a way I’d ever have thought to say them. It is imaginative and vivid and based in real science and fun and yet has something profound to say all at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am going to leave it out somewhere where I can revisit it a few pages at a time as the fancy strikes me. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This is a quirky book, no question, so the ideal reader is likely to be similarly quirky, but even though it is technically fantasy (again: I think), I think it would be appreciated by any bird watcher/bug collector/wildlife enthusiast out there, particularly those who enjoy poetry and/or literary fiction.

On Grand Tour Butterflies, whose wings display travel pictures: “This variety depends on aposematic patterning, i.e., colorful patterns that warn predators away. Most butterflies’ colors tell the predator, “You can’t eat me because I taste awful, may be poisonous, and you’re really not that desperate.” The Grand Tour’s travel pictures tell predators, “You can’t eat me because I’m far away in a foreign country.”

But when you’re in big trouble, pretending that you’re not really here fools nobody. It’s a feeble defense. Most of this type gets eaten.” –p. 201, from “Grand Tour Butterflies”

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: None yet. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I come from a long line of naturalists and scientists going back many generations, and in each generation we have had the gift of discovering hard-to-see phenomena, from a shelled amoeba lurking between two sand grains, to the misfolded limb of a protein pointing to a genetic flaw.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 24: “We humans make an inferior commercial copy of nacre, by sintering.” – to form large particles, lumps, or masses from (metal powders or powdery ores) by heating or pressure or both.
  • p. 30: “Dim aristocrats that they were, they built on a pitch-pine limb the same fragile pavilion that suited their queen in the home latitudes of cinnamon, vetiver, and pepper.” – A grass (Vetiveria zizanioides) of tropical India, cultivated for its aromatic roots that yield an oil used in perfumery.
  • p. 30: “Their beautiful comb, that sweet home epitomizing the best of vigorous feminine care, reeked of poor levulose levels and unpleasant ratios of copper to manganese.” – a simple sugar found in honey and in many ripe fruits.
  • p. 33: “She and her student had built models of the dead bees through digital simulation, and finally, had synthesized a replica of the ancient honey, based on melissopalynological and paleobiochemical analysis.” – The scientific study of spores and pollen (“palynological”) as it relates to bees (“melisso-“).
  • p. 55: “Meanwhile, the houri-eyed does stand about in the rising mists of the afternoon, nostrils aquiver, absorbing a message from their genes.” – One of the beautiful virgins of the Koranic paradise.
  • p. 128: “As you recover from her stunning plumage – peacock, aqua, lacustrine – you see that she’s rather comical.” – Of or relating to lakes.
  • p. 145: “I didn’t know what made me sadder, the Cap limpet, sedulously mislabeled – or its Beanie Shark, somewhere in the ocean, bereft of a partnership that after hundreds of millions of years was now dissolving…” – Persevering and constant in effort or application; assiduous.
  • p. 153: “Once, I had a moment of fortunate epiphany – a moment granted sometimes to naturalists – when the big picture comes overwhelmingly together, and you actually see the meaning of Lynn Margulis’s apothegm: “Life is its own inimitable history.”” – a short, pithy saying.
  • p. 171: “I’ve known periods dominated by pettifogging human order and base human violence, when my Oormz has restored the memory of kneeling by the first spring I’d ever seen, my lips in the same water containing flowers and emerald moss.” – mean, quibbling.
  • p. 180: “While his parents mopped, I sneaked off into the crepitating palmettos.” – To make a crackling or popping sound; crackle.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2014 10:17 am

    This sounds lovely. Dare I hope there are pictures? Lovely pen and ink drawings? That would be swell.

    • July 31, 2014 11:58 am

      Not in the ARC… and I think (based on the Amazon preview) not in the finished version, either. As I was reading, part of the time I found myself wishing for illustrations, but part of the time I was glad there weren’t any, since she does such a good job of conjuring up the images with her words that illustrations might not have lived up to it, if that makes sense. (I did do a drawing of the Grand Tour butterflies for myself, but wasn’t brave enough to scan it and include it in the post and expose my non-existent art skillz to the world).

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