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Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants Hardcover – April 3, 2004

3.9 out of 5 stars 113 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In his third book, Robert Sullivan leaves the wilds of the (Meadowlands and the rough whaling waters of the Pacific Northwest to take up rat-watching in the alleys of New York City. Sullivan learned to appreciate the rodents during nocturnal stakeouts; a night-vision scope helped him observe rats without scaring them. As in his previous books, Sullivan uses pointillist details rather than broad portraiture to paint his subject, and the details in Rats are devilish. There are plenty of facts in the book to make your skin crawl, such as a description of the greasy skids rats leave on the paths they frequent, and a list of garbage items they prefer to eat. But Sullivan's style is often less that of a nature writer than a historian. In personable, essayish chapters, New York's history is revealed to be particularly ratty, with tall tales about the rodents' disgusting accomplishments going back to the city's founding. Although many people have never seen a rat outside a pet store, Sullivan reminds us that they are our constant neighbors, staring out from dim corners and messy crevices with beady eyes and twitching whiskers. --Adam Fisher

From Publishers Weekly

In this excellent narrative, Sullivan uses the brown rat as the vehicle for a labyrinthine history of the Big Apple. After pointing out a host of facts about rats that are sure to make you start itching ("if you are in New York... you are within close proximity to one or more rats having sex"), Sullivan quickly focuses in on the rat's seemingly inexhaustible number of connections to mankind. Observing a group of rats in a New York City alley, just blocks from a preâ€"September 11 World Trade Center, leads Sullivan into a timeless world that has more twists than Manhattan's rat-friendly underbelly. Conversations and field studies with "pest control technicians" spirit him back to 1960s Harlem, when rat infestations played a part in the Civil Rights movement and the creation of tenants' organizations. Researching the names of the streets and landmarks near the rats' homes, Sullivan is led even deeper into the city's history till he is back to the 19th century, when the real gangs of New York were the packs of rats that overran the city's bustling docks. Like any true New Yorker, Sullivan is able to convey simultaneously the feelings of disgust and awe that most city dwellers have for the scurrying masses that live among them. These feelings, coupled with his ability to literally and figuratively insert himself into the company of his hairy neighbors, help to personalize the myriad of topicsâ€"urban renewal, labor strikes, congressional bills, disease control, September 11-that rats have nosed their way into over the years. This book is a must pickup for every city dweller, even if you'll feel like you need to wash your hands when you put it down.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1st edition (April 3, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582343853
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582343853
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #631,785 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on April 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Last year when I visited New York City I went running in Central Park, and the very first squirrel I saw was no squirrel at all, but a rat. According to Robert Sullivan, this would have been a good sign of the prosperity of the colony from which that rat had emerged. Rats go out at night, usually, and one edging out during the day means that the colony is pushing out beyond its usual boundaries. Sullivan has made a hobby out of rat-watching, and has written a peculiar and fascinating book about his adventures with his own rat pack, _Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants_ (Bloomsbury). It isn't only (or even mostly) about his observed colony in an alley a few blocks away from Wall Street, but about city rats in general and their history of living with us. Because of this, Rats isn't really about rats, but about the humans who have imported them and given them garbage to live on and then have been annoyed when they flourish and stupefied when they refuse eradication.
Sullivan found a cobblestone passageway near City Hall called (note the irony) Edens Alley. His fascination for it was founded on the rats' fascination for the provided food, bags of garbage from a market and two restaurants. He spent night after night in the alley, with night-vision glasses and a folding stool. Nights spent there, he spent days doing research, which has lead to some surprising facts; since rats are important to us as pests, there has been a great deal of research done on them, much of it practical and some of it less so. For instance, rats can become immune to poison; even the first anticoagulant medications that were put into bait no longer work in many places, so using them just gives the rats a free meal.
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Format: Hardcover
Robert Sullivan relates his experiences as he delves into rats, with the focus being on the role that rats play in history and modern culture rather than dwelling on the nuances of rat behavior. He spends nights in a forgotten alleyway in New York, watching the rats as they emerge from their burrows to take advantage of the local restaurant waste. He spends time with exterminators (or "pest control specialists," as the industry leaders prefer), whether they work for small companies or large ones. And, apparently, he spends time at the library, digging up historical information that is at times so obscure that you wonder how he ever found it as it relates to his subject.

But Sullivan's book, peppered with literary quotes from the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, is ultimately less about rats and more about people. The rats are a fascinating hook, and every time a rodent skitters across the page, Sullivan invites us to squirm along with him. But more often, the reader is treated to quirky episodes in American history, in which the rats play some sort of role.

The black plague, the era of Gangs of New York, the American Revolution, the labor movement, and anti-Chinese sentiments at the turn of the century are just some of the subjects of Sullivan's stories, and he tells them all with a master's flair.

The Good and the Bad:
This is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read, edging out Hillenbrandt's Seabiscuit, and rivaling Kurlansky's Cod and the works of Bill Bryson. Sullivan knows how to tell an interesting story, and he has chosen a subject which rivets our attention no matter how it is presented. Putting the two elements together leads to a lot of compulsive page-turning.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a curious book. To start with, it is short. Without the Notes section, it is about 220 pages. There is no index or photographs or illustrations. The text has the feel of a random selection of magazine articles thrown together. There is an attempt to hold the whole thing together with the author's own personal observations of rats in an alley in lower Manhattan, but the author tends to spend more time discussing what he was wearing or drinking than about the actual rats in the alley. I am fairly certain that you could rearrange many of the chapters in virtually any order and the book would not significantly change. The writing style is occasionally humorous but for the most part seems like an attempt to be erudite rather than an actual success.

As to what you will actually learn about rats, there is very little here. You will learn more by going to Wikipedia, and the writing there is no worse. Many of his "facts" are prefaced by, "According to one study...", "By one estimate...", "One rat expert theorizes...". This might not be too bad if the source of these "facts" were cited but they aren't so there is no way to verify any of the information provided. And when an author is making fairly outrageous claims such as that one-third of the world's food supply is eaten by rats, the reader would like some support other than just the author's word. Also, the author tells us early on that there are only about 400,000 rats in New York but then he interviews an "expert" that he admires who tells us that there are millions of rats living deep under the city who never come to the surface. Is there any support for this? Is it 400,000 or millions? And even when he gets his facts right he gets them wrong.
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