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Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy Hardcover – March 8, 2010
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Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Melissa Milgrom, Author of Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy
Dear Amazon Reader,
People--even my own parents!--ask what sparked my interest in taxidermy. I tell them that in 1994 I went on a safari gone awry, which led me to the family workshop of the last chief taxidermist of the American Museum of Natural History. I was expecting him to be creepy like Norman Bates in Psycho, but he was a gentle naturalist, and his studio with its skeletons and birds, the beauty and the strange tools, evoked Darwin's study. The contradiction pulled me in, and still does.
Still Life took more than six years to write and that's because I had to shift my perception from one of skepticism to one of empathy and respect. I just saw Fantastic Mr. Fox and thought if Wes Anderson had been alive in the 1850s he'd have been a Victorian taxidermist, making little scenes of kittens dressed as brides. It's ironic--Victorians needed taxidermy to see exotic species from other continents, and we need taxidermists for the same reason--we long for animals as they disappear. Taxidermy evokes grandeur, which may help us comprehend the present mass extinction.
Another reason I find taxidermy engrossing is because it combines art, science, and hunting. In Still Life I shadowed the most gifted taxidermist I could find in each area: an artist, a field naturalist, and a hunter, each of whom is on a quest to understand nature on its own terms. English sculptor Emily Mayer preserves animals for Damien Hirst's most provocative artworks; her dogs are so boggling you have to poke them to see if they will move. Ken Walker, the hunter from Alberta who recreates extinct species, is self-taught. He won the World Taxidermy Championships three times and was a Roy Orbison impersonator, which actually makes perfect sense. Taxidermy is like karaoke. The person who loves the singer the most gets the voice right.
I hope you will enjoy the people you meet in Still Life whose obsessions and uncannily lifelike replicas create an art form that once was sublime and may be again.Melissa Milgrom
(Photo © Ulalume Zavala)
A Look Inside the World Taxidermy Championships with Author Melissa Milgrom
(Click to Enlarge)
|Ken Walker's Panda "Thing Thing"--recreated from bear skins-- Best of Show Recreations 2003|
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Top Customer Reviews
What I loved about the book was the way it jumped from present day to historic. She fleshed out her observations (pun intended), by exploring their historical context. I really enjoyed learning about the Smithsonian and AMNH from the taxidermists perspective. These are two of my favorite museums in the world, and my appreciation for them has certainly been deepened by Still Life.
Not only did she observe taxidermists, but she became one. She stuck her head in the fetid stench of a pickling barrel. She was up to her elbows in squirrel blood. It was GREAT! She even wrote objectively about the "constructive criticism" her squirrel got at a competition.
One warning: I like to read a book while I'm eating dinner. You can't do that with this book. Milgrom's descriptions are way too graphic for mealtime reading. Any other time of the day, though, the book is great.
Journalist Melissa Milgrom starts her book on taxidermy by playing to our prejudices. The father and son team she hangs out with to learn about the taxidermy trade are at times defensive about their craft, and at other times exuberantly ghoulish. It's a little unsettling.
Having lured us into the strange world of recreating life with carcasses, Milgrom then reminds us of all the displays we've seen at natural history museums, including The Smithsonian, and how it allows us to see wild animals close up in natural-looking settings. Taxidermy's not just jackalopes and trophy fish.
Milgrom takes us to the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships, where the overwhelmingly male population of taxidermists show off their best works. Coincidentally, this is the same event that Susan Orlean wrote about in her article "Lifelike" in The New Yorker that same year. Orlean's article also appears in the The Best American Essays 2004. The article caught some of the atmosphere of the gathering - typically exuberant convention behavior with a side order of the macabre.
Milgrom's description of the event points up the unexpectedly political side of taxidermists. The "Our Father" and singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" before the awards ceremony alert us to the conservative nature of the group.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
The author also visits with Emily Mayer and Damien Hirst. Hirst is a famous sculptor who does unusual things like sectioned cows, so that you can literally walk through a bisected animal, in other words his work can be a tad disturbing. But Milgrom spends far more time with Hirsts's interesting partner, Mayer, who is an outsider even amongst taxidermists, relying on a process called erosion molding. Mayer mummifies animals in silicone and then proceeds to rot the animal out of the mold and then uses the mold to re-cast the animal. "A mere sculptor," sniff many taxidermists, but the level of skill and patience required for Mayer's work is every bit as demanding as the best in taxidermy. 'Still Life' is a brightly written book that illuminates a dusty little corner of our society, it starts in New Jersey, ends in New Jersey, and closes with Roy Orbison, now you can't get much better than that.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This was an interesting, but "dry" read. The author really dives into the subject of taxidermy, from attending a taxidermists' championship convention to interviewing... Read morePublished 2 months ago by Nancy A
Honestly, at first I did not like this book. However, after I got half way in, I started enjoying it more and more. Read morePublished 8 months ago by Stacia Seguine Dones
This book was a pleasure to read. I have always loved the art of Taxidermy so I was excited to read this. Did not disappointPublished 11 months ago by VI
I gave this to a taxidermist and he said he liked it. I was expecting more pictures and descriptions rather than a story like presentation. Read morePublished on June 18, 2014 by S. Maust
I found this book to be a very good exploration of the subject. It is a bit weird, but it shows that taxidermists are every bit as weird as the rest of us.Published on April 6, 2014 by andrea labarge
Much like Ms. Milgrom, taxidermy is a profession in which I had mixed feelings. I find it both fascinating and repulsive. Read morePublished on December 23, 2013 by Franklin the Mouse
The story was not very exciting and did not get my attention, I skilled the book then gave it to my bunnies for chewing.Published on April 27, 2013 by Philip Wu
i don't do much reading of books other then that the book is in good shape i wanted more picturesPublished on April 6, 2013 by Ruth Fehlman