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Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy Paperback – Bargain Price, March 2, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 65 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2010: For many, taxidermy summons images of wildlife frozen in menacing poses, teeth bared in an eternal rictus; or maybe it's the lamented family cat, forever curled in purr-less slumber. With Still Life, Melissa Milgrom peels the skin back on Norman Bates's favorite pastime, dutifully tracking taxidermy from its 19th-century heyday (the beneficiary of a natural history boom), to its nadir as a reviled predilection in the age of PETA and conservation. It will tell most readers as much as they need to know about erosion-molded rats and replacement lips, ears, and eyelids, but it's the culture of iron-stomached men (and occasionally, women) that practice the art of skinned carcasses and stretched hides--those who wield "the calipers and the brain spoons"--that Milgrom's after. Beginning as a wide-eyed visitor to a third-generation stuff shop, she moves through an underworld of auctions, artisans, scientists, and the ultra competitive (albeit insular) World Taxidermy Championships, ultimately trying a queasy hand at squirrel-stuffing herself. Still Life an entertaining and illuminating adventure. --Jon Foro

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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this absorbing blend of bright-eyed reportage and hands-on participation, journalist Milgrom demystifies the creepy art of bringing dead creatures back to life and dispels the myth that taxidermists merely stuff animals. The author's quest to understand the compulsion of obsessed hobbyists and exacting scientists alike to duplicate what nature has created starts in a New Jersey family workshop, where three generations—including the last chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History—have mounted everything from three-toed sloths to fireflies. She visits the English sculptor who preserves dead animals for British artist Damien Hirst's displays; explores the arcane subculture of American taxidermy conventions where hundreds vie for best in show awards; and wanders the halls of the bankrupt Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities as collectors bid for auction lots of Victorian-era displays of squirrels drinking port and bespectacled gentlemen lobsters. Though her own squeamish attempts to preserve a squirrel are less than stellar, Milgrom's initial uneasy curiosity blossoms into genuine appreciation for a true art form, an enthusiasm the author imparts with style in this substantial study. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (March 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547395701
  • ASIN: B005DI9QK4
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.3 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,457,551 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By L. King VINE VOICE on February 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Still Life is the kind of book that makes you want to be a journalist. With the skill of a secret agent, Melissa Milgrom insinuated herself into the surreal world of taxidermy. She made friends with all of the major players, and was able to write a book with an unbelievably broad scope.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Taxidermy. The word brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock's creepy Norman Bates. Or maybe it reminds you of Roy Rogers' horse, Trigger, lovingly preserved in the Roy Rogers Museum. Either way, it just seems weird.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Melissia Milgrom has written a fun book that widely covers the modern state of taxidermy. She immediately gravitated to the best in the world, taxidermists to the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, and was readily granted access to homes and laboratories where freezers are stuffed with carcasses and pickling buckets hold penguins, squirrels, secret family recipes, and ungodly stenches. Milgrom traces the history of taxidermy to its heyday when every English village had one, and a Victorian taxidermist became the rockstar of that era. In the U.S. taxidermy has the slightly disreputable whiff of redneck wonderland, whereas the British are more tolerant of quaint eccentricities. North American taxidermists work with a chip on their shoulders, blaming the tree hugger mentality for their own seedy reputation, such that there are mounts you could display quite freely in England that you would not dare to show in the U.S.
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.
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