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Adventures in Taxidermy

A-Still LifeMelissa Milgrom is a freelance journalist who has also produced pieces for NPR.

The Topic: Norman Bates might have given taxidermy a bad name, but as Melissa Milgrom shows, the art of skinning and stuffing is an "incomparable tool for displaying the wonder and beauty of animals." Milgrom, who examines the art, science, and business of this trade, looks past the stereotypes to highlight a host of colorful characters and their creations from the 19th century on: a display of two dozen kittens in wedding dresses; the eccentric contestants at the World Taxidermy Championships; the members of a third-generation stuff shop in New Jersey; and the sculptor who preserves the dead for British artist Damien Hirst. Milgrom even tries her own hand at squirrel stuffing--and starts to understand the compulsion that drives others to this craft.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 285 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780618405473

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"As you might expect, there is plenty of room for the bizarre and eccentric here, from pet owners who want to see dear, dead Fido or Fluffy curled up by the fireplace again to a singing taxidermist whose ambition is to recreate the long-extinct Irish elk. ... But also as you might expect, Milgrom dispels some of the myths and misunderstandings that have gathered around the trade." Bill Marvel

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The best chapter in Still Life by far is the one in which Ms. Milgrom visits with the fascinating and foul-mouthed British artist Emily Mayer, the woman who is [British artist Damien Hirst's] taxidermist. ... You put Still Life down with a line from Mr. Hirst ringing in your ears--a line that will draw you instantly to this book, or make you stand 10 paces away: ‘I just,' he once said, ‘like rotting.'" Dwight Garner

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"By the time Milgrom ... takes up a razor and with her own unsteady hand scores the belly of a dead squirrel, the reader has been exposed to the pickling of carcasses, the splitting of eyelids and the sculpturing of skulls. ... By capturing the jizz of the taxidermic world, Milgrom has pulled back the curtain on a surprising and intense culture within which meat and animals--both dead and living--are very real." Max Watman

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"The pleasure of Still Life is entirely in the characters: Thing-Thing's karaoke-singing creator and Damian Hirst's foul-mouthed colleague are rendered as carefully and lovingly as any 12-point buck or departed pet. These miniprofiles are not quite enough to sustain an entire book, but they provide a nice opportunity to observe idiosyncratic human beings in their natural habitat." Kelly Nuxoll

Denver Post 3 of 5 Stars
"The book need not be a quest for personal meaning, but Milgrom's own investment needs more backbone than the first chapter's meager admission that, on a safari to Tanzania, upon seeing a hunting party's booty of carcasses, she wanted to know ‘what compels people to want to transform animals into mantelpiece trophies.' Otherwise, sans soul-searching, perhaps it's better the author keep her distance." Ethan Gilsdorf

Critical Summary

Although some critics initially wondered if they would find the subject matter interesting, all seemed fascinated by Milgrom's look at the craft of taxidermy. Certainly, it's a quirky book, filled with bizarre, proud characters and gruesome details. Yet while most reviewers praised Milgrom's clear-eyed, compassionate reporting, a few quibbled over the uneven prose, the weak links between chapters, and the lack of personal insight into Milgrom's choice of topic. A couple also commented that the numerous details clouded what could have been a larger story about our cultural history. So Still Life is what it is, but it is not more than that. It will certainly entertain you, and will it garner more respect for the trade--not to mention offer a lesson on stuffing Fluffy.