New and noteworthy – 16 November 2017

Get up to speed with dolphins; get a whiff of Victorian dandies; get a look at a secretive artist’s life and work; and get a glimpse of our disappearing nature

November 16, 2017
Humpback whale
Source: iStock

Deep Thinkers: An Exploration of Intelligence in Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises
Edited by Janet Mann
Ivy Press

Until recently, most of what we knew about cetaceans came from whaling, fisheries and captivity. Yet research in the past three decades, writes Janet Mann, has revealed a great deal about “the intricacy and longevity of their social bonds, their elaborate networks and social structures, their resilient and ephemeral cultures, their complex foraging tactics, and their impressive cognitive skills” – and has put them in a comparative context with the rest of the animal kingdom. This book claims to be the first “cover[ing] the state-of-the-art scientific research” across all cetacean species.

Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture
Catherine Maxwell
Oxford University Press

Smell is sometimes said to be the most evocative of the senses, but it has received comparatively little attention from cultural historians. Scholars exploring the 19th century have tended to focus on the “bad smells” produced by industrialisation, inadequate hygiene and poverty. Yet Catherine Maxwell believes that there is also a very different story to be told about perfume as a luxury product and its place in literature. Her vivid, wide-ranging book considers “the influential perfumed legacy of Romanticism”; the hostility to “scented dandies”; the symbolism of violets and tuberoses; and the figure of the olifactif – the refined individual with a hyper-acute sense of smell – who is so important in aesthetic and decadent writing.

Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife
Pamela Bannos
Chicago University Press

The story of Vivian Maier (1926-2009) has been much mythologised. A Chicago-based street photographer who worked as a nanny and took tens of thousands of pictures, she was completely unknown until she failed to keep up payment on her storage locker and a box of her negatives was bought by a collector in 2007. Yet far from being a nanny and hobbyist photographer, as Pamela Bannos demonstrates in this biography and “counternarrative”, Maier was a serious artist who took work to make ends meet and, though she chose never to display them, was uncompromising about how her images should be developed, printed and cropped.

The Calculus Story: A Mathematical Adventure
David Acheson
Oxford University Press

The invention of calculus was a landmark in mathematics, even though it led to ferocious disputes between the supporters of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz about who could claim priority. Oxford mathematician David Acheson, the author of 1089 and All That, is a leading populariser of his discipline. He believes that anyone who has studied basic school maths can learn to appreciate – and enjoy – the methods and wide-ranging applications of calculus. His dazzling little book takes us step by step through differentiation and integration, touching on planetary motions, logs and limits, infinite series and imaginary numbers – and even electric guitars.

The East Country: Almanac Tales of Valley and Shore
Jules Pretty
Cornell University Press

Academic and nature writer Jules Pretty has written several books about the environments and the species we are losing. Here he takes inspiration from the work of the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold and focuses his attention on the area where he lives – on the borders between Suffolk and Essex – through a series of 74 “tales” that follow the seasons and range from valley to salty shore. His celebration of the landscape incorporates memoir and poetry, natural history and spiritual reflection, but also critique of where current policies are leading us. “Nature will carry on regardless,” he suggests. “It is just that we might not.”

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