Cover Image: Eloquence of the Sardine

Eloquence of the Sardine

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Reading this book was a beautifully poetic multisensory experience! The Mediterranean reminds me of music which in times of calm is soothing and in times of storm is powerful and loud, but always majestic.  When swimming and snorkeling in the Mediterranean going forward I will view things differently with my newly-acquired knowledge of the behaviours of underwater creatures.  The author details his passion with childhood anecdotes and flashbacks.  No wonder he became a scientist!  

Filled to the gills with layers of science, history, legend, myth and personal experience, this book is lovely and refreshing.  Oh, how I enjoyed it!  How wondrous these creatures are and amazing that only about 10% have been identified.  I learned more about mantis shrimp signals, "cold currents", an unobserved whale species, cleaning fish (so THAT is what they are doing!), devotion of octopus mothers, tunas which just never stop, dolphin "accents", sacred Tehhelet from the Old Testament, weird urination of the prawns, acquired versus innate knowledge and listening to the stories they all tell.  Because they all DO have stories to tell.  We just need to be curious, in tune with them and observe with all our senses.

As a sea fanatic, this book is my wheelhouse, gorgeously descriptive and full of information.  It was akin to gulping fresh air as though I couldn't get enough.  

Those who love the water and creatures within ought to read this.  It is part story telling, part science and wholly fantastic.  The author answered so many of my questions and caused me to contemplate more.  The more one knows the more one yearns to know.

My sincere thank you to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for the privilege of reading this brilliant book!
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Bill François has penned a hauntingly beautiful love letter to the sea, paying homage to all of her curious creatures.  The book is swimming with nostalgia, big fish stories, science, and little known facts. As a fellow Thalassophile, this book evoked many personal memories where I felt both enchanted and overwhelmed by the magnitude and the mystery of the underwater world. A must-read for any ocean lover in your life!
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'Eloquence of the Sardine' by Bill François is a journal of memories about fish, sort of a formal diary for readers instead of for one's private recollections, feelings and discoveries. The author is a scientist who is fascinated with the creatures who live in the waters of the world. By profession, he is a physicist. But his passion is watching and learning about fish, coral, crustaceans, shellfish and whales. He also has collected stories from fisherman, fellow travelers, and even ancient Greek texts that were written millennia ago, simply everything he could pick up from others who love to explore under the seas. There are some of the most interesting and unusual facts and experiences of fish that I have never before read anywhere else. 

When François was a child, he had an encounter with a sick sardine while he was seeing what was in the tide pools and looking at whatever the waves brought onto the beach. He wasn't the only living thing on the beach that was looking. The sardine looked up at him after he captured it in a net and placed it into his pail. He realized suddenly the sardine had had an existence, a life of adventures underwater, growing up, learning. How do ocean creatures communicate? Do they think, feel, have families? 

His curiosity led him to research the sardines and other fish, beginning with learning how to snorkel. 

One of the first things he discovered was that the underwater world was noisy. Fish do talk! A lot! Their sounds are extraordinary and weird. Are they communicating? Yes, there are sounds of warnings and alerts, discerned from seeing how the fish behave when hunting or being hunted. He has since learned fish can smell scents and odors from many miles away. We readers know about sharks and blood of course, but there is much more than that being smelled and understood by different fish of all types - scents about sex, dangers, stress. Next, many fish have powerful abilities to see colors, so they use colors to attract other fish and to disguise themselves. Some can adjust their skin to display different colors in order to signal their own species as well as warn or hide from other species. Some can create strong electric fields intentionally to kill, while others can sense and identify what kind of fish is emitting the usual delicate and normal electrical fields of life. It is thought by some researchers fish can sense magnetic fields. Plus, vibrations! Many fish can sense and know what a particular vibration in the water means.

People have worked with dolphins to hunt. We know about the military training dolphins. But I didn't know dolphins in the past noticed how tribal men fished, and on their own formed partnerships with certain fishermen to show men where certain schools of fish were in order to share in the goodies of men's hunts for fish! Some ocean fish hunters also collaborate with other fish to hunt down quarry. Fish work together to protect each other or their habitats, too.

Fish have all kinds of sex, a huge variety of styles. Some fish are hermaphrodites, with the ability to change their gender back and forth during their lifetime at will. Some males raise the children alone because Mom leaves after birthing, others jointly share the care for the babes, and a lot of fish parents desert the children completely before they hatch from eggs. Some fish never lay their eggs outside their bodies, but the eggs hatch inside, with the strongest baby eating the others until it's ready to exit mom's body!

The author includes how civilizations of the past thought of fish, as well as how they fished. Generally, coastal communities and fishermen used to only take what they needed for food, using mostly nondestructive methods of the environment, unlike today. François speaks of how communities came together over the shared communal enjoyment of seafood. He also describes the various sea monsters travelers thought they encountered while going about in boats. He really wishes some of those monsters were real. Of course, some of them did turn out to exist to the surprise of many modern scientists!

The book has a lot of little quickie and interesting facts, mostly organized into appropriate chapters. For a lyrical, and often sweetly anecdotal, book, the author manages to cover a lot of ground! 

Fish are weird and lovable, basically. Too bad we have killed off at least 80% of them that we found out about in history up to current times. People are yet discovering new species underwater in very deep places though. Poor things. We certainly will attempt to kill them off into extinction for profit if we can figure out how. This is purely my viewpoint. The author does not really do any sniping or whinging on as I just did except to briefly note in passing, and in more of a reasoned adult tone than I am, of how industrial fishing is both too genocidal to fish and it does not encourage any old-fashioned communal human bliss of sharing and caring as it once did. Instead, we've become greedy and selfish pigs, imho. Have you read about the price, and consequent overfishing, of bluefin tuna or some wild salmon species lately in some markets? Are there any cod left in the world? Anyway. This is not that book. It is sweet and interesting and kindly done.

The chapters are: 

-Before
-Any Fish Will Tell You So
-The World Without Silence
-Packed Like Sardines
-Are Fish Good at School?
-Cockles and Mussels
-Daily Specials
-Draw Me a Fish
-Hold and Eel by the Tale
-Sea Serpents
-The Sea is Your Mirror
-Aquatic Dialogues
-In Tune with the Tuna
-The Tail End
-Epilogue (
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Bill Francois starts his book with a childhood anecdote, letting the reader know why and how he became interested in diving deeper (ha!) into the world of fish. The personal touches throughout the book are fluid and poetic and contain more emotion and impression than science. Every detail Francois gives the reader about underwater life is told with such excitement and passion. He doesn't go in depth about any one creature. He focuses more on some than others (like the sardine, the tuna, and the remora, for example), but the book mostly contains snapshots that show us how interesting, exciting, and spectacular marine life is. 
There's a somewhat choppy narrative since Francois goes back and forth, sometimes smoothly, often not, between stories in his own life and experiences and parallels with sea creatures and their stories. I don't mind the switches back and forth even when they are a little choppy because Francois' passion and gentleness towards sea life is so palpable. 
I also like that Francois involves commentary on humans and their society in his book, such as a passage that really spoke to me towards the end about communication, another one about the "metro, boulot, dodo" (subway, work, sleep) daily grind that humans get trapped in, and a very moving passage at the end about the stories we tell and share and the stories of the sea and its creatures. The greatest message for me is that we should respect the sea and its living creatures because we're all part of the same picture. We used to have deeper relationships and understandings, but we've lost those connections because of industrialization, mostly, and we become disconnected from the world around us. But if we regain our respect for all life, even and especially life we don't understand, we'll have a much richer experience all around.
Overall, Francois tells some really interesting stories about sea creatures. He makes great connections and parallels to humans and their above-sea world, and he conveys scientific knowledge in such a way that it feels more personal than clinical. One of his accounts brought tears to my eyes, and others made me talk out loud, responding as I read with frustration at the way marine life is treated or with fascination at how awesome God's creation is. 
I strongly recommend this book if you're already a marine life lover or if you'd like to learn more about the weird and interesting things that go on under the sea.
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I so enjoyed this view into what lives in the oceans, lakes and streams around us. The passion for the authors love of the ocean was clearly evident. 
Very interesting information on various fish, plus explorations into the folklore and tales of the sea.
This is truly a love story to the oceans and a pleasure to read.
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Eloquence of the Sardine
Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea
by Bill François
St. Martin's Press

I want to thank the publisher and NetGalley for letting me read this phenomenal book! The author has a way of not just writing about sea life but making me feel one with the sea and its life as I read his words. It's such a good feeling that I had to read this book twice! 

This book is a feel good book but also very informative along the way. As he takes the reader on his many undersea adventures, we learn about his love of the animals and that comes across so strongly that it is infused into his writing and transferred to the reader. As he goes, he embarks some interesting and astonishing facts about each animal. He does it in such a way that suddenly this new friend we were introduced to is a superstar! They are even more fascinating than before. Somehow, we seems even closer to the animal like we know a family secret.

For each animal, even the giant mussel, or an eel, so much attention and care is given to these creatures that I couldn't help but want to be there myself! Of course, the lover of the smallest of them has to give us the hard facts about what mankind is doing to the sea life. To these splendid new friends. To others like them we haven't met. 

I recommend this book for anyone who needs a feel good book, wants to feel close to nature for a while, or as a gift for the animal or sea lover.
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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.  I gave it  4 stars on Goodreads.
A book about fishes and other creatures and legends of the sea.  Very interesting especially if you like a deep dive into a subject.  Who knew fish could be so interesting.  There are a couple of preachy bits about how we are abusing the seas and their resources, which unfortunately we are.  Good read.
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Part memoir, part travelogue, part anthropology text, and part natural history, this book is a collection of stories mostly about fish. As the title suggests there is the Sardine, but the Sardine is not alone; we are introduced to a full range of fish and some shellfish and crustaceans. Many of the fish described are Europe-centric but more than a few of these fish travel widely. Many fun facts, including human fish interactions throughout history. A fun read!
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This is a beautiful love sonnet for the sea. I was expecting it to be just information about sardines, but the sardines are more of a metaphor for the mystery and beauty of the ocean. There were a lot of different sea creatures and ocean experiences that were mentioned in different anecdotes and trivia facts, but they were all tied together with really poetic language about the wonder of the sea. This book gave me a really calming feeling while I was reading it, and if you love the ocean, this is a really great book that I would recommend.
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The publisher reached out to me after reading my review of Spying on Whales and offered me an advance digital galley through NetGalley. Originally published in France in 2019 (as Éloquence de la sardine), this reads at times like a children’s book. And yet, any adult who has an affinity or connection to the ocean, though really... anyone ... should enjoy it. François is a physicist who was working on his PhD at the time he wrote/published. His thesis? “fluid mechanics applied to the swimming of schools of fish.” I have a couple of degrees in mechanical engineering and have had multiple fluid mechanics courses, including at the graduate level, and I can't imagine the models he had to create. The good thing for the reader of this is that you won't have to imagine any of that either. You’ll find this to be lyrical... poetic prose...

    "With a plastic tube in my mouth and a Plexiglas screen over my eyes, this world, so blurry beneath its reflective surface, was suddenly unveiled, crisp and crystal clear. Once I was over its thin border, this inhospitable element suddenly became transparent and buoyed me gently. I could fly, look, and breathe through it. But I couldn't speak. The snorkel had transformed my voice into bursts of crude, primordial breathing sounds."

...with facts of course (though they are uncited..."When they gathered for the night, these herring engaged in a rather unique form of chitchat. They communicated among themselves by means of flatulence!") Antony Sugaat is responsible for the English translation and I am sure François’s native French is just as lyrical. He certainly is passionate about the subject - it comes through in the short stories he crafts about the different creatures under the sea.

The author is a curiosity. His writing reflects a deep love of the ocean and the inhabitants he's encountered since childhood (plus more than the titular sardine he's learned about and shares here), and he talks also about seafood. I thought this humorous:

    "In fish soup, or bouillabaisse, there is a blend of stories, if you're willing to listen closely. Every port on the Mediterranean will tell you that it alone uses the authentic recipe: extra saffron, less white wine, more aniseed, longer cooking time, leeks... I won't reveal my own recipe here for fear of starting a long and tiresome debate, and because a secret recipe should remain secret."

But, he says, the recipe contains the rules "our ancestors imposed to protect the sea" - variety of ingredients. Don't overfish. But that was before Homo sapiens came into his most destructive modern self. He said at one point "We may have come down from the trees, but we never truly conquered the sea." (Emphasis mine.) I am not fond of that word from the human species perspective as it relates to the world, but that's me. And it ties probably accidentally on François’s part (or at least the translated word does) to the loss of protection of the oceans. At any rate, in that context, François was relating a theory that aquatic environments played a role in human evolution.

   "I spent years in the city trying to regain my place in nature, attempting to grasp the stories of fish amid the noise of the streets. I had no idea just how close to me nature really was. I didn't have and inkling of the surprising discoveries I would make, just a few yards from my apartment, and the incredible species I would encounter beneath the concrete of the city's sidewalks and streets."

François talks of the street-fishers who work the rivers beneath the streets. And he give the inhabitants a touch of flair:

"    Like terrestrial Parisians, aquatic Parisians are Parisians first and foremost. They even share the same personalities, so typical of the French capital.
    Aquatic Parisians are elegant snobs, especially in the nice neighborhoods."


I have only touched a micro-sampling of the stories in this short book. The author sums it well with a wish: "I hope these aquatic reveries leave you with a few dreams, a few ideas, and the desire to share them with friends." Once I got over my irrational fear years ago (I can't explain it ... I freaked the first time snorkeling off of Cozumel when the clear water showed the bottom dropping 40 feet below me as I passed the shallow breakers), I love snorkeling with the fishies. I won't scuba - not fond of paying every time I want to play - but I've seen some wonderful creatures off the Honduras, Belize, Mexico, St. Martins, the Gulf of Mexico, and other places.
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As the full title does suggest, this book is more a memoir of the sea, the author's exploration of his interactions with the ocean - both as a citizen scientist (he's a physicist with a deep interest in marine biology. Which, TBH, is where I fall, but with *far* less ocean time) and as a human who consumes food and does tourism. I assume carrying over from the original, the translation is very lyrical and successfully evokes the imagery the author's getting at. Including, yes, herring farts. (They're important!)

While I did enjoy these glimpses and descriptions, I tend a bit more technical - for instance, "sardine" at least in my understanding (American English) is a generic term for fish below a certain size, so I would've liked to know which species were included. I don't recall it being mentioned here. Likewise with some of the anecdotes, for instance the people who explore the Paris waterways for fish, more history and background would've been interesting. Of course, it'd also get you a much longer book, but look that is one of many benefits of reading a digital copy. :P

I think overall the translator did a good job bringing his voice through. I do think there's some cultural nuance in phrasing, so worth keeping in mind this was originally written for a Francophone audience. I don't want to say I'm fancy enough to pick up on the dry humor where others might miss it, but, well, that too.

If you're interested in getting impressions of what a well-informed marine enthusiast observes, as well as some fascinating if scattered trivia - from Old Tom to the aforementioned farts - definitely give this a read.
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This book reminded me of many ocean-exploring documentary shows I have seen over the years. It captures that sense of awe for the open waters and the creatures that live in them. The author takes on the history of the ocean and a bit of a peek into the future as well.  The book was informative but also a bit dreamy and delightful. I would have liked to have had a bit more of a biography of the author as well as resource citations to follow up on some of the specifics of species that were mentioned. Overall an enjoyable read.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book. The review is my honest opinion.
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I would have sworn when I read Patrik Svensson's "The Book of Eels" that I had read what would undoubtedly be my most unique reading experience of 2021.

I was wrong.

Bill Francois's "Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea" is a sublime weaving together of poetic and profound centered around Francois's lifelong adventures beneath the sea.

"Eloquence of the Sardine" begins with an introduction of sorts to Francois. An anxiety-ridden child ruled more by his fears than his curiosity, a chance encounter within the sea changed his life forever and, in return, it changes ours as well.

It's difficult to describe the experience of reading "Eloquence of the Sardine," a book that somehow creates a dreamlike state where sea creatures big and small are not just given voice but genuinely approached with a goal of understanding. Francois, a marine scientist and orator, is utterly enchanting here as he brings to life the eloquent worlds of sardines and other sea creatures he's encountered over the years.

The idea of an eloquent sardine seems absurd. Doesn't it? If you're paying attention, Francois explains himself and he explains his discoveries as we experience the world of the sea in a unique and wonderful way.

"Eloquence of the Sardine" is ultimately nature writing both fantastic and factual. One could say that "Eloquence of the Sardine" is also part memoir, though I'd dare say it's more a memoir of a sardine than Francois. Francois takes us deep into the eloquent lives of not just sardines but also a lonely musical whale, a herring that very nearly caused a military conflict, and those fabulous eels.

I really do love eels.

When Francois writes about the conversations of lobsters, one can't help but feel immersed in a world that at least feels previously undiscovered. Francois is a believer in communication, ours and those of the sea creatures, and he seeks understanding that defies comprehensive translation.

There are fleeting moments in "Eloquence of the Sardine" when it feels as if Francois is starting to lose his grasp of this grand task.

But then, he rights himself and his words and he brings it all back into a beautiful balance as both our intellect and our emotions become enveloped by this world that he creates.

So, there you have it.

At less than two hundred pages, "Eloquence of the Sardine" is a relatively quick yet engrossing read that leaves you with new knowledge and desperate to experience this world that seems to have defined so much of Francois's life. You will be changed by this experience and contemplate it whether you are seaside or lakeside or simply about to devour a plate of calamari or even simply a fish sandwich.

"Eloquence of the Sardine" is an extraordinary encounter with Bill Francois and the creatures that live beneath the sea in ancient myths, the pages of literature, and in our everyday lives.
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Poetic Narrative More Memoir Than Hard Science. This is a memoir of a man who was afraid of the sea as a small child and who had one chance encounter that turned his life around... and inspired his life long study of the sea. This book really is as much about the author's own experiences and thoughts as it is the actual scientific facts he states throughout, which is seen perhaps most glaringly in the extremely short bibliography (at least on this advance copy I read).  But truly poetic and beautiful regardless, one is almost inspired to pursue a career (or perhaps second career) in something that gets one out in, on, or under the water just from the sheer awe Francois shows here. All of this noted, I do have a bit of a bone to pick with the actual title: "eloquence" is "a discourse marked by force and persuasiveness", according to Webster. And while I found quite a bit of beauty, wonder, and awe within this narrative, I found little truly forceful or persuasive. Francois doesn't seem to be making any major point or trying to persuade anyone to any particular position other than the sheer wonder of all that exists under the seas. Truly an excellent work, even with the quibble over a part of the title. Very much recommended.
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