Cover Image: Taking Flight

Taking Flight

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Member Reviews

Thank you NetGalley for providing a free Advanced Reader's Copy in exchange for an honest review. And happy Publication Day!

I really enjoy good humor, especially when it's used to make a scientific topic more approachable to non-experts. From the beginning, Lev Parikian did a wonderful job in drawing me in: combining awe and comedy to explain why he wrote a book about flight in the natural world. The opening chapter immediately reminded me of the joy I feel when taking a cable-car, watching the scenery roll below me. Or the awe of watching a city's details grow as my plane approaches for landing. That's until the landing-turbulences hit and I am reminded, as the author astutely puts it, that I am very afraid of going from flying to non-flying in a matter of seconds. It was fascinating to learn about the various way wings and bodies are built in animals that are able to fly, and the wildly different methods used to create propulsion through the air. What I regret however is that the ARC did not include any pictures. Hopefully the final book does have images, because several of the details were not easy to visualize based on words alone. (This would also help non-British audiences identify some of the species mentioned; as we know we don't call the same animal by the same even in the same country). The humor was less impactful in the second half of the book, but I still enjoyed it. The only part where I felt the book dragged were some of the chapters on birds, where the author decided to leave the main-character behind and discuss other members of the family instead. I'm thinking of the chapters on penguins (I understand why we'd mention ostriches and other flightless birds, but none of the other family members could do what penguins do: swim!), albatrosses, and hummingbirds. I was especially curios about the hummingbird flight, and unfortunately half of the chapter focused on swifts, which sadly I wasn't interested in. Perhaps more and smaller chapters would have been useful to discuss more bird flight options. 

I ultimately enjoyed this journey through the slow evolution and surprising specialization of flight. The afterword also expertly pulled us away from the technical details and returned the reader to the state of wonder that saturated the foreword: "From the human point of view, flight remains aspirational (...) Because we can't do it. For all our ingenuity, our mammoth brains, our legendary problem-solving skills (...) we can't do it. And while we have found ways around it, the true understanding of what it is, the sense of knowing that comes with innate ability, will always elude us." Which reminds me: if reincarnation turns out to be real, I hope I come back as a goose. Fly and swim. Because swimming is the closest I've ever felt to flying. Different fluid, different speed, but a controlled gliding above a world of wonders below me. Too bad my lungs can only hold so much air.
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A fascinating, thought-provoking read on the evolution of wings in insects, dinosaurs and birds, Taking Flight is a real crowd pleaser. Most happily, as a reader I was able to absorb and understand it without having deep knowledge in the study of biology. It is very approachable and rather addictive being casually conversational and not over the top with confusing jargon.

All chapters brought something new to the discussion on flight enhancing wings though I felt affronted on behalf of bees who were treated a bit shabbily. It was a quick chapter focused on stinging, fear and swarms rather than the multitudes of amazing bee-specific facts and marvels. I felt there was a lot of ground not covered, sadly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, bats garnered loads of time and coverage and I found that awe-inducing being the only winged mammal!

A brilliant book for anyone with a passing interest in the evolution of flight without requiring an engineering or biology degree. Great stuff, Taking Flight is wholly informative and entertaining!
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Such a fascinating book about natural history - taking all of the creatures (sometimes in broad family groups) that can fly and looking at their history from prehistoric ancestors to the modern day. 
Some of the science was beyond me but I enjoyed dipping in and out of the book and it even made me appreciate pigeons as something other than dinner.
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What a wonderful book. 

Taking flight is a book that looks at the wings of many different creatures. We learn how they function and how they've evolved. 

The author tells a captivating story, with interesting facts and light humor. 

From dragonflies to butterflies and lots in between,  each chapter is dedicated to a different creature.
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This was a lovely and interesting book. I loved all the examples of wings mentioned in the book and the facts about each type of wing for each animal were captivating. I think it's a fascinating book for anyone who has an interest in flying and is interested in all things that have to do with it, for example wings. I loved that it gave a bit of spotlight to some of the insects too, like the dragonfly or the beetle. I am not huge fan of a fly but interesting to read about it. It would have been nice to see some photos of the examples mentioned in the book or of their wings but overall it was a good book to read.
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This delight of a book is full of the warmth, wonder and wit that I have come to associate with Lev Parikian.

Through examining various creatures, great and small, and their relationship to flying, he constructs a small gem of a book- one that delights in the joys of the world, and how incredible it is that these creatures exist, never mind that they continue to teach us new things about the world around us. 

I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I cannot imagine the amount of research that went into this book, but truly, I can only admire Parikian's sheer ambition!

For the most part, he carries it off. I have previously read a book by a scientist on how flight works in nature, and my God, I could not retain anything from it. I wasn't clever enough. Whereas 'Taking Flight' is very nicely tailored for people without proficiency in physics. 

The information is digestible, and each section itself is fairly brief, with no one species or group of species hogging the limelight for too long. Parikian weaves in the odd personal anecdote about his encounters with such animals, but the narrative is mostly at the level of the "informative" rather than the personal. 

The humour is sometimes a bit too much for me, but having read the author's previous two books, I knew what to expect from his jaunty style. And I can easily forgive it, given how many wonderful facts I've learned from 'Taking Flight'.
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So, so close to 5 stars.

I'm not sure I can detail the many fascinations of Taking Flight without turning them into a dry-seeming list, but here goes, anyway.

-- the mechanics of flight: wing shapes and sizes; bone structure; feathers vs membrane; dynamic soaring vs riding on thermals vs flapping vs being a hummingbird & thus able to hover

-- hypotheses about the evolution of flight in insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats; what we can deduce from the fossil record and what we can't, and why

-- how the varieties of flight patterns serve, or may serve, their users ("Toxic butterflies tend to have smoother flight patterns than non-toxic ones, which suggests that the scattery nature of flight is at least in part a predator evasion tactic"; "When in full hunting mode, [marsh harriers] work their way methodically over the wide expanse of reeds -- quartering ... -- scanning for small mammals")

-- migration! I knew about Monarch butterfly migration, but not about the multi-generational!!! migration pattern of Painted Lady butterflies, from the UK to Spain to northern Africa to as far south as Ghana. Nor was I familiar with some pre-scientific speculations about Where All Those Birds Go in the Wintertime (to the moon, perhaps? But Bar-headed Geese overfly the Himalayas, which strikes me as almost equally preposterous yet it happens).

-- so many delicious tidbits just dropped in passing: insects owe their quick reaction times to their shorter neural lengths; ants are "descended from a lineage of stinging wasps"; pterosaur juveniles are called "flaplings"; and more more more, so much more

So, lots of good stuff here. But three factors led me to ding a star.

-- In a few places I found myself thinking that an explanation was missing a step. How penguins shoot themselves out of the water, for example: They head for the surface, where they preen, which reinstates the air bubbles that deep-water pressure has forced out of their plumage, and the bubbles "are released as the penguin plunges upwards toward the surface," which somehow reduces drag so their speed increases enough to launch them out onto the ice -- but why don't the air bubbles make the penguin's profile bigger and thereby slow it down? The answer may be obvious to someone who knows more about aero[aqua]dynamics than I do, but it's not obvious to me.

-- A number of UK-specific references are going to be lost on almost all US readers (e.g., Magnum Ice Cream varieties; Quetzalcoatlus northropi had a wingspan "half a cricket pitch" or "one-fifth of Nelson's Column" long ... uh, okay). This isn't a criticism of the book, exactly, but it would be helpful to translate some of these, or even just to add another referent to clarify matters for a US audience. Perhaps it's not too late? One of these might represent a safety issue, by the way. I was startled by the mention of how lucky it would be to have a bat fly into one's house. I like bats very much but I would not be pleased to have one in my living room, as I am not up-to-date with my rabies shots; the UK, however, is free of rabies.

-- The dumb jokes. Some of them, I have to admit, made me smile -- the late allusion to Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch, for instance, which unfortunately I forgot to flag. But a few dumb jokes go a long way. In particular, I wearied of the bro-ey habit of mapping (certain forms of) human male courtship behavior onto nonhuman animals, which Parikian does over and over. Overall the dumb jokiness got to seem almost compulsive, and Parikian did his smart book a big disservice here.

Still, I have to recommend Taking Flight warmly. As much as a few issues made me want to kick the wall, I spent most of my reading time entranced and delighted.
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