Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

"Part travelogue, part memoir, part deep-dive (literally) into the world of jellyfish... Spineless can serve as inspiration for any of us to reclaim a creative space in the midst of family life." --NPR A former ocean scientist goes in pursuit of the slippery story of jellyfish, rediscovering her passion for marine science and the sea's imperiled ecosystems.Jellyfish have b...

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Title:Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
Author:Juli Berwald
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Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone Reviews

  • Rachel Smalter Hall

    I was completely charmed by this science memoir about jellyfish and chasing your dreams. Juli Berwald’s love of marine biology was reawakened when she started contributing to National Geographic to help support her family. Quickly becoming obsessed with jellyfish, she set out on an unexpected journey to find out if jellies thrive in climate change — and whether or not that’s disastrous for humans. The result is this audiobook, full of charming anecdotes about what happens to baby jellies hatched

    I was completely charmed by this science memoir about jellyfish and chasing your dreams. Juli Berwald’s love of marine biology was reawakened when she started contributing to National Geographic to help support her family. Quickly becoming obsessed with jellyfish, she set out on an unexpected journey to find out if jellies thrive in climate change — and whether or not that’s disastrous for humans. The result is this audiobook, full of charming anecdotes about what happens to baby jellies hatched in space, why jellyfish kiss their wounds better, and her 3 pet jellies named “Peanut,” “Butter,” and “Jelly.” Her narration isn’t super polished, which makes it all the more endearing — I love the moments when you can hear her laughing quietly to herself.

  • Arnis
  • Robert Sheard

    Part memoir, part science, part call-to-arms. A little bit of the science is lost on me but that's because I have zero background in biology, but the second half of the book, as Berwald travels to Japan, Israel, and Spain, is fascinating.

  • Lauren

    3 stars. While I was very excited about this book, I got off to a rough start with it. I found a typo on the second page (and several more throughout the book) and the author used the word "landlocked" 3 times in as many pages. I knew then that this book, as several others have noted, could have used some more careful editing (personally, I think it could have easily been trimmed by 50 pages or more). Also, as a few other reviewers have noted, the memoir parts of this book weren't very engaging.

    3 stars. While I was very excited about this book, I got off to a rough start with it. I found a typo on the second page (and several more throughout the book) and the author used the word "landlocked" 3 times in as many pages. I knew then that this book, as several others have noted, could have used some more careful editing (personally, I think it could have easily been trimmed by 50 pages or more). Also, as a few other reviewers have noted, the memoir parts of this book weren't very engaging. By the end of the book, I was a little tired of hearing about her family, her college experiences, and her ill-fated romance with the ichthyologist surfer. I was just here for the jellyfish. I also feel like this book led me to believe that we were going to learn a little more about climate change and jellyfish and while that was covered some, it was not covered to the extent that I thought it was going to be. We do, however, learn about the science of jellyfish, so the book delivers there. I do wish there had been a clear diagram of a common jellyfish in the book to guide the reader because for much of the discussion, you need to have a basic understanding of the parts of a jellyfish. I think a reference diagram would have been a great help for this book to help orient the reader as we delve into jellyfish capabilities throughout the text. I did enjoy this book overall, despite my notes above, and wanted to share some of the best jellyfish facts I learned from the book:

    - Jellyfish is protein packed, with one serving (she doesn't explain what a serving is, but oh well) containing just 25 calories and a whopping 6 grams of protein. There is no fat. We also learn that when prepared properly, it is crunchy and the taste resembles "green bell pepper". Yum?

    - Jellyfish are the most efficient swimmers in the world! The chapter that focuses on this, "Robojelly", highlights some particularly interesting research on the mechanics of jellyfish swimming and robotic jellyfish.

    - From the chapter "Life's Limits": They are finding that some species of jellyfish might be ageless because they can revert to a previous life stage and regrow into a healthy adult and then continue to repeat this cycle over and over again.

    - The description of a box jelly sting from the champion endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, was horrific; she said it felt like her "entire body was dipped in hot oil." (pg. 252). I did like the subsequent discussion of the swimsuits and other technologies that are being created to help prevent jellyfish stings as humans and jellyfish increasingly come into contact with one another.

    - From the chapter "Sting Block": "The acceleration of the stinging cell is 5 million g. It's thought to be the fastest motion in the animal kingdom". 'G' in the preceding quote stands for g-force. In case you were curious, this is really, really fast.

    I also didn't know a lot about jellyfish before I read this book but now have a greater appreciation for a creature that looks so simple from the outside, but is a lot more complex than I would have imagined!

  • Peter Tillman

    Good introduction to the biology of jellyfish. Definitely aimed at the general public, and usually pretty clear, though the book could have used more illustrations. Her interviews and interactions with jellyfish biologists are the highlight of the book. The memoir and travelogue (which are intertwined with the science) were pretty good, although I was getting a little tired of the details of daily life with young children by the end. So, 3.8 stars for the science, 3 stars for the personal stuff.

    Good introduction to the biology of jellyfish. Definitely aimed at the general public, and usually pretty clear, though the book could have used more illustrations. Her interviews and interactions with jellyfish biologists are the highlight of the book. The memoir and travelogue (which are intertwined with the science) were pretty good, although I was getting a little tired of the details of daily life with young children by the end. So, 3.8 stars for the science, 3 stars for the personal stuff. She's a good writer, and her enthusiasm for jellyfish is (to some degree) contagious.

  • Amy (Other Amy)

    I had a review typed up and the wi-fi crash at the library ate it, and I don't really feel like messing with this much more, so I'm going to go with pros and cons and be done with it.

    Pros:

    ★ There is some nice jellyfish science in here.

    ★ Dr. Berwald does

    I had a review typed up and the wi-fi crash at the library ate it, and I don't really feel like messing with this much more, so I'm going to go with pros and cons and be done with it.

    Pros:

    ★ There is some nice jellyfish science in here.

    ★ Dr. Berwald does manage to meet some interesting people during her jellyfish obsession, including the woman who found the kraken and a woman who swims from Cuba to Miami.

    ★ It is actually more coherent than

    , although I'm not sure more coherent comes out to better in this case.

    Cons:

    ☆ There isn't nearly as much jellyfish science in here as I was expecting.

    ☆ The author spends far too much time navel gazing; her own struggle to find meaning as a fairly privileged middle aged woman just doesn't relate all that much to the jellyfish.

    ☆ The author also fails to do any actual journalism around the 'Save the oceans!' theme she seems to be trying to go after. A look at

    would have served her very well, and I think if she had entered into some dialog with that book she might have had some interesting contributions to make.

    ☆ This is not so much a flaw, but the science doesn't actually answer the question she set out to address. (The question was 'Will jellyfish be the big winners after global warming and ocean acidification?') A refocusing might have been helpful.

    ☆ Overall, it comes across as a bland but breezy read with some nice jellyfish science thrown in. Jellyfish really deserve better.

  • Lauren

    What I wanted from this book:

    Jellyfish science.

    What I got:

    Some science, and a lot of memoir about travels, college crushes, the author's children, her insecurities, and commentary on other people's body shapes and clothing.

    Summary: More Jelly / Less Juli

  • Jennifer

    Positives: Spineless is written in a very approachable manner and is easy to understand. Part science/part memoir, a person who does not normally read science topics or who knows nothing about jellyfish will find the writing easy to understand and quite fascinating at times.

    Negatives:

    1. This book needed to go through another round of editing as there were several easily identifiable grammatical errors that really should have been fixed before publication. It actually made me wonder if this was

    Positives: Spineless is written in a very approachable manner and is easy to understand. Part science/part memoir, a person who does not normally read science topics or who knows nothing about jellyfish will find the writing easy to understand and quite fascinating at times.

    Negatives:

    1. This book needed to go through another round of editing as there were several easily identifiable grammatical errors that really should have been fixed before publication. It actually made me wonder if this was self-published.

    2. The second part of the subtitle: "...the Art of Growing a Backbone..." might as well not have been included as Berwald only addresses how she is now willing to speak out about the affect of climate change on the ocean and why that is important in the last 5-10 pages. In truth, I felt that the effect of climate change should have been stronger even throughout the book if she wanted to demonstrate a real backbone.

    3. The writing can be rather repetitive...there were multiple instances of her explaining something and then in the very next paragraph repeating it again using practically the same exact words. This irritated me to no end as I felt it showed a lack of confidence in the reader's ability to hold on contextually to what is happening in the narrative from one paragraph to the next.

    4. There seemed to be very little structure. As this was Berwald's journey to learning about jellyfish, there is a chronological nature to the events described, but it still jumped around rather oddly and with no context about why a certain section was relevant at times.

    5. I wish the memoir part that was weaved in had a little more "life" to it. I found myself not giving a whit about Berwald herself or really caring that much about why she, herself, in particular wanted to study jellyfish.

    Overall, an easy read. All the information about jellyfish was truly fascinating as I really didn't know much about them before starting this book. So mission accomplished in that sense. The rest of it...just meh.

  • Kelly

    There's not a whole lot to learn here about jellyfish EXCEPT that there's actually little to learn about them because they're not studied very much. This is part science, part memoir, about Juli's love and fascination with jellyfish and the lengths she's gone to to learn more about the illusive creatures. I listened to it on audio, and Juli reads it herself. At times, it's clear how much she's enjoying reading the book and more, how much she loves the story she tells....and even if it's not perf

    There's not a whole lot to learn here about jellyfish EXCEPT that there's actually little to learn about them because they're not studied very much. This is part science, part memoir, about Juli's love and fascination with jellyfish and the lengths she's gone to to learn more about the illusive creatures. I listened to it on audio, and Juli reads it herself. At times, it's clear how much she's enjoying reading the book and more, how much she loves the story she tells....and even if it's not perfect, that delight is hard to not love while listening.

    If you like citizen science -- something she hits on in the last chapters, especially -- or love nature and want to be better about sharing that love and passion, this is a good one. Go in with few expectations on learning a ton about jellyfish, in big part because there is so little to learn.

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