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The Meadowlands – Robert Sullivan ****

We need to start of straight away with why this book is here at all, because it’s pretty borderline as popular science. Okay, the simplistic answer is because the publisher sent a review copy and we liked it – but it’s a little more than that. Meadowlands is in the same genre as Bill Bryson’s travel books – a personal account of experiences in a particular place or set of places, and though these books tend to get lumped under the travel category, they are just as much personal explorations of natural history, a crossover that was proved in Bryson’s science title. Robert Sullivan’s book is about exploring what most would consider a semi-industrial wasteland, the wilderness of tips, marshes and industrial waste on the outskirts of New York, and in doing so, the book comes across unclassifiably as a mix of industrial archaeology, travel, sociology and natural history – so it belongs here as much as it belongs anywhere else.
Perhaps the biggest attraction of this book is Sullivan’s obvious love for something very few could find attractive. It’s the attraction of the eccentric. The Meadowlands with its tips and foul waste is not the sort of place most people would want to spend a vacation in, yet time and time again Sullivan is enticed back to explore different parts of this strange nowhere land. And yet occasionally you can see why it’s so attractive. Here he is, in sight of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, yet he is in a place of wild marshes and wildlife (even if it’s also a place of pollution and wildfires).
This isn’t a book to read with the expectation of discovering new scientific facts, but it is one that will bring a smile to your face, fascinate and surprise – all in a gentle way. Sometimes Sullivan’s efforts seem a little odd – perhaps most notably his search for the remains of the original Penn Station, dumped in the Meadowlands when it was demolished – but they will never be less than interesting. If you like the look of this book it’s also worth checking out Sullivan’s Rats which is in a similar vein, but has more scientific content.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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