Sims, Michael 1958–
Sims, Michael 1958–
Home—Greensburg, PA. E-mail—[email protected]
Author and freelance journalist. Worked at various jobs, including former researcher of rare books and manuscripts at Vanderbilt University.
Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel, Penguin (New York, NY), 2006.
Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-thief, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 2007.
Author of articles about science, culture, and the arts for various publications, including Gourmet, New Statesman, American Archaeology, and Chronicle of Higher Education.
Michael Sims is a freelance journalist who writes about culture and science. Growing up near the small town of Crossville, Tennessee, he began his reputation as a writer, observer, and interpreter of unusual facts when he was confined to a wheelchair by an unknown illness at the age of thirteen. "I read steadily, of course, first science fiction and mysteries," Sims told Alden Mudge of BookPage.com, "then science fiction led me to science-related nonfiction." As he grew older, Sims's reading began to encompass fiction and poetry, ultimately leading into what he has called "the border habitat where science, nature and culture meet."
Sims's first book, Darwin's Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts, was published in 1997. Composed of 366 brief essays—one for each day of the year, including February 29—the book focuses on strange occurrences, anecdotes, or beliefs about science dating from 4004 B.C. to modern times. Darwin's Orchestra discusses everything from dinosaur eggs to the scientific aspects of the Star Trek television series. Sims also includes a variety of real and fictional people, from Wolfgang Mozart and Virginia Woolf to Sherlock Holmes and Batman. The book's title refers to an experiment in which Charles Darwin, the famous founder of the theory of evolution, and his family played bassoon, whistle, and piano to earthworms to see if they would react to music. Writing in Science Books & Films, Charles C. Kolb called the book "enjoyable reading" and noted that it is "certain to amuse and appeal to scholars, teachers, students, and the general public." Library Journal contributor Bruce D. Neville noted that "this is a book to be savored."
Sims did not begin another book until he suffered a herniated disk and had an operation that left him flat on his back for two weeks. As he was recuperating, he thought about the human body and began taking notes on whatever came to mind. Sims's notes ultimately led to his 2003 book, Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, which Judith Warner, writing in the Washington Post, called "a quite remarkable compendium of fact, fantasy, myth, and personal musings on the topic of the human body." Focusing almost entirely on external body parts, Sims writes about everything from an in-depth investigation of the human belly button and the female breast to men's and women's "privy parts," as he titles one chapter. His wide-ranging thoughts about the human body are typified by his discussion of the hand, in which he talks about everything from carpal tunnel syndrome to the evolution of the handshake, the history of fingerprinting, and the cultural bias against people who are left-handed.
Although reviewers almost universally praised Sims's ability to turn a phrase in Adam's Navel, some reviewers found the book too much like a list that glosses over information without applying any real philosophical or in-depth thought to the subject at hand. For example, reviewing the book for National Public Radio's All Things Considered, David Kipen reported that Sims has a certain amount of wit but also noted that "Adam's Navel is just a lint catcher for whatever disposable bits of fluff each body part reminds the author of." Other reviewers found the book both entertaining and insightful. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented, "it all adds up to a rollicking ‘fantastic voyage’ over the surface of the body." Ian Sansom, writing in the Guardian, stated, "Adam's Navel is that rare thing, a work genuinely wide-eyed and innocent, amazed at everything." Noting that Sims's book is heavier in its sense of breadth than depth, New York Times Book Review contributor John Banville commented: "This is an entertaining, witty and erudite jackdaw's nest of a book." He also noted: "If at times he sounds like the worst bore in the bar, he will quickly re-grab the reader's flagging attention with some new bizarre fact or fragment of arcana."
In Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, Sims takes the reader on "a magical mystery tour," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "of seasons and starlight, rainbows and eclipses, circadian rhythms and jet lag, inner space and outer." As he did in Adam's Navel and Darwin's Orchestra, the author examines the places where science and culture intersect, this time in the ways in which a day passes on earth. "Discussing dusk, for instance," wrote Los Angeles Times reviewer Jesse Cohen, "he uses the etymology of the word ‘twilight’—‘Twi-’ is a combining form meaning simply ‘two,’ thus, a time of ‘two lights’—as a way to introduce the bat, a twilight creature whose ‘dual nature’ (a mammal with birdlike qualities, a benign animal that we associate with the diabolical) he illustrates with references to a diverse array of authors, from Aesop to Evan S. Connell." Sims ties the book together by frequent reference to the myth of Apollo and Phaeton, the sun god's mortal child whose misguided attempt to drive the sun chariot through the skies resulted in his own death. "In Apollo's Fire," Book Slut contributor Elizabeth Bachner stated, "facts astonish as much as myths. Every day, we are dying as we live—we are time travelers—and the sun itself is dying. There will be a morning, a few billion years in the future, when it doesn't exist. And, when we look at the star closest to the sun, we're seeing it as it appeared two years and two months ago—we can't see it as it looks now." Sims's "delightful tour of day and night skies," a Publishers Weekly contributor said, "will inspire many readers to look up with a marveling new perspective." Apollo's Fire, concluded a Kirkus Reviews contributor, is "a walk with an erudite and entertaining docent through the most marvelous of museums."
Sims told CA: "By the age of ten I was writing a story about the melodrama I saw happening every day in our tank of tropical fish. When I was in a wheelchair as a teenager, I kept a journal of the animals I could see from the window: the chipmunks and cottontail rabbits behind our house, the nesting wrens on the porch. I have always been drawing the world around me or photographing it or writing about it.
"So far every nonfiction book has grown from a desire to learn more about a topic or to express my response to a phenomenon. I always gallop happily up many roads that lead nowhere but whose scenery I recall fondly. Slowly I nudge a chaos of notes toward a shape and a unifying theme. Every writer seems to have a different mental image for the process; I like to imagine myself gradually turning raw wood into a cabinet, cutting and fitting and finally polishing. My goal is to produce a useful artifact that reliably does its job but also has about it a craftsman's satisfaction in his work.
"I simply want to inform and entertain others, as well as myself, as I go about my own quirky way (which seems to be half sentimental and half cynical) of celebrating the world's beautiful complexity. The childhood encyclopedia I mentioned was right: learning is the greatest treasure."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 1997, Gilbert Taylor, review of Darwin's Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts, p. 1106.
Entertainment Weekly, August 1, 2003, Wook Kim, review of Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, p. 83.
Guardian (London, England), September 27, 2003, Ian Sansom, review of Adam's Navel.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2003, review of Adam's Navel, p. 740; June 15, 2007, review of Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination.
Library Journal, February 15, 1997, Bruce D. Neville, review of Darwin's Orchestra, p. 160; July, 2003, Michael D. Cramer, review of Adam's Navel, p. 118; July 1, 2007, Michael D. Cramer, review of Apollo's Fire, p. 116.
Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2007, Jesse Cohen, review of Apollo's Fire.
New York Times Book Review, July 27, 2003, John Banville, "The Anatomy Lesson," p. 5.
Publishers Weekly, May 12, 2003, review of Adam's Navel, p. 55; June 4, 2007, review of Apollo's Fire, p. 42.
Science Books & Films, June, 1997, Charles C. Kolb, review of Darwin's Orchestra, p. 140; October, 1997, review of Darwin's Orchestra, p. 219.
Washington Post, October 5, 2003, Judith Warner, "Three Books Plumb the Perennial, Unstable Mysteries of Physical Being and Identity," section T, p. 5.
BC Books, http://blogcritics.org/ (April 12, 2008), Richard Marcus, review of The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (April 12, 2008), Alden Mudge, "Anatomy Lessons."
Bookslut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (April 12, 2008), Elizabeth Bachner, review of Apollo's Fire.
Michael Sims Home Page, http://www.michaelsimsbooks.com (April 12, 2008).
National Public Radio, August 20, 2003, David Kipen, "All Things Considered" (transcript), review of Adam's Navel.