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About the Author

Robert Sullivan is the author of The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. He is a contributing editor to Vogue and a longtime contributor to the New Yorker. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.


Adult/High School-Sullivan's narration reads like a monologue by a charming and witty party guest, albeit his topic is the city rat. No fact is too minute or detail too obscure. In his research, the author consulted many "rat experts," including a New York exterminator who shared the lower Manhattan alley that became the location for his observations. Tales of rats' run-ins with humans include a particularly disturbing one about a woman who was "attacked" by the rodents near his observation place. One chapter is dedicated to the Irish immigrant who hosted rat fights in his bar in the 1840s. Each of these tales is filled with digressions-the history of some of the buildings in the alley, the founding of the SPCA. The greatest digression occurs with regard to the World Trade Center catastrophe. Because Sullivan's alley was so close to the scene, his observations were necessarily interrupted, and when he returned, of course things had changed. But so singular is his vision that even this disaster is put into a rat context-how exterminators were on the job, how the subject of rats was unmentionable in discussions about disaster cleanup, even though his observations showed that rats were plentiful. This creative writer has taken on a seemingly unappealing subject and turned it into a top-notch page-turner.-Jamie Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Though the title may give readers pause, this unusual book is highly enjoyable. Sullivan, a New Yorker and author of another fascinating urban natural history, The Meadowlands, became interested in rats when he saw an Audubon painting featuring a rodent and learned that the artist was a New Yorker in his final years. After spending a year (spring 2001 to spring 2002) observing some rats in one Manhattan alley, mostly at night, he reports his observations here. These are augmented by conversations with exterminators, health officers, and scientists, as well as material on the origin of rats and how they spread to Europe and the United States. Sullivan also throws in juicy tidbits on garbage, extermination, the plague, and what rats eat. Students of New York social history will also enjoy Sullivan's inclusions of pertinent sections on rent strikes, the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the battle to outlaw rat fights, and more. Well written and fun to read, this book has only one drawback: a lack of more detailed information on rat biology. Recommended for all natural history and large urban collections.-Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

In this excellent narrative, Sullivan uses the brown rat as the vehicle for a labyrinthine history of the Big Apple. After pointing out a host of facts about rats that are sure to make you start itching ("if you are in New York... you are within close proximity to one or more rats having sex"), Sullivan quickly focuses in on the rat's seemingly inexhaustible number of connections to mankind. Observing a group of rats in a New York City alley, just blocks from a pre-September 11 World Trade Center, leads Sullivan into a timeless world that has more twists than Manhattan's rat-friendly underbelly. Conversations and field studies with "pest control technicians" spirit him back to 1960s Harlem, when rat infestations played a part in the Civil Rights movement and the creation of tenants' organizations. Researching the names of the streets and landmarks near the rats' homes, Sullivan is led even deeper into the city's history till he is back to the 19th century, when the real gangs of New York were the packs of rats that overran the city's bustling docks. Like any true New Yorker, Sullivan is able to convey simultaneously the feelings of disgust and awe that most city dwellers have for the scurrying masses that live among them. These feelings, coupled with his ability to literally and figuratively insert himself into the company of his hairy neighbors, help to personalize the myriad of topics-urban renewal, labor strikes, congressional bills, disease control, September 11-that rats have nosed their way into over the years. This book is a must pickup for every city dweller, even if you'll feel like you need to wash your hands when you put it down. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

"Hugely entertaining."

"Sullivan beguiles us with remarkable tales about an inexhaustible topic."


"An urban Thoreau..."

"The author excels at fluid and witty prose."

"[Approaches] his fleet-footed, fast-food-loving quarry with a naturalist's curiosity and a storyteller's fluency."

"Sullivan persuasively associates the 'truth' he learns about rats with a deeper understanding of both the history of New York City and the essence of mankind."

"Skittering, scurrying, terrific natural history."

""Rats" will both entertain and edify you about a part of the world you never thought much about."

"Who knew a book about one of nature's most reviled creatures could make such great bedside reading?"

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