From award-winning history and science writer Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden, 2010, etc.), an informal, entertaining account of how early researchers discovered how plants work and what scientists are still learning about plants today.
The author combines her lively botanical history with personal anecdotes about her own plant adventures and misadventures, and she also chronicles her visits to universities and nurseries, where accommodating, knowledgeable people shared their expertise with her. It is clear that Kassinger has done considerable research as well, for her account is rich with portraits of men from the 17th century struggling to understand the anatomy and physiology of plants. She writes of the techniques they used, the observations they made, what they misunderstood and what they got right. Other chapters reveal what is known now about the functions of leaves, stems, roots and flowers. She even explores the world of competitive giant pumpkin growing. Along with some tips on how to grow a one-ton pumpkin, Kassinger takes readers to an annual fall festival in Maine, where pumpkin lovers turn them into competitive racing boats. The author also introduces readers to green slugs that can photosynthesize; a “cocktail” citrus tree that bears limes, lemons and oranges; and a fern that can remove arsenic from polluted soil. Kassinger briefly considers the promise of the perennial grass miscanthus as a biofuel and the possible benefits of genetic engineering of food plants. A bonus of the book are the simple line drawings by Eva-Maria Ruhl, which illustrate Kassinger’s lucid prose, making some botanical details even clearer. Especially charming is her drawing of a borametz, a plant that even educated Europeans in the early 17th century believed grew a tiny, living baby sheep on its stalk.
A delightful book, fun to read and share—green thumb not required.
A comedy of errors in rural Wales evolves into a dark tale of family secrets in this very accomplished debut.
Picture a pretty girl in a yellow dress, presiding over a picnic on a spring day. It’s enough to scramble a fellow’s brains, and so, brains duly scrambled, Wilfred Price proposes to Grace Reece, who accepts in a flash. Moments later, Wilfred is appalled by his folly. The 27-year-old undertaker barely knows the doctor’s daughter, though they have grown up together in the small town of Narberth, Pembrokeshire, where it’s now 1924. Blame it on his inexperience with the ladies; Wilfred is still a virgin. His subsequent retraction falls on deaf ears. On another front, he’s having better luck. Flora lives with her mother in a nearby town; her father has died suddenly, and Wilfred has arranged the funeral. Despite the awkward circumstances, their strong mutual attraction leads to a wordless tryst, tender but not carnal, in a deserted seaside cottage. Meanwhile, Grace is becoming desperate: She’s pregnant. Her suppressed memory of being raped surfaces, but she can't divulge the identity of the rapist to her cold, forbidding parents. After considering suicide, she simply tells her father she’s pregnant, and the doctor, assuming Wilfred’s guilt, bullies the young man into a joyless civil ceremony. If he denies paternity, no one will believe him, his business will fail, and he will be forced to leave town without his widowed gravedigger father, an impossibility, for the two are devoted to each other. Jones has devised her trap skillfully. Though the novel’s first, pre-marriage half dawdles, and the Wilfred/Flora relationship is too gauzy, the second half is exceptionally strong. Wilfred and Grace discover reserves of courage even as their world grows bleak.
From the vagaries of desire, through parental love and its absence, to small-town morality, the British author has put together a thematically rich book in a perfectly rendered time and place.
Billy Dean is the forbidden child of a priest and a hairdresser, born in the English village of Blinkbonny on a day of terrible destruction and locked away for all his 13 years.
Much to the chagrin of his tempestuous, estranged father, Billy Dean struggles with words: “He wos a secrit shy & thick & tungtied emptyheded thing.” He’s a lonely boy, longing for his father’s rare visits, muddling through Bible stories, and scratching out letters and pictures on dried-out mouse skins with blood-mixed ink. When Billy’s lovely Mam finally exposes her son to the war-ravaged “shattad payvments” of Blinkbonny, Billy is overwhelmed…and utterly wonderstruck. Local medium Missus Malone has her own plans for Billy, and as rumors spread of “The Aynjel Childe” and his power to cure the sick and speak to the dead, the boy becomes another kind of prisoner entirely. Skellig-creator Almond’s books are always mystical—close to the warm, dark heartbeats of man and beast—but this one, spelled mostly phonetically to show how Billy Dean might actually have written it, is perhaps even more raw, sensuous and savage.
Dark, unsettling and fluid as water, Almond’s suspenseful tour de force considers the cycle of life, themes of war, God and godlessness, and, as ever, “How all things flow into each other.” (Fiction. 14 & up)
Chilly Aberdeen, Scotland, may seem an unlikely place to investigate the natural world, but Woolfson (Corvus: A Life with Birds, 2009) offers a vivid portrait of birds, animals, insects and plants—and her place among them—in the city where she has lived for decades.
Located at 57 degrees north latitude, Aberdeen is cold, damp and stark, with changeable weather that “flits and blows, defies forecast and forecasters” to emerge as “several seasons in a day, only some of them recognizable….” Weather is a frequent topic of conversation, and adverse weather, many believe, is a punishment for hubris or, perhaps, too much joy. “Our climate is sombre,” Woolfson writes, “our mood, our stone, our mode of building against the weather.” In a gesture of hopefulness, she planted roses in her garden, but along with her clematis, it died during a cold spell. But other species flourished: rooks and jackdaws, gray squirrels and butterflies, oystercatchers and bluebells. Some were labeled pests: Woolfson called an exterminator to get rid of rats living under her house, and the city took measures to circumscribe starlings. The author cautions against intervening: “[W]ithin the limited framework of the artificial spaces of nature we have created, learning to stand back is all we can do.” Taking us through a year in Aberdeen, Woolfson closely observed changes in bird life and animal visitors, soil and sky: “different kinds of wind, different kinds of snow, different kinds of twilight.” Interwoven with diarylike entries are longer meditations on spiders, pigeons, jackdaws, sparrows and the complexities of the slug, who shoots a “love dart” as part of its mating behavior—a phenomenon, Woolfson speculates, that’s possibly the origin of Cupid’s arrow.
Woolfson is an elegant, precise writer, and this transcendent memoir conveys exquisitely the vibrant world she inhabits.
Casey (Genealogy, 2006, etc.) fictionalizes a story based on the real-life figure of Albert Dadas, a man from the late 19th century whose strange pathology dictated to him that he walk continually, though he temporarily ends up in an asylum—and eventually walks away from that as well.
Although Dadas is at the center of the narrative, we’re also introduced to the Doctor (unnamed but always capitalized) who works at the asylum and who develops his own obsession with Dadas. Along the way, we meet some of the other patients being treated, including the veteran, suffering from a type of PTSD, and Elizabeth, who believes that even the most mundane phenomenon is a “divine miracle.” But the most enigmatic figure of all is Dadas himself, who’s led to the asylum by a lamplighter. Dadas has been all over Europe, though his memories of these travels are both fleeting and fragmented. The Doctor tries to help him recover his memories with various strategies, the main one being empathetic listening. The key questions the Doctor wishes to ask are “Why do you walk? Why can’t you stop?” but the answers to these questions are only hinted at rather than directly confronted. While Dadas vaguely recalls having deserted the army with his friend Baptiste and also alludes to a difficult and problematic relationship with his father, his story ultimately remains cryptic and inexplicable.
Lyrical in its style and fascinating in its psychology, Casey’s narrative provokes a host of intriguing questions beyond those the Doctor raises, and Casey is wise enough as an author not to provide easy answers.
A sensible, family-focused guide to substance abuse.
In addressing family members who feel helpless when faced with addiction, Foote, Wilkens, and Kosanke draw on 40 years of substantiated analysis and clinical research from their Manhattan-based Center for Motivation and Change, a collective recovery treatment program founded on the hopeful principle that “people get better.” All three are aggressive proponents of the Community Reinforcement Approach and Family Training rehabilitation strategy, which introduces a real-world, motivational, coordinated approach to a loved one’s substance abuse. The guidebook begins with the basics, describing the nature of addiction as a “complex and multidetermined” problem, how it takes hold, and its underlying psychological causation, which can vary from chronic depression to bipolar disorder. With the assistance of co-author Higgs, the authors promote professional hope for “profound possibilities” through understanding, coping, helping and thriving. Bulleted lists and helpful exercises further assist families with identifying the stages of drug abuse, coping mechanisms, modes of self-care, limitations and the importance of positive communication. The book steers family members and supporters away from the trap of codependency yet comforts them in knowing that any ambivalence they may feel is completely normal and is simply the byproduct of life changes. The highlighted case studies clearly personify a wide array of situations of varying severity—e.g., discovering a spouse is a closet alcoholic or finding oneself at the mercy of opioid painkillers or unable to break a cigarette smoking habit. The authors also include a lengthy, significant chapter on treatment options and available levels of care, all stated, as is most of the book’s text, in accessible, everyday language. Objectively written and conveyed with congenial authority, the book offers collective hope to families of substance abusers.
Essential outreach on embracing and effectively managing a loved one’s addiction.
A series of riveting essays about growing up Jewish in a Gentile world by the accomplished memoirist Silverman.
Having written haunting memoirs about being sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood (Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, 1996) and her subsequent sexual pathology (Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction, 2001), the author returns to another troubling theme that caused an early self-splintering. Moving between the Caribbean and New Jersey as her father pursued high-powered jobs as a government official and banker, Silverman fixated on Pat Boone as a kind of immaculate other, a talisman that would keep away all the unpleasantness from her life, such as an abusive father, stifling Christian community and Russian refugee grandmother with her strange shtetl ways. Comparing herself to a gefilte fish (not even a real fish but a “ball floating in jelly, stuffed in fish skin….All evidence of its fishness—its true identity—gone”), Silverman addresses readers in missives between chapters, imparting cohesiveness to the discrete, elliptical essays. For example, in the first essay, she writes of tracing her finger over an arresting photograph in Life magazine depicting Boone and his happy family of four daughters on a tandem bike; she was fascinated by the photo’s “whiteness,” how its “immaculate universe was safe, far away from my father’s all-too-real hands, hands that hurt me at night.” In “Endless Possibilities of Youth,” the author discusses how, as a young adult, she was told of the suicide of her Christian rival, which plunged her into a maelstrom of memory about their fickle high school boyfriend, the first of many non-Jewish men she was attracted to and who couldn’t quite accept her Jewishness.
A masterly stylist continues her uncompromising examination of the inner life.
Swedish-born philanthropist and Granta publisher Rausing offers an intimate look at the devastations of communism in Estonia.
The author’s academic study about a small community in post-Soviet Estonia followed her fieldwork on the Noarootsi peninsula in 1993-1994 (History, Memory and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm, 2004). Here, she returns to the notebooks of that year and her memory for a more sensuous, character-rich portrait of the denuded landscape, ruined economy, and erratic, alcoholic personalities she encountered as a dreamy, lonely observer and teacher. The peninsula’s population had been half Swedish-speaking until the Nazis deported them, and those few thousand left were corralled behind the Soviet military barrier into villages that became “like villages all over the Soviet Union at that particular time: forgotten places sinking into quiet poverty.” Estonia’s independence followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the country had to grapple with the Russian presence and language, depopulation and stalled economy. The collective farm in Pürksi was taken over by a “transitory privatisation commission,” and there was new hope for Swedish return and involvement. The signs of Swedishness made the author feel nostalgic for her own Swedish childhood, and everywhere, she gleaned the sense that time had stopped in Estonia. She unearths fascinating history of this remote area, annexed and depleted by Russia, then Germany, then the Soviet Union; all the while, she taught ninth grade in the local school, tramped through the Baltic forests and interviewed people on the farms. In a talk she made to a group of diplomats visiting the village, she was rebuked for being too candid about the Soviet era; instead, she was told ironically she should have said that “everything is wonderful.”
A mellifluous portrait of a country slowly and painfully pulling itself into the European world.
Blending Ezra Pound, rhetoric and reality TV, this hilarious, subversive debut about a cadre of friends at an arts high school is a treat from cover to cover.
In seventh grade, popular, good-looking Luke rescued Ethan, Jackson and Elizabeth from misfit nerd-dom. Four years later, Luke still leads while Narrator Ethan is cheerfully resigned to a spot in the “Untalented caste” at Selwyn Academy. Disturbing the status quo, the school’s chosen to host a new reality TV show, a student talent competition with a $100,000 scholarship prize and a familiar format: interviews, clichéd romances and rivalries, and two smarmy hosts. The obsequious vice principal and most students are thrilled, but For Art’s Sake feels like an insult to Ethan and friends. Luke, the most offended, leads a counterattack, writing guerilla poetry inspired by Pound’s Cantos that ridicules the enterprise, which the conspirators secretly print at school. However, the masterminds behind reality TV are several steps ahead of them—money and fame are powerful currency, and they know how to use them. Maura, the beautiful, talented ballerina Ethan fancies, has been accepted at Juilliard, but without the scholarship, she can’t attend—participating is a no-brainer. Ethan struggles with ethical conundrums (Does Pound’s anti-Semitism invalidate his work? Are compromises the price of an arts career?) as he works out his own place in this world and among his friends, especially Elizabeth.
A sparkling, timely tour of the complicated intersection where life meets art.
(Fiction. 12 & up)
An extended, excruciating romance with a married man derails a California graduate student in Huneven’s latest (Blame,2009, etc.).
In the fall of 1981, Cressida Hartley moves up to her family’s weekend cabin in the Sierras with the hope of finishing her Ph.D. dissertation, even though she’s grown increasingly unenthusiastic about pursuing a career in economics. A lighthearted fling with the owner of the local lodge introduces her to the close-knit, not to say gossipy, community of year-round residents, who are censorious when Cress embarks on a dangerous relationship with Quinn Morrow, a married carpenter. He’s still reeling from the suicide of his father 10 months earlier, and Cress is the first person to notice. Sylvia, Quinn’s wife, is fragile and always needs to be sheltered; Quinn is yearning for someone who will listen to him. Huneven creates a detailed, moving portrait of two people who initially think they can have a no-strings affair but are drawn into something much more serious and damaging. Quinn leaves Sylvia, goes back, leaves again, goes back again; Cress ignores her dissertation, takes a job waitressing and waits around for him to make up his mind, alarming her friends and family with her deteriorating emotional and physical state. Huneven’s well-written narrative is emotionally credible, although Cress’ passivity becomes frustrating in the novel’s final third: She is reduced to the role of a mistress, waiting haplessly for occasional visits, as several years fly by. The final pages show her finishing her dissertation, embarking on a freelance journalism career and rebuilding her life, without ever losing “the feeling that a part of her had been left behind, as if her soul were invisibly married to Quinn.” The painfully sad ending suggests that he may have felt the same, but it didn’t do either of them any good.
Sensitive, reflective and uncomfortably true to life, with a wonderfully rich cast of supporting characters.