AN AFFAIR WITH AFRICA

EXPEDITIONS AND ADVENTURES ACROSS A CONTINENT

The adventures of a family spanning more than a decade of scientific expeditions to Africa in search of some of the tiniest of that continent’s wildlife. Kistner, associate editor of the journal Sociobiology, is the gamely devoted wife of entomologist David Kistner, the world’s foremost expert on myrmecophiles, beetles that live among ant colonies. Beginning in 1960, the young couple began an often harrowing but productive series of expeditions to Africa at a time when many Americans and Europeans were headed the other way to escape the instability of the end of the colonial era. In search of their small quarry, the Kistners, eventually with both of their young daughters in tow, spend long, dusty hours on all fours sucking up insects’sometimes thousands in one session—through an aspirator. But what readers will find more memorable in this unflaggingly cheery narrative are the family’s frequent life-threatening encounters with both nature and man, from poisonous snakes and charging elephants (not to mention biting ants) to bandits and terrorists. They also experienced the last gasp of the European and especially British colonial period with its dinner parties, sumptuous houses, and colorful old Africa hands and colonial administrators. Then, too, the family by happenstance ran into some of the famous and infamous men who took their places, such as presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and in a brief but scary restaurant encounter, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Kistner tiptoes around the issue of apartheid in then Rhodesia and South Africa, only vaguely muttering her dissatisfaction with the policy and with white attitudes toward black Africans, but politics is only tangential to this account, which is really a rather remarkable family saga. While readers might get tired of stooping to examine ant nests with the Kistners, the portrait of Africa from nearly four decades back makes for an unusual tale. (maps, figures, photos, not seen)

Pub Date: July 1, 1998

ISBN: 1-55963-531-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Shearwater/Island Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1998

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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