A charming, delicate meditation on the meaning of life.

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THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING

A TRUE STORY

In this quiet but moving debut, essayist Bailey chronicles a year during which her fascination with the simple life of a snail kept isolation at bay and gave purpose to her life.

At age 34, the author was struck by a neurological disorder while vacationing in the Alps, and her condition rapidly deteriorated as her autonomic nervous system became dysfunctional: “all functions not consciously directed… had gone haywire.” In order to receive care, she was moved from the Maine farmhouse where she had lived with her dog to a bare, one-room studio apartment where she was isolated from friends and family. The snail entered her life by chance when a visiting friend potted a violet and brought it to her, including the snail that had been sitting beneath its leaves. Bailey watched intently as the creature began to explore its new environment. Since it was nocturnal and her sleep was intermittent, the author had time to observe the animal eating, noting the “tiny, intimate sound” as it chomped on dead leaves from the violet plant or mushroom slices that she gave it. When her caregiver found the appropriate empty space, her friend helped to convert it into a roomy terrarium full of native plants from the snail’s own woods. Although she had not been familiar with the snail’s habits before welcoming her new companion, Bailey learned about the species through careful observation and the few things she was able to read during her recovery. Watching the snail was not only absorbing, but as the author was drawn into its “peaceful and solitary world,” she was soothed and left with a profound sense of how “life itself continues to evolve.”

A charming, delicate meditation on the meaning of life.

Pub Date: Aug. 24, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-56512-606-0

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: June 28, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2010

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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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