An educational and savory meal, overdone but still flavorful.




A comprehensive report on the ubiquitous wooden sliver’s past, present and future, from the seasoned historian of life’s indispensables.

Though Petroski (Success Through Failure, 2006, etc.) admits to not being a regular toothpick user, his interest for this “simplest of manufactured things” is as limitless as the research material he pored over. In early 1911, grooves found on fossilized teeth suggested the existence of primitive teeth-cleaning utensils, perhaps made from such materials as grass, straw, animal claws, bird quills, rat skeletons, walrus whiskers and raccoon penis bones. The author examines his subject’s highly speculative genesis from an ornate item handmade in Portugal to the mass-produced, machine-made product introduced to America by philanthropic Massachusetts import-export businessman Charles Forster. Petroski also profiles industrious machinist Benjamin Sturtevant, who single-handedly developed the toothpick machine, dubbing it a “minor invention” as compared with the shoe-pegging and exhaust fanning devices he’d built during the same era. Forster saw promise in Sturtevant’s technological genius and brought his toothpick apparatus to Maine (where white birch wood is plentiful), creating a manufacturing, marketing and retailing craze in the late 1880s. Petroski touches on the toothpick’s varying degrees of social acceptance in a consistently interesting section. While it was “worn and used most conspicuously and proudly” during the Renaissance, a pick precariously positioned out of one’s mouth by the 20th century was considered vulgar—or democratically down-to-earth, depending on your point of view. The author taste tests a variety of foreign and domestic picks and graciously offers colorful personal opinions on his varied discoveries. Generous illustrations add texture to the sometimes dry, almost textbook-worthy narrative flow as Petroski examines the toothpick’s boundless uses, from freeing stubborn debris and serving hors d’oeuvres to testing baked goods for doneness or skewering unsympathetic cellmates.

An educational and savory meal, overdone but still flavorful.

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-307-26636-1

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.


A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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