DUNWOODY POND

REFLECTIONS ON THE HIGH PLAINS WETLANDS AND THE CULTIVATION OF NATURALISTS

Tales from a high-plains pothole by Janovy (Vermilion Sea, 1991, etc.), a man much smitten with the sound of his brain ticking. Secreted in the Nebraskan countryside is Dunwoody Pond. Its weedy, teeming waters serve as a vibrant life-science laboratory, a primal stew he hopes will enter his students' souls as well as their collecting nets. His students are an estimable bunch: Tami and her damselfly parasites; Bill and his leeches; Rich and his black beetles; Skip and his gill tissue suckers. They all get deeply, sweetly immersed in their creatures. It's Janovy who's the problem. He wants to know what inspires these young naturalists, but he tells us more about himself than about his charges. In the process, Janovy scurries all over the place in a free association that he clearly finds charming; but it comes across as Brownian motion—which is to say, directionless and tedious. Too often he writes, ``And that is the main point of this story, even though we have taken a short diversion.'' He can be painfully smug (asking, for instance, why anyone would choose to be a physical therapist when one could be a parasitologist); he comes out with presumptuous statements that are utter rot (``Every dead soldier's mother is convinced that it is right for her to bear the death of her child in obeyance to a commander-in- chief''); and he strains analogies with the best of them. Enduring the chapter ``Conversations at the Rock'' is as pleasurable as being locked in a closet with a logorrheic methedrine freak. The one time Janovy cuts sharp is in his chapter on cliff swallows—gentle, humorous, insightful, and without a single mention of himself, even obliquely. As a place, Dunwoody Pond may have lit the passions of an undergraduate clutch; as a book, it is a pompous embarrassment of sputters and fizzles.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1994

ISBN: 0-312-11456-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1994

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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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