The author’s intentions are genuine and ambitious, but the result is uninspired.



In a follow-up to his African odyssey (Walking the Nile, 2016), explorer Wood hits the road again on a trans-Asian adventure.

Like his earlier work, this book opens with a bang. In 2001, the author was in Nepal during the Maoist uprising. Just before his scheduled departure, the Crown Prince Dipendra massacred the royal family, plunging the country into chaos, and Wood briefly went into hiding. The author describes this action in the prologue, noting how he was young and broke. The story resumes 14 years later, when his life was decidedly calmer. At this point, Wood lived in London as a published writer with little to prove. Only after much goading from his friend Ash did the author consider another long walk. In contrast to the brutal African wilderness, the Himalayas were majestic and relatively tranquil. Instead of dodging bullets and befriending warlords, Wood met with shamans, villagers, herders, and activists. The desire to explore unfamiliar places is pure and admirable, and Wood is a likable guide. He thoughtfully describes the scenery of places like Tibet, Afghanistan, and Bhutan, and he delves into the basic political problems of Central Asia. Yet many foreigners have trod this region, and Wood’s journey through Pakistan seems less daring after, say, Michael Palin chronicled a similar passage. Given his track record of tenacity and resourcefulness, Wood’s talents seem wasted on such sentimental sightseeing. Most of his prose is dedicated to spiritual rites and friendly chats along the way. The finale feels lackluster, as if he has become bored by his own story. Toward the end, he writes, “ ‘Live in the moment,’ the Dalai Lama had said. ‘Stop concerning yourself with the future.’ ” After so many dramatic experiences, it’s a bit of a letdown. The author certainly deserved a vacation, and fans will appreciate his ongoing travels, but Wood’s skills are too valuable to squander here.

The author’s intentions are genuine and ambitious, but the result is uninspired.

Pub Date: May 24, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-35241-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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

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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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