THE UNEQUAL HOURS

MOMENTS OF BEING IN THE NATURAL WORLD

A dozen uneven essays that hover between mild epiphany and quiet appreciation of the natural world, from Underhill (Writing/Alfred Univ.). Upon moving to a remote county in New York State in 1991, and watching as her neighbors fought the siting of a low-level nuclear-waste dump on their patch, Underhill decided to tap into the cosmic hum of the place. She wanted to see what was so special as to move the county’s residents to protect it so fervently, to experience those all-too-brief moments of clarity in the outdoors’sacred and humbling and inspiring—that visit the attentive like flashes of haiku illumination. Most of the encounters chronicled here are sincere if glancing, which is not so odd considering the inscrutability of Underhill’s subjects (color, time), but they are also not infrequently sappy and banal, which is odd, because she is plainly intelligent and well read. Underhill is at her best when discovering the ancientness of her fixations: how the Celts were just as enthralled by bogs as she is and nastily sacrificed one of their number to appease the bog god; the human urge to divide the day into segments, be they canonical hours or Saxon tides or shadow markers. And she is also good when simply in awe, as when ice turns a landscape opalescent and pulls the strange trick of amplifying sounds in the upper register, filling the air with vague, ethereal calls. Then she will trot out something so utterly trite it makes the teeth ache: she describes clouds as “like ships in full sail driven by an ocean breeze,” chapter-opening epigrams are so timeworn they seem tongue-in-chee. Fortunately, each of these pieces can be sampled on its own, winnowing the graceful, enthusiastic Underhill from her inexplicably stumblebum flip side.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-8203-2040-4

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Univ. of Georgia

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1998

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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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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