An entertaining, irreverent look at the ABCs of botany.




Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts: The World's Most Curious Creatures, 2013, etc.) offers an alphabetical guide to botanical oddities.

The author succeeds admirably in his stated intent to provide a serendipitous mix of “fascinating folklore of the past, with descriptions, life cycles, advice on cultivation, and the benefits these plants provide.” Largo begins with artemisia absinthium, or absinthe, whose sap was used as a last-ditch remedy for tapeworms by Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C. In the 19th century, valued for its hallucinogenic and supposed aphrodisiac properties, it was added to spirits and became the favored drink of artists such as Vincent van Gogh. In a later entry, the author traces knowledge of the medicinal use of aloe vera—recognized for its anti-inflammatory and healing properties today—to an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 2000 B.C. Largo also relates how the black-eyed Susan, an American wildflower, was used by some Native Americans to treat earaches. Archaeological evidence establishes that the Chinese grew cannabis 12,000 years ago, and even the seemingly boring carrot has a fascinating history. Its name is based on its shape and is traceable to “the Indo-European root ker (horn), due to its hornlike appearance.” The carrot's close relatives include coriander, fennel and parsnip, and “in ancient times, carrots were actually favored for its aromatic leaves and seeds,” not for the domesticated root we eat today. Largo has fun with garlic, the supposed “vampire killer” that was also thought to ward off bubonic plague. Near the end of the alphabet, the author informs us that the name of witch hazel—still used to soothe rashes—derives from the Old English word for pliant and bears no relation to witches. Zubrowka, an aromatic plant used to flavor Polish vodka, ends this romp through botanical lore.

An entertaining, irreverent look at the ABCs of botany.

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-06-228275-0

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

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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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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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