An unusual and vastly entertaining journey into the world of mysterious plant life as experienced by a gifted nature writer.

THE CABARET OF PLANTS

FORTY THOUSAND YEARS OF PLANT LIFE AND THE HUMAN IMAGINATION

A prolific and talented British nature writer explores 40 plant species and how they have influenced the human imagination over the centuries.

Comprised of equal portions of knowledge, delight, and surprise, Mabey’s (The Ash and the Beech: The Drama of Woodland Change, 2013, etc.) botanical history advocates for elevating the status of plants within the natural world. Rather than being taken for granted as passive vegetation and viewed as merely “the furniture of the planet,” the author recounts “a story about plants as authors of their own lives and an argument that ignoring their vitality impoverishes our imaginations and our well-being.” Each section opens with a brief essay presenting a theme—e.g., “How To See A Plant,” “The Shock of The Real: Scientists and Romantics,” “The Victorian Plant Theatre”—followed by an exploration of specific plants. For those unschooled in botany, these preliminary excursions are nifty gateways into the unknown. Mabey artfully combines historical and contemporary scientific writings, literary musings, and his personal recollections concerning his plant subjects. The author ranges across time from the interest showed by Paleolithic cave artists and the vegetation in their environment to how both Neolithic farmers and 18th-century scientists attempted to understand the mysteries of agriculture and plant cultivation. Though many of the individuals and a handful of the plants Mabey discusses may be unfamiliar to some American readers, the author skillfully melds together this bounty of insights, opinions, and scientific facts into a coherent and intelligent narrative, overcoming any initial unfamiliarity readers may experience. Numerous drawings and photographs enhance the book. What Mabey does best is invite readers to think about plants in a radical new way, even posing the question as to whether a plant’s sensory abilities—electrostatic charges, chemical communication through pheromones and bio-acoustic sound waves—actually constitute intelligence.

An unusual and vastly entertaining journey into the world of mysterious plant life as experienced by a gifted nature writer.

Pub Date: Jan. 11, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-23997-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 23, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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