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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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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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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