A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.

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UNDERLAND

A DEEP TIME JOURNEY

An exploration of the little-visited realms of the Earth, from deep caves to bunkers, trenches to Bronze Age burial chambers, courtesy of an accomplished Virgil.

Macfarlane (The Lost Words, 2018, etc.), who has pretty well revived single-handedly the fine British tradition of literary natural history writing, can usually be found atop mountains. In his latest, he heads in the opposite direction, probing the depths of the Earth to find the places in which humans have invested considerable imaginative attention yet fear to tread. He opens with a cave network discovered in China’s Chongqing province only a few years ago that “was found to possess its own weather system,” with layers of dank cold mist that never see sunlight. From there, the author moves on to other places that require us to “go low,” into places that humans usually venture only to hide things—treasure, sacred texts, bodies. Now that many such places are making themselves known, exposed during construction excavations and unveiled by melting permafrost, “things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden”—treasure sometimes, more often just bodies. All of this is occasion for Macfarlane, a gifted storyteller and poetic writer, to ponder what historians have called “deep time,” the time that is measured in geological rather than human terms and against which the existence of our kind is but a blip. Even places well known or celebrated in antiquity—from the underworld of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iron Age mines of the Mendip Hills of southwestern England—are recent points on the map of that ancient landscape. As he moves from continent to continent, Macfarlane instructs us on how to see those places, laced with secrets and mysteries (“all taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin”). Wherever he travels, he enhances our sense of wonder‚ which, after all, is the whole point of storytelling.

A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-24214-0

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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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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