THE LIFE OF INSECTS

An ingenious and cryptic allegorical fantasy, obviously inspired by Karel apek's classic play The Insect Comedy, in which characters exist simultaneously as human beings and as various insects—by the prize-winning young Russian author of Omon Ra and The Yellow Arrow (both 1996). Pelevin's story consists of a number of linked episodes all set in the immediate environs of a seaside resort hotel where Samuel Sacker, a visiting American businessman, confers with his Russian associates-to-be Arthur and Arnold. However, all three are also mosquitoes, and the acquisitive Sam unwisely feasts on the blood of a sleeping lout who has ``imbibed Russian Forest cologne.'' We next observe father and son dung beetles pondering the mysteries of the universe (such as Egyptian spirituality); a woman (and fly) named Marina, who endures the struggle for material goods in a hivelike cooperative while endlessly digging her own burrow; an engineer, Seryozha, who transfers blueprints onto computer code (and, in his parallel life as a cicada, grows a mustache and is mistaken for a cockroach), and many other similarly compound figures whose fates are joined together in astonishingly inventive ways. For example, Nikita and Maxim, a painterdrug dealer and ``conceptual artist,'' share a joint while lamenting the fact that ``bugs'' are crawling into the ``weed'' they smoke only to find that they are bugs inside the joint offered by Sam Sacker to a sultry many-legged beauty named Natasha, who—we later discover—was hatched from one of the eggs laid by Marina, from whom she is estranged. Several other such connections are made in this hilariously transformed world where ``moths fly toward the light, flies fly toward shit, and they're all in total darkness.'' It's a powerfully disturbing metaphor for the economic deprivation and social chaos of post-Soviet Russia, and Pelevin develops it with haunting, mocking specificity and authority. A brilliant work from one of the best newer writers on the international scene.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-374-18625-1

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1997

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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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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