Teaser Tuesdays: Planet of the Bugs by Scott Richard Shaw

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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I am choosing my teaser sentences today off the very first page of the charmingly titled Planet of the Bugs (although it is not quite a book beginning, since these are not the first lines). What wonderful examples of evocative, lovely writing, though; I couldn’t help but share.

As the songs of frogs, katydids, crickets, and cicadas emanated from the forest, my boots sloshed along the pathway. Typical of San Ramon, it had been raining all day, the trail oozed treacherously slick with slippery mud, and water was everywhere. On mushroom caps sprouting from a rotting log by the trail, silvery droplets rolled to the edge, clung briefly shimmering – then fell away. The sounds of water were all around, bubbling and gurgling over mossy rocks in the river, chattering in nameless streams and rivulets. A light mist was still falling, and the emerald vegetation, dappled in a hundred shades of green, was dripping and glistening with raindrops.

Doesn’t that just make you want to dive right in – bugs or no bugs?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo

A quirky illustrated reference guide to the oddities of the plant world and botanical history.

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Broccoli as we know it today comes to us as a product of early bioengineering (by the Etruscans around 800 B.C.). Eve’s forbidden fruit may have been not an apple, but a fig. In Aztec culture, virgins were not permitted to look upon the lusty avocado fruit on the tree. The blister bush contains chemicals that interact with human skin and then combust upon exposure to sunlight. In Greek mythology, the artichoke was created when Zeus became angry with his mistress and transformed her into the thistle as punishment. Bamboo blooms only every 65 or 120 years, and when it does, rat populations explode. Nutmeg has mild hallucinogenic properties.

From Absinthe to Żubrówka (“widely known as the plant that makes the best Polish vodka”), The Big, Bad Book of Botany is not your standard reference book. It is far from comprehensive; Michael Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts) instead hopes to entertain and educate by focusing on plants with odd characteristics and their history and roles in different cultures, including medicinal uses both current and bygone. Entries are alphabetically ordered (although some take a little hunting: oleander is filed under B for “Be-Still Tree”), and accompanied by some 150 illustrations by the artists of the Tropical Botanic Artists collective. Some entries include tips on gardening or on avoiding poisoning.

Simply written with an eye for humor and cocktail-party-friendly trivia, this botanical exploration can serve as a coffee-table piece or conversation starter. Just don’t mix up your yew with your yerba.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 5 petioles.

The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

My father also reviewed this book here.


An astronomer’s professional and personal journey, both eased and challenged by her scientific mind.

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Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky revolves around Jeanette, a young astronomer deeply dedicated to her work but uninspired by the competitive bureaucracy of postdoctoral research. The stars and galaxies make sense to her in a way that people do not; she is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lens often fails her in navigating the world of human relationships. In a Chilean observatory, she makes a discovery that could turn the scientific world on its head; what she will do with this new and disruptive evidence will similarly upend her personal life. Amid the commotion, a new love affair with an old friend and the disorder of her professional ambitions combine to reawaken a childhood trauma, a tragedy from which her family has never recovered.

The Falling Sky incorporates hard science (Goldschmidt is an astronomer as well as an accomplished writer) with the story of a young woman struggling to find and establish her own place in the world. Artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists will all identify with aspects of Jeanette’s journey. Those familiar with the Edinburgh setting will be pleased by its evocation. But perhaps the most remarkable and unusual element of Goldschmidt’s striking debut novel is Jeanette’s perspective: the reader sees her world as she does, with an emphasis on objectivity, data points, the relativity of time and space, and the search for connections between distant galaxies. As Jeanette sighs, “the lack of information is appalling,” but her story comes around to a satisfying conclusion nonetheless.


This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 connections.

The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

The Great Barrier Reef is both easily understood and awe-inspiring in this history of its discovery, exploitation and beauty.

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With The Reef, Iain McCalman (Darwin’s Armada) has composed “a passionate history” of the Great Barrier Reef, opening with his own long-awaited voyage (part of a reenactment of Captain Cook’s original trip). Following the prologue, he withdraws to the role of historian rather than participant, and chronicles the Great Barrier Reef as known to Western society over the last few centuries.

The Reef is divided into three parts. Beginning in 1770 with Captain Cook and proceeding through later explorers who helped chart the reefs in the 1800s, “Terror” emphasizes the threat the reef posed to ships and their navigators, and the fear of cannibals and others thought to inhabit the area. In Part II, “Nurture,” the reef begins to offer refuge for those seeking to escape civilization or make a fresh start. Europeans are taken in by native islanders, or discover island paradise; naturalists arrive, captivated by the biodiversity and beauty of the area while beginning to realize that coral is a resource that can be exploited. “Wonder” sees the scientific community take an interest, disagreeing about the origins and biology of the reef. Ecology emerges as a new field of study, its proponents seeking to place the reef in the larger context of other natural environments, to study relationships and cause and effect. Individual activists work to defend the unusual and changing ecosystem from mining, oil spills, overfishing and the rough use of tourism.

At the end, we are introduced to nature-loving scientist J.E.N. Veron, nicknamed “Charlie” after Charles Darwin, an engaging character who communicates the final dire message of the Great Barrier Reef’s looming extinction. Returning to the personal nature of his prologue, McCalman’s epilogue speaks to the grim consequences of climate change but holds forth hope as well.

The few images in The Reef include portraits of the personalities involved but not the corals themselves (although McCalman refers his reader to books that offer the latter). This work’s strengths include a coherent structure, friendly narrative style and a reasoned culminating call to action that does not disrupt its primary role as a comprehensive history. Plentiful notes indicate strong research, but McCalman’s writing is accessible to any reader interested in the intersection of science, nature and history. From perceived threat to resource to paradise destination to climate-change indicator–Charlie Veron calls corals “the canaries of climate change”–the Great Barrier Reef is fully explored in this engaging study.


This review originally ran in the May 6, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dives.

Maximum Shelf: Euphoria by Lily King

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 23, 2014.

euphoriaLily King (Father of the Rain) renders three young anthropologists in 1930s’ New Guinea with nuance, tenderness and charming ambiguity in Euphoria. King draws on the life of Margaret Mead and her relationships with her second and third husbands (Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively), but the novel is only loosely based on their lives and work.

Nell Stone is an American, and has recently written a book that is receiving much attention for its controversial subject matter: the sex lives of children in the Solomon Islands. She is an up-and-coming young anthropologist being talked about around the world; when we meet her, she is just emerging from a year and a half in the field in New Guinea, alongside her husband, Fen. Fen is Australian, overbearing and decidedly threatened by Nell’s success, as fame and glory as an anthropologist have so far eluded him.

When Nell and Fen come out of the field, at a party they meet fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. He is fresh off a failed suicide attempt, haunted by the deaths of his two brothers and unable to find himself in either his native England or the tribal communities he studies. Bankson is lonely and attracted to the couple, and suggests that he establish them with unstudied “natives” nearby his own fieldwork; he wants to keep them as his friends and neighbors.

The three form an unlikely triangle of mixed alliances. Nell and Fen, for all their disharmony, share a history and an intimacy the loner Bankson can’t pierce. But Nell and Bankson achieve a singular connection of the minds: they inspire each other, each stimulating the other’s best work. With Fen’s sensitivity over and resentment of Nell’s talents, this is a dangerous but intoxicating symbiosis, a cerebral union that is sensual and nearly sexual. Bankson is, in fact, rather in love with both Nell and Fen. The two men establish their own bonds as well, when Fen nurses Bankson through a malarial fever. It is a love triangle, but also an intellectual one, and shadows the perceptions of each anthropologist about the tribes they live amongst. They already have very different approaches: Nell has loved, ever since she was a small child, exploring other worlds so that she can come back and tell her family, friends and now colleagues about her adventures; for her, the joy is in the description and the homecoming, but she also has a knack for integrating herself into a new culture. Fen, it seems, would rather become a tribesman than study or write about the tribes. Bankson struggles to participate, but is more inclined to observation–his background is in the natural sciences. As he writes, “I was raised on Science as other people are raised on God, or gods, or the crocodile.”

Lily King makes an interesting decision in choosing Bankson as her narrator, as he is the most isolated of the three, spending much of his energy in observing not only the tribal peoples he is meant to study, but also Nell and Fen. That the story of these three characters is told from the perspective of his outsider status means that the reader, too, is forever peeking in and around corners, hoping for more information. Nell’s voice is heard through journal entries eventually sent to Bankson by another old friend and possible love interest of Nell’s, but she remains tantalizingly difficult to access. The tension of this desire to know Nell better is central to Euphoria, for Bankson and for the reader.

King raises broader questions as well, as each anthropologist’s individual approach to his or her work is troubling in its own way. The tribal communities of the fictional Kiona, Mumbanyo, and Tam peoples invite consideration about the fields and methods of anthropology and ethnology. The Tam women, who do the trading and the artistry in their community, inspire Nell’s growing ideas about traditional gender roles, a stance that (predictably) does not sit well with the irritable Fen. Margaret Mead is known not only for her writings and work in anthropology, but also as a feminist thinker; in King’s hands, the Tam culture inspires the beginning of Nell’s own feminist development. As Bankson gravitates toward Nell’s empathetic and involved relationship with the Tam, Fen is planning a serious cultural crime, which will precipitate the final denouement. (The life stories of Nell, Fen and Bankson are quite different from their historical counterparts Mead, Fortune and Bateson, so there are no spoilers for readers familiar with that history.)

Euphoria is a masterpiece of dreamy, lyrical, sensuous writing and evocation of a sometimes frighteningly exotic New Guinea. Readers can expect to be enchanted by the setting, inspired by the free-spirited Nell, challenged by the question of respectful participant observation, angered by certain of the characters’ actions and teased by the sexual tension. As a bonus, the beautiful cover of Euphoria features the striking rainbow gum tree that figures in the plot of this remarkable novel.


Rating: 8 books.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with King!

The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel

(Happy birthday today to my handsome Husband!)

inheritorsWhat a juicy title and cover; right up my alley. True crime, history, some light (accessible) science, and a little murder mystery. Yes, please.

Sandra Hempel’s book about the arsenic poisoning epidemic of the early 1800’s, and the advances in forensic medicine and pursued it, is very much in the tradition of The Invention of Murder and The Remedy, obviously. To a lesser extent it also relates to The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable and The Devil in the White City. I don’t mean to say that Hempel’s work is unoriginal, you understand, but these are the books I’ve read that feed my interest in the subject, and can continue to satisfy yours.

Much of this story was familiar to me, mostly from The Invention of Murder. Britain in the 1800’s saw an increase in crime, particularly murder – or at least an increase in its recognition and efforts to curb it – and the birth of the police force and investigations. The early 1800’s also saw a wild increase in the use of arsenic both as a household solution to just about any ailment, and as a quick and easy way to dispatch one’s fellow human. It was called “the inheritor’s powder” because so many people apparently used it to gain an inheritance ahead of the natural schedule. The growing prevalence of cheap life insurance or “burial clubs” played a role here as well.

This background is conveyed easily and accessibly and, again, is also covered in The Invention of Murder; where The Inheritor’s Powder breaks new ground is in delving into arsenic more deeply, and specifically into one sensational case that illustrates the larger issues. In November of 1833 a well-to-do farm family fell ill after their morning coffee; the elderly patriarch would suffer several painful days before dying, while the others would recover. The local doctor suspected arsenic poisoning almost from the first, and conducted some investigations of his own, including saving samples of the coffee grounds in question and the old man’s vomit. (It was later noted that there was so much vomit around that there may be some question of whose vomit it really was…) “Investigations” and “evidence” were new concepts, and our modern understandings would be incredulous at the attempts, but for his time, this local doc was proactive and scientific in his methods. There was a police inquiry, an inquest, and eventually a trial in which a lazy grandson was acquitted (on questionable grounds); but various members of the family came under suspicion and we still don’t know exactly who or what killed George Bodle.

Hempel details the court case and the public interest that followed it. Charles Dickens gets some play here (again, as in The Invention of Murder), which adds to the macro-view of this issue in society and in history: the literary minds of the day were at least as interested in the arsenic epidemic as anybody else. Hempel also looks into the science of testing for poisoning, or specifically for arsenic. Medical science was at such a stage that it was very difficult to distinguish one malady (say, poisoning by arsenic) from another (say, food poisoning by rotten fish) – and of course this question is separate from the question of whether poisoning by arsenic was intentional and therefore criminal, or accidental. Again, I must stress as Hempel does, arsenic was pretty ubiquitous at the time; people mixed it up and applied or swallowed it in various forms for a wide range of complaints. Chemists (or as we see here, chymists) were hard at work on the issue of testing for the presence of arsenic and various substances; cases like the Bodle murder were influential in moving the science forward.

I found this topic rather fascinating, and it was a good way to get a look at what 1830’s English life looked like. For example, I was interested to read about the conflict over who would pay for the investigations and trial – the local parish? Bodle’s estate? his survivors, or the executors of his will? Nobody wanted to pay; but society couldn’t just let this murder go unpunished, either. This was an issue that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

Hempel’s writing and research are fine, but lack the quirky style, entertaining writing, or personality that make a work of popular history really stand out. For readers interested in the topic, by all means go forth. But this is not enough of a page-turner to convert the dubious.


Rating: 6 grains.

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

The compelling connection between Sherlock Holmes and the search for a tuberculosis cure.

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Thomas Goetz’s The Remedy achieves a rare feat: serious, accurate scientific writing that is also engaging and entertaining.

In the mid-1800s, the practice of medicine largely resembled groping in the dark. Patients came to doctors “with the hope of a cure but never the expectation of one.” The final decades of that century, however, were marked by extraordinary advances in science, technology and medicine: “germ theory” was developed, infectious diseases were better understood, and more-modern notions of hygiene and sanitation began to catch on. Robert Koch, a provincial German doctor, pioneered experiment design and research standards, and in 1882 he identified the bacterial cause of tuberculosis–the most deadly disease in human history.

Koch attempted to develop a cure for TB, which he presented in Berlin. Despite meticulous empirical methods he had established, Koch’s zeal for his remedy led to his downfall, as his treatment was unprovable. An obscure British doctor and sometime writer, also provincial, was the first to pen an appropriately skeptical response. Despite his criticism, Arthur Conan Doyle was a great admirer of Koch and appreciated his scrupulous observations; in fact, Goetz asserts that without Koch, “there may never have been a Sherlock Holmes as we know him.”

The intersection of Koch and Doyle brought the spirit of scientific discovery to crime detection, and the spirit of investigation to scientific research. Goetz’s exploration of their lives and their impact on the world as we know it is both historically significant and enthralling.


This review originally ran in the April 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 dead rabbits.

In addition to my shorter review, above, I’d like to add a few more details. A big part of what I loved about this book was the breadth of scope. For example, to provide his readers with an accurate view of what Koch, Lister, Pasteur, and other scientists of the day were up against, Goetz describes at some length the state of medicine in their time. He warns us against coming too easily to the idea of germs and microbes as self-evident; and funnily enough, I was talking with a friend about this book, and she said just that: isn’t it obvious that surgeons would wash their hands beforehand?? But as Goetz so carefully points out, no, not obvious at all; when first presented as a theory, germs were as ridiculous as the idea that the earth might be round. Etc.

Along with medical background, we learn about the common practices of farming and domestic life; we learn about the lingering national hatred that would have pitted Pasteur and Koch so strongly against one another in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War; and about the social constructs that led Arthur Conan Doyle to work so hard at being a doctor when he really wanted to be a celebrated author. (I was reminded of other authors I’ve read about, like Louisa May Alcott: Doyle was always frustrated by the great success of his detective stories in the face of the failure of his more literary novels, just as Alcott was annoyed by the success of Little Women–a book she didn’t like very much. And you know, Doyle killed off Holmes, only to be pressured into his resurrection.)

I suppose I’m a sucker for breadth of scope. Nonfiction that covers history, science, social issues, and literature – and does it in fine literary style, to boot – will always win my heart. Back to the theme of synchronicity that I’m written on before: the older I get and the more of this interdisciplinary study that I encounter, the more I am convinced that this is way we should study history. How many of us found history boring in high school? I did. But once you link music, literature, fashion, politics, science, military conflicts… on and on, once you link all these threads so that the world of the past comes alive – who could not be fascinated? I think we do our kids a real disservice by not embracing this kind of study in their regular schooling.

The Remedy is both a good read, and an examination of a piece of world history whose importance really can’t be overstated.

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