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.

largo

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.

did not finish: Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter

shadowsFull title, Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine. Briefly: I was excited about the concept of this book. History; true crime; alcohol!; and a strangely-spooky-but-real tale of apparent insanity, set in a vineyard, of all places. I recognized in this book the spirit of The Inheritor’s Powder and The Remedy, among others. (I may also have a burgeoning interest in amateur botany, based upon A Garden of Marvels, The Drunken Botanist, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.) Additionally, the author is an accomplished journalist, which I thought promising.

But where the concept hooked me, the text failed. I found a profusion of sentence fragments. And sometimes this works, for dramatic effect – although I think it still works best in limited dosages, because for gosh sake, sentence fragments are the breaking of a grammatical rule and should be used sparingly and with respect for the rule being broken. (I still recall Mrs. Smith, my sophomore and junior year English teacher, and her lecture about Hemingway’s use of the passive tense, wherein Cohn “was married by the first girl who was nice to him.” She taught us that you have to be a Hemingway-caliber writer before you get to go messing about with the passive tense like that.) And Potter has a tendency to tell his reader what character thought, felt, did or said in rather distant history, which I found off-putting and untrustworthy in a journalist. As intriguing as his story looked from afar, I found it insufficient to keep me on board through these difficulties. Oh, and there were rather too many references to God in the opening pages for my personal taste; if these were going to be drawn together and made relevant to the story, it didn’t happen in time for this reader.

Better luck next time.

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.

reef

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 as a *starred review* in the May 6, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dives.

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

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

reef

A passionate history of explorers and climate change (and thus, one expects, necessarily of climate politics as well)? You have me sold, sir. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter 1:

James Cook did not know, on Sunday May 20, 1770, two weeks after leaving Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland, the western portion of the continent, named by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1644, that the HMS Endeavor was sailing into the southwest entrance of a vast lagoon where reef-growing corals began their work. It was a channel that later navigators would call the Great Barrier Reef inner passage. Cook didn’t realize that then, and he never would.

I am going to pick these first sentences apart a little here; bear with me. The concept McCalman opens with is a compelling one, and one he’ll return to: Cook was ignorant of what he discovered, and history in hindsight often makes the mistake of giving to discoverers credit for intention that they never had. Also, I think it’s a powerful image, this captain’s ship entering a dangerous and unknown area, and not even realizing it. In other words, I think McCalman chose a good opening subject; but golly, look at that first sentence! All the clauses: “he didn’t know, on the day, in the place, which was such a place, where this happened… that he didn’t know.” I dare McCalman to diagram that sentence; it might lead him to reconsider. And please do note that this is a pre-publication galley copy; he may still change it (or his editor might), so give the published look a glance and see when it comes out in late May. I am recommending the book despite a clause-heavy opener. Stay tuned.

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

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart (audio)

drunken botanistI’m sure I don’t have to explain to you my interest in a book called The Drunken Botanist. I didn’t even look any further than the title; I requested it from my local library on that alone.

Amy Stewart opens with an anecdote: she was at a convention for “garden writers” when a colleague confessed he didn’t know what to do with a bottle of gin he’d received as a gift. She scolds him for being unaware that a botanist, of all people, should know all about booze: alcohol comes from plants to begin with, after all! I confess I hadn’t thought of it that way, of course, but I continued to be hooked.

The book is organized by: how we make alcohol (fermentation and distillation); what we make it from (alphabetically, agave through wheat); what we flavor it with (herb & spices, flowers, trees, fruit, nuts & seeds); and flavorings and garnishes (herbs, flowers, trees, berries & vines, fruits & vegetables). Throughout are dispersed cocktail recipes, instructions for syrups, infusions and garnishes, and gardening or growing tips. She stops short of homebrew advice, although the practice is alluded to many times. There are also several “bugs in booze” subsections: noble rot, yeast carriers, and the worm in the mezcal.

Stewart seems to have a fondness for hard alcohol: beer and wine get rather cursory treatment by comparison, at least to my eyes. Possibly that’s my bias showing through, and to be fair, beer or wine individually could fill its own book (or many of them – and they’re already out there). I find that she did a much finer job of sampling the wide world of distilled spirits than she did of sampling the wide world of beer or wine; but maybe if I knew more about the distilled spirits I wouldn’t feel that way. Certainly, as a beer lover first and foremost, I was sadly disappointed in her treatment of that category of booze. However, this didn’t badly hurt my feelings about the book as a whole, because there are plenty of good books on beer. That’s not what this book was all about.

I really enjoyed Stewart’s passion, and her drink recipes and tips are much appreciated. In fact, don’t tell him, but I’ve already ordered a print copy of this book for my main bartender, and he will receive this gift with my requests carefully marked within. I also enjoyed the broad education of all the things we make booze from, and some of the wild trivia I learned. I made several notes and/or paused to tell Husband: “did you know there’s a thing called pechuga mezcal? They hang a piece of raw chicken in the air above the still!” “There’s such a thing as a ‘burpless’ celery!” What fun. By no means comprehensive, of course, The Drunken Botanist is still an enjoyable, useful, entertaining introduction to “the plants that create the world’s great drinks” (and the less-than-great ones, too).

I heartily enjoyed Stewart’s book, with the exception of just a few frustrating moments when I wished she’d gone further into the beer bits. (Forgiven, as I said above. But noted: just a few frustrating moments.) However, I would advise against the audio version. For one thing, listening to recipes is not the right way to do it. With the kind of information being related, I think reading is far preferable to listening. And, I got a little lost within her organization of information, too. I think being able to see headings and subheadings would have helped a lot. Finally, while I liked reader Coleen Marlo’s voice and the personality she gave to the reading, I felt that she talked way too fast – quite possibly for any audiobook, but particularly for this one, again, considering its reference-style informational offerings and recipes.

The gardening tips were a little over my head, but your mileage may vary. I wouldn’t say that I have a black thumb, exactly, but the whole program baffles me. I appreciated the introduction I got from A Garden of Marvels, although that one, too, seemed to consider “basic” or “easy” some concepts that lost me. I definitely dig Stewart’s advice, just don’t know if I’ll be growing my own any time soon.

Verdict? Don’t miss this one if you love booze & plants! But get the print copy!


Rating: 8 garden cocktails.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart


drunken botanist

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

I have only just begun this audiobook but have very high hopes that it will follow A Garden of Marvels beautifully. Booze & botany, where can we go wrong? The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks makes perfect sense to me. In her introductory pages, Amy Stewart writes:

If you’re a gardener, I hope this book inspires a cocktail party. If you’re a bartender, I hope you’re persuaded to put up a greenhouse, or at least plant a window box.

I think that puts it very well and succinctly, and I’m on board.

A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger

A charmingly accessible history of botany, full of the strange and wondrous, for readers intimidated by science.

garden of marvels

Ruth Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass) was frustrated by the kinds of mishaps with which many amateur gardeners are familiar: failures to thrive, unexplained deaths, mysterious midseason droopings. So she did what any reasonable science writer would do: research. How do plants really work? In hunting for a simple, layperson’s guide to botany, however, she came up short. Particularly in seeking “the story of the first discoverers of the basic facts of plant life”–that is, a history of botany–she could find only scholarly texts for which “Botany 101 is definitely a prerequisite.” From these frustrations was born the masterful, engaging A Garden of Marvels.

Kassinger’s greatest strength is unquestionably her quirky, conversational tone. She begins with a murder mystery (spoiler: the victim is a kumquat tree) and from these delightful opening lines, even the most science-averse reader will be hooked. While A Garden of Marvels does contain the odd gardening tip, it is more concerned with Kassinger’s travels: she visits farms, conservatories and laboratories around the nation, encountering diverse and eccentric characters she describes with humor and skill.

Her research into human history is likewise revealing: she points out that religious and societal philosophies caused our ignorance of and lack of interest in botany until very recently, and highlights those few pioneering minds whose experiments, observations and strange machineries caught us up. Darwin gets a chapter, and is accompanied by myriad little-known early scientists, all brought to life by Kassinger’s enthusiasm. A handful of relevant illustrations by Eva Ruhl assist along the way.

Kassinger is properly amazed at the science she discovers in nature, as well as the men (“and they were all men”) in history who broke ground with their scientific studies. For some readers, though, she may be a trifle overenthusiastic about the possibilities of genetic modifications of plant life and dismissive of concerns regarding these technologies–although the genetic possibilities in the simple garden petunia are positively mind-boggling.

Topics like plant sex, the history of scientific exploration and the fundamentals of genomics are all equally accessible in Kassinger’s capable hands. That she makes botany so approachable is a feat; that she makes it downright enthralling is almost as miraculous as an adorable photosynthesizing sea slug.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the February 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 different fruits on one tree.
%d bloggers like this: