Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

A joyful, celebratory world history of the fig tree and its ecological impact.

gods-wasps-and-stranglers

Mike Shanahan’s Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is a deceptively brief account of the Ficus genus of trees in history, emphasizing but not limited to their relationship with humans. Shanahan brings the expertise of decades of ecological fieldwork and a bubbling enthusiasm to a topic clearly close to his heart. He makes a strong argument that his readers should be attuned to and excited about fig trees, too.

The plant figures into the origin stories of cultures all over the world. Fig trees have provided food, shelter, medicine and materials to humans for as long as humans have existed: figs predate us by nearly 80 million years. Because of their contributions as keystone species in ecosystems around the world, figs offer distinctive services in reforestation efforts and the mitigation of climate change. They have contributed to the theory of evolution, the birth of agriculture and possibly humans’ development of opposable thumbs. The story of the fig is inseparable from that of fig wasps, numerous tiny insect species that have evolved to pair respectively in symbiosis with individual species of fig. Shanahan relates all this and more in a joyous voice with occasional lyricism, as when “the Buddhist monk’s robe sang out loud saffron over the rainforest’s muffled tones of brown and green and grey.”

Mythology, biology and hope for the future combine in this highly accessible story of the family of fig trees, with its profound ecological relevance.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 rhinoceros hornbills.

The Mighty Currawongs by Brian Doyle

With Brian Doyle’s reliable good humor, this collection reveres human efforts and love in situations both moving and laughable.

mighty currawongs

The Mighty Currawongs and Other Stories by Brian Doyle (Martin Marten) roams broadly in subject matter, but always offers joyful, whimsical wordplay and an abiding love for life’s absurd and profound moments. These short stories–almost all under 10 pages–deal specifically with human experiences and relationships, rather than embracing the wider natural world of Doyle’s novels, but the same voice and fanciful tone appear clearly.

A Boston basketball league plays through hilarity and scuffles, and finds a player who deepens the game. A likable archbishop loses his faith; a grandfather teaches his grandson to play chess; a tailor offers a young newspaperman sartorial and other advice. Through these everyday incidents, Doyle’s approach to the world is poignant (as in a veteran’s memories of the Vietnam War) but steadfastly hopeful. Indeed, the only criticism of his work might be for his unrelenting optimism, expressed by consistently likable, essentially good characters. But with his mastery of language and eye for detail, Doyle’s characters always feel authentic, and their ups and downs are realistically proportioned. His gift for finding the sublime in even the small and dirty details is alive and gleaming in this short story collection.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 halves of the door.

A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install

This exceptionally charming novel addresses human relationships by way of a one-of-a-kind robot.

robot in the garden

Deborah Install’s first novel, A Robot in the Garden, is a delightful romp and an emotional journey, both hilarious and poignant.

Ben is idle, unemployed, still living in his childhood home in a small town in England, and grieving his parents’ death. He is a constant source of frustration to his wife, Amy. When a robot appears in their back garden, Amy is exasperated, as usual: she tells Ben to get rid of it. Ben is intrigued. The robot, Tang, is decrepit but apparently well-made, and has more personality than the androids the neighbors keep around to do laundry and house chores. Tang is also obstinate, willful and possibly broken beyond repair, but Ben suspects that there is something special about this creature. Together they undertake a riotous expedition, seeking a fix for Tang–and perhaps for Ben as well. On the way, the odd pair encounters bizarre situations, including android sex workers and a radioactive wiener dog, and make new friends. Mulish but endearing, Tang throws tantrums and wins Ben’s heart, and stirs him to reexamine his relationships with the people in his life.

Both Ben and Tang are well-developed, imperfect but lovable characters, and Install has an expert ear for tone and mood. Her dialogue is masterful–Tang’s singular voice develops throughout the novel as he does, and the silliness of this eccentric story provides a refreshing counterpoint to sentimentality. A Robot in the Garden is zany and heartfelt, endlessly funny and often absurd, but speaks directly to the central challenges of the human experience.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the May 20, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 Premium seats.

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Set during a weekend of pro football reenactment, this sidesplitting novel displays all the baggage of male middle age.

throwback special

The Throwback Special stars a group of middle-aged men gathering for the 16th annual reenactment of a memorable moment in professional football: the 1985 sack, by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, that resulted in a career-ending comminuted compound fracture of the leg for Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. In the hands of Chris Bachelder (Bear v. Shark), this is rich material, by turns poignant and droll.

The 22 men are expertly evoked as individuals, often pathetic but also sympathetic. “It could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.” This is Bachelder’s specialty: the intersection of the absurd with earnest emotion, neuroses lovingly portrayed. The Throwback Special is endlessly hilarious, ranging from the serious, even the existential–it is true of the play, like everything else, that “while it was happening it was ending”–to the shrewdly wise: a seven-page interior monologue about race relations by the group’s one person of color is surprisingly entertaining.

The book takes place over a single weekend, involving a certain amount of action but mostly focused on the men’s thoughts and reflections. In this brief window, Bachelder reveals the magic of professional sport spectating, the silliness and profundity of traditions, and the tender illogic of friendship. Obviously, this novel will attract football fans, but there is absolutely something for everyone (even the sports-averse) in this rollicking, irreverent but sweet human drama.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the March 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 ping pong balls.

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

An occasionally bumbling Brit moves into the Mississippi Delta and delivers a romping survey of the surroundings.

dispatches from pluto

Richard Grant (Crazy River) is “a misfit Englishman with a U.S. passport and a taste for remote places,” a writer and professional peripatetic when he encounters an old plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. Later he will ask, “What sort of idiot goes on a picnic and ends up buying a house?” He then explains.

In Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard moves, with his girlfriend, from New York City to a spot even the locals find remote. They struggle with home improvements, an enormous vegetable garden and the moral problem they encounter in hunting for their meat. After some hilarious hiccups along the way, they take pleasure in living in large part off the land. Perhaps more challenging are questions of culture: the liberal newcomers are sensitive to their conservative religious neighbors, who are surely suspicious in turn. But from the beginning they manage to bond like family.

Grant narrates the next year with reflection and humor, from electoral politics and absurd local news to learning how to hunt and party like a Deltan. The myriad forms and intensities of racism and racial tension develop into a theme, as Grant pursues diverse friends and acquaintances. But he finds beauty as well as complexity, and concludes, “I had done the thing that modern life conspires against. I had fully inhabited the present without distraction.” Dispatches from Pluto offers a lovely, appreciative and entertaining tour of the strange and rich Mississippi Delta.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the October 27, 2015 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: 7 armadillos.

Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser

A novel about two young art students, the thrills they enjoy and the wounds they inflict on themselves and each other.

paulina and fran

Rachel B. Glaser (Pee on Water; MOODS) focuses on two memorable, magnetic characters in Paulina & Fran, a novel of the challenges in friendship and love, beginning in a New England art school.

Paulina is flamboyant, wildly sexual and capable of great cruelty toward her friends. She attacks the world with a confident demeanor but is secretly plagued by an inability to get what she wants, because she doesn’t know what that is. Fran is more self-contained, a talented painter but lacking commitment, easily swayed by the love and approval of others. On a school trip, the two are drawn together, owing in part to their lack of other social options, but the bond they form is remarkably powerful, even hypnotic, on both sides. The mesmerizing spell is broken when Fran ends up dating Paulina’s ex-boyfriend, setting into motion a series of mutually destructive events that follow the two women–and collaterally the helpless boyfriend–well past graduation.

Paulina can be repellently vicious, while Fran is merely lost; both will occasionally try the reader’s patience, but both are finally sympathetic. These are finely detailed, compelling, complex young adults facing archetypical trials: work and art; sex, devotion, obsession and betrayal; the cavernous future; and how to be oneself and be a friend. Their journey is often funny and sometimes horrifying, filled with pretentious art “crits” (critiques), thrift store fashion and homemade hair products. Paulina & Fran is both a glittering, raucous ride and a thoughtful depiction of life: painful and ecstatic.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the September 8, 2015 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: 7 crits.

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals by Dinty W. Moore

Finely crafted short essays masquerading as self-effacing jokes about writers and writing, in q&a form.

dear mister essay writer guy

Dinty W. Moore (Between Panic and Desire), the editor of Brevity, solicited respected contemporary essayists for questions regarding the form, so he could answer them in Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. An essay riffing on the question at hand accompanies each q&a. The resulting collection of self-deprecating humor includes bits of writing advice as a bonus.

Cheryl Strayed has concerns about her predilection for the em dash: Moore assures her that “em dashes can replace commas, semicolons, colons, the large intestine, and parentheses.” Brenda Miller worries that Facebook “is like one big communal personal essay”; Moore answers with a selection of his status updates over a period of months, which are as sage and instructive as they are hilarious. Roxane Gay wonders about the value of writers writing about writing. Other seekers of wisdom include Judith Kitchen, Phillip Lopate, Brian Doyle and Lee Gutkind. Moore makes room to share a “found essay” left on his voicemail by Mike the Tree Guy, and to list the side effects of memoir, including “nausea, sleep problems, constipation, gas, and swelling of the navel.”

Moore is rarely serious and keeps his tongue in his cheek throughout, but the result is enlightening as well as entertaining. With fewer than 200 pages, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is a quick and enjoyable read, to be taken in pieces as small as the reader prefers. Its witty, modest tone belies the artistry of the essays contained, which are exemplars of the short form.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the August 28, 2015 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: 7 polar bears, naturally.
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