Through my Master Gardener work at Litzinger Road Ecology Center, a project of Missouri Botanical Garden, I’m a member of a book club for volunteers. Since we have not been doing volunteer work or educational enrichment in person lately, our book club helps to keep us in touch with each other through online meetings and keeps our minds expanding.
I haven’t had much time lately to read anything except textbooks and write anything except papers since I am in graduate school, though so far I’ve been able to fit in book club readings and discussions. For the next two and half months or so I’m going to be working on some independent study which should result in a little more time to read and write about more varied topics. One of my favorite things to write is book reviews! The first three books I’m going to review here are recent readings from our book club, and the last one is an old book that I read a long time ago and used for my most recent paper, resulting in a refreshed perspective on it and renewed appreciation.
“Never Home Alone” by Rob Dunn
There are many organisms that we live with but don’t think much about. In some cases, they are small to begin with, and are secretive or live in parts of our homes that we don’t regularly access. Others are too tiny to be seen without scientific equipment. The study of these types of organisms is a much younger field of science compared to that of the larger organisms that humans have been able to easily access for millenia. This book explains how human curiosity started to unlock some of this secret world that goes on around us, and even in and on us. You’ll also learn about exciting recent discoveries and areas that are unexplored and ripe for new studies. If you know someone who is interested in science this book might help turn them on to a field that is both relatively new and potentially very important to the human condition.
We live in a time when we are encouraged to have unwavering faith in a technocracy and questioning anything scientists or members of the technocracy say is treated by mainstream culture as heresy. In addition to being fascinating subject matter in it’s own right, this book is a good reminder to lay people such as myself that scientists are not superhuman, they don’t know everything and no one is above being questioned. Here is a quote I like from page 214: “Scientists aren’t supposed to discount hypotheses that they find boring and unfortunate, but they do…” I think we should all be cautious if someone tells us everything that can be known about something is already known. We can all think of many instances in history where that has been asserted, incorrectly. I believe curiosity should be encouraged whenever possible and this book certainly appeals to that part of human nature!
“The Incredible Journey of Plants”
by Stefano Mancuso
Similar to our first book club selection above, “The Incredible Journey of Plants” is a science book written so that a lay audience can access the information without having to read academic papers. It’s shorter in length than “Never Home Alone” and the watercolor illustrations are artistic and fanciful rather than strictly informational. Although the illustrations are lovely, in my opinion they would have benefitted from more variety in concepts since they are very prominent in the overall presentation.
If you enjoy plants, learning more about how amazing their survival, propagation and adaptation capabilities are from this book is likely to increase your fascination. The author provides some global perspective to the importance of plants to humans and the interplay between plants and world history. Although it contains scientific information, this is a book that you would probably use most often to access your capability for inspiration and wonder rather than as a horticultural reference book.
“Things in Jars” by Jess Kidd
“Things in Jars” is detective fiction that is set in the Victorian era. That might sound like a conventional premise, but this author adds in supernatural and fantasy elements with a poetic approach to the language creating results that are very bizarre, in a good way. This is not a “cozy” mystery with genteel characters and situations. There is considerable gore and dark abuse reflecting the hardships of the Victorian era that went along with the whimsy, mannered culture and scientific progress of the time that we often see portrayed in fiction. The “Things In Jars” of the title are sought after by scientists, collectors, curiosity exhibitors, mercenaries and detectives who all have conflicting purposes in mind for the specimens in question.
Although I have read a great deal of detective fiction, fantasy is not one of my favorite genres so at first I had a hard time getting interested in the story which has as characters ghosts and mythical creatures along with examples of Victorian era denizens that are more grounded in reality even if they are flamboyantly exaggerated. There are a lot of flashbacks and a lot of characters with similarities to each other, so I found the story to be occasionally confusing. I can think of two or three categories of players that could have been streamlined to make the story easier to follow. Despite that, if this author wanted to use the lead characters and situations to make a detective series out of this novel, I would be interested in reading more. It took considerable mental effort on my part to get into this world, but once there I was in no hurry to get back out. For example I could spend a lot more time with an eccentric scientist in a laboratory at the top of a converted windmill with a pet raven – lets go back there please! That’s one of my favorite aspects of a detective series, you don’t have to get used to a whole new world each time you read an installment.
“Pulling Your Own Strings” by Dr. Wayne Dyer
This book was first published in 1978. I first read this book in the late 1980s, when I was in college (the first time). It turned out to be one of the most influential books I have ever read. At many points in all of our lives, individuals and institutions are going to try to get you to disregard your own inclinations in behavior and thought so that your actions will benefit them, rather than yourself.
In my most recent research paper for the class Media Organization Regulations, I explained some of the sources of my theory that abuse is so mainstream in our society that we often don’t recognize when it’s happening. I got out my old copy of “Pulling Your Own Strings” to use in the paper because I remembered there were examples of the kinds of tactics I wanted to write about in the book, both personal and societal, and I wanted to make the patterns easy to recognize and understand. My jaw actually fell open re-reading parts of this book because the ideas contained within it are just as important now as in the 1970s, if not even more so. It seems from my point of view that individualism and thinking for oneself are less popular in our culture than they have ever been and we are shamed if we claim our right to question what we are told and why. This book reminds me that when people, institutions and society treat you that way it’s because they want something from you and it’s not likely to be what is in your best interests. I have read this book so many times the cover fell off some time ago, but it’s been a long while since the last reading – way too long. It’s going to go back to a spot where I can refer to it frequently. The dominant culture is working hard to separate all of us from our sources of strength to conform to their vision of how we should live – this book affirms the rights of all human beings to mentally reclaim our own agency and helps us practice building the courage we’ll need to do it.