Week 3: (November 16-20) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction [here!]): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
I really enjoyed this topic last year when I asked for microhistory recommendations, so I am excited to do this again!
I have discovered that I have a love for nature writing, which is a pretty broad genre. I am open to any nonfiction title that talks about any aspect of nature, whether that means it focuses on trees, the ocean, trees, or dinosaurs. I want to read it all!
I thought I would share a few of the books that I have already and a few that are on my TBR, in the hopes that you may have some recommendations for me.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
Lab Girl is the book that started me on this journey! What appealed to me most about this book was the blend of science and memoir. I learned a lot from Jahren’s research, but I also took a lot away from her reflections on her life and her journey as a woman in science.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin’s obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins–some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin’s, Alfred Russel Wallace, who’d risked everything to gather them–and escaped into the darkness.
Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man’s destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.
Who knew that a book about bird feathers could be so compelling? The Feather Thief is part nature writing and part true crime, which is a bizarre but winning combination. I had no idea that feathers could be so valuable and I learned more about the fly-fishing world that I even thought I need to know, but I enjoyed every second of the journey. I need to read more non-violent true crime and would love recommendations.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing songbirds from the Empire State Building as they migrate through the Tribute of Light, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife. By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.
I am currently reading Vesper Flights, which is a collection of essay written by Helen Macdonald where she reflects on her love of the natural world. It has been so peaceful to read a couple of these essay every night before bed. I am trying to savour them! Macdonald’s passion leaps from the page, and that is contagious.
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces four counties, thirteen towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infected Siberia or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science and thinking. Among Humboldt’s most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature, that it is a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone.
Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his daring expeditions and investigation of wild environments around the world and his discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. She also discusses his prediction of human-induced climate change, his remarkable ability to fashion poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and his relationships with iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt’s influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau’s Walden.
I had never heard of Alexander Von Humboldt before I picked up this book, but I am now so fascinated by him. Humboldt inspired many people, such as Darwin and Thoreau, but his names seems to have been lost with time. What struck me was Humboldt’s passion for both science and art and how he saw them as going hand in hand. There was something revolutionary about his views of the world. I know that Andrea Wulf has published a graphic novel of his life, but I am trying to justify spending $40 on a graphic novel.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence on her nightstand. As a result, she discovers the solace and sense of wonder that this mysterious creature brings and comes to a greater understanding of her own confined place in the world.
Intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal.
Told with wit and grace, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a remarkable journey of survival and resilience, showing us how a small part of the natural world illuminates our own human existence and provides an appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.
Who knew that a book about a snail could make me so emotional? The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is another perfect that perfectly blends science and memoir. I learned so much about the habits of snails, but what has stayed with me was how watching that snail got Elisabeth Tova Bailey through the day when she was bedridden. It is a beautiful book!
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller
David Starr Jordan was a taxonomist, a man possessed with bringing order to the natural world. In time, he would be credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. But the more of the hidden blueprint of life he uncovered, the harder the universe seemed to try to thwart him. His specimen collections were demolished by lightning, by fire, and eventually by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—which sent more than a thousand of his discoveries, housed in fragile glass jars, plummeting to the floor. In an instant, his life’s work was shattered.
Many might have given up, given in to despair. But Jordan? He surveyed the wreckage at his feet, found the first fish he recognized, and confidently began to rebuild his collection. And this time, he introduced one clever innovation that he believed would at last protect his work against the chaos of the world.
When NPR reporter Lulu Miller first heard this anecdote in passing, she took Jordan for a fool—a cautionary tale in hubris, or denial. But as her own life slowly unraveled, she began to wonder about him. Perhaps instead he was a model for how to go on when all seemed lost. What she would unearth about his life would transform her understanding of history, morality, and the world beneath her feet.
Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don’t Exist reads like a fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.
Another book that has that blend of memoir and science writing. Are we sensing a theme here? I recently read Why Fish Don’t Exist because it was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards and something about it intrigued me. I had never heard of David Starr Jordan before picking up this book, but it was so compelling to see how Lulu Miller’s view of him changed as she learned more and more about him. With Stanford renaming the buildings that were named after Jordan, Why Fish Don’t Exist is the perfect book to read if you are looking for some insight.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
In pursuit of the wild, solitary, predatory octopus, popular naturalist Sy Montgomery has practiced true immersion journalism. From New England aquarium tanks to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico, she has befriended octopuses with strikingly different personalities—gentle Athena, assertive Octavia, curious Kali, and joyful Karma. Each creature shows her cleverness in myriad ways: escaping enclosures like an orangutan; jetting water to bounce balls; and endlessly tricking companions with multiple “sleights of hand” to get food.
Scientists have only recently accepted the intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees but now are watching octopuses solve problems and are trying to decipher the meaning of the animal’s color-changing techniques. With her “joyful passion for these intelligent and fascinating creatures” (Library Journal Editors’ Spring Pick), Montgomery chronicles the growing appreciation of this mollusk as she tells a unique love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about the meeting of two very different minds.
I have heard amazing things about The Soul of the Octopus, and I am intrigue by the fact that synopsis refers to this as a love story. I appreciate when the author’s passion for something leaps from the page. I also have one of Sy Montgomery’s other novels, How to Be a Good Creature, on my TBR.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte
The dinosaurs. Sixty-six million years ago, the Earth’s most fearsome creatures vanished. Today they remain one of our planet’s great mysteries. Now The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reveals their extraordinary, 200-million-year-long story as never before.
In this captivating narrative (enlivened with more than seventy original illustrations and photographs), Steve Brusatte, a young American paleontologist who has emerged as one of the foremost stars of the field—naming fifteen new species and leading groundbreaking scientific studies and fieldwork—masterfully tells the complete, surprising, and new history of the dinosaurs, drawing on cutting-edge science to dramatically bring to life their lost world and illuminate their enigmatic origins, spectacular flourishing, astonishing diversity, cataclysmic extinction, and startling living legacy. Captivating and revelatory, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a book for the ages.
Brusatte traces the evolution of dinosaurs from their inauspicious start as small shadow dwellers—themselves the beneficiaries of a mass extinction caused by volcanic eruptions at the beginning of the Triassic period—into the dominant array of species every wide-eyed child memorizes today, T. rex, Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and more. This gifted scientist and writer re-creates the dinosaurs’ peak during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, when thousands of species thrived, and winged and feathered dinosaurs, the prehistoric ancestors of modern birds, emerged. The story continues to the end of the Cretaceous period, when a giant asteroid or comet struck the planet and nearly every dinosaur species (but not all) died out, in the most extraordinary extinction event in earth’s history, one full of lessons for today as we confront a “sixth extinction.”
Brusatte also recalls compelling stories from his globe-trotting expeditions during one of the most exciting eras in dinosaur research—which he calls “a new golden age of discovery”—and offers thrilling accounts of some of the remarkable findings he and his colleagues have made, including primitive human-sized tyrannosaurs; monstrous carnivores even larger than T. rex; and paradigm-shifting feathered raptors from China.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs has been on my TBR for far too long. It is a book that I keep meaning to read, but just never make the time for. Who didn’t love dinosaurs when they were younger? My knowledge of them doesn’t go much further than Jurassic Park and The Land Before Time, so I really should prioritize this one.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these lenses of knowledge together to show that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings are we capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learning to give our own gifts in return.
I have had the audiobook for Braiding Sweetgrass for awhile now, and I have a feeling that I am going to love it. The publisher recently released a stunning special edition that I would love to get my hands on. The reviews for this book are incredible. It has a 4.53 rating on Goodreads!
Do you enjoy books about nature? I would love any recommendations!
15 thoughts on “Nonfiction November- Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert”
I haven’t read any nature non-fiction, but The Feather Thief sounds intriguing. Thanks for the recommend!
It’s so great! Definitely a wild story.
I love this post Kristin! I’m a nature girl for sure!
Same! I am starting to appreciate it more and more.
This is such a wonderful exploration for this topic!! Although ugh, you’re reminding me that I STILL haven’t gotten to Lab Girl for this long. And I share your love for Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Such a quietly incredible story and beautifully done book.
I added Why Fish Don’t Exist to my list already thanks to you! I’ve also been meaning to get around to Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs forever and recently picked up a used copy of it so hopefully that’ll motivate me.
I read The Soul of an Octopus a few years ago and although I really liked it, I didn’t love it like I expected to. I think because I’d read her article that it was based on, or grew out of, and so I expected something different somehow. But I don’t mean it to be discouraging, it’s totally worth the read. Maybe it’s just that it’ll make you curious to read more! I’ve been thinking about trying Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith.
Thanks for sharing this excellent list!!
Very cool list! I’d like to read a few of these, but should really start with Lab Girl, since I have a copy already.
It’s a great one to start with!
These all sound really cool. I love books about nature but I unfortunately don’t read as much Nonfiction as I would like to/think I should. Maybe I’ll pick one of your recommendations up 🙂
Some really amazing books here! Lab Girls is the one I would start with!
Thanks! I’ll definitely look for that one first then. 🙂 I’m excited to read it.
I adored The Soul of an Octopus, I hadn’t thought to look for another book by her, but I’ve added How to be a Good Creature to my list now. Thankyou!
I keep running across The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson, but I’m not the least interested in reading it. Eels are squicky;) it might interest you though.
Awesome! So glad I could bring her new book to your attention.
Ohhh I think I could definitely be into a book about eels. Thank you!