World of Wonders

If I were still leading a book club, this discovery would be at the top of the list of “must read” books! The World of Wonder: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Milkweed Editions, 2020) was named “Book of the Year” by Barnes and Noble and is listed on many Book Club favorites. It a collection of essays — part memoir, part nature, part poetry. Each of the 29 essays focuses on a particular animal, bird, insect, or plant, while narrating the story of the author’s life.

NezhukumaTAthil (put the emphasis on the “ta” syllable if you want to say her name out loud) finds guidance from a variety of fierce and funny creatures, and invites the reader to do the same. For example, “the axolotl teaches us to smile, even in the face of unkindness; the touch-me-not plant shows us how to shake off unwanted advances; the narwhal demonstrates how to survive in hostile environments.” (book jacket)

The wonderful illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura add to the descriptions, particularly with those creatures that might be unfamiliar. I learned about so many creatures, some of whom even their names were unfamiliar. Take for example, the axolotl (pronounced ax-oh-LOT-ull). It’s an amphibian, pale pink in color, with an upward curve to its mouth that makes it look as though it is always smiling. It also has external gills on stalks that fan across the back of its head. The description and cartoonish illustration convinced me that this was a Disney creation. When I went to the Internet to verify, there it was in all its pinkness smiling back at me! The author pairs the axolotl with episodes in her own life in which she had to hold back and just smile, as when colleagues on her tenure committee treated her with condescension.

There are lessons about being a brown girl (mother from the Philippines, father from Southern India) in a white world, and being the new girl in school as she and her younger sister moved to several parts of the United States because of their parents’ professional lives. The stories continue as Aimee marries, has two sons, and takes faculty positions in different universities.

This book is more than a science book of amazing facts, and an interesting life story. It is the language of a poet written in prose form that astonishes me. Her descriptions are detailed and resonate with so many of our own experiences. I might describe dragon fruit as “neon pink”. Here is Nezhukumatathil’s description:

The neon pink of a dragon fruit screams summertime, pop music, sunglasses balanced on the top of my head, weather too warm for socks. It means vintage MTV and stretchy spheres of Bubble Yum popped and snapped in the back row of a school bus. It’s electrocution. It’s the shade of lipstick I was never allowed to wear, full of pearl powder and unpronounceable chemicals, the shade worn by Boy George, Whitney Houston, and various members of Duran Duran on the album covers I cherished most. (p. 113)

Ross Gay, one of the book’s reviewers, is quoted on the back cover: Sometimes we need teachers who remind us how to be flabbergasted and gobsmacked and flummoxed and enswooned by the wonders of this earth. . . This book enraptures with its own astonishments and reveries while showing us how to be enraptured, how to revere.

This book is only the second Milkweed Editions that I have read, the first being one of my favorite books of last year: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. World of Wonders made me think of Kimmerer’s book. One of the astonishing facts is that, unlike Kimmerer, Nezhukumatathil is not a scientist; she is a poet. She learned her keen powers of observation and love of nature from her parents. Her gift of poetry brings the wonders of nature to those of us who have not yet looked closely enough.

May you, too, be astonished and “enraptured” with this wonderful book!

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