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September 19, 2013 Edition
In Victorian England, flowers were everywhere in society. Girls were named for them (Violet, Rosa, and Flora), houses were filled with their representations (in fabrics, wallpapers, and carpets), and every decent person wore them (as boutonnieres, in sashes and on headdresses). So when a giant water lily was found in a new British colony in South America, the race was on to bring back a live specimen to propagate in the British Isles. And this was a truly lovely specimen, with rimmed leaves as broad as 8 feet across and fragrant, foot-wide white flowers that blushed a deep rose. Named after the queen, Victoria regia., the lily’s arrival in England spurred an already flower-crazed public to new heights of wonder and worry. The mania to cultivate it brought some of the greatest horticultural minds to bear on the problem: after all, one couldn’t just pop it in a pot and expect it to thrive. Sprinkled with period drawings of the flower in its natural and cultivated environments, this is a lively look at a transplanted flower that touched all levels of Victorian England.
Walter, a writer and journalist, writes about the 27 species of humans that have evolved on our planet, and the one that has survived to this day: us. But why us and not another? Or, perhaps more interestingly, why not many? Surely, not all species occupied the same niche – if there’s room for both cheetahs and lions, why aren’t we homo sapiens living side by side with Denisova hominins? Walter proposes that much of the answer has to do with neoteny, retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, which shows itself not only in our flat foreheads and relatively large head sizes for our bodies, but also in our long childhoods in which we are not just able to, but are actually wired to absorb information like sponges. Many proto-human species show these characteristics, but perhaps in homo sapiens the balance was perfected: the longest possible time in the womb for infant development (but not so long that the mother is in danger), the longest possible “plasticity” of brain (but not so long we’re a burden to our caregivers), and the longest possible childhood (but not so long that the species dies out). Interestingly argued, with enough points to quibble about to make for lively discussions (internal or otherwise).
Booker is just 15 when she banters her way into a job in her neighborhood’s funeral home. Though she is pleased not to be flipping burgers like her friends, she assumes that she is just there to answer phones and open doors for viewings. But she’s stepped into a whole new world and her employer, Mr. Wylie, is very particular. His hard work and good reputation in both his church and his neighborhood is bringing him into competition with other major black funeral homes in Baltimore. It’s a time when gang violence is providing booming business to funeral homes and Booker finds herself not only confronted by the bodies of kids her age she knows from school, but also the violent spillover into the business itself. As what she thought would be a summer job becomes a 9-year career, Booker learns every aspect of the business and writes about it poetically, sympathetically, and honestly.
With thirty years of breakneck growth behind them, the Chinese are beginning to reap the environmental harvest they’ve sown. But so has the rest of the world: the fallout from China’s massive hunger to catch up to the Western world in material goods and comforts is intense. Whether new wealth is allowing the purchase of traditional medicines or lumber (further endangering tigers and orangutans, respectively), or new dams are ruining Cambodia’s fishing industry, China’s appetite for more is affecting the world. But, Simons argues, it isn’t all China’s fault, and he likens the country to a “combustive agent” which is merely accelerating the changes already in play. Traveling to places as far-flung as Colorado (a major source of coal) and New Guinea (where lumber is logged at an astonishing rate), Simons traces the path of destruction and loss, but manages to leave readers feeling cautiously optimistic.