Book of the Week: Garden of Marvels – Ruth Kassinger

This truly lovely book is a total nonfiction sleeper. I clued in to Kassinger with her last book, Paradise Under Glass: The Education of an Indoor Gardener, which is both a memoir and a history of conservatories. She’s a great writer—breezy, fun, accessible. And that voice serves her well as she takes us on a pin wheeling tour of botany. I love how she repeatedly brings the story back to her own garden and I’m amazed at how lucidly she lays out complex scientific idea.

So far the book has received three starred advance reviews that use words like “delightful”, “charming” and “witty.” Add a flat-out gorgeous cover and line drawings throughout and you’ve got a great gift books as well as a superb read. You’ll want to use this on your display tables throughout the spring and on past Mother’s Day.

“Kassinger plays a chatty and knowledgeable tour guide on a pleasant ramble through the world of plants, taking time not only to stop and smell the flowers, but to investigate their histories. Inspired by her desire to understand the plants in her greenhouse and her neighborhood, she bounces between the evolutionary history of plants; … the gossipy social history of the people who studied, debated, argued, and discovered the principles of modern botany; and personal interviews with modern researchers and growers who specialize in quirky plants and breeding programs. In this last element, Kassinger is at her most delightful, exploring giant pumpkins, …  nickel-mining flowers, and giant grasses able to produce enough biomass to run a high-efficiency tomato greenhouse with vines 60 feet tall. Kassinger weaves a huge amount of information into what still feels like a personal memoir, and by the end of this effortless afternoon stroll with her, readers will be startled to realize how much they have learned.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[A]n informal, entertaining account of how early researchers discovered how plants work and what scientists are still learning about plants today. The author combines her lively botanical history with personal anecdotes about her own plant adventures and misadventures, and she also chronicles her visits to universities and nurseries, where accommodating, knowledgeable people shared their expertise with her. It is clear that Kassinger has done considerable research as well, for her account is rich with portraits of men from the 17th century on struggling to understand the anatomy and physiology of plants. She writes of the techniques they used, the observations they made, what they misunderstood and what they got right…. A bonus of the book is the simple line drawings by Eva-Maria Ruhl, which illustrate Kassinger’s lucid prose, making some botanical details even clearer. Especially charming is her drawing of a borametz, a plant that even educated Europeans in the early 17th century believed grew a tiny, living baby sheep on its stalk.  A delightful book, fun to read and share—green thumb not required.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“An amiable and enthusiastic guide, she avoids a strict chronological treatment of the evolving science of botany, instead moving easily back and forth between historical and modern times. Kassinger punctuates her account with practical plant conundrums: Why, for example, did a neighbor’s old hickory tree die? How do those megapumpkins get to be so big? How do breeders engineer black petunias? Kassinger shows the progress of botany as resembling other branches of knowledge—i.e., built on the shoulders of giants—and she brings to life pioneering figures such as Robert Hooke, Marcello Malpighi, Nehemiah Grew, Joseph Priestly, and Charles Darwin…. VERDICT Kassinger’s witty approach to a complex subject will win readers, but her really neat idea is to fit a personal quest for greater botanical knowledge within the larger historical development of the science.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“A charmingly accessible history of botany, full of the strange and wondrous, for readers intimidated by science.”
Shelf Awareness

A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants (9780062048998) by Ruth Kassinger. $25.99 hardcover. 2/25/14 on sale.

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