Books: Old, New and Obscure

BOOKS: OLD, NEW and OBSCURE

A GARDEN OF MARVELS: THE DISCOVERY THAT PLANTS HAVE SEX, LEAVES EAT AIR, AND OTHER SECRETS OF THE WAY PLANTS WORK

By Ruth Kassinger

William Morrow (2014)

A witty science writer pokes around in odd corners of the plant world and comes up with some fascinating stories. Kassinger’s research takes her not just to libraries, but to commercial nurseries, farms, gardens, festivals and research laboratories. Her conversational tone and eye for the quirky detail make it a thoroughly entertaining read.

Early botanists come alive in her accounts of their struggles to understand plants and how they function. Kassinger reveals that even educated 17th-century Europeans believed there was a plant that produced tiny perfect baby lambs on one of its stalks. Twentieth-century researchers happily share with her their findings about a green sea slug that can photosynthesize and about the possible benefits of genetic engineering and promising new biofuels.

Into the history and science, Kassinger weaves personal anecdotes about her love affair with a strange and wonderful “fruit cocktail” citrus tree bearing limes, lemons, tangelos and oranges. She also describes her trip to a pumpkin festival in Maine where giant pumpkins are turned into racing boats. If you want to grow a giant pumpkin, she tells how to do that too.

Though readers will come out learning an amazing amount about the biology of trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers, and the scientists who study them, this is no textbook. It is a delightful guided ramble through the world of plants, made even more pleasurable by the simple line drawings of artist Eva-Maria Ruhl.

~ Claire Trazenfeld

THROUGH THE PERILOUS FIGHT: SIX WEEKS THAT SAVED THE NATION

By Steve Vogel

Random House, New York (2013)

Steve Vogel, Washington Post war correspondent and military historian, has produced a fast-paced narrative of a critical event 200 years ago — the invasion of the Chesapeake. In 1814, the British sailed up the Chesapeake, attacked Maryland towns, burned Washington and targeted Baltimore.

Prominently featured in the book is Francis Scott Key, who was inspired to pen what became our national anthem as he witnessed the battle of Fort McHenry. Like many Americans, Key opposed the war, primarily because he was appalled that the U.S. would attack Canada, a third party. Feeling differently about the U.S. being invaded, he later joined his local Washington militia.

Vogel portrays President Madison’s performance as commander in chief as uneven. Given the nation’s lack of readiness, Madison’s push to declare war was reckless and he was maddeningly indecisive at times. He showed courage, however, in showing up at the battle at Bladensburg, where the Americans made a stand in hopes of stalling the British advance. There he put himself at risk of being captured or killed.

The book is rich in detail about events and people; the author takes time to tell the stories of the key players on both sides and to examine their motives and characters. Local readers will be interested to learn that Annapolis was on the list of possible targets and that if it had, the statehouse, still in use today, would surely have been burned. We also learn that the Annapolis militia acquitted itself well at Bladensburg and elsewhere in defense of Maryland.

~ Sharon Furrow

A DANGEROUS FICTION     

By Barbara Rogan

Viking (Penguin) 2013

This very readable book is much more than a whodunit, which isn’t surprising, since the author has been a literary agent, publisher and teacher of writing at two colleges, as well as online. Barbara Rogan knows the book business from various angles, having worked in New York and abroad for 20 years and written 10 books, both fiction and nonfiction. Of particular interest to local readers is that she graduated from St. John’s College, Santa Fe.

In A Dangerous Fiction, colorful literary agent, Jo Donovan, must deal with an e-stalker who hacks the writers she represents. Then a colleague is murdered, with more malice to follow. The prize is not just the next would-be best seller, but also the reputation of Jo’s late lover, mentor and husband. Jo’s self-assigned job of protecting his standing and her agency, in addition to herself, becomes a life-threatening challenge. Could the stalker, alias Sam Spade, be a rejected writer? An envious colleague? A spurned suitor? As numerous characters are introduced, and Jo has to read their motives, we learn more about her very human, smart and sassy persona.

Write what you know, the advice goes. Clearly, Jo Donovan in A Dangerous Fiction comprises a generous serving of Barbara Rogan and her publishing world. The cleverness of the book is in the interwoven settings and stories, plus the writing itself. As they say in the book biz, this writer has more tales to tell. Here’s a clue: her dog’s name is “A Work In Progress”!     

~ Tillie Young 

You will have an opportunity to hear these authors discuss their books and writing at Caritas Society’s Meet the Authors event on Sunday, Nov. 9. The presentations will be at 3 p.m. in Francis Scott Key Auditorium, St. John’s College, followed by a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception and book signing. Tickets are $35 in advance or $40 at the door.  Everyone is welcome. Learn more at (www.sjc.edu/friends/caritas-society/meet-authors/)

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