World of Wonders is a mesmerizing work of essays and tender illustrations, meditations on nature, cumulative in effect; nature as memoir, nature as metaphor, nature as simply and joyously itself. Each chapter captures a moment, each centered around a different natural phenomenon and charts the reverberations of the lived experience it evokes, be it family, identity or the notion of belonging. She urges us to start small to "start with what we loved as kids and see where that leads us." A centering book, delightful and unexpected.
A New York Times Best Seller
Barnes & Noble 2020 Book of the Year
A Kirkus Prize Finalist for Nonfiction
A Southern Book Prize Finalist
An NPR Best Book of 2020
An Esquire Best Book of 2020
A BookPage Best Book of 2020
A New York Public Library Best Book of 2020
A Wall Street Journal Holiday Gift Pick for 2020
An Indie Next Pick, September 2019
A Publishers Weekly "Big Indie Book of Fall 2020"
A BuzzFeed Best Book of Fall 2020
A Literary Hub "Most Anticipated Book of 2020
A Ralph Lauren Summer Reading Recommendation
A Garden & Gun Summer Reading Recommendation
A Bustle "Best Book of Fall 2020
Named a "Most Anticipated Book of 2020" by The Millions
An Alma "Favorite Book for Fall 2020"
A Literary Hub "Recommended Climate Read for September 2020"
A Mpls.St.Paul Magazine Reading Recommendation for Fall 2020
From beloved, award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil comes a debut work of nonfictiona collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us.
As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home: the grounds of a Kansas mental institution, where her Filipina mother was a doctor; the open skies and tall mountains of Arizona, where she hiked with her Indian father; and the chillier climes of western New York and Ohio. But no matter where she was transplantedno matter how awkward the fit or forbidding the landscapeshe was able to turn to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance.
“What the peacock can do,” she tells us, “is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.” 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. Even in the strange and the unlovely, Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship. For it is this way with wonder: it requires that we are curious enough to look past the distractions in order to fully appreciate the world’s gifts.
Warm, lyrical, and gorgeously illustrated by Fumi Nakamura, World of Wonders is a book of sustenance and joy.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When the first glimmer-pop of firefly light appears on a summer night, I always want to call my mother just to say hello. The bibliography of the firefly is a tender and electric dress, a small flame sputtering in the ditches along a highway, and the elytra covering the hind wings of the firefly lift like a light leather, suppler than any other beetle’s. In flight, it is like a loud laugh, the kind that only appears in summer, with the stink of meats sizzling somewhere down the street and the mouths of neighborhood children stained with popsicle juice and hinging open with the excitement of a ball game or tag.
I used to see fireflies as we drove home from family vacations, back to rural western New York. My father loved to commute through the night, to avoid the summer glare and heat. My sister and I would be wrapped in blankets, separated by a giant ice chest in the back seat, and I’d fall in and out of a sleep made all the more delicious by hearing the pleasant murmurings of my parents in the front. Sometimes I tried to listen, but looking out the car window, I’d always get distracted by the erratic flashes of light blurring past us.
For a couple of weeks every June, in the Great Smoky Mountains, the only species of synchronous firefly in North America converges for a flashy display. Years ago, my family stopped in this area during one of our epic road trips. My father knew to park our car away from the side of an impossibly verdant hill that plunged into a wide valley full of trillium, pin cherry, and hobblebush. He knew to cover our one flashlight with a red bag, so as not to disturb the fireflies, and to only point it at the ground as he led his wife and semi-aloof teenage daughters through the navy blue pause just moments after twilight. I confess, at first I wanted to be back in the air-conditioned hotel roomanywhere but on an isolated gravel path with the odd bullfrog clamor interrupting the dark. But now I think of my sister and I scattered in different homes now as adults and am so grateful for all of those family vacations where we could be outdoors together, walking this earth.
My mother’s temper was always frazzled by vacation’s end, but I know each day off from work and spent with her family was something sweet and rare. How I crave those slow vacation days and even slower nights, her taking her time to select our frilled nightclothes, to laugh about the day’s sightseeing and the cheap trinkets I’d bought. She’d pull a coverlet to my chin. Her gorgeous, dark wavy hair tickled when she leaned over to kiss me good-night, smelling of Oil of Olay and spearmint gum. Only on those trips would I know such a degree of tenderness, the quiet reassurances a mother can give a daughter, while she stroked my bangs to the side of my face. No rush in the mornings to get me and my sister shuffled onto a school bus and herself off to work. When my mother is no longer here, I know I will cling to that lovely fragrance of mint and a moisturizer I’ll always associate with beauty and love. I will cling to those summer nights we racedand yet didn’t racehome. I will try to bang myself back to that Oldsmobile like the lacewings that argue nightly with my porch light bulb, to what was my small family then, not even big enough to call a swarm: one sister, two parents.
I grew up near scientists who worked with indigo buntings. There is no other blue like that of these birds, no feather more electric. They navigate by following the North Star, and these scientists were trying to trick them into following a false star in a darkened room. But most of them don’t fall for the ruse. When released, they find their way home the same as always. The buntings know the North Star by heart, learn to look for it in their first summer of life, storing this knowledge to use years later when they first learn to migrate. How they must have spent hours gazing at the star during those nestling nights, peeking out from under their mother. What shines so strong holds them steady.
Where the buntings remain steadfast, fireflies are more easily deceived. They lose their light rhythm for a few minutes after a single car’s headlights pass. Sometimes it takes hours for them to recalibrate their blinking patterns. What gets lost in the radio silence? What connections are translated incorrectly or missed entirely? Porch lights, trucks, buildings, and the harsh glow of streetlamps all complicate matters and discourage fireflies from sending out their love-light signalsmeaning fewer firefly larvae are born the next year.
Scientists can’t agree on how or why these fireflies achieve synchronicity. Perhaps it is a competition between males, who all want to be the first to send their signals across the valleys and manna grass. Perhaps if they all flash at once, the females can better determine whose glow is most radiant. Whatever the reasonand in spite of, or rather, because of, all the guided tours that now pop up in the Smokiesfireflies don’t glow in sync all night long anymore. The patterns sometimes occur in short flashes, then abruptly end in haunting periods of darkness. The fireflies are still out there, but they fly or rest on grass blades in visual silence. Perhaps a visitor forgot to dim a flashlight or left their car lights on for too long, and this is the firefly’s protest.
Firefly eggs and larvae are bioluminescent, and the larvae themselves hunt for prey. They can detect a slime trail from a slug or snail and follow it all the way to the juicy, unsuspecting source. Whole groups of larvae have been known to track relatively large prey, such as an earthwormlike a macabre, candlelit chase right out of an old B-movie, to the edge of a soupy pond, the larvae pulsing light as they devour a still-wriggling worm. Some firefly larvae live completely underwater, their lights fevering just under the surface as they capture and devour aquatic snails.
For a beetle, fireflies live long and full livesaround two yearsthough most of it is spent underground, gloriously eating and sleeping to their heart’s content. When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually have only one or two weeks left to live. Learning this as a childI could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinnermade me melancholy, even in the face of their brilliance. I couldn’t believe something so full of light would be gone so soon.
I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little more each year. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again. Perhaps I can will it to be true. Perhaps I can keep those summer nights with my family inside an empty jam jar, with holes poked in the lid, a twig and a few strands of grass tucked inside. And for those unimaginable nights in the future, when I know I’ll miss my mother the mostI will let that jar’s sweet glow serve as a night-light to cool and cut the air for me.