World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (B&N Book of the Year)

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (B&N Book of the Year)

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

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.

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 nonfiction—a 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 transplanted—no matter how awkward the fit or forbidding the landscape—she 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

04/06/2020

Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) applies her skill as a poet to a scintillating series of short essays on nature. She takes up topics that fascinate her—the bizarre-looking potoo birds of Central and South America; corpse flowers, with their rich colors and acrid odor—and connects them to her own experience of the world. She’ll begin with a study of dancing flamingos, only to pivot to memories of going to dance clubs as a young woman, and end with an exhortation for everyone to “keep in step with our small dances on this earth.” Elsewhere, she considers the vampire squid and its prodigious aptitude for concealment, then intently examines her own so-called lonely “cephalopod” year at a new high school. A memory of being laughed at by bonnet macaque monkeys serves as a reminder to laugh at herself. Throughout, she vividly describes sounds, smells, and color—the myriad hues of a “sea of saris” from India—and folds in touches of poetry. Fumi Nakamura’s lush illustrations add to the book’s appeal. Readers of Terry Tempest Williams and Annie Dillard will appreciate Nezhukumatathil’s lyrical look at nature. Christopher Rhodes, Stuart Agency. (Aug.)

From the Publisher

"Within two pages, nature writing feels different and fresh and new. Nezhukumatathil has written a timely story about love, identity and belonging . . . We are losing the language and the ability to see and understand the wondrous things around us. And our lives are impoverished by this process . . . This book demands we find the eyes to see and the heart to love such things once more. It is a very fine book indeed, truly full of wonder." —New York Times Book Review



"It can be helpful to focus on the wonder of the natural world when so much of what is happening around us feels out of our control . . . World of Wonders urges us to take a breath and look around." —NPR Morning Edition



"World of Wonders, kind of like Aimee, is flabbergasted, gobsmacked, and astonished with glee by all kinds of creatures and phenomena, all kinds of kin, from flamingos to catalpas, from monsoons to corpse flowers, from dancing frogs to axolotls." —Ross Gay, Poets & Writers



"In thirty bewitching essays, Nezhukumatathil spotlights natural astonishments raining from monsoon season in India to clusters of fireflies in western New York, each one a microcosm of joy and amazement. With her ecstatic prose and her rapturous powers of insight, Nezhukumatathil proves herself a worthy spiritual successor to the likes of Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard, setting the bar high for a new generation of nature writers." —Esquire, "Best Books of Fall 2020



"The nature writing we have been exposed to has been overwhelmingly male and white, which is just one reason that Aimee Nezhukumatathil's latest essay collection, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments is a breath of fresh air . . . What makes her work shine is its joyful embrace of difference, revealing that true beauty resides only in diversity." —San Francisco Chronicle



"This slim volume is packed with gorgeous, thoughtful essays on the natural world by award-winning poet Nezhukumatathil." —Boston Globe, "20 Books We're Excited to Read This Fall 2020"



"World of Wonders is a stunning union of biography, poetry, philosophy, and science; it is imbued with a love for her readers and for the natural world, and with a hope that people of color will feel more seen in nature writing . . . With a sense of amazement for the creatures around us, Aimee makes an ardent and artistic case for a compassionate ethics grounded in a deeper understanding—and love—of nature." —The Rumpus



"Nezhukumatathil's investigations, enhanced by Nakamura's vividly rendered full-color illustrations, range across the world, from a rapturous rendering of monsoon season in her father's native India to her formative years in Iowa, Kansas, and Arizona, where she learned from the native flora and fauna that it was common to be different . . . The writing dazzles with the marvel of being fully alive." —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review



"Nezhukumatathil's essays, with vibrant illustrations from Nakamura, are in turn humorous, poignant, relatable, passionate (especially when she's bemoaning disappearing species and habitats), and always interesting." —Booklist



"A lyrical exploration of a woman finding her true home in the world, interspersed with hauntingly beautiful descriptions of the lives on the animals and plants that illuminate it, this natural history will appeal to nature lovers and readers who relish thoughtful, introspective works. Also suggest to fans of Margaret Renkl's Late Migrations." —Library Journal



"Aimee Nezhukumatathil's shimmering essay collection about fantastic creatures and plants, World of Wonders, is shot through with memories of her peripatetic life and observations about race, motherhood, and environmental issues . . . [It's] a bibliophilic and visual delight that dazzles the senses, much like Nezhukumatathil's beloved comb jellies. Her entrancing essays are a reminder to spend more time outdoors wondering at and cherishing this 'magnificent and wondrous planet.'" —Foreword Reviews, Starred Review



"Reading World of Wonders, it's clear that Nezhukumtathil is a poet. These essays sing with joy and longing—each focusing on a different natural wonder, all connected by the thread of Nezhukumtathil's curiosity and her identification with the world's beautiful oddities . . . It's a heartwarming, poignant, and often funny collection, enlivened by Fumi Nakamura's dreamy illustrations." —BuzzFeed, "Summer Books You Won't Be Able to Put Down"



"Should the wonderful David Attenborough ever retire, my hope is someone at BBC has read the work of Aimee Nezhukumatathil . . . What a lovely book this is, gentle in its pacing, well-illustrated by Fumi Nakamura, and quietly subversive in the way she channels its gusts of joy." —Literary Hub, "Best New Books to Read This Summer"



"Aimee Nezhukumatathil's World of Wonders is a gorgeous collection of essays that ruminate on flora, fauna, and what they can teach us about life itself. Moving between vignettes from Nezhukumatathil's life and her ponderings on nature, World of Wonders is a one-of-a-kind book you won't want to miss this year." —Bustle, "The Best Books of Fall 2020"



"Nezhukumatathil's 30 essays are brightly crafted microcosms of childhood, identity, belonging, parenthood, and memory. From fireflies recalling summer nights in rural western New York to touch-me-not plants sparking contemplation on closeness, the writing shines with a tactile and beautiful lyricism that reimagines the world we see every day and sparks new magic in it." —Ralph Lauren Magazine, "The Summer Reading List"



"Nezhukumatathil is the environmental writer we should be reading in schools, instead of Emerson or Thoreau." —The New Southern Fugitives



"Aimee Nezhukumatathil's World of Wonders is the first book to make me feel like a firefly as much as it reminds me I'm still a black boy playing in Central Mississippi woods. The book walks. It sprints. It leaps. Most importantly, the book lingers in a world where power, people, and the literal outside wrestle painfully, beautifully. This book is a world of wonders. This book is about to shake the Earth." —Kiese Laymon



"Sometimes we need teachers who remind us how to be flabbergasted and gobsmacked and flummoxed and enswooned by the wonders of this earth. How to be in stupefied and devotional love to the wonders of this earth. How to be in love with this, our beloved earth. Aimee Nezhukumatathil's World of Wonders is as good and generous a teacher as one could ever ask for. This book enraptures with its own astonishments and reveries while showing us how to be enraptured, how to revere. Which, again, is showing us how to be in love. I can think of nothing more important. Or wonderful." —Ross Gay, author of The Books of Delights



"Nezhukumtathil applies her skill as a poet to a scintillating series of short essays on nature. She takes up topics that fascinate her—the bizarre-looking potoo birds of Central and South America; corpse flowers, with their rich colors and acrid odor—and connects them to her own experience of the world . . . Throughout, she vividly describes sounds, smells, and color—the myriad hues of a 'sea of saris' from India—and folds in touches of poetry. Fumi Nakamura's lush illustrations add to the book's appeal. Readers of Terry Tempest Williams and Annie Dillard will appreciate Nezhukumtathil's lyrical look at nature." —Publishers Weekly



"In her debut essay collection, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumtathil's prose exalts a heightened practice of attention by leading readers through a stunning menagerie of curious species, from dancing frogs and vampire squids to corpse flowers and dragon fruit—creatures that often seem alien and otherworldly, but reveal so much about what it means to be a co-inhibitor of this planet." —Great River Review



“These are the praise songs of a poet working brilliantly in prose. Each essay compresses a great deal of art and truth into a small space, whether about fireflies or flamingos, monkeys or monsoons, childhood or motherhood, or the trials and triumphs of living with a brown skin in a dominant white world. You will not find a more elegant, exuberant braiding of natural and personal history.” —Scott Russell Sanders



"World of Wonders is a mesmerizing work of essays and tender illustrations, meditations on nature, cumulative in effect; nature as memoir, nature as memoir, 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 in family, identity, or the notion of belonging. A centering book, delightful and unexpected." —Sallye L, Barnes & Noble Book of the Year Finalist selection



"This isn't your typical dry and stuffy nature writing essayist that you were forced to read in college. No, this ecologist's take on the natural world is more akin to lyrical prose with social commentary and pop culture references laced throughout. Relevant and inspiring, Aimee Nezhukumatathil reminds us once again why nature is so absolutely amazing and beautiful." —Mike O, Barnes & Noble Book of the Year Finalist selection



"This is the kind of gentle and lyrical ecotone [I am] thrilled for everyone on planet Earth to read. Through ancestry, travel, academic study, and her childhood, motherhood, and career experiences as a woman of color, Nezhukumtathil illuminates a brief yet moving display of life through nature." —Katelynn Tefft, Third Place Books



"A truly whimsical and vibrant journey through a world of odd and lovable creatures and plants . . . A perfect read for anyone looking for beautiful writing about the natural world." —Katie Kenny, Bank Square Books



"[Nezhukumatathil's] poet's eye, irrepressible spirit, and unquenchable love of nature bestow previously untold riches." —Kelly Barth, Raven Book Store



"This lovely and informative collection of essays on things from the natural world somehow manages to transcend the boundaries of the 'nature essay' genre and is itself something much more intimate with a life of its own. Beautifully done and a satisfying read." —Lauren Nopenz Fairley, Curious Iguana



"Buoyant and lyrical, Aimee Nezhukumtathil weaves imagistic musings on a few of our planet's particularly mesmerizing flora and fauna with personal experiences in all sorts of places: Kansas, Arizona, Mississippi, India, Greece. The fascinating observations of plants and animals she explores—axolotls, cactus wrens, ribbon eels, cassowaries, narwhals, dragon fruit, and so on—are nuanced by her insights into her childhood, her family, herself, her fellow human creatures. A taut profusion, an effortless melding of nature writing and memoir, this joyous book begs the reader to slow down and savor its language and ideas the way one should the ripest cara cara orange." —Ben Groner, Parnassus Books



"World of Wonders is a magical book with deep, subtle, resonant power. Filled with short essays accompanied by gorgeous illustrations that Nezhukumtathil uses as a springboard for often poetic reflections on her own experience. Each vignette, whether about fireflies, flamingoes, or newts; offers the reader an opportunity to pause, reflect, and truly wonder with Nezhukumtathil. A perfect book for readers of memoir, nature writing, and poetry!" —Caleb Masters, Book Marks



"This gentle but brutal poetic exploration of nature and the effects of climate change on the author's life is nothing short of magical. We need more books like this." —Cristy Gross, Winchester Book Gallery



"As you might expect from a writer fluent in cardinal since age six, Nezhukumtathil's essays are brimming with intimate scenes of natural life, each presented with exuberant prose that mingles scientific exactitude (the stunning pink of the dragon fruit is due to 'a rind chock full of lycopene') with unabashed whimsy (a gray cockatiel is 'about three apples tall' and a piece of quartz tastes 'like campfire smoke'). As much vivid snapshots as impeccably crafted prose, these brief pieces draw on fable, travel, and memoir to introduce plants and animals ranging from dancing frogs and the impossibly cute smiling axolotl to the more familiar monarch butterfly and flamingo. Linking each creature to the stages of her life—from her childhood as the rare brown person in overwhelmingly white communities, through the loneliness of college, her marriage (to a man who understood the charms of the foul-smelling corpse-flower), motherhood, and career as a teacher and award-winning poet—Nezhukumtathil illuminates the essential bonds between people and the beautiful, singular, awesome—wonderful—flora and fauna we share this planet with. While recognizing the troubles of this divided time, Nezhukumtathil's first foray into prose is a genuine and whole-heartedly upbeat book." —Laurie Greer, Politics and Prose Bookstore



"World of Wonders is as delicate as a flower, filling us with awe and reminding us of the beauty of the world and all its people. Aimee Nezhukumtathil's book has the strength of a stone, engendering respect. How can a writer sustain these diametrically opposed conditions? She does and rewards us with joy." —Lyn Roberts, Square Books



"Aimee didn't know it at the time (or maybe she did in her mystical way), but this book was written for me and all the other brown-skinned, nature-loving, quiet-questers in the world. This beautiful package asks the reader to pick-me-up and go for a walk down memory lane where you will find essays on a diversity of flora and fauna from the dragon fruit to the narwhal and the corpse flower to the axolotl; all of which are gorgeously illustrated inside. Her writing asks everyone to find beauty and connection to the wonders that are nature's stories." —Jessica Palacios, Once Upon a Time Bookstore

Library Journal

07/01/2020

Award-winning poet Nezhukumatathil (English, Univ. of Mississippi; Oceanic) intertwines snapshots of memoir with a fascinating look at various animals and plants in this account weaving memories of growing up feeling like an outsider, a brown girl in an overwhelmingly white world, with facts about the flora and fauna that are important touchstones for her. She shares reminiscences about her family, her work, and the importance of the natural world in her life. Racism follows her from childhood, including an instance when a teacher dismisses her drawing of a favorite bird because it's not an American species. Throughout, she describes how she turned to nature in times of need, finding both comfort and solace. Elegant illustrations by Nakamura enhance the text. VERDICT A lyrical exploration of a woman finding her true home in the world, interspersed with hauntingly beautiful descriptions of the lives of the animals and plants that illuminate it, this natural history will appeal to nature lovers and readers who relish thoughtful, introspective works. Also suggest to fans of Margaret Renkl's Late Migrations.—Sue O'Brien, Downers Grove, IL

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2020-05-18
A poet celebrates the wonders of nature in a collection of essays that could almost serve as a coming-of-age memoir.

The daughter of an Indian father and Filipino mother, Nezhukumatathil was often the only brown face in her classrooms, and she sought lessons from nature on how to adapt, protect herself, and conform or fit in but still be able to stand strong on her own. She shares those lessons throughout these frequently enchanting essays. Take the axolotl, from whom the author learned the “salamander smile”: “If a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup, just remember the smile of an axolotl. The best thing to do in that moment is to just smile and smile, even if your smile is thin. The tighter your smile, the tougher you become.” Nezhukumatathil’s investigations, enhanced by Nakamura’s vividly rendered full-color illustrations, range across the world, from a rapturous rendering of monsoon season in her father’s native India to her formative years in Iowa, Kansas, and Arizona, where she learned from the native flora and fauna that it was common to be different. The corpse flower guided the author when she met her future husband, helping her to “clear out the sleaze, the unsavory, the unpleasant—the weeds—of the dating world” and “find a man who’d be happy when I bloomed.” Nezhukumatathil isn’t only interested in nature as metaphor. She once devoted most of a year’s sabbatical to the study of whale sharks, and she humanizes her experience of natural splendor to the point where observation and memory merge, where she can’t see or smell something without remembering the details of her environment when she first encountered it. Among other fascinating species, the author enlightens readers on the vampire squid, the bonnet macaque, and the red-spotted newt.

The writing dazzles with the marvel of being fully alive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571313652
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 09/08/2020
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 91
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

FIREFLY

Photinus pyralis

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 room—anywhere 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 raced—and yet didn’t race—home. 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 signals—meaning 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 reason—and in spite of, or rather, because of, all the guided tours that now pop up in the Smokies—fireflies 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 earthworm—like 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 lives—around two years—though 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 child—I could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinner—made 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 most—I will let that jar’s sweet glow serve as a night-light to cool and cut the air for me.

Customer Reviews