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Book Reviews

World of Wonders

Book Review

by Lauren Alise Schultz

The full title of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s volume of short essays is World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. The title drew me to the book like a powerful magnet, as did the gorgeous illustration on the cover of Monarch butterflies, a Flamingo, a Dancing Frog, a cuddly-looking pink Axolotl, a Vampire Squid, and many other beautiful creatures from around the world. I love nature – plants, animals, and most birds – and so I was looking forward very much to delicious, descriptive prose singing nature’s praises, written by an award-winning poet.

World of Wonders more than fulfilled my expectations for vivid imagery, but what I hadn’t expected was that Nezhukumatathil’s essays are a kind of memoir as well. The author associates many important moments and phases of her life with different creatures and plants, drawing interesting comparisons and parallels between nature and her personal human experience.

But this is not simply a framework Nezhukumatathil adopted to write her book. The author presents these close associations – between the cactus wren with her childhood years in Arizona, or the vampire squid with the isolation she experienced one particular year in high school – as the way she inherently thinks about her life. The catalpa tree is associated with the part of her childhood she spent in western Kansas. When she was a teenager, she started imagining herself as giving an axolotl’s grim perpetual smile when white people treated her dismissively because she was brown-skinned. (“The tighter your smile, the tougher you become.”) She is comforted by drawing a parallel between the migrations of the red-spotted newt and her own many state-to-state relocations. Her life is a story of human experience firmly grounded in nature.

In sharing these deeply personal parallels with readers, Nezhukumatathil helps us connect more deeply with both her own experiences and the sense of wonder she has so carefully cultivated and protected in her own life. While I already have a great love of Monarch butterflies and fireflies, World of Wonders encouraged me to stop and appreciate the qualities of a Cara Cara orange, the shy and reactive Touch-Me-Not flower, the Ribbon Eel with its bug-eyed expression of jubilation, and even the rich maroon frills of the foul-smelling Corpse Flower. I felt a deepening curiosity about some of the more unfamiliar and unusual creatures in her essays and a desire to travel more widely so that I could personally see some of them for myself. But I also felt more inspired simply to step out onto my own balcony and listen to the birdsong more often, or go hiking more frequently to appreciate the delicate Texas wildflowers that I know and love.

Reading World of Wonders has reminded me that even for those of us who already have a deep connection with nature, that connection needs to be regularly nurtured. It is not enough that in the past, I have spent hours upon hours in state parks and on forest trails, hunting for wildflowers, butterflies, insects, and birds. Without consistently spending time out in nature, my soul will slowly dry out and forget how to see. Sometimes we all need a reminder to stop and smell the flowers, and Nezhukumatathil’s book is a luminous reminder of all the delights that nature has to offer us.

World Of Wonders
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Aimee Nezhukumatathil
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