This charmingly illustrated collection of nature essays is more than it might appear to be at first glance. At its simplest, it is about 20 different natural phenomena ranging from peacocks to narwhals, corpse flowers to flamingos, dragon fruit to fireflies. The illustrations and title bring to mind those books many of us had as children that sought to capture the whole of creation ambitiously between two covers.
My first impression was a slightly jaded sigh. I thought this was going to be another earnest tome of nature writing. This genre is starting to resemble its subject matter: It is everywhere, often quite boring and repetitive, and not as good as it used to be. But within a few lines of the first essay in this book it is clear that Aimee Nezhukumatathil is giving us more than that, much more.
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This book is like the moment when you go to a familiar outside place and suddenly you see some amazing thing you had never expected, like the time recently in one of our fields I saw a peregrine falcon take down a pigeon with a bulletlike thud out of the gray sky, and then, earthed, mantle it beneath its wings, then rip it to bloody red shreds, surrounded by wisps of fluffy down. Suddenly the sky and the field felt different and every one of my senses was in hyperdrive.
“World of Wonders” has just that effect: Within two pages, nature writing feels different and fresh and new. Nezhukumatathil has written a timely story about love, identity and belonging (more accurately often about not belonging, because of racism and her family’s immigrant experience).
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The book is divided into scenes that span her childhood to the present day as a teacher and a mother. It is a beautiful, poetic and powerful memoir about growing up as a “brown girl” in America in the 1980s, the child of a Filipina mother and a South Indian father. The “nature” in these essays consists of those wild or half-wild things that featured in her childhood, youth and now adult life. Each story is a carefully crafted gem in which the personal and the natural history are woven together, to create a loving portrait of her family.
Nezhukumatathil takes us in to her childhood world and shows us life through the eyes of that little girl. It is a beguiling and charming tale. The natural world provides a cast of characters: the catalpa tree, which had giant leaves she often wanted to hide her shy face behind. The peacock she drew in class, earning the irritation of her teacher because it was not an “American” animal. The fireflies she remembers from long family road trips during the holidays. The narwhal she imagined herself to be when she was separated from her father because of his work. (Narwhals can keep their families together in the most challenging of environments and when attacked by orcas just “dive, dive, dive” to find safety in the depths.) And the red-spotted newt she identifies with because it wanders the forest floor looking for a pond that can be its perfect forever home.
The species that capture her attention have superpowers, or functions, that have helped her. Each story sheds light on who she was, who she now is, how she sees the world. And so a book that in less skillful and honest hands might have been yet another “book about nature” becomes something much richer and deeper. Anyone who ever felt small and shy, like they didn’t quite fit in, will find a reflection in these thoughtful stories.
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“World of Wonders” is about the little things that make life so precious. The voice that emerges from the pages is charming and thoughtful, with the confidence and playfulness of a writer who has published four collections of poetry to critical acclaim. But beyond the autobiography and the crafted prose, the book is also a plea for us to remember the beauty and wonder of the wild things around us. It betrays a sincere fear that they are being lost to our indoor and asphalt worlds, where we stare at screens, phones or the pavement instead of at trees, butterflies and the endless sky above us.
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. The author writes of speaking to elementary school students who often lack basic knowledge of the nature she writes of — who simply don’t know what a firefly is, despite their being all around them. 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.