The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species
by Carlos Magdalena. Nonfiction about Magdalena's life as a botanist at Kew Gardens, London. Magdalena is particularly devoted to preventing the extinction of plants – which sadly tend to get less media attention than endangered animals – specializing in figuring out how to get them to flower, how to turn the flowers into seeds, how to convince the seeds to grow, and, to complete the cycle, how to keep the seedlings alive long enough for them to flower. It's a far more complicated, mysterious, and nerve-wracking process than it seems! Another speciality of Magdalena's are waterlilies, so the books includes stories about many species, from the gigantic Victoria amazonica
to the world's tiniest, Nymphaea thermarum
, which is super adorable and I want one for myself. If only it wasn't, you know, critically endangered.
So definitely an interesting topic. However, it didn't have my favorite execution. I personally prefer science nonfiction to lean heavily towards interesting botany facts and touch lightly or not at all on the scientists' personal life and experiences. The Plant Messiah
had a lot about Magdalena's childhood, family, and personality, which... sorry, but I'm not reading this book to learn about him. The writing style itself is also fairly simplistic, which I suspect means The Plant Messiah
will disappear from our cultural memory quite quickly. Still, if you enjoy reading about plants, it's well worth checking out!Universal Harvester
by John Darnielle. Darnielle is the songwriter and lead man of The Mountain Goats, one of my very favorite bands, and I've been eager to see what he does with prose. Universal Harvester
is his second novel, but the first I've read, and it's... basically what I'd expect from guy behind The Mountain Goats, honestly.Universal Harvester
is divided into four parts, each of which has a vastly different tone and style than the others, and three of which focus on entirely different characters. Part One is the story of Jeremy, a young man working at a video rental store in rural Iowa in the late 1990s. Customers start complaining of weird images on the tapes they return, and he finds startling footage of what appears to be bound and tortured captives in an empty barn, spliced into the most random of Hollywood features. After prodding from a casual acquaintance who's more interested in the mystery than Jeremy is himself, they set out to investigate the source of the films. Part Two shifts the setting, characters, and tone entirely, to become the story of an isolated housewife in a financially struggling family in early 1970s small town Nebraska. She misses her parents, she can't connect emotionally with her daughter, and she slowly becomes drawn into a cult. It's literary fiction, a story in the tone of Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood. Part Three returns, briefly, to Jeremy and the mystery of the strange footage, but where earlier it had the feel of a horror novel or thriller, now it's slow and sad and vague, with no answers or tension, just the acknowledgement of unsolved mysteries. Part Four is the briefest, and is set in the modern day. The same farmhouse that Jeremy traced as the origin of the strange footage is purchased by a perfectly ordinary family: two retired parents, two college-aged children. They discover a huge cache of video tapes on the property and watch the same inexplicable images as Jeremy had, but their reaction is confusion and boredom rather than terror.
I hugely preferred the first section, when the book was trying for horror, but that's my own prejudice against literary fiction than any fault in Darnielle's writing. He is a very
good writer at what he's most interested in (which unfortunately for me is not gore and shocking twists); he's particularly excellent at evoking a setting, in this case the specific time and place of the rural and small town West in the latter parts of the twentieth century. The descriptions are beautiful and vivid: long drives on empty highways, the look of corn fields against a setting sun, awkward talks with coworkers, the half-buried awareness of no good career options, just a life stretching out emptily and unhappily. Darnielle's other main theme is grief, particularly the experience of losing a mother. Take a look at that title, after all: Universal Harvester
, the actual brand name of a tractor as well as an easily recognizable metaphor for death. And those two things are what the book's actually about, not murder mysteries or haunted videos.
In the end, Universal Harvester
wasn't what I wanted it to be, but it did a very good job at conveying what Darnielle wanted it to be, and I suppose I can't critique it for that.
And with these two reviews, I've caught up on blogging everything I read in 2018! ...only in late February, yes, I see the problem here. I unsurprisingly already have quite the backlog of 2019 book reviews to write, but hopefully will have some more free time moving forward and will get those up before another two months pass. Particularly since I've now entirely abandoned tumblr, and so hope to do most of my fandom socializing here on DW. I also have a twitter, which I mainly use for real life™ things. But if anyone is interested in my twitter handle, just let me know – I only don't want to post it publically due to my vague attempts at keeping my RL and fandom identities separate.