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The Green Life: Book Roundup Wednesday: Single-Species Volumes

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June 01, 2011

Book Roundup Wednesday: Single-Species Volumes

Book Roundup Wednesday Each Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today, we're recommending books about a single species.

Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms (by Greg A. Marley, $18, Chelsea Green, 2010): The author’s defense of fungi pulls from science, cultural history, and personal experience to explore the mushroom as food, drug, and object of both lust and loathing. Marley writes with the frankness of a memoirist and the detail of a man in love, invoking the multisensual seduction of a forest glen to persuade readers to make friends with the forest’s fruit. 

Lobster (by Richard J. King, $20, Reaktion Books, 2011): Lobster takes its readers on a thoroughly researched, engagingly written tour of the anatomy of both the creature and our imaginings of it. The lobster, King explains, has existed simultaneously as the poor man’s bread and the rich man’s butter for centuries — a symbol of both hard life and decadence, as illustrated by the book’s rich offering of glossy 19th-century anatomical drawings, water-colored portraits, and photographs of seamen at work, trawling for "bugs."

The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature (by Richard Ellis, $35, University Press of Kansas, 2011): Ellis launches his opus from the deck of the Pequod, penning what might be considered a modern, fiction-less appendix to Melville’s classic. But this work of natural history also chronicles the modern fate of the leviathan, using more direct prose to describe what the sperm whale eats, how it lives, how it fights, and how the Japanese and Soviet whaling industries devastated its populations. The book benefits from the perspective of an author whose career has spanned writing about, painting, and personally interacting with the mighty beast.

The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct (by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, $20, W. W. Norton and Co., 2010): The Pulitzer-winning authors constructed this analysis of a leafcutter ant’s life from the microscopic eye of hard science. From the seven castes of the anthill to the insect's wave-like noise patterns that it emits to minimize the vibrations of the leaves it cuts, this book uses biology and clear language to show what nature bequeathed these creatures.

Caribbean Monk Seals: Lost Seals of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea (by John Hairr, $15, Coachwhip Books, 2011): The story of the sea wolves of the Caribbean reaches from prehistorical human artifacts to the species' extinction at man's hands (for their oil) which began in 1494, with the work of Columbus's crew. This simple and compelling history of the seal’s interactions with humans doesn't dispel the animal's mystery or dignity, but rather chronicles its diminishing presence in our records.

--Juliana Hanle

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