How the Most Famous Scientist of the Romantic Age Found the Soul of Nature
Maren Meinhardt’s biography of early nineteenth-century scientist Alexander von Humboldt shows how he came to have more places and objects named after him than any other person. The text focuses on the scientist and explorer’s travels in a concise and perceptive way, embellished by hints at his personal life.
Humboldt, who died midway through writing the fifth volume of his magnum opus, Cosmos, was a successful civil servant who longed for direct participation in science. His mother’s will gave him the financial independence to travel everywhere from the Americas to Siberia as a naturalist. Wherever he went, he surveyed the local geology, flora, and fauna and recorded meteorological data. Among his innovations are a safety lamp and respiration apparatus for miners and maps of temperature zones. Humboldt also discovered altitude sickness and the oceanic current off the west coast of South America. He is considered to be the father of ecology for his considerations of how species interact with their environments.
This narrative opens as Humboldt returns from five years in South America and earns popular praise for feats like climbing the Andes’s Chimborazo mountain, though he didn’t make the summit or complete the write-up of his travels. It establishes a goal of demythologizing the subject, appraising him in the context of Enlightenment philosophy and German Romanticism. Quotes from his letters and journals bring his adventures to life, and period illustrations of places and creatures important to him are an added delight.
Rumors about Humboldt’s personal life—around his sexual orientation, and whether he fathered two of his cook’s children—are treated with sensitivity, acknowledging the impossibility of drawing firm conclusions. Humboldt “winks at us across two centuries,” Meinhardt concludes, his life and works defined more by “the unfinished and the open” than by facts.
REBECCA FOSTER (August 27, 2019)
Nina Allan’s The Silver Wind is a twisting, haunting work of speculative fantasy, pulsing with the dull ache of a fading dream and intoxicating its audience with disorienting what-ifs.
When Owen, a clockmaker’s apprentice, is tasked with building a timepiece for a rich client, he has no idea that his skills are being plied to test the fabric of time itself. The client’s daughter fills Owen in on the plot, but the pull of building a tourbillion of such power is too much for Owen to resist; by the time he arrives home, future worlds have already begun to bleed into his present. The die is cast.
What follows are interconnected stories from across an intimately intertwined multiverse of possibilities. Characters recur: as lovers in some iterations of the present, as siblings deceased or siblings far-flung in others. Tragedies happen or don’t, and family bonds are forged and tested. Curiosities are common, including a mysterious dwarf who roams the beach and doesn’t age, who appears in pictures in and out of time; a broken watch that’s healed; and institutions devoted to sending people through rifts between universes. Timepieces are ever-present, the stuff that connects one dimension to the next.
In one present, the beach dweller encounters Martin, another recurrent character, and greets him like a friend who’s integral to the past and future:
You were always so insistent that time streams could not run parallel to each other without leaking through, that on some level our alternate selves would carry an awareness of each other. A trace-awareness, you used to call it. A seepage between universes. I insisted you were wrong. … [now] I’m beginning to think you might have had something.
Working through the eerie and mysterious locations of Nina Allan’s book requires concentration, imagination, and an eye for detail, but all are rewarded. This funky trek through time should not be missed.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 20, 2019)
It’s not easy for a skeleton boy to make new friends. Oscar worries that his appearance is too frightful to attract potential playmates. A chance encounter with a pigtailed girl leads to a series of colorful adventures, illustrated with layers of textured collages. Oscar’s night scenes contrast with the girl’s rainbow sunshine. Translated from its original Polish, Oscar’s story is a lovely reminder that friendship often grows where it is least expected.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (August 27, 2019)
Teen drama and the ups and downs of being gay and out in high school dominate Julian Winters’s heartfelt young adult novel How to Be Remy Cameron.
Remy—who’s a teenager, gay, adopted, and black—has been assigned an AP English essay about his identity, but he is worried that he doesn’t know who he is quite yet. He has many close friends, is dealing with recent heartbreak, and is interested in someone who isn’t themselves out.
As Remy explores the choices ahead, he encounters the less charted waters of moving from LGBTQ+ acceptance toward actual celebration of diversity in teen communities. This transition leaves Remy turning to mentors for guidance that they cannot always offer with ease. The story remains upbeat because Remy and his friends can always find comic relief in what they’re thinking about, from homecoming to post-high school plans.
Remy’s family members are his rock. Their acceptance and love hold steady when everything else shifts. His community supported his coming out, though three years later, he still feels like he has to “keep coming out to each new person” he meets. As the novel progresses, Remy learns to rely on his many close relationships and finds answers regarding his birth family.
The cast is complex and diverse. Remy’s friends live in a wide variety of realistic home situations, dealing with semi-absent parents and great levels of privilege. Their conversations are full of sharp repartee, humor, and teenage snark.
How to Be Remy Cameron is a spirit-lifting and surprising coming-of-age story.
LAURA LEAVITT (August 27, 2019)
Nancy Au’s exquisite short story collection Spider Love Song and Other Stories focuses on survivors—refugees, orphans, widows, single mothers, and village elders—who are caught between old world Chinese values and heritages and the challenges and promise of a new world.
Tremendous in their sensitivity and imagination, these stories layer complex images with a powerful cadence. Their characters struggle to navigate cultural differences and challenging circumstances. Creatures from the natural world, including beetles, arachnids, damselflies, sea turtles, and a fox spirit, reflect both the strangeness and vulnerability of the characters’ lives.
“She Is a Battleground” captures the resilience and determination of an eighty-year-old woman who walks home with dignity even as neighborhood boys taunt her: “She is an ancient drug, with chipped teeth like tin bells, a tongue like a rake, a fighting drive to live, a horror heart in wooly slippers.” Direct and intense, such stories demand attention.
In “Louise,” Lai captures a one-eyed wild duck in a lunch cooler at a park; tensions build with her partner and a park ranger in the tumbling, humorous series of events that unfold. In “Spider Love Song,” Sophie Chu dresses each day in a tattered elephant costume to ensure her missing parents recognize her upon their return, while in the surreal and breathtaking “Anatomy of a Cloud,” a dragon, Fei, tends to her dying mate, YingLong, on a perch high in the mountains:
She studies his brilliant blue scars, wounds from dry lightning strikes—like shafts of sun and yun, like virga, like crystal storm sublime—where the azure teardrop scales would not regenerate on the back of his slender neck.
Nancy Au’s debut short story collection is resonant, nuanced, and profound, and its views of characters facing difficulty with strength and courage are unique and engaging.
KRISTEN RABE (August 27, 2019)