In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura
I frequently review health books on this blog, but you might not call World of Wonders a medical or health book. But if you’ve read some of my other book reviews, you realize I use that designation rather loosely.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil teaches English and Creative Writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. Born in Chicago to immigrant parents ,she has lived in Kansas, Arizona, Ohio,Iowa, New York, and Florida. Now she lives in Oxford, Mississippi with her husband and children.
(The photos I’ve used in this post are from my personal albums, not from the book or connected to it.)
The health/medical connection in this case stems from the author’s parents, Paz and Mathew. Both of Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s parents worked in healthcare during her growing up years. She dedicated this book to them. Now retired, they live in Florida and raise oranges.
Sometimes her parents lived apart, while working in different states. Her father, an immigrant to the United States from India, worked long hours as a respiratory therapist in a neonatal intensive care unit, NICU, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona.
Yet every weekend we headed for the hiking trails of Camelback Mountain. I never saw any other Asian American there; I don’t know if my father noticed…I didn’t know anyone else’s dad who took the time to do this with his kids.
During one assignment, the author and her sister lived with their mother in Kansas-on the grounds of a mental hospital. As a Filipina foreign-born psychiatrist, she treated mentally ill persons, some of whom “hurled racist taunts and violent threats” against her regularly.
We lived on the grounds of the mental institution, something no kids had done in decades, and the school district had to create a bus stop just for us. When I climbed the steps, I imagined myself a narwhal, with one giant snaggletooth-a saber-to knock into anyone who asked if my sister and I were patients there.
Other than that, World of Wonders is not about medicine, at least not human medicine. Although there is a chapter about the Southern Cassowary, Casuarius Casuarius, a bird that can and does kill people. All chapters are named for and describe a variety of common, familiar animals and plants-
- Peacock Pavo cristatus
- Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus
- Firefly Photinus pyralis
- Octopus-Octopus vulgaris
But she also describes in detail strange, unique creatures I had never heard of.
- Axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum
- Touch-me-not Mimosa pudica
- Narwhal Monodon monoceros
- Catalpa tree Catalpa speciosa
In the essay Flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber, she reminisces about her freshman year in college when she and her girlfriends would go out dancing with an assortment of young men.
We were like flamingos flying long distance, mostly at night. So many kidnappings happen in the dark, when we think we are safe, in a routine, in a place where “bad things like that” just don’t happen. When a flamingo flies in daylight, it does look comical, its long legs dragging down under the fluff of feathered torso.
Someone called the police to say they found her body the next day at a local park.
Aimee is enamored over the Corpse Flower, Amorphophallus titanum, known for its “seriously foul smell.” She dated a man who “didn’t wince when I said inflorescence.” He wanted to see a corpse flower for himself despite it being a plant whose smell is similar to
what emanates from the bottom of a used diaper pail, a tin of sardines, and blue cheese salad dressing left out in the August sun
Since he was the only man who ever expressed such an interest,and who did in fact take a road trip with her to see a corpse flower, it’s not surprising he’s now her husband.
Throughout the essays (as the chapters were originally published) Aimee weaves stories about her life with her knowledge and insights about the unique plants and animals she loves to discover and explore. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, as this excerpt from the essay Red-spotted Newt, Notophthalmus viridescens–
I look back at the many moves my family made during my childhood and I begin to understand the red-spotted newt more clearly. (it) spends years wandering the forest floor before it discovers a pond to finally call home. When you spend as long …in a search like this, you grow pickier, more discerning…
Illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura
As much as I enjoyed the prose, the illustrations by artist Fumi Mini Nakamura would be worth buying the book . The drawings complement the writing perfectly. Fumi was born in Japan and at 12 years old moved to the United States where she and her family lived in Northern California. She graduated from San Jose State University with a BFA in Pictorial Arts.
Aimee has won numerous awards for her poetry. This book was the Barnes and Noble Book of the Year 2020, which is how I found it, while browsing in the store.
In these mini memoirs, Aimee wants to convince us that our lives are not that different from the other living creatures with which we share this planet. By discovering the unique features of these non-human beings, we may better appreciate the diversity of earth’s human inhabitants.
In its pages she invites us to join her in discovering a World of Wonders.
Don’t take my word for it ; listen to the author explain why she wrote this book and hear her read an excerpt.
exploring the HEART of a World of Wonders
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