A GARDEN OF MARVELS
By Ruth Kassinger. (William Morrow, 416 pages, $25.99.)
As a longtime master gardener, I have a lot of practical knowledge about plants. But I know nothing compared with Ruth Kassinger, whose fascinating book “A Garden of Marvels” explores the stops and starts of botanical history. She uses her own garden experiences to frame the sometimes bumbling history of how people slowly figured out how plants work. Educated Europeans thought that tiny lambs grew on plants.
People looked for lungs in plants — we humans always see things in our own egotistical mirror — and well into the 1800s most scientists insisted that plant reproduction had nothing to do with sex. Most of the book is highly readable, though I must confess I got a bit lost in some dense passages about cyanobacteria and eukarotes. But I always got the point. Kassinger’s entertaining approach is unlike anything I have read about plants before, and I plan to read her other intriguing plant book, “Paradise Under Glass.”
Mary Jane Smetanka
The People in the Photo
By Hélène Gestern, translated from the French by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz. (Gallic Books, 270 pages, $14.95.)
Who hasn’t looked through old family photos and wondered who some of these people are?
A deeper mystery confronts Hélène Hivert, an archivist in Paris, when she comes upon a newspaper photo of the mother she never knew and a man never mentioned by her distant father. A handwritten note says only, “N., Switzerland, Summer 1971.” Through an advertisement, she finds the man’s son, a Swiss biologist who also has grown up saddened by loss. As they gather the missing pieces of their lives, they find painful secrets, and each other.
The story is pieced together in entertaining fashion through Hélène and Stéphane’s correspondence — letters, e-mails and text messages that gradually bring their parents into focus. In the place of photographs are evocative descriptions of the photos they discover, which turns the old saying on its head. Here, a thousand words are worth a picture.
Gestern’s debut novel is a fast, satisfying read that will make readers want to open that old box of photos and look again.
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