Book Review: World of Wonders

Have you ever been so enthralled by a book that you were at once inspired to go create and yet totally contented to sit and just be in the present moment? Such was the case for me in reading World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

One of my best friends passed her copy of World of Wonders on to me sometime last year. I had seen the book many times at the local Barnes & Noble as well as understood it to be one of the trendy books of 2020, but I had never taken the time to read it (or even about what made it supposedly special).

I must admit that although I was glad to receive the book, it didn’t rank very high on my priority list. A few weeks later as I was rearranging stacks of books in my room, I cracked this one open to see a short inscription on the inside of the front cover. “Lauren, The buzzing of the bugs and sparkle of the fireflies always brings me back to Midwest summers! Enjoy and pass on with your wonder near and dear to your heart!”

I must also admit that I am a bit of a book hoarder. My habits have improved over the years, but I’m still far more likely to hold on to books I didn’t care for/have no intention of reading again than to pass them on to greener pastures. However, the note gave me pause. If this book was truly a gem, I definitely wouldn’t want to let it go.

After finally trudging through In the Garden of Beasts last month, I felt that my next book should be somewhat lighter in nature if I was to resume a habit of reading. Serendipitously, World of Wonders happened to be on the top of a stack of books and I remembered the sweet note—it was an easy choice.

“It is this way with wonder: it takes a bit of patience, and it takes putting yourself in the right place a the right time. It requires that we be curious enough to forgo our small distractions in order to find the world.”

World of Wonders (Milkweed Editions, 2020) p.156

In World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil wrote a sublime piece of non-fiction. Though full of personal anecdotes, many of which duly noted both the peaks and the valleys of quotidian life, the overarching theme was that of curious wonderment and the mood was like a ray of dancing sunlight. It was in two words, perfect writing.

Her stories are woven together through a loose association with “astonishments” of the natural world. Though you’ll have to read it for yourself, in my opinion, the standout chapters were those of the touch-me-nots, axolotl, monsoon, flamingo, southern cassowary and firefly (redux). Many of the mentioned flora and fauna I had at least heard about, but there were some new natural discoveries for me; notably the comb jelly, corpse flower, potoo and ribbon eel. While the author’s descriptions of each wonder was superb, the prosaic relation of each to her personal experience was what really made the book memorable. The illustrations throughout by Fumi Mini Nakamura were a beautiful addition.

As stated at the beginning of this review, this book created a paradox in which I both wanted to go outside and explore life in the world around me and remain in bed and contemplate life from a static, supine position. I am a firm believer that coincidences are a cheap imitation of providence and therefore found nothing but divine confirmation in my own creative writing pursuits in reading World of Wonders at this specific time in my life. Aimee’s writing style and variety of storytelling techniques prove that there’s room for newness in the nonfiction genre without having to always be full of shocking content. The book also gave me insight into publishing in that the acknowledgements mentioned that the chapters were actually a collection of essays originally individually published in a litany of journals and literary websites. Sometimes the best things get sprinkled into the world rather than a saturating downpour.

World of Wonders is meant to be passed from bookshelf to bookshelf, for to keep its glory to oneself would be like refusing to crack open a geode to display the sparkle of an amethyst quartz – a total waste. If you haven’t read this book yet, run, skip and jump to get a copy, savor Aimee’s stories with pleasure and then pass it on to someone you love. There are so many wonders of the world, perhaps the most beautiful of which is our shared human experience.

This book may be for you if you also like: exploration; plants & animals; memoirs; creativity; science; coastal environments; deserts; Arizona; Mississippi; Kansas; New York; flamingos; cassowaries; axolotl; travel; monarch butterflies; fireflies; eating; dragon fruit; oranges; wonder; creation; poetry; childlike imagination; natural beauty; loveliness.


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