Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book review: Flora Mirabilis, by Catherine Herbert Howell

You know what can really screw me up sometimes? When people tell me that an unknown product (book, movie, TV show, etc.) is like some other product I already know and like. I get all excited, because of the promise that there's more! of whatever I already loved, but then I forget to take the new thing on its own terms, and instead compare it to the idealized old thing in my head, and invariably come away disappointed.

So it was really not helpful of Garden Rant to tell me, a few weeks ago, that Flora Mirabilis, the new book from Catherine Herbert Howell, in association with the National Geographic Society and the Missouri Botanical Garden, was like The Botany of Desire [Michael Pollan] on steroids. It was even more misleading of Garden Rant to include Howell's list of "ten plants that changed the world." Between the two of these, I was picturing a book that, like The Botany of Desire, went into detail about the specific stories surrounding these ten plants, their introduction to European civilization, and the particular quirks of the plants that make them of interest to humans in the first place.

Flora Mirabilis is not that book. It's not close to that book, even.1 The way I know this is because, after adding a comment to the Garden Rant thread in hopes of winning this book that sounded like it was going to be The Botany of Desire, and not winning, multiple e-mails ensued, and long story short, I wound up with a computer copy to review. (My first actual blogging perk! I think!)

Which was of course great, and I'm indebted to Susan Harris of Garden Rant for working that out. But the story doesn't end there, because there was suddenly another obstacle, in the form of me not being able to read the copy I got. The problem was that the file format, though a perfectly ordinary format, in order to fit my computer screen, had to shrink the pages down so small that the (already kinda-tiny) text was unreadable. Or at least readable only with lots of scrolling up and down and left and right.

I mention this all as a way of explaining why I'm reviewing only a single chapter of the book. It's not that I wouldn't like to read the whole thing; it's that if I had to do much more up-and-down scrolling I was going to end up throwing my monitor into a wall, and then where would we be?

So I made the decision to review only one chapter. But which one? My first impulse was to read and review Chapter 4, Enlightenment (1770-1840), because who doesn't like the Enlightenment? Right? And then I noticed Chapter 6, Science (1900-present),2 and thought well, I should probably do that, considering how often I make reference to science on the blog and how it's sort of my thing. Or one of my things. But that seemed so . . . predictable. So, bucking expectations, I went for the time period in between the two, Empire (1840-1900). Just because I can. So here's what I think of Chapter 5, plus a few random pages of other chapters and the bibliography.

The first thing you notice -- indeed, you're practically clubbed over the head with it -- is that this is a really pretty book, and I mean that in the best possible way. About half of every pair of pages is taken up with pictures, and they're not mere photographs: they're really high-quality hand-drawn (hand-painted?) images in the style of old botanical illustrations. Some of them actually are old botanical illustrations. Apparently because they are all historical illustrations. (Thanks to Susan Tyler Hitchcock in the comments.) A few historical drawings of botanically-relevant buildings and people are also scattered around throughout the book.3

This is already pretty different from Botany, which was mostly text, but there are other differences too: you don't come away from Flora feeling like you know Howell any better than when you started, at least as far as I can tell from the one chapter. Her prose is very fluid, clear, and grammatical, but Howell herself is never the point of the book,4 in the way that Pollan sometimes is the subject of his. Which is hard to object to, but it's different.

Another difference between Flora and Botany is, Flora is rarely interested in the plants. In the Empire chapter, at least, what Flora Mirabilis actually appears to be about is the process of plants coming into contact with European civilization, the specific people responsible for this, and the infrastructure built to accommodate them. So the topics are nurseries and conservatories, the foundation of botany as a science unto itself, British plantations being established in India for cultivation of tropical plants, and, unsuprisingly, a longish stretch about the establishment of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Additionally, Howell describes cultural phenomena like the brief but intense fashion for fern-collecting in Victorian England and the complex language of flowers through which a suitor could send specific messages to his/r intended.5

There are brief plant profiles, which each take up two pages, though one page is always a large illustration. In the Empire chapter, these profiles are for cannabis, rubber, potato, opium poppy, and orchids (that's right, the entire orchid family, all eight hundred kerjillion species, gets one page). They're still often not really about the plants, though: instead they tend to be about what people have historically made from the plants (e.g. hemp, rubber, morphine). I don't mind this so much; I'm a very tough audience for plant trivia, because I spend completely unreasonable amounts of time seeking it out, so it may or may not be meaningful that the information presented in these profiles was stuff I knew already. One thing I did mind, very much, however, was the way these were inserted into the text.6

So at this point, the reader is probably thinking okay, so . . . you hated it, then? Is that what you're saying?

Not at all, actually. I'm just saying that contrary to what you may have heard, this book is not The Botany of Desire on steroids,7 Ativan, Boniva, or any other kind of prescription medication. The tone is different, the subject matter is mostly different,8 the text-to-picture ratio is way the hell off, and it's not as long as Botany, even.

Possibly it could be The Botany of Desire on Latisse. I guess. Whatever that would be.

What Flora Mirabilis actually is, is . . . well, it's sort of exactly what it would have to be, considering where it comes from and who it's intended for. It's a handsomely-illustrated (really, I cannot hit that point hard enough), historically-oriented book that covers a wide range of topics in relatively easy-to-read prose.9 It is precisely the kind of book I would have read over and over again at Evil Grandma's10 house when I was a kid; it's also precisely the kind of book Evil Grandma would have owned.

So for whom is Flora Mirabilis a good choice? I think it's a good book for people who really just want something pretty to sit on their coffee table.11 It's also a good book for people who are interested in human history first, and horticultural history second, or for people who are contemplating a hobby of plant nerdery and are interested in what kinds of topics such a hobby would involve. (The bibliography was unexpectedly intriguing, which is probably the first time I've ever said that about any bibliography. And it may be the last time, too.) It wasn't exactly my thing, though I already operate on such a transcendent plane of plant nerdiness that I can't imagine a plant book that would satisfy me,12 plus it's impossible for me to tell how much of my reaction came from disappointment that it wasn't a The Botany of Desire knock-off.

So. The reader is specifically and pointedly encouraged to ignore whether or not I found it satisfying and focus on whether or not the contents of the book sound like the sort of thing s/he is interested in and how much value s/he places on illustrations. The answers to those questions are what's going to determine whether it's worth the money to you or not, not my particular experience with the book. I realize this is a lot of stuff to have to read just to be told to make up your own mind, but hey, how many other book reviews have you read lately that included a Latisse joke? Hm?

That's what I thought.

Flora Mirabilis is available on-line from the National Geographic website for $35.00 U.S., in regular bookstores, (If you only have irregular bookstores, I suppose you're on your own.) or wherever else you're accustomed to buying books.

Disclaimer: I was provided with an .pdf review copy of this book by the publisher with the understanding that the decision to review the book, and the contents of that review, were solely my own. This review encompasses my own opinions of the book, all fifteen or sixteen of them, but was heavily influenced by the fact that the publisher provided a copy for review, in the sense that I kept second-guessing myself about whether or not I was being too hard or too easy on the book because I'd gotten a free copy or because I was trying to overcompensate for feeling indebted over having received a free copy, with the final result being, I think, basically an honest assessment of the book's content and merits. I might look at this review again later and think damn, I was way too hard/easy on Flora Mirabilis, I should probably correct that, but by that point it will be way too late for anybody to do anything about the situation.

Disclaimer for the Disclaimer: substantial chunks of the wording of the above disclaimer, especially the first third, were lifted directly from Colleen Vanderlinden's review of a different book, because it seemed to hit all the relevant points a disclaimer would need to hit, plus I was too lazy to come up with a new one from scratch.

Disclaimer for the Disclaimer's Disclaimer:13 Except that then I tweaked Colleen's so much that I pretty much wound up writing a new one from scratch anyway, so I guess I'm not all that lazy.


Photo credits: Book cover provided by National Geographic; Phalaenopsis pictures are my own, recycled from earlier posts, for decorative purposes.

1 I honestly kind of wonder whether anybody from Garden Rant read the book before writing about it. It makes me a little bit angry, though I'll forgive Garden Rant in a couple sentences.
2 That's right. Science was invented in 1900. I was just as surprised as you are, I assure you.
3 This is not especially surprising: one of the things National Geographic is known for is high-quality illustrations. Which I realize sounds ass-kissy, but it's also true, so sue me.
4 One does occasionally catch a glimpse of a very dry sense of humor: one sentence from the chapter reads "[Thoreau's] copious botanical notes were assembled into the volume Wild Fruits, which was published very much posthumously in 1999."
5 (No sexting then, so they made do.)
6 The two-page profiles are dropped into the text at regular intervals, but the profiles take up a whole page and facing page, and usually the main text has not finished its final sentence before one of these appears. So you either skip over the profile and then go back to it after you've read all of the main text, or you read the profile in sequence and then have to try to remember what the main-text sentence was saying before it was interrupted. Some of my irritation with this was probably actually irritation with the file format: I'm much more accustomed to flipping pages of a physical book than I am to scrolling up and down on a computer screen. But still. There had to have been a better way of doing that.
7 I really have no clue what the "on steroids" part was supposed to signify. It seems like a very strange claim to make for a book which is actually shorter than the book it's being compared to (Flora has 255 pages, about half of which are pictures; Botany has 269, which are almost entirely text. What's steroidal about it, exactly?)
8 The apple chapter of Botany is probably the closest direct comparison between the two, though Howell would never spend that much time talking about Johnny Appleseed, or any other specific topic. She jumps around quite a bit. In fact, if I have a single complaint about Flora Mirabilis, it is that it never goes deep enough into the interesting topics to satisfy me. (It doesn't get that deep into the boring topics either, though I mind that a lot less.)
9 I don't mean easy to read in the "See Jane walk. Walk, Jane, walk." sense, just that the information presented is not hugely technical, and the style is your basic Newsweek English. Or probably a little bit better than Newsweek. You know what I'm saying. It reads like a book written for grown-ups. Which it is.
10 As I alluded to a couple days ago, I had a Good Grandma (paternal) and an Evil Grandma (maternal). Both are dead now, and of course Evil Grandma outlived Good Grandma by several years. There is essentially unanimous agreement that of the four grandparents, Evil Grandma is the one I am most like in temperament. I've had trouble settling on an emotional response to this.
Neither of the Grandpas were particularly good or evil; it was more like Indifferent Grandpa (maternal, still alive) and Grandpa Who Occasionally Flew Into Spectacular But Brief Obscenity-Laden Rages Over Nothing In Particular (paternal).
11 (Which is not in any way to disparage coffee table books! Anybody who's ever been stuck in someone else's home looking desperately for something interesting to do -- which I think is most of us -- ought to be able to appreciate a good solid coffee table book.)
12 Technically not true: I can imagine such a book easily enough. It's 90,000 pages long, costs roughly $7000, and would require special equipment to deliver to a person's home.
13 Once you say the word "disclaimer" enough times, it stops sounding like a real word. Try it.


Ginny Burton said...

So, you're not hoping that Santa will drop a hard copy into your stocking?

lynn'sgarden said...

Hey Mr_Subj! Really enjoyed reading your review~especially the disclaimers and footnotes...LOL on # 5! And learning a little of your family tree...FUN! Evil Grandma rules! My favorite was the Latisse reference...!

Well, at least you are very honest here. I would pick this book off the shelf just because of the pretty cover art...I'm all about the least that's MY logic for purchasing a 'coffee table' book. If i made it to the interesting biblio. (as you say) that may have sold it for me too.

But I can understand why this book did not get a thumbs up from you, being on that level of plant nerdiness. I have a feeling the science chapter would have really disappointed you...

Hm...a lot of reading not to reach a yea or nay but that's what's great about reading PATSP!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Mr. S.

I'm gonna preemptively put that ideal book, the one that weighs and costs and will be delivered by forklift, on Santa's list right now. I say this just in case it helps tip some publisher's decision to help the delightfully nerdy author get in print.

(P.S. What is probably already in Santa's bag for me is Flora Mirabilis but at least I'm primed.)

Good to Grow said...

I really enjoy your posts, thank you!

mr_subjunctive said...

Ginny Burton:

I wouldn't mind, actually. If I'm in a bookstore anytime soon (unlikely, because I don't get into Iowa City very often and usually don't go to bookstores when I do), I intend to try to hunt down a copy to look at. The problem isn't the book itself: the book itself is fine. The problem is that when I found out that it wasn't the book I'd been led to believe it was, I became completely unable to write a coherent review.

Though it is possible that I wasn't able to write a coherent review before, too.

But no, I'm not ruling out paying for a physical copy, and would certainly not turn down a free one.


Yeah, in retrospect I maybe regret not doing the Science chapter. The pictures really are pretty awesome.


I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I'd known better what to expect from it. So you'll probably like it just fine. I mean, it's not an unlikeable book or anything.

And how do you know already what Santa's getting you? Isn't that like cheating or something?

Karen715 said...

Actually, this was a pretty good book review, in that it told me enough for me to know whether I would be interested in the book or not. (I am; I will probably buy it, though I'll probably wait until some seller on Amazon has a gently-used copy at a discount, or I get a good coupon from Borders.)

I think the interrupted text thing is common in books of a certain style and time period. Older art books are often interrupted with plates and text that have little or nothing to do with the main text. I think it had to do with where it was possible for printers to bind colored illustrations mechanically--the sections had to match up. I think (but am not sure) that modern publishing is less dependent on that technique, so it could be just an affectation. (Or not.)

I think the Good and Evil Grandma thing is pretty common--both my husband (maternal) and I (paternal) had one.

Karen715 said...

By that I mean, we each had an Evil Grandma, as designated.

Joseph said...

I hope whichever of the Garden Ranters who reviewed this come and comment on their reasoning for the B of D comparison.

(Karen, you are making me feel left out. I don't have any evil grandmas! They're both just boring. (my grandpa on the other hand...))

Susan Tyler Hitchcock said...

Hey, Mr. Subjunctive, not just SOME but ALL of the images in this book are historical -- they are from the rare botanical book collection of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library. They tell the history of plants and humans in a different way.

Anonymous said...

Very nice review and even a nicer disclaimer. This is definately my type of book. I once read a book on the history of salt and loved it.

This book seems a bit pricey for my budget, though.


Anonymous said...