Some of our favorite naturalists hail from England -- fine gardeners, wild-eyed birders, itinerant collectors, gleaners and foragers -- no hedgerow left unexplored. Richard Mabey is the latest generation of celebrity naturalists in England -- with his TV and radio series, and newspaper and magazine columns, he has inspired viewers and readers to get out, poke around and find food in unexpected places.
In "Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants" (Ecco, $25.99), Mabey takes on the true vagabonds of the plant world, the "botanical thugs," the world's least-loved plants (superweeds like kudzu, knotgrass, burdock and many others) that have revegetated battlefields, war zones and abandoned urban wastelands around the ungrateful world. Mabey prowls through the archives to find weeds as familiars, lurking in our "folk memory," locked in a symbiotic relationship with humans.
Like Michael Pollan in "The Botany of Desire," Mabey shows that it is not at all clear here who is in charge, who has the moral high ground and who will survive long after the last weed has been pulled from the last overtended suburban acre.
Miroslav Penkov hit American shores in 2001 (he was 21) from his native Bulgaria, and he hasn't stopped writing (or winning prizes for his wild, homesick short stories) since. Comrades, girlfriends, bagpipe makers, Turks, Greeks, Slavs, grandparents, miners, ghosts and photos -- Penkov's teeming stories accomplish in phrases what lesser writers take chapters to convey -- the immigrant's disorientation, the homesickness for things like bread, the strange humor of the displaced family.
"East of the West: A Country in Stories" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24) is a collection of triumphs; consider the father who teaches his daughter to play the bagpipes: " 'You are,' her father told her, 'a conqueror of songs.' And so they played together, days on end, long hours; they danced in circles around the lathe, with shadows of words on their faces, Kemal's chest ablaze, her fingers inflamed."
Sheila Heti wanted to write about her friend Misha Glouberman. The Canadian performance artists had collaborated on a few projects; not only did she find that he was a "force of reason in any situation," she felt the "world should have a book about everything he knows."
The result is "The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City" (Faber and Faber, $13 paper), a glorious collection of essays, all in Glouberman's words, shaped by Heti. They are about living in the city, making friends in the city, compromising in the city and having fun just about anywhere.
There's something deeply hip and also endearing about Glouberman's observations. For example, it's OK not to make eye contact in the city, he believes, because a city is "a place where you can be alone in public, and where you have that right." Or, "it's a real shock to discover that making friends doesn't take care of itself in adulthood.It's useful to remember that friendship needs an activity associated with it," he says, or, if you are "an ambitious sort, you can try to create your own world around you, and maybe have a party at your house every two weeks."
"The Snow Whale" (Atticus Books, $14.95 paper) is a funny debut novel. John Minichillo uses our often cartoonish understanding of other cultures to examine the strange sparks that fly when seemingly different cultures (mall-trawling consumers, Spike Lee-wannabe ghetto boys, cubicle lifers in large corporations, Inuit whalers, Eskimo divorcees) inhabit the same neighborhood, whaling boat, igloo or, yes, mouth of a white whale. When John Jacobs overhears a co-worker receiving the results of a DNA test he requested, Jacobs decides to have one, too. The results come back: 37 percent Inuit. Suddenly, Jacobs is hungry for raw bacon. He starts buying tons of stuff at REI and planning a trip to Point Halcyon on the Chukchi Sea. "Please don't come," the tribal chief writes, but Jacobs is determined. He finds a cameraman to document his trip (Q, a street kid with a camera) and a tribal elder, Akmaaq (a belligerent detractor of the Endangered Species Act), who agrees to take Q and Jacobs in search of the Snow Whale. Reader, beware: Many serious issues are trampled here, but the result is wry, dry, pure hilarity all around.