Review: World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukymatathil offers up a luminous series of essays on nature as a sort of contemplative memoir in "World of Wonders." This book was written largely during an academic residency at Grisham House in Oxford, Mississippi (for more on the Grisham writers program, check out Grisham Writers in Residence.) Since 2014 Nezhukumatathil has been a full professor of English at Ole Miss, one of the youngest poets ever to achieve that rank in the US.

I have read this beautiful book a little at a time over the past few months, enjoying each of its passages as a reminder of how much beauty there is in an often difficult world in these times. One needs to look, of course. There is also the reminder of how much people of color have to patiently endure. The essay that has stuck with me most is that on the luminous and strange axolotls: "If a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup, just remember the smile of an axolotl. The best thing you can do in that moment is to just smile and smile, even if your smile is thin." Or "An axolotl can help you smile as an adult even if someone on your tenure committee puts his palms together as if in prayer every time he see you off-campus, and does a quick, short bow, and calls out, Namaste! even though you've told him several times already that you actually attend a Methodist church. But it's as if he doesn't hear you or he does and doesn't care, chuckling to himself as she shuffles across the icy parking lot, hands jammed into his pockets. Wide and thin, the axolotl's smile..." From the fairly horrifying laboratory research on axolotls (which involves repeated amputations, spinal cord severing, and other egregious injuries to study their regenerative powers) to the fact that they no longer exist in the wild in their home territory of Mexico, this essay just gutted me. Mind you, there are happy moments in this group of essays, as in "Superb Bird of Paradise," when both sides of Nezhukumatathil's Fillipino and Indian family and her husband's Kansan family come together at their wedding and dance the macarena in spite of its having been on her banned playlist (long story) for the DJ at the reception and how her now tween and teenage sons love to dance.

I am happy to mention that in every single official photo of Aimee that I see, she's wearing red lipstick. I've spent time looking at the faculty in her department, trying to guess which one should be asking "AITA?" I hope her promotion and tenure committee colleague is appropriately ashamed of himself but given the ways of the world, I bet he still thinks he's being clever.

World of Wonders is beautifully illustrated by Fumi Mini Nakamura.

The audiobook is read by the author herself, which is always a treat. You can also follow her YouTube channel for readings and interviews.

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