Diary of a Young Naturalist
by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, 2021 ($25)
In this lyrical and often dazzling memoir, 17-year-old Dara McAnulty brings readers into close communion with the natural world while offering an intimate look at what it's like to live with autism. Diary of a Young Naturalist is structured like a journal and spans one year, during which McAnulty's family moves cross-country from their home in Northern Ireland's County Fermanagh to the mountainous County Down. The move is at first difficult for the teen, who feels most comfortable in familiar places. But as he explores his new home's wooded surroundings, his passion for naturalism deepens.
The author's autism is tightly entwined with his writing and fascination with nature. “My head is pretty hectic most of the time,” he writes, “and watching daphnia, beetles, pond skaters and dragonfly nymphs is a medicine for this overactive brain.” Inspired by his father, a conservationist, McAnulty finds specimens to admire on family trips through the woods or along a stream. He contrasts these outdoor adventures with time spent in a classroom, a space he calls “flat and uninspiring.” In nature, he's left unbothered by the need to concentrate on the words and facial expressions of others, abilities that do not come easy for him.
The exuberance he feels while examining plants and animals is palpable—he admits he doesn't “have a joy filter.” But all that emotion is balanced with careful observations. The parts of a beetle's body, for example, are identified by their scientific names, plants by their Latin ones.
The book's most powerful moments involve encounters with environmental destruction caused by humans—a seal injured by plastic, a bird's egg destroyed by a lawn mower. Witnessing such damage sparks a “solar flare of anger” within the author, which, we learn, he is using to help light a movement for climate advocacy. An admirer of Greta Thunberg, McAnulty writes about the terror he feels when participating in climate marches attended by large numbers of people. But passion overcomes his fear. In addition to marching, he gives public speeches and films documentaries with English naturalist Chris Packham. Voices like his—and books like this one—empower us to appreciate and protect our planet. —Amy Brady
by Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021 ($27)
Best known for his darkly comic novels about an English aristocrat named Patrick Melrose, Edward St. Aubyn returns with a rollicking tale of love and science in a world increasingly hostile toward both. Double Blind's hectic—but very funny—plot stars two Oxford graduates, Lucy and Olivia, who fall in love, respectively, with a virtual-reality entrepreneur funding brain research and a botanist dead set on discrediting neuroscience. St. Aubyn's distinctive waggishness is on display throughout, punctuated with scientific verbiage (“mycorrhizal network”) and quotes from Wittgenstein. —A.B.
Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape
by Cal Flyn
Viking, 2021 ($27)
Cal Flyn, a Scottish journalist, tours degraded landscapes on three continents—abandoned farmland, industrial ruins, radioactive forests—and finds strange beauty in the “feral ecosystems” that reclaim even the most toxic terrain. Through deep research and graceful writing, she shows that this “corrupted world” has “a great capacity for repair, for recovery ... if we can only learn to let it do so.” —Seth Fletcher
Atlas of AI
by Kate Crawford
Yale University Press, 2021 ($28)
In this cartographic approach to defining AI, scholar and Scientific American advisory board member Kate Crawford deftly argues that it is “neither artificial nor intelligent” but rather “fundamentally political.” The lens through which AI has long been described—as a neutral technology destined for dominance—is an intentionally abstract narrative that comes from existing architectures of power. Crawford views AI as an extractive industry that mines not just data but lithium, labor and fossil fuels, while often perpetuating systems of injustice. —Jen Schwartz