Connect with us


They Overcame Hazards — and Doubters — to Make Botanical History



BRAVE THE WILD RIVER: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, by Melissa L. Sevigny

Let’s start this story on a sun-blistered evening in August 1938. A small band of adventurers had just concluded a 43-day journey from Utah to Nevada — although perhaps “journey” is too tame a description for a trip that had required weeks of small wooden boats tumbling down more than 600 miles of rock-strewn rivers. The goal was twofold. First, to simply survive. And then, to chart the plants building homes along the serrated walls of the Grand Canyon.

Upon arrival in Boulder City, the group — four boatmen and two female botanists — was battered, sunburned and grimy. The travelers were hailed by a crowd of curious residents and journalists, less interested in the men than in these unusual women tackling rivers and canyons in pursuit of science. “Women Make Perilous Trip Through Colorado Gorges,” marveled one headline, above a story that described them as “schoolma’ams” with “copper-tanned cheeks.” On arrival, one photographer insisted on posing one of the two University of Michigan scientists, Lois Jotter, to best advantage with a powder puff and hand mirror.

Jotter and her mentor, Elzada Clover, were used to it. Their journey following the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon had captured public attention from the start. Press coverage had been tinged with incredulity; one paper pointedly quoted an experienced riverman who warned that the Colorado River was “a mighty poor place for women.” The stories were often conveyed in such dire tones that Jotter’s alarmed family wrote to her in fear for her life.

Botany itself had once been considered safe territory for women, Melissa L. Sevigny notes in her cascade of a story, colored by sun and water and driven by courage and determination. The 1833 American textbook “Botany for Beginners” was written by an amateur naturalist, Almira Phelps, who argued that the study of lovely flowers and delicate stems was “peculiarly adapted to females.”

But as plants were increasingly sought in wilder landscapes, such ideas began to change. In 1887, the journal Science urged its male readers to look beyond botany’s reputation as the domain of “young ladies and effeminate youths.” And as a newly distinguished profession, botany rapidly became male territory. The Botanical Society of America, founded in 1893, admitted only one woman, Elizabeth Britton, who helped found the New York Botanical Garden and was a pioneering researcher into the biology of mosses.

Thus, when Elzada Clover received her Ph.D. in botany from the University of Michigan in 1935, she was unable to find a job. One of her professors, Harley H. Bartlett, who recognized her intelligence and admired her grit, wrote unhappily in his diary, “Elzada isn’t wanted because she is a woman.” Ultimately, Bartlett, the head of the school’s botany department, managed to keep Clover on in an entry-level faculty position.

When she started suggesting ambitious projects — notably a plan to map the botany of the Grand Canyon several years later — he moved to help her get funding. “I wouldn’t hesitate to do it myself,” he wrote. “So why refuse my approval for her?” When Clover was asked to choose another scientist for the trip, she opted for one of her favorite graduate students, Lois Jotter, who was working on a doctorate with a specialty in plant genetics.

As they traveled westward, they brought with them a shared determination to work hard and to prove their worth, as both scientists and crew members. They cooked and cleaned, carried, bailed and paddled alongside their boatmates. But Clover and Jotter also spent hours on hikes that allowed them to collect hundreds of plant samples, to create a newly detailed portrait of the gallery of cactuses, wildflowers, spiky grasses and wind-etched trees that prevailed and even thrived in an often-hostile landscape. That work would transform the way botanists thought about the spread of life through the Grand Canyon, and serve to identify more than 400 plant series in the region.

The pair worried that, thanks to the female-doubting publicity, they would be best remembered as upstart women rather than as pioneering scientists. But they agreed not to care; they would continue exploring and further explaining the plant life of the West for decades to come. Clover remained at Michigan and Jotter, after finishing her degree, moved to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where she would ultimately teach. And in the end, their meticulous science would prevail; their papers, as one federal researcher declared, would become “benchmarks in botanical research along the Colorado River.”

They have not actually been forgotten, as the subtitle of Sevigny’s book might suggest. Each woman has a Wikipedia entry; their journey is the subject of a lengthy University of Michigan Heritage Project story titled “River Rat,” and a 1987 book, “The Wen, the Botany and the Mexican Hat.” Sevigny herself wrote an account of the trip some five years ago for The Atavist, an award-winning article called “The Wild Ones,” which served as the basis for this book. And, of course, their trip was front-page news at the time.

It’s not just the story but the way it’s told that matters here. Unlike those old-time newspaper reporters, Sevigny does not look at her subjects and see women out of place. She sees women doing their job and doing it well. She muses with pleasure about that change in perspective, while acknowledging (correctly) that women still face serious gender barriers in the modern profession of science.

Yet Clover and Jotter and their 1930s achievements remain relevant. Their example does not fade with time, Sevigny insists. They remind us of the power of bravery and steadfastness and that people with such qualities can change our ideas about the natural world — and our place in it. Think of them as guidelights, then. “Like stars reflected on the river,” she writes, they “show the way.”

Deborah Blum, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at M.I.T., is the author of “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.”

BRAVE THE WILD RIVER: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon | By Melissa L. Sevigny | Illustrated | 290 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $30


Whatever Happened to Local Comedy Scenes?



Paris in the 1920s. Hollywood in the ’70s. Chicago in the ’90s?

It’s long been my after-midnight-at-the-bar theory that when it comes to urban cultural vanguards, the Michael Jordan era belongs in the pantheon. Full disclosure: I was there and missed it all.

Despite living in Chicago when young improvisers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Adam McKay were killing in front of live crowds, I never saw any perform. I don’t have a story of bumping into the legendary comedy teacher Del Close or catching Kanye West’s original rap group. I missed Liz Phair as well as the indie-rock renaissance pushed by labels like Drag City and Touch and Go Records.

Just when I thought the cultural obliviousness of my college years couldn’t be greater, a new book, “The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s North Side,” opens another avenue of regret. Its author, the comic Mike Bridenstine, makes a persuasive case that Chicago in the late ’90s and aughts was one of the great incubators of modern stand-up. Bridenstine was part of it, but his account, catnip for comedy nerds, benefits from detailed reporting, tracking the careers of, among others, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress, Beth Stelling and Cameron Esposito.

Packed with fabled stand-ups who never made it big and their intimate shows, his punchy chapters are perfect for those who argue about comedy the way Stephen A. Smith does about sports. Was the Lyon’s Den (where Holmes and Nanjiani started the same week) the greatest comedy open mic in history? Did T.J. Miller revolutionize crowd work? Does Matt Braunger deserve to be compared to Robin Williams and Will Ferrell? This book should start some fights.

But there’s also a challenging broader argument buried here, about the conditions that make for great art, one that hints at a pessimistic outlook about local scenes in the age of social media.

Chicago has long been known as a place for artists to get good, not famous. It’s far enough from the coasts to keep industry executives at bay. This has produced many eccentric artists and chips on shoulders. For stand-ups, the fact that it was renowned as an improv town was one chip; the second was that the only major club, Zanies, did not book many local acts.

“The best thing that ever happened to comedy in Chicago was Zanies saying you can’t perform here,” Bridenstine, 44, told me in a recent phone interview. Rejection fueled comics to start their own shows, presenting bills in restaurant back rooms, bars and scrappy festivals. The isolation of these shows, their lack of publicity, meant that crowds were locals not tourists, die-hards not casual fans. Originality mattered as much as killing. “There was pressure, in a really good way, to be different and weird,” the comic Brooke Van Poppelen says in the book.

This resulted in comics like the wry political observer Dwayne Kennedy, who inspired considerable awe and gushing among peers. “The fact Dwayne Kennedy is not a household name is insanity,” Sarah Silverman has said. One possible explanation might be found from a producer, who says that to book him, you needed to fax his dad.

An early provocateur, Bill O’Donnell was famous for incorporating vomiting into his act. There were guys with nicknames like Tommy Mayo, and others like Nick Vatterott, who refused to do the same joke twice in a week and performed a bit as a ventriloquist’s dummy that required him to sit inside a box for two hours. He delivered a hilarious set on “The Tonight Show” years ago that hinged on him pretending to forget a joke. “Nick Vatterott is my evidence that comedy is not a meritocracy,” Bridenstine said. “I don’t know anybody funnier than him. And I know a lot of people more famous and successful.”

Along with stories of the famous and forgotten, the book leans on the journalism of Allan Johnson, a critic for The Chicago Tribune who died at 46 in 2006. He was an early champion of Bernie Mac, probably the greatest comic to emerge from Chicago that decade and the book’s most glaring omission. (In the 1990s, comedy was more segregated than today, and there is scant coverage here of predominantly Black rooms.) The attention Johnson lavished on local shows, in praise and criticism, was an important spotlight, drawing audiences and creating conversation. His coverage is also an integral source for this book. Considering the depleted state of newspapers, in Chicago and elsewhere, one wonders about the local comedy coverage future authors will draw upon.

The more significant contrast with comedy today is the minor role of the internet. It’s not merely that there wasn’t the push to turn your jokes into videos. Comics were less aware of their peers in other cities in the 1990s, and thus there wasn’t the same anxiety of influence. One Chicago comic, John Roy, describes the sense of wanting to embrace alt comedy on the coasts, but only vaguely knowing about it from reading about Patton Oswalt or seeing Janeane Garofalo on HBO. “We’re trying to reverse engineer this idea of alternative comedy from a couple articles in Rolling Stone and a special,” Roy says in the book. “You don’t really know what it is. But you subsequently get a lot of creativity because people start going: ‘Well, I got to be weird.’”

The internet — with social media and sites like YouTube — diminished the distance between scenes and put all comics in the same digital room. This has advantages. Comedy is bigger than ever, and it’s easier to find quality jokes. Bridenstine argued that while there are more good stand-up shows in Chicago today, the scene isn’t producing “Kinanes, Kumails, Beths or Hannibals.”

Is this merely nostalgia? Perhaps a bit, but it’s fair to ask a troubling question: Is the internet killing off distinct local comedy scenes?

There is a long history of cities producing their own comedic aesthetics. Boston is blustery and blue collar (think Bill Burr), while San Francisco is wild and experimental (see Robin Williams). Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., have their own styles, too. These are all simplifications, but they matter. When everyone can see everyone else online, parallel thinking in jokes increases, and comics move to New York and Los Angeles quickly after viral fame, making coherent local identities harder to maintain.

Who you are around as a young artist is tremendously important. Now we are all, to some degree, around the same people. To be sure, “you had to be there” is a real thing, especially with live comedy, and the internet is full of niches where subcultures can flourish, but whether they will be closely associated with cities is an open question.

Bridenstine sounded skeptical. “City scenes don’t exist in isolation like they used to,” he said, adding a note of optimism while tossing one more chip on his shoulder. “I think new styles will evolve and people will decide to be new and different whenever this current way of arena rock comedy gets old.”

Continue Reading


The Most Novelistic Part That Patrick Stewart Ever Played



“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”

Continue Reading


18 New Books Coming in October



Thrall first recounted the story of Abed Salama’s search for his 5-year-old son after a bus crash on the outskirts of Jerusalem in a 2021 piece for The New York Review of Books. Now he’s expanded it, weaving the wrenching human saga with a history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Metropolitan Books, Oct. 3

Bohannon presents nothing less than a new history of the species by examining human evolution through the lens of womankind. It’s a provocative corrective that will answer dozens of questions you’ve always had — and even more you never thought to ask.

Knopf, Oct. 3

When the cryptocurrency exchange FTX collapsed in 2022, the journalist Michael Lewis had been spending time with its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, in order to write a book. Now his intimate look at the now-disgraced entrepreneur is scheduled to be published around the time that his trial on fraud charges is set to begin.

Norton, Oct. 3

This return to the horror-soaked setting of “The Haunting of Hill House” — which was greenlit by Shirley Jackson’s estate — features a group of friends who make the mistake of renting the moldering old mansion.

Mulholland Books, Oct. 3

Sinclair, an award-winning Jamaican poet (“Cannibal”) recounts her coming-of-age in a strict Rastafarian community in Montego Bay and the rebellion that grew within her, until she escaped — through education and through language.

37 Ink, Oct. 3

After years as a journeyman stage actor, Stewart found himself an unlikely celebrity in his 40s after being cast as Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” His memoir vividly recounts the tribulations he overcame — a provincial upbringing, an embittered father — and the teachers and mentors who pointed him skyward.

Gallery, Oct. 3

In his new novel, Labatut chronicles the life and legacy of John von Neumann, the polymath who worked on the Manhattan Project and made pivotal contributions to physics, economics, computing and other fields. It’s a study of scientific genius and the darkness of a hyper-rational mind, told through imagined remembrances by colleagues, associates and loved ones.

Clowes’s latest graphic novel tells the story of a woman’s life from birth to old age and her long quest to track down, or at least understand, her mother. Progressing from the 1960s to the present day, the genre-bending episodes in this book draw upon counterculture, women’s empowerment, apocalypse and the supernatural, among other themes.

Fantagraphics, Oct. 3

A master of intimate, psychologically precise narratives featuring ordinary people caught in extreme circumstances, Garner, now 80, has amassed a devoted following in her native Australia. With the republication of “The Children’s Bach,” a novel about a loosely connected group of 1970s Melbourne residents sorting out their lives, and “This House of Grief,” a nonfiction account of a wrenching murder trial, she is sure to attract new fans here.

Pantheon, Oct. 10

What is there to say about Madonna Louise Ciccone that she hasn’t said herself, in song and video, on talk shows and TikTok, through provocative pronouncements and a book called “Sex”? Over 800 pages, Gabriel, an indefatigable biographer who has also tackled Karl Marx and his wife Jenny von Westphalen, provides an answer.

Little, Brown, Oct. 10

More than three decades after “The Firm” rocketed onto best-seller lists and made him a household name, Grisham revisits the novel’s indelible main characters, Mitch and Abby McDeere.

Doubleday, Oct. 17

Reid, an executive editor at Foreign Affairs, traces the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Republic of Congo, who was in office only a few months before he was deposed and assassinated in 1961. As he plumbs recently declassified files, Reid sheds light on the C.I.A.’s role in the killing.

Knopf, Oct. 17

A Nigerian-born photography professor at a New England college narrates this novel about art and power, finding much to ponder — on colonialism, subjectivity, identity — in the everyday details of teaching, travel and working. Around him is a world not of idyllic pleasures but of latent violence and instability.

Random House, Oct. 17

Ward, the two-time National Book Award-winning novelist, conjures the horrors of antebellum slavery through the story of Annis, who is forced on a harrowing march from a plantation in North Carolina to the slave markets of New Orleans — a journey overseen by spirits and steeped in allusions to Dante’s “Inferno.”

Scribner, Oct. 24

“I never lost sight of what the character gave me,” Winkler, the star of “Happy Days,” writes in a showbiz memoir flavored with gratitude — for a life-changing audition, a long marriage, a sideline writing kids’ books and a second stab at TV acclaim in HBO’s “Barry.”

Celadon, Oct. 31

In her revelatory memoir, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion exposes the pain and humiliation she’s endured at the hands of the international body governing athletics and the international public, who have challenged her identity as a woman — and as the fastest woman in the world.

Norton, Oct. 31

History meets horror in Due’s latest novel, about a Black boy in 1950s Florida, Robbie, who gets sent to a brutal reformatory school after defending his sister from a racist attack. But it’s not just the warden Robbie needs to watch out for — this school is also haunted by the ghosts of students who died there.

Saga Press, Oct. 31

Continue Reading