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Lab Girl Paperback – February 28, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2016: I was doubtful that I would like this book. While I appreciate a beautiful flower as much as the next city-girl, the thought of reading a whole book about a geobiologist-- a scientist who spends her life studying plants, trees, soils as well as flowers--made me want to run to the nearest dysfunctional family memoir about crazy parents and their wounded children. But Hope Jahren won me over very quickly. Somehow she knows me: “the average person [who] cannot imagine himself staring at dirt for longer than the twenty seconds needed to pick up whatever object he just dropped.” And she doesn’t judge. Instead, she just tells her story, which, it turns out has a lot to do with plants and science, of course--her father was a scientist, she basically grew up in a lab, and taking long walks through nature was the way she communed with her reticent Scandinavian American parents--but also has a lot to do with other things. Like life, for instance, and friendship and passion and love, for ideas, for work and for all living beings, including--shocker!--people. Surely many readers will feel as I did that the story of her relationship with Bill, her physically and emotionally damaged lab partner, is at the heart of this wonderful story; it’s unusual, it’s inspiring and it doesn’t fit neatly into the little window box we think we’re supposed to favor. And if Jahren can surprise you about all that messy human stuff, just think how she can change your feelings about dirt. --Sara Nelson --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“Engrossing. . . . Thrilling. . . . Does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.” —The New York Times
“Lab Girl made me look at trees differently. It compelled me to ponder the astonishing grace and gumption of a seed. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to a deeply inspiring woman—a scientist so passionate about her work I felt myself vividly with her on every page. This is a smart, enthralling, and winning debut.” —Cheryl Strayed
“Brilliant. . . . Extraordinary. . . . Delightfully, wickedly funny. . . . Powerful and disarming.” —The Washington Post
“Clear, compelling and uncompromisingly honest . . . Hope Jahren is the voice that science has been waiting for.” —Nature
"Spirited. . . . Stunning. . . . Moving.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A powerful new memoir . . . Jahren is a remarkable scientist who turns out to be a remarkable writer as well. . . . Think Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sacks. But Hope Jahren is a woman in science, who speaks plainly to just how rugged that can be. And to the incredible machinery of life around us.” —On Point/NPR
“Lyrical . . . illuminating . . . Offers a lively glimpse into a scientifically inclined mind.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Some people are great writers, while other people live lives of adventure and importance. Almost no one does both. Hope Jahren does both. She makes me wish I’d been a scientist.” —Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder
“Lab Girl surprised, delighted, and moved me. I was drawn in from the start by the clarity and beauty of Jahren’s prose. . . . With Lab Girl, Jahren joins those talented scientists who are able to reveal to us the miracle of this world in which we live.” —Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
“Revelatory. . . . A veritable jungle of ideas and sensations.” —Slate
“Warm, witty . . . Fascinating. . . . Jahren’s singular gift is her ability to convey the everyday wonder of her work: exploring the strange, beautiful universe of living things that endure and evolve and bloom all around us, if we bother to look.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Deeply affecting. . . . A totally original work, both fierce and uplifting. . . . A belletrist in the mold of Oliver Sacks, she is terrific at showing just how science is done. . . . She’s an acute observer, prickly, and funny as hell.” —Elle
“Magnificent. . . . [A] gorgeous book of life. . . . Jahren contains multitudes. Her book is love as life. Trees as truth.” —Chicago Tribune
“Mesmerizing. . . . Deft and flecked with humor . . . a scientist’s memoir of a quirky, gritty, fascinating life. . . . Like Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir or Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, it delivers the zing of a beautiful mind in nature.” —Seattle Times
“Jahren's memoir [is] the beginning of a career along the lines of Annie Dillard or Diane Ackerman.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A scientific memoir that's beautifully human.” —Popular Science
“Breathtakingly honest. . . . Gorgeous. . . . At its core, Lab Girl is a book about seeing—with the eyes, but also the hands and the heart.” —American Scientist
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Top Customer Reviews
At one point Jahren compares the intelligence of her graduate students to her dog-- and the dog wins. She refers to another quiet student on a trip as "warm-blooded cargo," because of his uselessness as a driver. What really sealed the deal for me was the road trip. 5 Days before a conference, Jahren and Bill decide they want to attend. They decide to drive cross country, taking two graduate students with them to share in the driving (not to enrich their education or anything). One day, Jahren does not heed multiple warnings and directs the graduate student driver to go straight into a snow storm. Predictably, the van flips when they hit some ice. Lessons Jahren learned: 1) When you pee into bottles make sure to cap them. 2) Wear a seat belt. The student driver, understandably shaken, asks to be dropped off at the airport so she can fly home, but Jahren and Bill yell at her and refuse, calling her a quitter. They drag her to the conference in the banged up van so that Jahren can deliver the talk that was so important that it was never mentioned again in the book. When they return, Jahren nobly claims responsibility for the busted university van (as she should-- she was in charge!). How selfless.
Jahren and Bill enjoy giving their students a repetitive, meaningless task, like labeling hundreds of bottles, and then telling them that, sorry, they won't be using their work after all. To pass their sadistic test a student must both resign his or herself to the monotony that is science and accept that the work was wasted, but also salvage something from the time spent. A memorable student saved all the bottle caps, hoping they could be "spares" in the future.
There are little stories like this woven into the book, souring the beautiful language on scientific discovery and personal passion. I was a graduate student once and this culture is pervasive and horrifying and drives good students from pursuing science. A student may have the passion, but s/he just can't contend with being treated like the scum on Jahren's shoes. I admire Jahren's scientific successes and her obvious dedication, but it is overshadowed by her perpetuation of a problematic culture.
My 2 sisters and 2 scientist-children will receive this book as a gift! Thank you so much to Hope Jahren for writing this and I will read anything else you decide to write!
I appreciate the way she incorporated her struggles with mental illness, women in science and university funding (which will make any tuition paying parent give a HARD look at the college they are paying to educate their child at) within the book but never came off as whiny or complaining. Simply this is "the way it is". She is also deeply personal with her own thoughts on her childhood, the self doubts we all have in our twenties and eventually parenthood.
It was an entertaining, informative and inspiring read. Sometimes we don't know if we're making the right decisions, but if we made them, they are at least ours.
Now, the bad: There are some errors on scientific matters. A few examples: "[Vines] are the only plant on land that grows farther sideways than it does up." (Simply false.) "Vines are evergreen." (Some are, some aren't.) "[Arabidospsis thaliana is] one of the very few plants for which scientists have decoded the entire genome, which means that if you unravel the DNA inside one cell of the plant and stretch it out, we can tell you the exact chemical formula of the 125 million proteins that, one after the other, make up the chain." (She is apparently confusing proteins and nucleotides.) These are the quibbles of a fellow botanist, and I do not think they will detract from the book's other fine qualities for most readers. To me, though, they are occasional jolts that interrupt the reading.