I never thought I’d look at formaldehyde aesthetically. Through the lens of the adept nature photographer Susan Middleton, the archives of the California Academy of Sciences—those taxidermied beavers and parrots, rows of pinned beetles, jars brimming with lizards—receive a clean framing and a fresh styling. The Academy’s Evidence Of Evolution (Abrams, $29.95) includes tortoise-shell shapes, lizard coloration, and, of course, the slight variations in finches’ beaks; these are vivid real-world illustrations of the evidence that led Darwin to his theories. The at-times elusive processes, patterns, and phenomena are further clarified in the sparkling and approachable text by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Her historical account of evolutionary discovery goes beyond Darwin’s cult to depict the contributing discoveries of Lyell, Goethe, Mendel, and Wallace, also taking time to dwell upon the history of evolution, and the curve ball of climate change.
After an early life of raucous dinner-table sparring and an involved public feminist intellectualism, all of which was decidedly “noisy,” in her middle years the English writer Sara Maitland converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and actively sought out a life of silence. Maitland is interested in her own growing love of silence and solitude primarily as it enacts an essential tension of the spiritual life. Is silence life-affirming, or deathly? Is it an absence, or a presence? Is it essentially either “’mad’ …or ‘bad’ (selfish, antisocial)”? A Book Of Silence (Counterpoint, $25) is Maitland’s effort to comprehend the magnetism of quiet, and to settle upon a “rule” for her own practice of it. In Sinai and Scotland, her narrative dwells upon gardens, Genesis, psychoanalysis, landscapes, monks, menopause, and supporting anecdotes from literature, world religions, and her own colorful life.