CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms

By Eugenia Bone
Hardcover ISBN-10: 1605294071; ISBN-13: 978-1605294070
Paperback ISBN-10:1609619870; ISBN-13:‎ 978-1609619879
384 pp.; 30 B&W illustrations
$25.99 (Hardcover); $16.99 (Paperback)

During my perusal of Mycophilia, I came across a reference to a mycologist whose “mustache lay on his upper lip like a sleeping baby hedgehog.” I also noted that the editor of a certain mycological journal was described as “a naughty Garrison Keillor.” It would be hard to disagree with either of these descriptions, but does the book’s author, a food writer named Eugenia Bone, write as felicitously about fungi as she does about my mustache or Britt Bunyard’s wry Midwestern wit?

The answer is Yes, for the most part. Toward the beginning of her book, Ms. Bone says that Mycophilia chronicles her fungal “learning curve,” but this suggests the book is a neatly-ordered autobiography, which it isn’t. Rather, it’s a wondrous hodgepodge that focuses now on Kennett Square mushroom cultivation, now on regional forays at their most beguiling (no brat packers or spheroid mycophagists), now on so-called shrooms, and now on myco-remediation. Like so many of us, Ms. Bone is crazily, inordinately passionate about fungi, and this passion is her book’s real subject. I got the impression that she’d like to visit the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in order to offer her personal encouragement to the fungi consuming the radioactivity there.

And yet the book does have an intermittent autobiographical element. Here I must take exception to botanist Richard Mabey, who reviewed it for the Wall Street Journal and complained about Ms. Bone’s personal touch–her compulsion, in his words, “to elaborate the trivial details of her personal routine.” Such details are what distinguishes Mycophilia from other mycological books, most of which give us (in the words of Dragnet’s Joe Friday) just the facts, ma’am. You want an example of this personal touch? Having eaten Psilocybe cyanescens at Telluride, she decides to take a bath. She writes: “While in the bathtub, I stopped feeling guilty about growing older and regretful about losing my looks, and then I realized that my body was a vessel... and it functioned well... and I felt grateful.” Descriptions like this are one of the reasons the book is such a splendid read.

At first, however, I found the repeated appearances of Tom Volk, whom Ms. Bone calls “the rock star of mycology,” and Gary Lincoff, whom she calls (Harrison Ford, take note) “the Indiana Jones of mycology” somewhat less than splendid. With all due respect to Tom and Gary, I wanted such worthies as David Hibbett (“the Michelangelo of cladistics”?), Hal Burdsall, Greg Mueller, Amy Rossman, Don Pfister, Dick Korf, etc. to get some attention, too. Actually, Dave Hibbett is mentioned, but his surname is misspelled. Ms. Bone, I thought, seems to be only interested in those mycologists whose presence at forays have turned them into celebrities.
But then I reminded myself that Mycophilia is not a scientific text. Indeed, when the author gets scientific, her prose wobbles, lumbers, and plods, as if she had boned up (so to speak) on such subjects as endophytes and mycoses expressly for this book. No, Mycophilia’s value lies in its, well, mycophilia. The casual reader or curious amateur is likely to pick it up and find himself or herself immersed in something akin to a new religion... and may in fact end up converted to that religion by the author’s missionary zeal. This would mean, among other things, fewer mycophobes in this great land of ours. To achieve such conversions, Tom Volk’s blue hair and tattoos are probably more useful than Dave Hibbett’s barcoding table. For they say, Hey, it’s really cool to dig mushrooms...

My baby hedgehog seems to be waking up, so I’ll leave you with one final thought: go out and buy a copy of Mycophilia for yourself or, perhaps better, a would-be mycophile.

— Review by Lawrence Millman
— Originally published in Fungi