Recently surprised by a middle-aged, educated mom who did not know that prunes were dried plums (“I thought they were just—prunes”) and another who did not know that trees could flower, it was newly clear to me that all of us could benefit from a fuller knowledge of the natural world. In The Practical Naturalist, produced in association with the National Audubon Society, the word “practical” is intended to assure readers they need not memorize binomial nomenclature in order to appreciate, explore and name the world around them, and that anyone, anywhere, anytime can become an amateur naturalist. The book makes this goal enjoyable and easy. It organizes the planet by habitat (Farm and Field, Forest, Grassland and so on) but only after starting with the habitat closest to us: our homes and neighborhoods. Here, garden snails, mourning doves, carpenter bees, spider webs and other everyday wonders are examined in gorgeous photography and concise text. Whether readers are interested in bugs in the backyard or world biomes, The Practical Naturalist—equal parts field guide, how-to book and family reference—makes very practicable an inquiry into the nature of all things natural.

For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, by Tara Parker-Pope, arrived the week two friends confided they were considering the D word. Never one to offer advice, I could only listen and marvel at the mess marriage can be. For Better does not offer advice either; it is not a self-help manual built from anecdotes and case studies. For Better is science, and isn’t science a more reassuring diagnostic for such woes? Science is evidence-based, unbiased and tested, and can prove far more helpful than mere advice, whether we are in trouble now or want to avoid it later, whether we are in the market for a spouse or a restraining order. New York Times reporter Parker-Pope culls recent findings from top relationship researchers and presents surprising insights (for instance, what eye-rolling or pronoun choice can signify), facts (33 percent of couples sleep in separate rooms) and mythbusters (conflict can be good, and the divorce rate is actually less than 50 percent). Readers are given tools (and fun questionnaires) to interpret verbal and nonverbal clues, identify top risk factors, assess a marriage’s health and try to fix what might be broken—or strengthen what is not.

24/7. We see and hear that number often enough, but does anyone ever do the math? 24/7 adds up to 168 hours—one week—and, according to Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours, it is the ideal unit by which to examine our lives. Most of us complain about not having enough time to do what it takes to feel successful at home or at work. 168 Hours posits that if we look at the data objectively—how we really spend each hour in an average week—we all have “enough.” After keeping a log for one week, readers can conduct their own Time Makeover: identify dreams and the “actionable steps” they require, optimize “core competencies” and, my favorite, outsource or minimize all the stuff left over. With allowances for downtime and “bits of joy” thrown in, time can finally be on our side, 24/7.

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