On Sunday, HBO will air the Season 1 finale of the post-apocalyptic drama “The Last of Us,” a video game adaptation that has impressed critics and viewers with its sensitive depiction of people finding reasons to survive in a broken world. And what broke that world? Well, that’s a complicated question. Human nature, for sure. Government overreach, arguably. And, oh yeah … mushrooms.
The plague that devastates humanity in “The Last of Us” can be traced back to a genus of ascomycete fungi known as cordyceps, which infects people’s brains, turning them into ferocious monsters. This is just the latest in a long history of mushroom slander in pop culture. From the children’s book “Babar the Elephant” to the movie “Phantom Thread,” all too often artists see mushrooms as not just creepy to look at but downright dangerous.
But not always! For some different perspectives on how we can live alongside our spore-bearing, umbrella-shaped little neighbors, check out these books.
Anyone in search of fun facts about fungi should start with this collection of historical anecdotes and scientific inquiry, written by a British biologist who knows a lot about the symbiotic relationships between mushrooms and other living creatures. Sheldrake writes about mushrooms as food, as medicine, as a building material and as an advanced communications network — as works of astonishing organic art, in other words. As our critic Jennifer Szalai wrote, “Reading it left me not just moved but altered, eager to disseminate its message of what fungi can do.”
Fantastic Fungi Community Cookbook, by Eugenia Bone
A James Beard Award-nominated food and science journalist, Bone has written multiple books about mushrooms, including the lively overview “Mycophilia: Revelations From the Weird World of Mushrooms.” But for those primarily interested in consuming these weird little protuberances, Bone combined her own research with input from foragers, chefs and mycologists to produce a cookbook filled with delicious recipes and enticing photography. (Bone also contributed to a documentary by Louie Schwartzberg called “Fantastic Fungi,” available on Netflix.)
The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World, by Aliya Whiteley
Best known as a science-fiction writer, not a scientist, Whiteley brings a fascination with the alien aspects of nature to this more informal survey. She takes a personal approach to the subject, describing a lifelong preoccupation with mushrooms: how they look, how they taste and how they reproduce. With a different framing, the wilder tidbits in the book — including many details about how these organisms can both destroy and create — could be terrifying. Instead, they’re presented as miniature miracles.
The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning, by Long Litt Woon
Part memoir, part anthropological study and part celebration of life, this book tells the story of how Long responded to the death of her husband by following through on a plan they made to take a class about mushrooms. Learning more about fungi — and getting to know the habits and the obsessions of other people who are fascinated by them — changed the author’s perspective on perseverance and grief. As our critic Sarah Lyall wrote, “Seeing Long’s capacity for wonder and even contentment in the midst of her sadness feels like seeing tiny shoots of grass peeking from the ash in a landscape stripped bare by fire.”
Too much positivity in the books above? Try this horror-tinged mystery novel, about a 1950s debutante named Noemí, who travels from Mexico City to an imposing rural mansion to rescue her cousin Catalina from the mysterious Doyle family. Noemí’s snooping about the Doyles turns up some startling revelations, including their reliance on a special strain of mushroom that helps keep them healthy, strong and preternaturally powerful. Even here, though, the fungi are not the bad guys. Their impressive potency is just being misused by the malevolent.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Pop-up Adaptation, by Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Robert Sabuda.
We can’t leave this topic behind without mentioning one of the most memorable images in all of children’s literature: the hookah-smoking caterpillar coiled atop a mushroom cap, urging the lost and confused Alice to take a bite from his perch to grow either larger or smaller. There have been many editions of Carroll’s proto-psychedelic saga since it was first published in 1865; but this pop-up book, illustrated and engineered by Robert Sabuda, is particularly amazing. Look for the caterpillar’s mushroom hidden under one of the book’s many little flaps — because as always, fungi flourish in the dark, taking root where we least expect them.