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Coyote's Top Five Books of 2007

  1. Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile
  2. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
  3. What is the What by Dave Eggers
  4. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  5. Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich

December 2007


Shackleton's Boat Journey by Frank A. Worsley, Captain of the HMS Endurance

Shackleton's Boat Journey

In poking around for a book to read after Christmas, I found this slim volume on my wife's bookshelves. We have a personal connection to Antarctic exploration, as Tom Crean, who played a major role on this boat journey with Shackleton and who was with Scott on his ill-fated journey to the Pole, was my wife's grandmother's uncle. In fact, we have often wondered where my youngest son got his height and, well, his unusually large ears. Then we saw a picture of Crean. Say no more.

This book, as all first-hand accounts of Antarctic exploration for the early 1900's, is amazing. What men these were, how courageous and just plain lucky to have survived their ordeal. By all accounts, Shackleton was a leader who inspired the best efforts of his men. That not one of his twenty-eight men perished in this remarkable journey is as unbelievable as the journey itself. If you have not read a first-hand account of these brave men, you own it to yourself to do so.


The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

The Paradox of Choice

One would think that with more and better choices being presented to us all the time, we would experience greater satisfaction with our lives. In fact, the opposite often happens. More choice means more time trying to find the best choice, and more dissatisfaction when we do finally choose, because of the cumulating opportunity costs of all the choices we reject. Paul van Delst suggested this book to me as a way to understand why an IDL development environment that provides unlimited choices for me is making my life less fun and productive and not more so. Schwartz provides an interesting analysis of the problem of choice and makes several suggestions for how we might structure our lives to live in an increasingly complex world.


Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times by George Crile

Charlie Wilson's War

I'm still working on a book, but I think the votes are in. This is the most interesting and exciting book I have read this year! Molly Ivins called it a “whale of a tale,” and it was that and more. This book reads more like a spy novel than the truth, but it is undoubtably non-fiction. I saw the recently released movie of the same name last night, and the movie is good, but you seriously don't want to miss this book. The movie would have been three days long to include all the interesting parts of this complex and compelling story. And this morning I read that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated. Having finished this book just a few days ago, I can clearly see the machinations of unintended consequences at work in this tragedy. If you read only one book this year, this is the one I would recommend without reservation.


The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler

The Clock Winder

The kids have all (finally!) left home for college, so the other day I thought it was time to head down to the downstairs, where their bedrooms were, with a pitchfork and clean the place up some. What a disaster! The only bright spot in my otherwise dreary day was sorting and dusting and rearranging the myriad books down there I had forgotten we owned. It was almost like a high-school reunion with old friends! I found this book, an early one from Anne Tyler that I must have read in the 1970s, and I couldn't remember it, so I started to read it again. It is not my favorite Anne Tyler, but you see evidence of the quirky dialog and strange, drifting characters that were to become her trademark. I guess at one time I must have owned every book Anne Tyler ever wrote, and I've always found them good for another read.


In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Sunburned Country

My son just returned from six months in Australia. I'm glad I didn't read this book before he left. I had no idea there were that many things that could kill you in Australia! I've been to Australia several times, and I am always trying to find a way to go again. It is one of the best places ever, and Bryson thinks so, too. I think he and I were there about the same time, because we certainly share some impressions of the country. In particular, I was struck, as Bryson is, by how much Australia reminded me of growing up in America in the 1950's. There is just an easiness and lack of hurry to it (changing radidly, of course, as Wal-Mart takes over the world) that I enjoyed very much, indeed. Jonathan tells me it is still a wonderful place, and, in fact, I had a hard time convincing him to come home. I think we will both make it a point to return. If you are thinking of going, read this laugh-out-loud book first. Just skip over the parts where he talks about snakes and spiders, and leave that for when you get home.


The Angel on the Roof by Russell Banks


I was driving back from playing tennis the other day, and I caught most of Russell Bank's story, The Moor, on the radio program This American Life. There was something about it that just spoke to me in a way that sounded intimate and familiar. So, when I got home, I immediately walked over to the University Library to see if I could find more of this kind of thing. I ran into this book, a collection of short stories, and I started to read them. I know this guy grew up in New Hampshire, and I grew up in Arizona, but there is something about our experiences that just resonates. I don't read a lot of fiction, but when I do, this is the reason I like it. If you are of a certain age, I think you will find this book most interesting.

November 2007


Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife


This is a most interesting book about the number zero. I don't believe I ever realized before what a radical idea it was, and what havoc it played with number theory, such as it was in Aristotle's day and for centuries to come in the West. Seife's ability to explain the role of zero, and its twin, infinity in conjunction with imaginary numbers and Riemann geometry was like an epiphany. Is it too late to become a mathematician? Highly recommended, especially if you are not a mathematician.


Fencing the Sky by James Galvin

Fencing the Sky

When I was looking up Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich on Amazon, I saw that people who had purchased Heart Mountain had also purchased this book by James Galvin. I'm familiar with Galvin, as he owns a small ranch about 30 miles north of here and he wrote a wonderful book about the area, entitled The Meadow, which I liked very much. (Ronn Kling, who owns a cabin with his brother in the area, is a neighbor of Glavin's.) This is an interesting book. I didn't care much for it at first, because it is told in a chopped-up, time-sliced way that I initially found confusing. But I was on a hike this weekend, and during those long stretches when you are alone with your thoughts, I kept thinking about this book. It's not the kind of blockbuster Western novel Heart Mountain is, but it was worth reading nevertheless.


Drinking Dry Clouds by Gretel Ehrlich

Drinking Dry Clouds

This is a companion piece to Ehrlich's Heart Mountain. The first part of the book is a set of stories that Ehrlich expanded upon and changed slighly for Heart Mountain. The second part of the book are short stories told by these same characters five years after the events described in Heart Mountain. I'm not sure this is a book I would recommend reading on its own. But I did very much enjoy reading the second half of the book to see how things turned out. Alas, the reader isn't led to expect happy endings all around, and Ehrlich is not a writer to sugarcoat the truth. Life is pain, as the Buddists say, and this book confirms it.


Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich

Heart Mountain

This is one of those big, historical Western novels, in same league as Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, or (what it reminded me of constantly as I was reading) John Steinbeck's East of Eden. I know Ehrlich well as a writer of wonderfully vivid and lyrical essays of the American West. I have never read her fiction before. With the certain exception of Barry Lopez, most writers of non-fiction don't translate well into fiction. But Ehrlich joins Lopez as a writer capable of writing equally well in both genres. This is a book I will read again. A whopping good tale of love, loss, and unforgetable characters in the American West in the mid-1940s.


Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer

Parasite Rex

Here is another fascinating book by Carl Zimmer, clearly one of my new favorite science writers. The subtitle of this book is Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, and it is appropriate. Just as our knowledge of evolutionary biology is exploding, so, too is our knowledge of parasitology. Once considered a problem of Africa and the low-lying equatorial countries of the world, we now know that parasites are everywhere and they play a large role in the development and evolution of the planet. For example, evolutionary biologists have had a hard time coming up with a good justification for sex. (Other than as a justification for high-speed Internet connections in the home, I mean.) Parasitologists now have evidence that sexual reproduction is a strategy for dealing with parasitic attacks. And where else could you learn about the anal cannon of the leaf-rolling caterpillar, which shoots digestive waste up to two feet away, thereby avoiding the parasitic wasp that is attracted to the smell? If you are a parent, you will find threatening stories in here that will surely keep the children in line!


Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Digging to America

My father passed away a couple of weeks ago, after a long illness. I was reading a book about parasitology at the time, and that seemed a little insensitive to take to a funeral. So I looked around for something more appropriate, for something having to do with families and quirky family relationships. In my mind, there is only one author who consistently fills that niche: Anne Tyler. Digging to America is the latest in a long line of her excellent books, any of which I would recommend. And, as I expected, my eyes misted over in the first five pages as I was introduced to Jin-Ho and Sooki, soon to be known as Susan, two Korean babies being adopted by an American and Iranian family, repectively. This is a warm, good-hearted story of how two very different families, thrown together accidentally, end up making a difference in each others lives. Most enjoyable, and the kind of book that always makes me remember what is important in life.

October 2007


Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

I first read this book back in the early 1990s and I remember being impressed with it, but I couldn't remember all the details. But this weekend I went to see the movie of the same name, directed by Sean Penn, and I was absolutely blown away by it. I think it may have been the best movie I have ever seen. Certainly I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it. I came home from the movie and immediately dug out my copy of this book and read it front to back. The movie version is an amazingly faithful adaptation of the book. And although I have never said this before in my life, the movie may be even better than the book. My hat is off to both Jon Krakauer (who, in addition to this book, has written other excellent books I highly recommend) and Sean Penn who captures, I think, the essence of Chris McCandless in this movie adaptation. Breathtaking.


Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World by Carl Zimmer

Soul Made Flesh

This book is a fascinating history of what the scientific world looked like in the late 1600's. I don't think I ever realized so completely how many of our breakthroughs in medicine and physiology came from “scientists” who were so deeply steeped and interested in alchemy. A great many of these men (few women are mentioned) were the snake-oil salesmen of their day. And, in truth, many of these ideas of spirits and fires and ferments happening in the blood and other organs of the body and not far from the truth, and no more fanciful or magical then some of our own ideas in developmental biology today. (See The Making of the Fittest by Sean B. Carroll, for example.)

Most interesting to me were the descriptions of experiments these practitioners of the medical arts came up with to understand the human body. How does one, for example, prove that the blood circulates in the body? Or that something in the blood (invisible to everyone then as now) was required for life? Fascinating reading by an excellent science writer.


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides


This book started out with two strikes against it. First, it was a gift from my mother (certain death for most books), and then it had an Oprah Book Club stamp on it. Generally, I find my own books, thank you. But then my oldest son, a prodigious reader himself, weighed in with the opinion that this was his new favorite book of all time, displacing his previous favorite, Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. Since my taste in fiction generally runs toward melancholy coming of age stories (one of my favorite books of all time is Richard Llewellyn's lovely book, How Green Was My Valley) I decided to have a look. I was hooked on the first sentence in the book:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

This is a remarkable coming of age story of what it is like to be born a hermaphrodite, or person of uncertain gender. In this case, Callie (or Cal as he is known later) has a male XY genotype, but female genitalia as a result of a 5-alpha-reductase mutation. (See either of the Sean Carroll books below to understand how this can happen developmentally). Sensitively written, funny and sad in turns, this is a rollicking good story that takes you all over the world and the adolescent landscape by an excellent writer. I highly recommend this outstanding novel.

September 2007


A River Runs Throught It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean

A River Runs Through It

Norman Maclean grew up in Montana in the 1920's and this novella and two other short stories describe his experiences there. In many ways it wasn't so different from the way I remember growing up in Arizona in the 1950's. The West was always a tough place. The title story of Maclean's fine book was made into a movie staring Brad Pitt and directed by Robert Redford, but I don't remember it having the same effect as reading the story did. An excellent book for rainy afternoons when the wife is complaining about cleaning the house alone and you remember how full of promise life used to be for a young man growing up in the West.


At the Water's Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to the Sea by Carl Zimmer

At the Water's Edge

If Zimmer would write books with shorter titles and larger print, he might well become my new favorite author. I don't know how many times I stopped reading and shouted out to my wife, "Hey, did you know this?," but it was a lot. (Of course, she did already know it, since she is a biology teacher, but it made me feel better about myself that now I knew it, too.) This is a fascinating book about how life dragged itself out of the oceans, got started in God knows how many different directions, and eventually how mammals found their way back to the sea as whales and dolphins. It is a complicated story of fossils and genetic evidence, still not completely pieced together, but Zimmer tells it with a storyteller's gift. If you spurned biology for physics classes like I did, here is a book you really don't want to miss reading.


The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

The God of Animals

Something off the beaten path this week. I really wanted to read a book by Carl Zimmer that was recommended to me by both Sean Carroll and my middle son. But when it arrived from Amazon, I saw it was printed in a font size I thought was reserved for medicine prescription bottles. While I waited for yet another pair of reading glasses to arrive, with yet another higher power (sigh...), I found this novel in the library. Aryn Kyle is apparently a young writer, and this is her first novel. If so, I plan to read more of her. Set somewhere in Arizona, it is a coming of age tale of a young girl. This is a fine story, not a happy one, about real people living in the real world. I found it satisfying and moving, both.

August 2007


The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution by Sean B. Carroll

The Making of the Fittest

As exciting as Sean Carroll's first book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, was, it was still fairly technical for lay audiences. This one corrects that problem by laying out the lessons of evolutionary development (Evo Devo) and our current understanding of comparative genomics in a way that is accessible (and exciting!) to any interested reader. This tale of history recorded in the both the immortal (surviving virtually intact in all animals for over 500 million years) and fossilized (abandoned) genes accomplishes his goal of providing irrefutable evidence of evolution's explanatory power and scope. Carroll goes a bit over the top in the final two chapters (where was his editor!?) and becomes a nag. His final chapter was obviously written at 3AM on one of those nights neither he or I can sleep, wondering what is going to become of the human race, and feeling particularly pessimistic about its chances of surviving long into the future. But skip the last two chapters, and this is a particularly good book at explaining what is going on in biology today.


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach


Between my incipient neurobiologist son and my naturalist wife and her book club pals, there have been some curious books lying around the house this summer. This is one of the strangest, and yet--at the same time--one of the most entertaining. I had a hard time putting it down. Mary Roach, it is clear, would be a hoot to have over for dinner. There are times she tries a little too hard for laughs in this book (I would have preferred more of her droll humor), but there were too many times, I am afraid to say, that I was just plain laughing out loud. And, yet, at the same time there is a reverence for both the subject and for her deceased protagonists. All in all, a most unusual and entertaining book.


Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo by Sean B. Carroll

Endless Forms Most Beautiful

I started this book awhile ago, and got bogged down in some of the details. But after David Quammen's wonderful introduction to Mr. Darwin's ideas (see below) I couldn't wait to get back to it. Sure enough, this time I was more attuned to the larger ideas, and found this to be an amazing introduction to Evolutionary Development (Evo Devo). Carroll calls Evo Devo the third revolution behind Darwin's theory of natural selection and the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary development. The main point is that the basic plan for animal development has been in place for millions of years and that the generation of dfferent forms is not related to new gene development, but to the use of old genes in new ways. Evo Devo gives us the tools and the vocabulary to make sense of evolutionary development and to see the similarities in totally dissimilar forms. If it has been over 20 years since you studied biology, you better get hold of this book and get back up to speed!


The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

David Quammen is a wonderful science writer. His book The Song of the Dodo is on my Top Five Science Books of All-Time list. So I would read anything he wanted to write. Even so, this little book is a gem. It picks up after Charles Darwin has returned from his famous journey on the Beagle and tells the story of what Charles Darwin's life was like when he returned. Why did he wait so long to publish his theory of Natural Selection? What was he up to? It was only when a manuscript from the self-taught Alfred Russell Wallace landed on his doorstep and "scared the bejesus out of him" that Darwin shook off the sommulent attitude and dashed off On the Origin of Species. Quammen, always the journalist, tells why that rushed volume was so much better than the book the cautious Darwin wanted to write. All in all, a good tale, well told.


Islands, The Universe, Home by Gretel Ehrlich

Islands, The Universe, Home

I love to read all kinds of books, but books of essays are my favorites. Give me any essay written by Barry Lopez and I'm gone for the evening. I would put Gretel Ehrlich and John McPhee in that same company. All three are grounded by place, but their ideas soar from there. In Ehrlich's case, the place she is grounded in is nearby, in Wyoming. I gave this book to my sister-in-law when she was here for a visit last Easter. She returned it to me while I was on a trip back East to care for my father. Re-reading Ehrlich always provides solace and perspective, something badly needed the past couple of weeks. This is a beautifully written book by a woman passionate about life and her place in it.

July 2007


Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

Back When We Were Grownups

This book starts up with this first line: Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. A book that starts like that, is a book you want to read. I've spent the week chauffeuring my father back and forth to cancer treatments, and I've heard a lot of family stories. This wonderfully quirky book is pure Anne Tyler, and one of my favorites. This must be the third time I've read it because it always puts my family, and my role in the family, back into perspective for me. A wonderful book, and a must read for anyone over the age of 50.


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell


This is a book my son, the incipient neurobiologist, recommended to me. Gladwell's purpose is to explain the phenomenon of “thin-slicing,” which is the left-brain's ability to holistically size up a situation and make sense of it without using the brain's conscious ability to reason. We often think of thin-slicing as intuition or first-impressions, but often it's just a general feeling that something isn't right here. This much I knew. What was new to me in this book is how easy it is to “program” the sense thin-slicing makes of the world without ever being aware of it. Advertisers have known it for a long time, but it is always useful to be reminded of how easy we can be manipulated into making decisions that we only think are conscious.


Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon

Lonely Planets

There is about one book a decade that when you finish it you just sit there for 10 minutes and think "Wow!" Trinity by Leon Uris was such a book. As was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. Lonely Planets is another that did that to me. I finished it after reading for an hour and a half in a coffee shop. My coffee was cold. My leg had fallen asleep. And my mind was in some other place. Wow, indeed.

This is a book that was recommended to me by an astronomer who had been reading my book list and thought I would enjoy this book. It is an absolutely honest and unflinching look at planetary science today. (Well, as it was in 2003. As I read the book I kept finding news articles that relate to the story.) This is a book that unsettled me because it changed some of my ideas about what I thought I knew and believed. I hope Grinspoon plans a sequel. It will be VERY high on my list!


Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson


E.O. Wilson was one of the scientists profiled in Robert Wright's book Three Scientists and Their Gods, so I was interested in learning more. While moving books off the bookshelves for a painting project, I discovered this autobiography of Wilson, apparently purchased by my wife years ago (hardback for less than $8.00!), and decided to read it. Since I stumbled into IDL work by accident, I am always curious to know how famous scientists found their calling. In Wilson's case, an eye injury in his youth damaged his binocular vision, and he found that his other eye was amazingly near-sighted (and remained so all his life). He simply could see things like ants better than most people when he held them up to his one good eye. So, he because an ant expert. The book is especially interesting when he is documenting his feuds with James Watson and the other molecular biologists on the one hand, and with the New Left scholars Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin on the other. The Harvard Biology Department must have had extremely interesting meetings during the 1970s and 1980's.


The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map

This is the story of the terrifying cholera epidemic in 1854 that attacked the Soho District in London. In the epidemic, nearly 700 people living within 250 yards of a contaminated well perished. Johnson is an accomplished storyteller (see his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software for another lively read) and his descriptions of the fetid living conditions found in Victorian London are not for the squeamish. But this story is about so much more than just re-telling the story of how John Snow pieced together the evidence that cholera was spread by contaminated water and convinced the local board to remove the handle of the Broad Street water pump. In truth, it wasn't that simple, and the Health Board resisted the evidence then and for years to come in favor of their firmly established--and wrong--miasmic theory of contamination. So, it is first and foremost a story of how science works in the real world and how truly difficult it is to convince the establishment to accept evidence that differs from their pre-conceived notions of how things must be.

June 2007


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This book is of a piece with Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which I read over Christmas vacation last year. It is the story of Kingsolver's resolve to spend one year eating only locally grown foods, including what she and her family could produce themselves on their small farm in Virginia. I've been giving a lot of thought to learning to eat differently now that the kids are grown and I don't have to hear so many complaints about my choice of vegetables. As I do so, the idea of making a smaller footprint on the planet appeals to me. I've been going to more Farmer's Markets lately and trying to cut down on the fruits and vegetables I eat that have to be flown a bizillon miles to get here. I even started a garden this year for the first time in a LONG while. Lot's of recipes and advice in this book if you are inclined to eat more locally. If you live nearby, I have some zucchini I would love to bring over to you!


The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

The Shape Shifter

This is a typical Tony Hillerman mystery novel. Nothing special. A great way to make the time go by on an airline flight. Hillerman specializes in writing about the Navajo Indian culture of northern Arizona and New Mexico. Most of his stories involve characters working for the Navajo Tribal Police. This story is about Joe Leaphorn, who is now retired, but still looking into interesting old cases. I've read all of the Hillerman books, so the characters are like old friends to me now. Even if the story isn't his best, it's fun to keep up with old friends.


What is the What by Dave Eggers

What is the What

Don't pick this book up if you have anything else to do. I'd heard about it on the radio, but I wasn't prepared to be seduced on the very first page. Dave Eggers is becoming my new favorite author. His book You Shall Know Our Velocity is also in my top ten list. He has an unique voice and is the consummate storyteller. This book is the fictionalized account of the true story of Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, homeless refugees of the long civil war in that country. One of the reviewers says it is a “moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book,” and I couldn't agree more. I like to think of myself as well-read and informed about the world, but I had no idea such things as are described in this book have been going on in Sudan for as long as they have. This is the kind of book that not only spurs you into action, but demonstrates in a powerful, personal way how important it is to care. The link is to the hardcopy edition, but it should be available in paperback soon. I was reading an early paperback edition by the Quality Paperback Book Club.


Three Scientists and Their Gods: A Search for Meaning in an Age of Information by Robert Wright

Three Scientists and Their Gods

In this well-written and personal book, Wright searches for the meaning of life by examining the personalities and thinking of three prominent scientists: Edward Fredkin, E.O. Wilson, and Kenneth Boulding. Wright's ability to describe scenes is unparalleled in a science writer. The book is funny, interesting, and thought provoking, all at once. If I had talent, I would like to write like Barry Lopez, of course. But since that's impossible, I think with some practice I might be able to write like Robert Wright. He is both funny and accessible. The problem Wright is struggling with is that consciousness is just do darn, well, "weird." There doesn't appear to be any evolutionary reason for it. Humans could do everything it is they do without having it "feel like something to be human." So what is it all about? Wright doesn't come up with the answer, but he does have a wonderful time exploring the question. This is an older book, first published in 1988, but still relevant to people interested in these ideas. Support your local used book store and buy a copy of this book!


Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order by George Johnson

Fire in the Mind

George Johnson was my group leader in a recent Santa Fe Science-Writing workshop. In several of our discussions, this book came up, so I decided to read it when I came home. Drawing inspiration from the Pueblo Indians who live near him, and from the scientists at Los Alamos and the Santa Fe Institute, Johnson weaves together a powerful story of how humans carve up the world to make sense of it. If you ever wondered if there were laws guiding the universe, or whether the order we find in it is a mere artifact of the way we have evolved, this is an immensely provocative book that considers all sides of the question. Well-written and well-reasoned, this is one of my favorite books this year.


Wondrous Cold: An Antarctic Journey by Joan Myers

Wondrous Cold

I was in Santa Fe recently and on a free afternoon was visiting the Andrew Smith Photography Gallery. After admiring some of my favorite Ansel Adam's photographs, I wandered upstairs and walked into what used to be a small bedroom in this converted house and taking up one wall was the most beautiful picture of sea ice I had ever seen. I immediately was pitched back into remembrances of my own journey to the Arctic and how impossible it was for me to capture the ineffable color of the ice. This photographer, Joan Myers, has done it perfectly.

Naturally enough, because it was Santa Fe, at the barbecue that evening my host was a personal friend of Ms. Myers and she showed me this book. I ordered it as soon as I came home. What a delightful way to spend an evening. If you have ever been to the Arctic or the Antarctic, this book will evoke powerful memories of the place.


May 2007


The Beast in the Garden by David Baron

The Beast in the Garden

This is the story of mountain lions in the Front Range of Colorado, where I live. Part of the reason we live here is the opportunity to see deer, fox, and other wildlife wandering through the neighborhood. But with the deer come the lions, their natural predator. Two summers ago one of my tennis friends, who lives just a couple of miles from me, had a big male lion camped on his back porch for half an hour, completely unafraid of humans and yapping dogs in house, allowing himself to be photographed. We see lion sign on the hikes we take frequently in the foothills just to the west of town. Should we be afraid? Well, the chances of being attacked by a lion are about the same as winning the lottery, but it does happen. Two summers ago a seven year old boy walking hand-in-hand with his father was attacked on a trail near here. The father fought the lion off, but not before the boy was severely injured. As more and more lions live in the area, they become habituated to humans, at which point they become dangerous. If we want deer, and we do, then we have to learn to live with lions. But that said, after reading this book I'm going to be paying just a little more attention to what goes on around me than I used to!


Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World by Kathleen Dean Moore


Moore is a philosopher at the University of Oregon, but clearly she spends a lot of time outdoors. This short book of essays is about her relationship to both nature and to the people she loves. We all are hanging on, like the holdfast, to that which we hold most dear. This lovely book was the perfect book for a long flight away from my family and an antidote to a rough week in which a friend of my son's and a student at the school where my wife teaches died and we had to put one of our dogs down. Sometimes we just need to hang on to one another. This beautifully written book reminds me of that life lesson.


Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing by Elise Hancock

Ideas Into Words

Years ago, before I got started with IDL, I set out to become a science writer. A wife in medical school and babies on the way short-circuited my plans and caused me to get a real job. Funny how things don't always work out the way we expect. But my youngest is graduating from high school this month, and I still have an urge to try my hand at science writing. I'm going to a science writing workshop in a couple of weeks to see what it would take to get back on track. I discovered this terrific little book on science writing while I was poking around the Internet looking for something else. Tons of good advice here in a short book that I easily read in a long afternoon. Hancock was a long-time science writer at Johns Hopkins University. She is now a licensed acupuncturist. I understand how that works.


The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

River of Doubt

OK, I admit it. I spent most of 7th grade thinking about Pam Hershey rather than the American Presidents, but still, how could I have missed learning about someone as interesting as Theodore Roosevelt!? After reading this book about an exploratory trip he led down an unknown river in the middle of the Amazon after he was President, he has moved to the top of my list of people I'd like to have over for dinner. What an amazing story of grit, courage, and shear perseverance in the face of danger and starvation. And as if that weren't enough, Millard also throws in a lesson about the Amazon ecosystem and native Indians that is equally fascinating. A great read!


April 2007


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond


It has taken me nearly four months to read this book. Not because it wasn't interesting, but because I had to read it is small doses to avoid wallowing in pessimistic thoughts of the kind of future we are leaving our children. I was finishing it up last night when my mother invited me over to watch the Planet Earth series on Discovery Channel. There it was confirmed to me that these wonderful sights of animals are almost gone from our world. Nearly every animal they showed was "endangered" or "threatened" or a "remanent population." Diamond himself claims to be "cautiously optimistic" about the Earth's chances of evolving a way to live sustainably without dire consequences. Maybe in my best moments I approach cautiously optimistic. But mostly I fear for what awaits my children. Jane Goodall was in town last week, and I went to her lecture. She, also, professes to have hope for the future. I'm trying hard to get on that bandwagon, because the alternative is just too damn depressing.


The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition by Susan Solomon

The Coldest March

I guess I'm not finished with Captain Scott's famous expedition to the South Pole. When Susan Solomon, the discovered of the Antarctic ozone hole, came to speak at a climate change conference at a local high school, I learned she had written a book about the Scott expedition. This is an account of that expedition, pieced together from the journals and memoirs of the people who went on the journey, and interrupted occasionally by her own experiences (one presumes, although the “visitor” is always described in masculine pronouns, which annoys me no end) in the Antarctic. What is different about this book is the ability to look back on events from the perspective of a 20 year history of accurate temperature records and see just how unusual the cold temperatures were that Scott and his companions suffered on the return journey. Undoubtedly, it was these extremely low temperatures, and the frostbite they engendered, that caused the five polar explorers to lose their lives. And unusual conclusion from the book is that Wilson and Bowers might have been able to complete the journey, or at the very least get to the next food depot, just 11 miles away, where they could conceivably have found help, but that they refused to leave Scott, whose right foot was so damaged by frostbite that he could no longer walk.


A Primate's Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir

Robert Sapolsky is a neurobiologist at Stanford University. This is a memoir of field research he did on baboon behavior in Kenya in the beginning years of his career in the late 1970's. It is by turns funny, scary, and moving, sometimes all in the same paragraph. I am not an African hand by any means, but I did spend three weeks in Africa doing research last year and I can believe everything I read in this totally engaging book. This is not a typical science book and reads more like an exciting novel. Extremely entertaining and, ultimately, unsettling to know they way things really work in Africa.


This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich

This Cold Heaven

I first became familiar with Gretel Ehrlich, one of my favorite authors, years ago when I read The Solace of Open Spaces, essays based on her experiences in my part of the country. This book is a series of essays of seven seasons Ehrlich spent in Greenland, interrupted from time to time with historical accounts of Knud Rasmussen's extensive travels in the Arctic in the early 1900's. She writes beautifully and always evokes a sense of place. If you are interested in the Arctic and the life of native Eskimo people, this is a wonderful introduction to the subject and to the extensive first-hand accounts of people who have written about it. Apart from Barry Lopez, no one writes with more authority about the country she travels in than Ehrlich.


March 2007


Hard Truth by Nevada Barr

Hard Truth

Don't make the mistake, as I did, of opening up a Nevada Barr novel on the day you promise your wife to get some work done around the house. It's not gonna happen. Not only that, I'm no good today, either, as I stayed up until 2:30 AM to finish the darn thing. I simply could not put it down. That said, this is the darkest, blackest mystery novel I've ever read. I don't think I will read this one again. Anna Pigeon, Barr's resourceful National Park Ranger, is up against pure evil in a psychopath who is harming young children. The action in this book takes place in the vicinity of my home, which makes the story all the more chilling. This will be a hard book to forget, but I'm not sure for all the right reasons.


The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time

I had heard about the Dust Bowl and the dust storms that in the 1930s carried away of millions of tons of Great Plains top-soil, but I knew none of the details. Egan makes it real for you by describing the combination of hucksterism and disastrous government policies that led up to it, and the lives of the people who lived through it. Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona I remember my own share of “dusters,” large dust storms that make it impossible to see three feet in front of you, but in 1937, the final year of a disastrous five year drought, people in the dust bowl had to live with 137 of these fearsome storms. When the rain finally returned, and crops were growing again, the wrecked environment could produce only hoards of locust, which just added insult to injury. This is the story of the people who endured these terrible times.


The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos by Robert Kirshner

The Extravagant Universe

While I was poking around in the Astronomy section of the library stacks, looking for Miss Leavitt's Stars, I happened upon this short book by Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I recognized Professor Kirshner's name from my travels in the IDL universe. This is a first person account of how modern astronomers came to understand and use Type Ia supernovae as standard candles for measuring the Universe. (Hence, it was a perfect companion book to Miss Leavitt's Stars, see below.) But more than that, it was the story of how the “high-z team” of astronomers led by Professor Kirshner came to the startling conclusion that the Universe was not just expanding, but accelerating. It contains the clearest explanation I've ever read of dark matter and dark energy, and of the roles they play in the Universe. Clearly written, engaging, and sometimes funny, this is an excellent book for someone wanting to learn more about the strange modern discoveries of astronomy that are shaking up our view of the Universe.


Miss Leavitt's Stars by George Johnson

Miss Leavitt's Stars

I've been invited to participate in the 2007 Sante Fe Science Writing Workshop and George Johnson, a science writer for the New York Times, is one of the organizers of the workshop. I was looking around for something he had written and I found this wonderful little book about Miss Leavitt, a “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory in the 1920's. The “computer's” at the Observatory were young women, hired for 25 cents an hour to examine and record stars on photographic plates. The book is subtitled The Unknown Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. Miss Leavitt was assigned to measure the brightness of the variable stars, now known as Cepheids, in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. She did this so well, and so diligently, that her work set the stage for measuring the size and extent of the visible Universe. If you've ever wondered how we know a galaxy is two million light years away, you will find the answer in this little book.


The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Worst Journey in the World

Paul Theroux calls this first person account of the ill-fated 1910-1913 Robert F. Scott expedition to the South Pole his “favorite travel book.” I know what he means. My copy, a musty 2nd edition that I found in the bowels of the University library, is well over 500 pages long, and I think I read the darn book in three days. I simply could not put it down. It starts out “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.” Theroux writes that the book is “about courage, misery, starvation, heroism, exploration, discovery, and fiendship.” And it is about all that and so much more. What commitment these men had to science and to each other. As I get older I get more cynical about the world I am leaving to my children. This book restored my faith. And to think it happened less than 100 years ago is astounding.

A personal connection to this book also added to its interest. Tom Crean, one of the members of this expedition, as well as Shackleton's legendary Endurance expedition a few years later, was a brother of my wife's great grandfather. This is the best book I have read in a long, long time!


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson is better known as a travel author (A Walk in the Woods and Notes From a Small Island), but I kept hearing his name and this book mentioned by my scientist friends. Finally, I purchased it for Christmas for a friend and neighbor with the hope of borrowing it back. Sure enough, about two weeks ago it was back with yet another positive recommendation. And after reading it, I can understand why.

Sometimes we are so encompassed by science that we forget why we got interested in it in the first place. This is a book that will help you remember. Bryson just wanted to know more about the world around him and he started asking questions of the experts. This is the result. It is a book that looks at the wonder of the world from the point of view of a non-scientist. Everything he learns is exciting and new and, well, fresh. And it seems like that to you, too. (Every cell in your body is jam-packed with six feet of DNA. If you spread all the DNA in your cells out end to end, you could get to the moon and back many, many times. I guess I knew that, but I didn't really know it in a way that got me excited about telling it to my wife!)

What sets this book apart, however, even more than the fresh eyes on the subject matter, is Bryson's ability to track down the personalities behind the science. Are all scientists so strange!? It sometimes seems that way, but I found the background stories as fascinating as the science stories. All in all, an excellent book that covers an awful lot of interesting ground.


February 2007


Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge by Jill Fredston

Rowing to Latitude

This is my favorite kind of travel book, a first-person account of difficult travels in a wild and dangerous place. Jill Fredston writes wonderfully well of her adventures rowing around the Arctic with her husband, Doug Fesler. Avalanche experts in Alaska most of the year, they take off in a rowboat and kayak in the summer to row long distances in lonely waters. This is the story of what they learn, why they do it, and how it changes them in the process. A lovely book and one of a series that I steal from my wife when she is finished reading them for her book club.


Fresh Air Fiend by Paul Theroux

Fresh Air Fiend

Paul Theroux is another of my favorite travel writers, and I often have a Paul Theroux book with me when I travel. This one I took with me on a recent trip to Spain. Last year, before I went to Africa I read his best book (in my opinion) Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Fresh Air Fiend is a collection of his best travel writing and essays over a period of twenty years or so. Theroux has traveled on five continents and in remote places everywhere. He likes to go where the word on the street has it that the place is dangerous or not worth seeing. He has an encyclopedic memory for details and enough facility with languages that he can talk to anyone, anytime. His approach to travel is one I try to imitate whenever possible.


The Story of Spain by Mark Williams

Story of Spain

I spent three weeks in Spain this month and wanted to know more about the place. I picked this book up in the museum shop at the end of a tour of El Escorial, the monastery and royal palace of King Felipe II. I would read it in the five or six hours between when I returned to my hotel from teaching IDL classes and the restaurants opened at 9:30 or 10:00 at night. Somehow the whole Franco era had escaped my attention in school and this book filled me in on that as well as many other events in Spanish history. It certainly gave me a better feel for the land as I made my way by train to language classes in Salamanca. And it was important background for understanding the cultural lectures I attended at the language school in the evenings. A quick read, but it does serve to get you orientated to a beautiful and interesting country.


January 2007


The Anna Pigeon Mysteries by Nevada Barr

Firestorm Blood Lure Blind Descent Hunting Season Deep South

Someone, not me, received a copy of Nevada Barr's Firestorm for Christmas and a few days later I found it laying unread on the side table. I picked it up out of curiosity and spent the next couple of days transfixed with the first Anna Pigeon mystery I had ever read. I would soon read more, because I found a whole shelf of them over at my local library, and I checked a pile out. This was one of the most pleasant Christmas vacations I've ever had!

Anna Pigeon is a National Park Ranger, and these stories are all set in various National Parks in the US. Every story is well-written and engaging, and if you are familiar with the parks, full of memories, too. Anna is plucky, only too human, and the sort of person you would like to have as a friend. These books are guaranteed to brighten up any holiday or dreary airport. This is the first time in my life I have looked forward to the family reunion this summer. I'm going to read all fourteen of them!

Last Updated: 20 March 2011