Tag Archives: non-fiction

Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape – book review

Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape
Tom Wessels
Countryman Press; paperback; 160 pages
September 2010
4 stars

book cover - Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested LandscapeWhat snapped that tree? Everybody is asking this and similar questions, obsessed, as we are as a culture, with forensic investigation. What is weevils gnawing from within? Was it wind or snow load that toppled it? Or did it die for some other reason and thus snap due to lack of internal structural integrity?

Read Tom Wessels wonderful little book and learn. Better, pop it in your backpack and learn as you hike. Although written for forests of the northeastern part of the U.S., the principles involved are pretty much the same in all forest. (The particulars surely do vary by bioregion, though.)

With dozens of color photos and clear, concise writing, it’s hard to go wrong with this book if you’re interested in forested landscapes. For instance, Wessels’ chapter on how to tell if a forest has overgrown an agricultural field is full of cool details that are widely applicable. Part of this has to do with the fact that, at least in North America, farmers have cleared and abandoned fields in pretty much the same way for hundreds of years.

Read the signs like a real detective and appreciate your forest walks even more with this handy guide from ecologist and environmental biologist Wessels.

It’s All Greek to Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World – book review

It’s All Greek to Me:
From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath,
How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World
Charlotte Higgins
Harper; hardcover; 240 pages
March 2010
3 stars

It's All Greek to Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our WorldCharlotte Higgins knows an awful lot about really old stuff. When she says “classics,” she’s not talking about rock ‘n’ roll shredders from the 1970s. She’s talking Greek and Latin language writers from before Jesus first spit up on a pile of hay.

It’s All Greek to Me is one of those compendium books that, in a series of snippets and vignettes, tries to give the casual reader (commuting on the train or hanging out in a café trying not to be distracted by everything go on around her) a sense of where she came from.

But that sense will only be even moderately inclusive if our imaginary casual reader is very, very white. There’s no sense in Higgins’ book of there being any foundational culture other than the Greeks. Indeed, there’s no indication here that having the Greeks as the foundation of all that is good, true and beautiful might not be such a good or beautiful thing. There’s no sense here of the horrible xenophobia that is central to the ancient Greek cultures nor of the racist sense of superiority that infuses much of ancient Greek literature. Even though they lived in a Mediterranean culture themselves, the Greeks figured that pretty much everyone living in the “warm climates” was lazy, uncultivated – and dark skinned.

That said, there are no real surprises in what Higgins includes or excludes from her book of snippets. It’s all been done before, pretty much in exactly the same way. Higgins loves her Homer, so that’s what we get here: a love letter to Homer, along the lines of her Latin Love Lessons: Put a Little Ovid in Your Life. If you haven’t read Homer (or Ovid, for that matter), her books are worth checking out. Continue reading

A Brilliant Darkness book reivew

A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious 
Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of 
the Nuclear Age
João Magueijo
Basic Books
Hardcover
304 pages
November 2009

bill darkness3 stars

“The dead are the pensioners of remembrance,” João Magueijo writes toward the end of A Brilliant Darkness. With his book, Maguijo has built a home for his pensioner, the probably dead but definitely disappeared physicist Ettore Majorana. It may be sometimes a cat house (and you thought physicists were all serious and cerebral and stuff), sometimes a house of mirrors, but Majorana does indeed dwell on every page.

Ettore Majorana, we learn, was the wunderkind of the early atomic age. In his native Italy, the Sicilian worked with Enrico Fermi — or worked circles around Fermi and his circle of geniuses, according to Magueijo. Himself a physicist of some repute, Magueijo isn’t a great writer (his sentences sometimes get tangled in their dangling participles), but he’s clearly a passionate one who cares enough about his subjects to have done vast amounts of homework.

The underlying metaphor in A Brilliant Darkness is that the mysteriously disappeared Majorana is the elusive neutrino which passes through ordinary matter unperturbed and is notoriously hard to detect. (In the time it took you to read the foregoing sentence some 100 trillion neutrinos passed through your body.)

It’s not just a conceit: Majorana was hot on the trail of the neutrino, whose existence had been theorized, when he disappeared on March 26, 1938. Majorana’s work was important to Fermi’s project during World War II: developing the atomic bomb. Magueijo wonders, if Majorana had disappeared, whether the younger man might have tempered the venerable Fermi’s decision to join the Manhattan project.

We’ll never know, of course, and Magueijo, a physicist who deals in probabilities but never in certainties, revels in the epistemological uncertainty. In any case, we get a mystery story wrapped up in a biography that unfolds the history of particle physics in a most enjoyable way.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
 Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver; Harper Collins, 2007; Cloth, $26.95

Animal-Vegetable-MiracleA third of the world’s fossil fuel habit goes to supporting agriculture. Though that’s not the reason for the rise in organically grown food, it’s a good one. (The main reason is concern for the health of body, soul and soil.) A third of the world’s oil goes to growing and trucking food around the planet—and, in the U.S. at least, food transportation is tax deductible.

No wonder the industrial food chain is so addictive. Not only can we get what we want when we want it (apples in late winter and spring from New Zealand, to give just one example), but we can get it cheap, too.

Barbara Kingsolver, the noted novelist, and her family broke the habit. They did a geographical, moving from water-hog Tucson to a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley. There they got off the food grid and determined that they’d try to live for a year on only what they could grow or obtain within a certain, limited radius. They weren’t self-sufficient, by any means. To the contrary, one of Kingsolver’s driving themes is eating locally and doing business directly with local agriculturists. Continue reading