Nonfiction

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

This is a hard book to categorize. Is it a dual biography? A history of a region? An environmental paean to a place? A literary memoir of the West? A road book to both grand and despoiled places?

It’s all of the above and more. Gessner began the book as a tribute to two western writers who have inspired him: Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Gessner went to grad school in Colorado and fell in love with the southwest. Abbey and Stegner became his heroes and teachers, although not literally—he learned through their writing.

He compares the more revolutionary-seeming Abbey who broke laws (trashed earth-moving machines to stop development and threatened to blow up dams) with the more straight-laced Stegner.

   

Hissing Cousins

This double biography of two famous first cousins, both belonging to the famous Roosevelt clan, brings the early 20th century to life in both Washington DC and New York and gives us a fascinating peak into two strong women’s lives, both of whom married or were born into politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her first cousin Alice were born just eight months apart. Alice came from the Republican Oyster Bay branch of the family and Eleanor from the Democratic Hyde Park (NYC) branch. Not only did they differ in political and social outlooks, but they even pronounced their last name differently. Alice’s family said Rose—evelt. And Eleanor’s pronounced the same name as Ruse-evelt.

   

H is for Hawk

I almost became a falconer once. The ad promised you hands-on training for catching raptors, and you would be working with ones needing care, so it seemed like the perfect volunteer gig.  However, our time in California was drawing to a close, so I never got to experience the drama and force of a raptor landing on my gloved hand. But, wow, did I love this book.

This memoir artfully intertwines three stories: Helen’s experience training her first goshawk, her grieving for her father, and author T. H. White’s mixed results raising falcons and hawks. All these stories are told powerfully, and the subject is so interesting that I found the book riveting.  

Training the small fierce goshawk Mable (the author chose the name as something opposite of what you’d expect) for a few hours every day away took Helen from her disabling grief over her father’s sudden death on the street taking pictures for his job. At one point, Macdonald describes his last photograph--at street level, a line of blurs and a patch of sky as her father fell and died from a heart attack.

   

Around the World in 50 Days: my adventure to every country on Earth

I’m not one for doing the whole of anything: the Appalachian Trail, canoeing the Amazon, skiing across Antarctica, but yes I can see the attraction of visiting every country in the world. The problem is that it is a moving target. Governments change, countries come and go, and unless you are super rich “doing” the world in a timely fashion is not possible.

Yet the inventive, gutsy, rule-breaking Podell finally managed to complete them all though it did take a half century. He began his foreign travels with a quick trip to Canada when he was 24. And yes, he considered this international travel light.

He just completed a degree in international studies. A few years later, as editor of an adventure magazine, he decided he was tired of sending people off on exotic jaunts and staying home, so he set off with a friend to complete the longest land journey ever attempted with his good friend Steve. They got sponsors to pay for the trip and hired a photographer.

   

Between You & Me: confessions of a comma queen

Are you a grammar aficionado? Do you love learning the ins and outs of different jobs? Do you like reaffirming that your grammar and punctuation is spot-on, or why and how it has strayed from the path of correctness?  If so, Mary Norris’s Between You & Me is exactly right for you. 

Norris describes her life before and during her thirty year tenure at The New Yorker as a copy writer with the detailed knowledge to make sure that the correct word, usage and punctuation is always employed. To accomplish that, her best tool (other than her comprehensive knowledge of grammar) was her noteworthy stash of No. 1 pencils. What an odyssey it was to keep a supply of the best proofreading pencil in the world. And those in a perfect working state.  Solution: a passionate epistolary correspondence with one manufacturer of the yellow-painted rods.

With humor and great descriptive ability Norris describes her first jobs, as a foot checker at a public swimming pool (checking for Athletes foot before swimmers entered the pool), and milkman—make that milkwoman--a job those under fifty may not even know existed. Later, she went to graduate school in literature, and  moved to New York where she took a few lowly desk jobs before she scored an interview at America’s most prestigious literary magazine, The New Yorker.

   

Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest

If one area of our continent calls to me more than any other it’s the Northwest, that region of coastal rain forests that extends from northern California to Alaska. 

This magnificent book of photographs covers one of the few unspoiled areas left there, the Great Bear Rainforest.

It’s located on the mainland slightly north of Vancouver and extends past Prince Rupert to the border with Alaska. Talk about wild: salmon, bear, wolves, sea lions, great Douglas firs and hundred-year-old cedars all thrive there.

Ian McAllister, who lives nearby and works as an ecologist, has taken many incredible photographs of the wildlife and the plants.  He also photographed the native people, including a few of the matriarchs of the Gitga’at clan.

The photos are thrilling including some of spirit bears—a bear I was not familiar with. They are white black bears (yes, that’s right) produced by a recessive gene. They are not albinos, so a spirit bear could have black-furred bear mother and siblings. Francis Kermode, a museum curator, first named them.

The chapter on sea wolves shows how tough making a daily living is for the wolves who have bred on this coastal area for centuries.  They must swim between islands to find food, and one young male, ostracized by his family is shown swimming away from all that he has known after his family boots him away because they cannot feed him.

In one charming photo, tens of curious stellar sea lion bob on the Pacific’s surface—only their heads showing. They stare straight at the photographer. McAllister reports that these wonderfully intelligent and agile creatures are making a comeback in the waters off the Great Bear.

If you’ve ever seen the starfish in the Northwest, you know that these echinoderms are huge and often bright orange. McAllister also takes incredible photographs of colorful underwater creatures: purple urchins and striking rose anemones. Some interesting shots focus on both above-water and below-water life in the same shot.

Like many pristine landscapes left in the world, McAllister reports that the area of the Great Bear Rainforest is under threat from oil drilling. Additionally, there are plans to create a large port in seas that are often stormy and dangerous. This motivated McAllister to publish these beautiful photographs. But the text of the book also provides much information about the creatures of the region.

   

Deep Down Dark

Even though I knew the ending before I opened this book, this in-depth, emotionally and factually rich story of 33 miners trapped under the earth for sixty-nine days was a real thriller.

The book opens with a photograph of the 33 men who survived two months deep underground. Thirty-two were from Chile, and there was one young miner from Bolivia who had the amazingly bad luck to be stuck in a mine collapse on his very first day of work.

In his fourth book, journalist Tobar presents not only the San Jose mine but an overview of modern Chilean life. He begins with a rich description of many of the miners and their families, some of whom travelled almost the whole length of Chile for their jobs.

   
Nonfiction   

Stars, Planets, Moon

I know the title sounds like an oxymoron, but if astronomy excites you, don't let living in the heart of town make you give up exploring the night skies.

I myself have seen countless meteors and conjunctions, a changing panoply of shining planets, and many constellations right from town. There was also the night of the bright red aurora borealis that I first mistook for a major fire when I was biking home from work. To say nothing of lunar eclipses and "super" full moons.

Written by the vice-president of Britain's Society of Popular Astronomy, this handy guide  is very applicable in the states. What I like best about it is, Scagell's can-do philosophy, not only can you feel awe when looking at planetary bodies, but he invites the reader to do actual astronomical research and to participate as a citizen-scientist.

And don't think you need to spend massive amounts of money for the highest tech equipment.  He recommends a good pair of binoculars for sky-viewing and reports that they even have many advantages over telescopes. He does recommend telescopes too--aperture and field of view should be the deciding factors.

He also advises the city astronomer on things and props he can use to cut or eliminate light pollution, such simple things as simple as a black cape to wear over you and your telescope to cut out glare.

In eight well-researched chapters, Scagell pours his passion for the least earthbound of sciences. Chapter 4 covers the targets of star search. All the usual ones: sun, moon, the near and far planets, the constellations but also other astronomical phenomena such as zodiacal light, noctilucent clouds, artificial satellites, double stars, clusters, nebulae, and deep sky objects.

Although not necessarily geared for the beginner, all terms are so well explained that the guide can work for both the 25-year amateur astronomer and the neophyte. A four page table at the end lists many deep sky objects that can be seen even from cities.

So, on these dark, clear nights, grab your black cape, your binoculars or telescope, and delve into this fascinating science that connects us to other mysterious worlds.

   

Thinking in Numbers: on Life, Love, Meaning and Math

It's a cliche, but people often say that if you excel at math, you'll have little talent for language and vice versa. Transplanted Londoner and Parisian resident, Daniel Tammet proves the falsehood of this statement.

In 25 essays that examine life from a mathematical perspective, Tammet enthralls and enlightens the reader on many things especially the beauty of mathematics. Einstein's son Hans Albert said that his father's character was more like an artist than that of a scientist because his highest praise for a theory "was not that it was correct nor that it was exact but that it was beautiful."

Tammet begins this collection with an essay describing his family and numbers theory. In fact, he attributes his first interest in math due to the fact that his neighbors' great interest in his family occurred because there were nine children.  And as he explains it, there were 512 possible ways to spot him or his siblings around town in various combinations.

   
Science    Nonfiction   

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: 50 Years

Have a soft spot in your heart for animals? Love unexpected and mesmerizing nature photographs? If so, this coffee table book is for you.

This book features the best of the best: a sampling of fifty years of winners from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest as well as an essay describing and presenting the history of the art.

It also includes some early nature photography, photographs that inspired later nature artists including Ansel Adams' 1941 photo "Snake River, the Tetons" with its magnificent play of light and shadows, curvilinear boulders and twin mountain peaks. Another great find is Eric Hosking's 1938 weirdly titled "The Tawny Owl that Robbed Me of an Eye" which turns out to a true story.  Be careful while taking pictures of owls!

   
Nonfiction    Animals   

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