Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives. In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species. He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow. When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix. In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed. Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist. There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief. Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for pages when he could just get to the punchline.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett ** (of 4)
As these things go, not too bad. Consider it everything you ever wanted to know about the hydrological cycle (there are similar books on coffee, cod, oil, and so forth). Well written and organized loosely from the most ancient rains, those that fell on a recently cooled planet, forward toward contemporary discussions of floods, droughts, dams, rivers, crops, and the livelihoods of humans at rain’s mercy. The book is remarkable for its breadth and inclusiveness, and strongest when Cynthia Barnett’s stories are longest, but the final result is like so many unending raindrops. A drowning in more facts about rain than anyone really wishes to endure.
Gold by Matthew Hart ** (of 4)
Matthew Hart purports to answer all your questions about gold. Why does it have value? How is it mined? What is the historical significance of gold? Why should anyone own any? After dispensing with theft from contemporary South African mines and the history of gold rather briefly, the book devolves into two rather dense sections. First, is a jargon-rich explanation, best understood by fellow economists, for the gold standard that backed much of the world’s currencies until the 1970s. Second, is a tedious description of how a few ounces of gold are chemically extracted from tons of useless rock. Interspersed are some not very compelling travelogues to some of the world’s most interesting gold mines. Though it is presented only as a passing thought the inevitable conclusion is that gold’s value is currently no different than the value of a famous painting. It is worth only as much as someone who collects such things is willing to pay.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot *** (of 4)
Cells from Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cervix were the first to ever be cultured in a lab in perpetuity making the woman they came from in some ways immortal. The cells were taken just before her death and without her permission thereby becoming on the one hand a source of great scientific richness and on the other the bane of her surviving, very poor, largely uneducated African American family. Skloot does an excellent job of explaining the science and personalizing the plight of a family overwhelmed by America’s medical research establishment.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson **** (of 4)
Shockingly, the book lives up to its pretentious title. Bryson, an accomplished travel writer and memoirist explains, with complete lucidity, the history of science. He starts with the Big Bang and proceeds through the history of the earth, discovery of chemicals and cells, the physics of gravity, and the evolution of all living things. Not once does he veer toward textbook droning; in contrast, his accounts read like mystery stories replete with unsual characters with full personalities (like Einstein, Newton, Crick, and Darwin) and what in any other setting would seem like random trivia, but in Bryson’s able hands feel like important anecdotes. All of his skills as a master storyteller are brought to bear to sift through what for most of us would require a lifetime of research. March 2008.
Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach ** (of 4)
Everything you ever wanted to know about dead people, but were afraid to ask. To her credit, Roach is sassy, often to the point of being humorous. Maybe I know too much biology, or more likely, I’ve seen too many roadkill animals, but I didn’t feel like I was learning very much. July 2006.
Tigers in the Snow by Peter Matthiessen ** (of 4)
Everything you ever wanted to know about tiger life in the wilds of Asia from Siberia to India. Read the book or visit a zoo, because according to Matthiessen tigers are doomed. The book so plainly praises the dignity of wild tigers in their native habitat and the insurmountable threats to their survival I wanted to kill myself I was so depressed. June 2007.
Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean **** (of 4)
Norman Maclean is like Roger Angell: an old school Master of wordsmithing. His command of English and of writing is simply superior. Maclean’s first great book, A River Runs Through It, about trout fishing took decades to write. Young Men and Fire is the story of smoke jumpers who get caught in a western canyon fire when the fire reverses and flies up a hill at them with the speed of a tornado. Maclean died before he finished the book so you can tell the last 70 pages aren’t as polished as the first four-fifths of the book. Still, it’s an outstanding read filled with excellent detail presented compellingly.
Pompeii by Robert Harris ** (of 4)
About the three days before Mount Vesuvius blew its top and decimated the city of Pompeii as seen through the eyes of a conscientious aquarius in charge of trying to figure out why the Roman aqueducts have stopped flowing. An interesting novel since you know how it is going to end, but watching how the Romans begin to uncover the signs of the impending explosion is fascinating.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese *** (of 4)
This is a half-century story of Marion Stone, born in the late 1950s as the twin son of a British physician and a nun (oops). Both his parents vanish at his birth leaving him to be raised in a medical outpost in Addis Ababa by two Indian doctors, where he learns medicine first hand before becoming a surgeon, like his father, later in life. The characters are lovingly drawn and Ethiopian poverty and politics provide the continuing backdrop, the most interesting character in the book is medicine. I’ve never cared a great deal about the science and art of medicine, but Verghese, a practicing surgeon, lays it out in such graphic detail I was riveted by the myriad details, diagnoses, and decisions trauma surgeons must master.