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.
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.
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.
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.
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.