book beginnings on Friday: Older, Faster, Stronger by Margaret Webb

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

older

I am well pleased with this current read, and want to share.

A year ago, at age 50, I set out on a journey to run my way into a younger self. Just as Henry David Thoreau set off for the wilds of Walden Pond to enter a solitary relationship with nature and understand how to live well, I wanted to enter a deeper relationship with my body and understand how to train it well.

These first two lines tell you what the book is about. This lucky woman spends a year studying on how to be the best marathon runner she can be, with all sorts of science & experts to back her up, and shares with her reader what she has learned. Stay tuned; I like it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw; and Texas State Things

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

bugs

Yes, we just teasered this one last week. I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. (This is just a segue to talk about the great state of Texas, anyway.)

Several times I have run across the concept, in this book, of a state fossil. For example,

The state fossil of Maine, Pertica quadrifaria (an Early Devonian land plant), provides a nice place to start. This is a rare and distinctive state fossil, compared to others that we’ve discussed so far.

Others discussed so far include the state fossils of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (two different trilobites).

I had never encountered the idea of a state fossil before; how interesting! Of course the first thing I did was go looking for Texas’s state fossil. According to The Paleontology Portal:

Texas does not have a state fossil, but it does have a state dinosaur, as well as a fossil for its state stone (petrified palm wood). Pleurocoelus was a large herbivorous sauropod dinosaur that lived during the Early Cretaceous (~ 140-110 million years ago).

Which just sent me searching further. And what did I learn! We all know about the state flower (Texas bluebonnet), state tree (pecan), state mammal (small) (the armadillo), and state motto (“Friendship”). But who knew we had an official state cooking implement (the Dutch oven)?? or a state tartan (Texas Bluebonnet tartan)?? And a state molecule, no less! I wonder how many other states have a state native pepper as well as a state pepper (other). And on and on. Yes, I used Wikipedia. And I am fascinated.

Thank you, Planet of the Bugs, for this side-venture.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Planet of the Bugs by Scott Richard Shaw

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

bugs

I am choosing my teaser sentences today off the very first page of the charmingly titled Planet of the Bugs (although it is not quite a book beginning, since these are not the first lines). What wonderful examples of evocative, lovely writing, though; I couldn’t help but share.

As the songs of frogs, katydids, crickets, and cicadas emanated from the forest, my boots sloshed along the pathway. Typical of San Ramon, it had been raining all day, the trail oozed treacherously slick with slippery mud, and water was everywhere. On mushroom caps sprouting from a rotting log by the trail, silvery droplets rolled to the edge, clung briefly shimmering – then fell away. The sounds of water were all around, bubbling and gurgling over mossy rocks in the river, chattering in nameless streams and rivulets. A light mist was still falling, and the emerald vegetation, dappled in a hundred shades of green, was dripping and glistening with raindrops.

Doesn’t that just make you want to dive right in – bugs or no bugs?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo

A quirky illustrated reference guide to the oddities of the plant world and botanical history.

largo

Broccoli as we know it today comes to us as a product of early bioengineering (by the Etruscans around 800 B.C.). Eve’s forbidden fruit may have been not an apple, but a fig. In Aztec culture, virgins were not permitted to look upon the lusty avocado fruit on the tree. The blister bush contains chemicals that interact with human skin and then combust upon exposure to sunlight. In Greek mythology, the artichoke was created when Zeus became angry with his mistress and transformed her into the thistle as punishment. Bamboo blooms only every 65 or 120 years, and when it does, rat populations explode. Nutmeg has mild hallucinogenic properties.

From Absinthe to Żubrówka (“widely known as the plant that makes the best Polish vodka”), The Big, Bad Book of Botany is not your standard reference book. It is far from comprehensive; Michael Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts) instead hopes to entertain and educate by focusing on plants with odd characteristics and their history and roles in different cultures, including medicinal uses both current and bygone. Entries are alphabetically ordered (although some take a little hunting: oleander is filed under B for “Be-Still Tree”), and accompanied by some 150 illustrations by the artists of the Tropical Botanic Artists collective. Some entries include tips on gardening or on avoiding poisoning.

Simply written with an eye for humor and cocktail-party-friendly trivia, this botanical exploration can serve as a coffee-table piece or conversation starter. Just don’t mix up your yew with your yerba.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 5 petioles.

The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

My father also reviewed this book here.


An astronomer’s professional and personal journey, both eased and challenged by her scientific mind.

falling sky

Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky revolves around Jeanette, a young astronomer deeply dedicated to her work but uninspired by the competitive bureaucracy of postdoctoral research. The stars and galaxies make sense to her in a way that people do not; she is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lens often fails her in navigating the world of human relationships. In a Chilean observatory, she makes a discovery that could turn the scientific world on its head; what she will do with this new and disruptive evidence will similarly upend her personal life. Amid the commotion, a new love affair with an old friend and the disorder of her professional ambitions combine to reawaken a childhood trauma, a tragedy from which her family has never recovered.

The Falling Sky incorporates hard science (Goldschmidt is an astronomer as well as an accomplished writer) with the story of a young woman struggling to find and establish her own place in the world. Artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists will all identify with aspects of Jeanette’s journey. Those familiar with the Edinburgh setting will be pleased by its evocation. But perhaps the most remarkable and unusual element of Goldschmidt’s striking debut novel is Jeanette’s perspective: the reader sees her world as she does, with an emphasis on objectivity, data points, the relativity of time and space, and the search for connections between distant galaxies. As Jeanette sighs, “the lack of information is appalling,” but her story comes around to a satisfying conclusion nonetheless.


This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 connections.

The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

The Great Barrier Reef is both easily understood and awe-inspiring in this history of its discovery, exploitation and beauty.

reef

With The Reef, Iain McCalman (Darwin’s Armada) has composed “a passionate history” of the Great Barrier Reef, opening with his own long-awaited voyage (part of a reenactment of Captain Cook’s original trip). Following the prologue, he withdraws to the role of historian rather than participant, and chronicles the Great Barrier Reef as known to Western society over the last few centuries.

The Reef is divided into three parts. Beginning in 1770 with Captain Cook and proceeding through later explorers who helped chart the reefs in the 1800s, “Terror” emphasizes the threat the reef posed to ships and their navigators, and the fear of cannibals and others thought to inhabit the area. In Part II, “Nurture,” the reef begins to offer refuge for those seeking to escape civilization or make a fresh start. Europeans are taken in by native islanders, or discover island paradise; naturalists arrive, captivated by the biodiversity and beauty of the area while beginning to realize that coral is a resource that can be exploited. “Wonder” sees the scientific community take an interest, disagreeing about the origins and biology of the reef. Ecology emerges as a new field of study, its proponents seeking to place the reef in the larger context of other natural environments, to study relationships and cause and effect. Individual activists work to defend the unusual and changing ecosystem from mining, oil spills, overfishing and the rough use of tourism.

At the end, we are introduced to nature-loving scientist J.E.N. Veron, nicknamed “Charlie” after Charles Darwin, an engaging character who communicates the final dire message of the Great Barrier Reef’s looming extinction. Returning to the personal nature of his prologue, McCalman’s epilogue speaks to the grim consequences of climate change but holds forth hope as well.

The few images in The Reef include portraits of the personalities involved but not the corals themselves (although McCalman refers his reader to books that offer the latter). This work’s strengths include a coherent structure, friendly narrative style and a reasoned culminating call to action that does not disrupt its primary role as a comprehensive history. Plentiful notes indicate strong research, but McCalman’s writing is accessible to any reader interested in the intersection of science, nature and history. From perceived threat to resource to paradise destination to climate-change indicator–Charlie Veron calls corals “the canaries of climate change”–the Great Barrier Reef is fully explored in this engaging study.


This review originally ran in the May 6, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dives.

Maximum Shelf: Euphoria by Lily King

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 23, 2014.

euphoriaLily King (Father of the Rain) renders three young anthropologists in 1930s’ New Guinea with nuance, tenderness and charming ambiguity in Euphoria. King draws on the life of Margaret Mead and her relationships with her second and third husbands (Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively), but the novel is only loosely based on their lives and work.

Nell Stone is an American, and has recently written a book that is receiving much attention for its controversial subject matter: the sex lives of children in the Solomon Islands. She is an up-and-coming young anthropologist being talked about around the world; when we meet her, she is just emerging from a year and a half in the field in New Guinea, alongside her husband, Fen. Fen is Australian, overbearing and decidedly threatened by Nell’s success, as fame and glory as an anthropologist have so far eluded him.

When Nell and Fen come out of the field, at a party they meet fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. He is fresh off a failed suicide attempt, haunted by the deaths of his two brothers and unable to find himself in either his native England or the tribal communities he studies. Bankson is lonely and attracted to the couple, and suggests that he establish them with unstudied “natives” nearby his own fieldwork; he wants to keep them as his friends and neighbors.

The three form an unlikely triangle of mixed alliances. Nell and Fen, for all their disharmony, share a history and an intimacy the loner Bankson can’t pierce. But Nell and Bankson achieve a singular connection of the minds: they inspire each other, each stimulating the other’s best work. With Fen’s sensitivity over and resentment of Nell’s talents, this is a dangerous but intoxicating symbiosis, a cerebral union that is sensual and nearly sexual. Bankson is, in fact, rather in love with both Nell and Fen. The two men establish their own bonds as well, when Fen nurses Bankson through a malarial fever. It is a love triangle, but also an intellectual one, and shadows the perceptions of each anthropologist about the tribes they live amongst. They already have very different approaches: Nell has loved, ever since she was a small child, exploring other worlds so that she can come back and tell her family, friends and now colleagues about her adventures; for her, the joy is in the description and the homecoming, but she also has a knack for integrating herself into a new culture. Fen, it seems, would rather become a tribesman than study or write about the tribes. Bankson struggles to participate, but is more inclined to observation–his background is in the natural sciences. As he writes, “I was raised on Science as other people are raised on God, or gods, or the crocodile.”

Lily King makes an interesting decision in choosing Bankson as her narrator, as he is the most isolated of the three, spending much of his energy in observing not only the tribal peoples he is meant to study, but also Nell and Fen. That the story of these three characters is told from the perspective of his outsider status means that the reader, too, is forever peeking in and around corners, hoping for more information. Nell’s voice is heard through journal entries eventually sent to Bankson by another old friend and possible love interest of Nell’s, but she remains tantalizingly difficult to access. The tension of this desire to know Nell better is central to Euphoria, for Bankson and for the reader.

King raises broader questions as well, as each anthropologist’s individual approach to his or her work is troubling in its own way. The tribal communities of the fictional Kiona, Mumbanyo, and Tam peoples invite consideration about the fields and methods of anthropology and ethnology. The Tam women, who do the trading and the artistry in their community, inspire Nell’s growing ideas about traditional gender roles, a stance that (predictably) does not sit well with the irritable Fen. Margaret Mead is known not only for her writings and work in anthropology, but also as a feminist thinker; in King’s hands, the Tam culture inspires the beginning of Nell’s own feminist development. As Bankson gravitates toward Nell’s empathetic and involved relationship with the Tam, Fen is planning a serious cultural crime, which will precipitate the final denouement. (The life stories of Nell, Fen and Bankson are quite different from their historical counterparts Mead, Fortune and Bateson, so there are no spoilers for readers familiar with that history.)

Euphoria is a masterpiece of dreamy, lyrical, sensuous writing and evocation of a sometimes frighteningly exotic New Guinea. Readers can expect to be enchanted by the setting, inspired by the free-spirited Nell, challenged by the question of respectful participant observation, angered by certain of the characters’ actions and teased by the sexual tension. As a bonus, the beautiful cover of Euphoria features the striking rainbow gum tree that figures in the plot of this remarkable novel.


Rating: 8 books.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with King!

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