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John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

The carefully researched and engaging story of John Muir, Alaska’s glaciers and the movement they built together.

muir ice

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is neither a straightforward biography of Muir nor a simple study of the global significance Alaska’s glaciers. Rather, Kim Heacox (The Only Kayak) is concerned with the relationship between Muir and the glaciers that rivaled Yosemite in his affections, and the impact that pairing had.

From a humble background in Scotland and Wisconsin, and between stints as a surprisingly apt businessman, Muir lived as a self-described tramp, ardent nature lover and student of flowers, trees, mountains and–upon finally reaching Alaska–glaciers. His famed role as author and activist came late in life, and not easily: he found writing hard work and political activism distasteful, though necessary. However, Muir made perhaps the greatest impact on conservation of any individual in United States history.

Heacox meticulously researched and lovingly describes Alaska’s rivers of ice and Muir’s path toward them, his emergence as writer and preservationist, and his far-ranging influence in legislation, literary legacy and new traditions–including the birth of the conservation movement as we know it. Though often descriptive rather than persuasive, Heacox lends his own voice to the cause in his final chapters: “To debate [climate change] is to give credibility to an argument that shouldn’t exist.” He closes by adding the arguments of Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Derrick Jensen to Muir’s, in the interest of preserving our wild spaces–thereby continuing Muir’s work.

This review originally ran in the April 11, 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: 8 little dogs.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

An essay collection that earnestly examines feelings–the author’s and the world’s.


Leslie Jamison follows her debut novel, The Gin Closet, with an essay collection that has earned her the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The Empathy Exams opens with Jamison’s experience as a medical actor. In this role, she is given a character, complete with props and not only symptoms, but behaviors: body language, failure to make eye contact, dishonesty. In portraying deception, or a pretended lack of self-knowledge, Jamison contemplates what it is to feel, how we communicate what we feel and what we do with these communications.

While all her essays are linked by the topic of empathy, their subjects range widely. One essay about incarceration deals with a man serving time for mortgage fraud who continues to declare his innocence; another covers the case of the West Memphis Three and the documentaries about them that so moved Jamison as a young woman. “Morphology of the Hit” studies Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which Jamison calls “a map for storytelling,” and she uses that map to construct a narrative of the random act of violence she experienced in Nicaragua.

Within the context of pain, both injury and chronic illness receive repeated treatment. The Barkley Marathon, a grueling, almost unfinishable race through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, is presented both as a subcultural phenomenon and a subtext for pain. Jamison attends a conference for Morgellons patients–who believe they are infested with fibers and foreign matter crawling out of their skin–and the few doctors who will take them seriously; she finds herself responding with such empathy that she is in danger of catching the disease herself. She also leads readers on two “Pain Tours,” closing with the specter of female pain, and female guilt over pain–making the studied choice to apologize for neither.

Throughout these varied topics, Jamison makes references to many thinkers and influences, from Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), Susan Sontag and Frida Kahlo to her own friends. Her essays often dwell in the theoretical and the academic; she is interested in philosophies, and admits to difficulty experiencing, recognizing and sharing her own emotions–a difficulty that occasionally manifests in pedagogy. However, readers will finish with no doubt she is sincere in her quest to own, identify and comprehend empathy.

This review originally ran in the April 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 4 itchy patches.

Not a great rating, right? Reminder: when I write reviews for the Shelf I work to (mostly objectively) state what is of high quality about a book, and who might like it and why; if applicable, I mention who might want to steer clear. When I rate the books here, I am stating my personal reaction. I think Jamison did good research & does some good writing; but the academic & theoretical nature of these essays didn’t appeal to me. I was hoping for a more emotional reaction to the world; and specifically I was interested in the medical acting concept, which received relatively little play time. I wonder if *I* have an essay to write about empathy, based on my experiences working in a cancer hospital. I don’t know that I’m ready to write it right now; but if/when I do, it will be more emotional and less cerebral than these essays here. Not better or worse; but this is how my personal reaction – the personal appeal this book had for me – rates The Empathy Exams.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

An accessible study of Seneca, adviser to the appalling and scandalous Roman emperor Nero.

dying every day

Classical historian James Romm tackles Nero’s Roman Empire, and the controversies and contradictions of the moral philosopher Seneca, in the appropriately titled Dying Every Day.

Nero became emperor in 54 A.D., at the age of 16, under the thumb of his overbearing mother, Agrippina. Like his uncle Caligula–who had also come to the throne at a young age–Nero scandalized Rome with debauchery, exhibitionism, violence and terror. Romm’s chapters are tellingly named: Fratricide, Regicide, Matricide, Matriticide and Holocaust are bookended by two Suicides, the whole capped by an epilogue entitled Euthanasia.

Nero’s legacy is fairly straightforward, but the tutor brought out of exile to prime him for autocratic rule is a more complex character. Seneca was a Stoic who admired Socrates and Cato, prolifically produced moral treatises and scorned wealth. In his role as Nero’s teacher, mentor and trusted senior adviser, however, he colluded in murders within the royal family and amassed a personal fortune. His prose and drama leave behind a contradictory image, and historians from his contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier? Romm (Ghost on the Throne) doesn’t claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.

This review originally ran in the March 18, 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: 7 bloodlines.

The Gods of Olympus by Barbara Graziosi

For novices and enthusiasts alike, a comprehensive and absorbing study of the gods of Olympus and how their cultural roles have changed over the centuries.

gods of olympus

From Homer and Hesiod, we know that Zeus has a large sexual appetite, that Athena is noble and warlike, that Aphrodite is the goddess of love and sexuality, that Hermes is a messenger with a sense of humor. But how did these myths and the personalities they depict survive to the present? Barbara Graziosi is a professor who’s written several academic works on the classics. In The Gods of Olympus, she directs her expertise to a more general audience for the first time, following the 12 gods and goddesses of the classical Greek pantheon from their first appearances in antiquity through our continuing modern awareness of them. Readers benefit immensely from her proficiency, which comes with a sense of humor: Graziosi occasionally appears in her own narrative, with an endearingly wry, self-deprecating tone.

The history of the immortal Olympians begins in Greece, where Graziosi explores their role in myth, ritual and cultural events. The Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle reconsidered the value of the gods, in literature and in life, and when Alexander the Great expanded his empire toward the ends of the earth, he advertised his ability to travel even further than Dionysus. By gauging his own accomplishments against those of the gods, he sought to make himself like a god even as he reconfirmed the supreme importance of the deities.

Under Alexander’s rule, much of the “known world” was Hellenized, taking on Greek–and therefore Olympian–customs and culture. During the Roman Empire, the gods’ strong personalities were merged with the traditional Roman gods’ rule over matters of state, surviving in slightly different forms that best served those in power. As Graziosi demonstrates, this is the model through which they have come to us over millennia: the rise of Islam and Christianity likewise preserved the Olympians, though it transformed the gods into demons, allegories and cautionary figures. Their original worshippers are long gone, but the Olympic gods survive, flexible and changeable but continuing to inspire art and literature.

Graziosi’s knowledge is obvious, and easy to trust, accompanied by thorough notes and a helpful appendix to the original 12 gods and their corresponding Roman identities. Her writing is accessible and entertaining, her passion for her subject obvious; The Gods of Olympus will equally thrill longtime lovers of the classics, and appeal to readers seeking a friendly, engaging introduction.

This review originally ran in the March 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 centuries (just for starters).

Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia by Sigrid Rausing

The personal side of an anthropologist’s year in post-Soviet Estonia.


Sigrid Rausing spent a year on a collective farm on the west coast of Estonia in the mid-1990s, doing fieldwork for her Ph.D. in social anthropology. Her time there yielded an academic book, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm. “Much as [that book] excluded the personal,” she writes, “this book excludes the academic.” Everything Is Wonderful contains Rausing’s remembrances, after nearly 20 years, of time spent in an unusual cultural landscape and the questions that remain with her.

The tone of this slim memoir is quiet and unobtrusive; engaging in participation observation is the anthropologist’s aim. Rausing contemplates the legacies of the Soviet Union in Estonia as a country and a culture, and in the village she lived in. As a parallel, she considers her own cultural identity as a Swede living in England who finds herself at home in a place where Estonian Swedes once made up a sizable and powerful minority, before the Nazis sent them to Sweden in a “perhaps overly collaborative” evacuation.

Rausing’s subjects include the everyday tedium and alcoholism of a small village in a deeply depressed region; they include dream interpretations, and loving descriptions of natural settings, despite the monochromatic winter that occupies most of the year. Interactions with her neighbors and friends are rendered with an eye for irony. Yet for all its bleak detail, Rausing’s work resonates with nostalgia as well. “I was tired, and often hungry,” she recalls, “but even now, twenty years later, I miss those long quiet walks in that melancholy and restful landscape.”

This review originally ran in the March 7, 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: 7 “cocktails.”

The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band by Frances Washburn

A slim, evocative, entertaining tale of strange happenings on an Indian reservation in South Dakota.

red bird

Sissy Roberts is the girl everyone tells their problems to, whether she likes it or not. But, as she tells the reader on the opening page of Frances Washburn’s The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band, “no one so far has confessed to me that they killed Buffalo Ames at the Scenic Fourth of July Rodeo.” The novel, despite being framed around Buffalo’s murder and the subsequent FBI investigation (which mostly consists of bothering Sissy for answers), is entirely Sissy’s story.

Though the FBI man sent to her corner of the reservation doesn’t believe in her ignorance, Sissy really doesn’t know who killed Buffalo that night–and she doesn’t know what she’s going to do to get out of this town and off the rez. Her interest in solving the murder is half-hearted; she is more concerned with solving the mystery of her own future and ducking lackluster marriage proposals from the shallow pool of men on the rez. But the two will prove to be interconnected.

The strengths of this slim, quirky novel are Sissy’s strange mix of tenderness and sass, and Washburn’s grasp of the rez and its sense of inertia. For all the frustration that Sissy and the other diverse, well-wrought characters experience, however, the final result is moderately uplifting, like the music Sissy delights in throughout.

This review originally ran in the March 7, 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: 8 beers.

The Ogallala Road by Julene Bair

An environmentalist revisits the family farm with mixed feelings about water shortages, and finds a love story along the way.


Julene Bair left the family farm in the high plains of Kansas for the bigger world of San Francisco, then the solitude of a rock house in the Mojave Desert. She returned pregnant, worked with her father on the farm for as long as she could stand it, then found security in a cowboy town in Wyoming, where she raised her son alone. She returned again to tour the ever-diminishing creeks and springs on foot and to study the Ogallala Aquifer, which the United States relies upon for 30% of its irrigated crops. Next to a big cottonwood, she meets a cowboy who admires Cormac McCarthy–and falls in love.

For most of The Ogallala Road, this cowboy, Wade, accompanies Bair as she struggles to reconcile the wilderness-loving, liberal-minded, Subaru-driving writer she’s become with her roots as a farmer’s daughter of Kansas’s conservative rural plains. The memoir clearly began as the story of a shrinking aquifer and a nation’s (or a world’s) self-destructive hubris, and one suspects Bair is as surprised as readers will be that romance takes so much of the spotlight. Wade embodies everything that both nourishes and infuriates her about Kansas, which is a challenge to their love story.

The farm that has sustained generations of her forebears retains a strong hold on Bair’s heart, and her family’s–and her own–role in depleting the aquifer becomes a central source of conflict. The Ogallala Road meanders through the history of the Cheyenne Indians’ longtime residence in the region, seeking insight into a more balanced relationship with earth and water. “Hang on to your land!” Bair’s father exhorted his children, but under the pressures of a changing world, they’ll consider selling. Bair comments on the difference between growth and progress, and a feeling of connection to the land that she suspects her father would have snorted at, while wrestling with her own guilt. In the end, it is the water, not Wade, that causes her the most pain–but the memoir closes with a tentative note of hope.

In its combination of nature writing, environmental concern and love story, The Ogallala Road is unusual. Bair’s contemplative praise of the high plains and the western deserts, her yearning for a father for her son and her lament for a dying way of life will strike chords for diverse readers.

This review originally ran in the March 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 million gallons.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

A medieval scholar takes a fictional turn in 14th-century London, in a story full of murder, literature, politics and intrigue.

burnable book

A young prostitute watches horrified from the bushes as a woman is beaten to death–then looks down at the book in her hands, placed there by the victim moments before. A London “fixer” and minor poet named Gower is asked by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer to track a missing book. The court surrounding the new and untested King Richard II worries over the new games of playing cards and a book rumored to contain a series of verses circulating London regarding the deaths of kings past and present. This one book that troubles bawdyhouse prostitutes, the royal court, bureaucrats, poets and criminals holds potentially great consequences for England’s future. It is treasonous, a “burnable book.”

Bruce Holsinger, a prolific and respected medieval scholar, turns his hand to fiction with A Burnable Book. His academic background makes him well suited to render diverse settings in 14th-century London, from the Southwark stews to the grand halls of Westminster. The young woman murdered outside the city walls is only the first victim, and Gower is not the only one searching for the book in question, for scruples are scarce when the stakes are so high: England’s royal command itself is under threat. Murder mystery, political intrigue and the engaging world of Chaucer’s London are brought to life with a cast of complex, sympathetic characters who are far removed from and yet also familiar to our modern world. Holsinger’s expertise with medieval times is put to good use in a thriller filled with suspense and literary taste.

This review originally ran in the February 25, 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: 7 quatrains.

A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger

A charmingly accessible history of botany, full of the strange and wondrous, for readers intimidated by science.

garden of marvels

Ruth Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass) was frustrated by the kinds of mishaps with which many amateur gardeners are familiar: failures to thrive, unexplained deaths, mysterious midseason droopings. So she did what any reasonable science writer would do: research. How do plants really work? In hunting for a simple, layperson’s guide to botany, however, she came up short. Particularly in seeking “the story of the first discoverers of the basic facts of plant life”–that is, a history of botany–she could find only scholarly texts for which “Botany 101 is definitely a prerequisite.” From these frustrations was born the masterful, engaging A Garden of Marvels.

Kassinger’s greatest strength is unquestionably her quirky, conversational tone. She begins with a murder mystery (spoiler: the victim is a kumquat tree) and from these delightful opening lines, even the most science-averse reader will be hooked. While A Garden of Marvels does contain the odd gardening tip, it is more concerned with Kassinger’s travels: she visits farms, conservatories and laboratories around the nation, encountering diverse and eccentric characters she describes with humor and skill.

Her research into human history is likewise revealing: she points out that religious and societal philosophies caused our ignorance of and lack of interest in botany until very recently, and highlights those few pioneering minds whose experiments, observations and strange machineries caught us up. Darwin gets a chapter, and is accompanied by myriad little-known early scientists, all brought to life by Kassinger’s enthusiasm. A handful of relevant illustrations by Eva Ruhl assist along the way.

Kassinger is properly amazed at the science she discovers in nature, as well as the men (“and they were all men”) in history who broke ground with their scientific studies. For some readers, though, she may be a trifle overenthusiastic about the possibilities of genetic modifications of plant life and dismissive of concerns regarding these technologies–although the genetic possibilities in the simple garden petunia are positively mind-boggling.

Topics like plant sex, the history of scientific exploration and the fundamentals of genomics are all equally accessible in Kassinger’s capable hands. That she makes botany so approachable is a feat; that she makes it downright enthralling is almost as miraculous as an adorable photosynthesizing sea slug.

This review originally ran in the February 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 different fruits on one tree.

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David Stuart MacLean

A memoir from within the mind of an amnesiac, in full terrifying color.

In the opening scene of The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, David Stuart Maclean “wakes up” in a standing position, in a train station, in a place where English is clearly not the first language. He doesn’t know who he is, where he is or where he was going. A friendly policeman tells him that many tourists there do too many drugs and end up confused; Maclean concludes that he is a drug user and follows as he is told.

This scene is only the beginning of the enormous world of what Maclean can’t remember, and assumptions he’ll be led to make that will often turn out to be false. He was living alone in India on a government grant to aid his work as a novelist when an antimalarial drug he was taking overcame the blood-brain barrier and wreaked havoc. The Answer to the Riddle Is Me is Maclean’s story of amnesia and recovery, with all the false starts, depression, despair and small victories that come with such a trauma. Maclean often wishes himself back in a hospital where he’ll be spoon-fed and his decisions will be made for him, but he slowly, eventually resurfaces.

This heartfelt and painfully candid memoir tracks Maclean in real time, in fractured scenes and then in measured, purposeful steps, and comes with research into the medical issues involved. Readers will be mesmerized by the effort, and perhaps feel as rejuvenated in the end as Maclean does.

This review originally ran in the February 11, 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: 7 faces.

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