the best of scientific nonfiction

In yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As part of that same conversation, Pops asked for my favorite scientific fiction – with “good” science being part of the criteria. Well, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot to offer in that regard. I haven’t tended towards scientific fiction much (nor traditional sci fi); my fiction tends to be mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, or increasingly, fantasy; there is always a variety, but I’ve been short on science. I did come up with a few. But I did far better in recommending some really great nonfiction that is scientific in nature: both “good” science, and well written, enjoyable, accessible, good reading. He asked for those two lists, so I’m happy to share them here.

Some great fiction about science:

By Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD from Harvard, ahem), so one expects that her novels about women and families, in which someone in the family (usually the woman) suffers a neurological disorder or disease, are scientifically accurate. I love that they are scientifically detailed and yet extraordinarily enjoyable novels, too.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.)

Madeline L’Engle’s series: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, etc. I hesitate here, because the science begins in reality and then moves outside it (see: farandolae), so I’m not sure it qualifies. But kids’ books – about science – with a female protagonist. Good stuff.

Some great nonfiction about science:

My review hasn’t published yet, but it will any day now, and I’ll come back and edit this post: A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger is an outstanding, fun, and informative look at the history of botany, really from the birth of botany as a science (relatively recent, since we didn’t think plants were all that important as a subject of study for many centuries). It’s extremely accessible and well written, even funny. One of my recent favorites!

On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s recent biography of Rachel Carson, is for me a classic example of science made reader-friendly and socially important. It doesn’t hurt that I find Carson a fascinating & important figure, and admittedly, this is more biography than science; but I think it qualifies for this list, especially considering Pops’s comments yesterday about the representation of women in literature & science (and literature about science).

Einstein, the biography by Walter Isaacson, was mentioned in Kirk Smith’s talk apparently as being “challenging,” and I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but no knowledge of physics is prerequisite – and I didn’t get all the physics Isaacson described, either, but that was no requirement for enjoying Einstein’s story.

Unfortunately, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a Farther Shore, science is made not only comprehensible, but oh so important and relevant for our past, present and future; not to mention the glaring & compelling social commentary. This is a great book (and one I gave away for World Book Night a few years ago).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the oddest chunks of science, too. Do check out some here and here.

River in Ruin by Ray A. March is a loving, informed but readable discussion of exactly what the title says.

Also pre-blog, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it made a major impact on me. I had only recently recovered from a brain injury (from a bike wreck and yes I was wearing my helmet), and reading this book by a neuroanatomist about her stroke & recovery helped me understand my own brain better. She’s a scientist, so she has the “good” science, but she’s also a human being with a personal story to tell, and she tells it well.

When we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit of handling women in science and the special challenges they face, Felt tells the story of Marie Tharp’s life and scientific breakthroughs with sensitivity, insight, and yes, science.

Bonus: just the other day this review posted at Shelf Awareness (by my friend Katie at Cakes, Tea and Dreams). I haven’t read the book, but I think it sounds delightful: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter.


That’s all I have today, Pops, but it ought to get you started! I’m pretty sure you’d put McKibben on this list; any others to share? Anybody?

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill

eating dirtDoubly recommended by the authors of Fire Season and Dirt Work, this one moved to the top of the list.

Eating Dirt is the memoir of a tree planter. Charlotte Gill works seasonally planting trees in the Canadian west. She is employed by a company of tree planters, who contract in turn with big business – mostly logging – to replant sections of clear-cut land, usually. The daily job is to travel out to the plot in question (via beat-up truck, or boat, or by foot), load up one’s bags – a belted & suspendered piece involving two side saddle-bags and one at the rear, at hip height – with seedlings, stomp around on varying surfaces, and use a shovel and one’s hands to repeatedly insert seedlings in soil (clay, gravel, duff). It involves much bending, and the loss of fingernails. They encounter cougars, bears, muck, dirt, rain, bugs, rocks, and unspeakably sore muscles.

Gill has quite a bit in common with Christine Byl of Dirt Work: the dirty, male-dominated outdoor environment, the satisfaction of a job well done in a world populated by trees, twigs, green and brown and wild things. Not to overemphasize these two books’ similarities – because each is unique and lovely on its own and neither is derivative – but they both caused the same combined reaction in me, of yearning jealousy and thankfulness that I don’t do that for a living. What can I say. I love to be outside and wish I spent more days and nights there, but I also fret enough over my bad knees with my office job, and I like taking a shower and feeling clean after being dirty. In fact, the question at the front of my mind as I’ve finished this book is: what did clean mean in those years that make up the majority of human history, in which we didn’t have seemingly endless showers at our command?

Dirtiness aside, Gill writes with humor and wisdom and the kind of occasionally zoomed-out perspective that I like in a nature-based memoir. A little research into the history of earth, trees, and people – and the relationships between them – brings her perspective, that of just one person, into focus within a larger picture. And as a bonus, she’s based in the same general region that my parents recently moved to. We have all been learning about the Pacific Northwest – including the trees of the area – and this book offered some welcome insights to that end.

One of the more surprising subjects of Eating Dirt, for me, was the ambiguous or controversial nature of the work. I read “tree-planting tribe” and expected that it would be all green-ness and good; but as I said in my opening synopsis, Gill’s employers are most often logging companies, banking on the profitability of trees, not their inherent worth as trees themselves.

And we got paid… by the very same business that cut the trees down, which canceled the altruism right out of the equation.

Any good they provide, then, is already offset by those who paid for their planting. It’s not as simple as it seems at first glance, and Gill wastes no time in making that point.

Her voice is gritty, and her perspective not so much unapologetic in general as clear-eyed about its dual nature. She’s funny and clearly likeable – like Byl, someone I’d like to know, although I’d be intimidated by both women’s toughness. I enjoyed what I learned about the world from Gill, but also very much value what she’s encouraged me to think about.

Nature has done its big job. Like a ball thrown up in the air, all has risen, crested, and begun its arc back down into earth. After many years spent outside we come to see this – the parabola – as the contour of life itself. It’s the path the sun takes across the sky. The shape of a story. Ours included. Beginning, middle, and end.

Right up there with some of my favorites of the past few years. Recommended.


Rating: 7 red tree voles.

book beginnings on Friday: Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

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.

eating dirt

This book came recommended from two authors I’ve fallen in love with in recent years: Phil Connors and Christine Byl. That was enough for me. Charlotte Gill begins:

We fall out of bed and into our rags, still crusted with the grime of yesterday. We’re earth stained on our thighs and shoulders, and muddy bands circle our waists, like grunge rings on the sides of a bathtub. Permadirt, we call it. Disposable clothes, too dirty for the laundry.

Hers is a memoir of planting trees, and that’s about all I know so far, but I think I’m going to love it.

Happy Friday and what are you reading this weekend?

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

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

garden of marvels

You will recall the book beginning I recently posted for this book. I wanted to share another tidbit, equally delectable:

“Used to be some call for ’em,” he said over the phone in a drawl that sounded like Southern Comfort cut with a generous squeeze of lime.

The man with the voice is, appropriately, a citrus farmer in Florida. How charming is this author??

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

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

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.

Oh my. You guys, I just started the most amazing book. For instance – check out these very first lines.

garden of marvels

This book was born of a murder, a murder I committed. It was not my first, but I have some hope it will be my last. Since I never set out to kill – quite the contrary – I suppose I am guilty only of negligent homicide, or possibly mere criminal negligence. Still, I feel deeply culpable. All I can do is plead ignorance, and say that this particular death was a life-changing event for me (as well, of course, for my victim). Possibly, since you have this book in your hands, the tragedy will save a few lives I will never know.

The deceased in this case was a twelve-year-old guest, a permanent resident, really, of my household. She was a lovely, graceful creature about five feet tall, and a particular favorite of my family. Kam Kwat she would have been called in Cantonese, had she lived in her native land. As it was, since we live just outside Washington, D.C., we knew her as a kumquat tree.

I have quoted at greater-than-usual length because I wanted you to be able to appreciate Kassinger’s clever ruse here. Wait, don’t go! Yes, it’s a book about plants – the science behind plants, even – but it is the least dry thing you can imagine; I think the conversational tone is well displayed here, and it only gets better. I am entranced. Stay tuned!

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

remarkable bits from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Correct: we are still not done with Annie Dillard. I may have to make her a tag as I have done for Abbey and Hemingway. (…Haven Kimmel, Norman Maclean…)

EDIT: here we are.

On top of my reviews, I felt the need to share some of my favorite lines and passages with just a few notes. Enjoy.

There are seven or eight categories of phenomena in the world that are worth talking about, and one of them is the weather.

One wonders very much what else would make her list!!

I want to think about trees. Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can’t think about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their real business just out of reach. A blind man’s idea of hugeness is a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner fresh water; they abide. This sycamore above me, below me, by Tinker Creek, is a case in point; the sight of it crowds my brain with an assortment of diverting thoughts, all as present to me as these slivers of pressure from grass on my elbow’s skin.

I loved this because I, too, love trees; and this is a well-articulated (but still rather charmingly airy, too) explanation why. Also, I enjoy Dillard’s use of the semi-colon, my personal favorite punctuation mark. (Yes. I’m a librarian and a reader and writer. I have a favorite punctuation mark.)

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops. If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek.

“It never stops.” Golly, I hope she’s right. Climate change has us receiving too much rain here and not enough rain there; the forests are burning; the glaciers are melting; I fear the creeks are stopping (and starting up elsewhere). But in 1974, I can understand this thinking.

I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany.

This, too, is charming: a nerdy confirmation of the power of trees and other green things (and non-green things as well).

John Cowper Powys said, “We have no reason for denying to the world of plants a certain slow, dim, vague, large, leisurely semi-consciousness.” He may not be right, but I like his adjectives. The patch of bluets in the grass may not be long on brains, but they might be, at least in a very small way, awake.

Who is Dillard to say that he may not be right? Goodness, with all the time travel and metaphoric “patting the puppy” she gushes and coos, why not let trees have a certain semi-consciousness? And those complaints aside, does anyone else hear the Ents walking through those lines? Lovely.

All the green in the planted world consists of these whole, rounded chloroplasts wending their ways in water. If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring’s center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: If you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood, the streaming red dots in the goldfish’s tail.

And that blows my mind: a scientific, tiny-scale, real-life confirmation, like a metaphor but grounded in reality on the molecular level, of our intricate connection as living, breathing, animal things to living, breathing green things. I love that.

vocabulary lessons: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard had me quite active with my note-taking for later looking up. I have included only the highlights here for you.

anchorite: “An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold.”

discalced: “[The effort to] gag the commentator, to hush the voice of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing… marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod.”

spate: “I live for… the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

oriflamme: “The flight [of a flock of starlings] extended like a fluttering banner, an unfurled oriflamme…”

sonant and surd: “The wind shrieks and hisses down the valley, sonant and surd…”

scry: “…I had better be scrying the signs.”

eidetic: “…we have feelings, a memory for information and an eidetic memory for the imagery of our own pasts.”

obelisk: “We run around under these obelisk-creatures, teetering on our soft, small feet.” (She’s referring to trees.) and, 20 pages later: “A tree stands… mute and rigid as an obelisk.”

pavane: “An even frailer, dimmer movement, a pavane, is being performed deep under me now.”

neutrinos: “I imagine neutrinos passing through [a bird’s] feathers and into its heart and lungs…”

racemes: “Long racemes of white flowers hung from the locust trees.”

a two-for-one, etiolated and lambent: “The leaf was so thin and etiolated it was translucent, but at the same time it was lambent, minutely, with a kind of pale and sufficient light.”

eutrophic: “The duck pond is a small eutrophic pond on cleared land…”

phylactery: “…the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget.”

cofferdam: “…pouring wet plaster into the cofferdam…”

stet: “If the creature makes it, it gets a ‘stet’.”

shmoo: “Generally, whenever he was out of water he assumed the shape of a shmoo…” (referring to a muskrat).

enow: “The Lucas place is paradise enow.”

lorn: “A bobwhite who is still calling in summer is lorn…”


See other “vocabulary lessons” posts here.

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