20 Books of Summer: Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

Like a lot of people I was introduced to the writing of John McPhee through the New Yorker. I loved how he could write so beautifully about, well, anything. From geology to political figures, no matter how obscure the subject after finishing an article you couldn’t wait until his next one. Not only an accomplished writer, for decades he taught nonfiction writing at his alma matter Princeton, inspiring a number of his former students to become accomplished writers themselves. (David Remnick, Robert Wright and Dan-el Padilla Peralta are but a few.) Over the years I’ve acquired several of his books yet sadly made no effort to read them.

As part of my 20 Books of Summer series I decided remedy this by including a little something by McPhee. Published back in 1971 his Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies explores three (four, if you count a side trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota) beautiful, yet radically different parts of the United States and the memorable individuals strongly associated with them. From North Cascades National Park in Washington State to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina to the Colorado River in Arizona and Utah McPhee explores the areas’ natural beauty while introducing us to a pioneering conservationist and his three political rivals.

First and perhaps foremost of these is David Brower, at the time Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a life-long conservationist. Contrasted with him are his ideological adversaries: Charles Park, a mineral engineer and mining advocate; Charles Fraser, a resort developer from Hilton Head; and Floyd Dominy, a high-level government official responsible for the creation of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. Like a geologist descending through layers of accumulated strata McPhee reveals bit by bit the interesting depths of these complex individuals, showing no matter how aesthetically pleasing and majestic these places might be they’ll never completely overshadow the four remarkable personalities forever responsible for their preservation or alteration.

2020 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 23 books, and for my efforts earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. I wasn’t as productive in 2020 but still managed to read and review 20 books for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Switzerland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year for this first time I’ll be including books representing Slovakia and Norway

  1. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (United Kingdom)
  2. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti (France)
  3. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan (Germany)
  4. Warburg in Rome by James Carroll (Italy) 
  5. The Last by Hanna Jameson (Switzerland) 
  6. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Russia)
  7. Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Ukraine) 
  8. 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrin (Sweden)
  9. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson (Austria)
  10. Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros (Hungary)
  11. Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Slovakia)
  12. The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger (Bosnia) 
  13. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain) 
  14. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne (Greece)
  15. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl (The Netherlands) 
  16. From Bruges with Love by Peiter Aspe (Belgium)
  17. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis (Monaco)
  18. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer (Czech Republic)
  19. The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo (Vatican City)
  20. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb (Norway)

It was about a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction for this years’ challenge, with fiction tallying slightly more with 11 books. Five books were translated from other languages, including one, Masquerade from Esperanto. Both The Last Battle and The Future is History made my 2020 Favorite Nonfiction list while The Last, Beautiful Animals and The Angel’s Game made the Favorite Fiction list. I declared The Angel’s Game my favorite novel of 2020. 

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson

It’s nothing short of amazing how a group of people without metal tools or written language, let alone modern instruments like the compass or sextant were able to colonize the vast South Pacific spanning from Tahiti to Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. So amazing is this achievement I couldn’t resist Christina’s Thompson’s 2019 book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia when I spotted an available copy on my public library’s Overdrive portal. (Billed as “a blend of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Simon Winchester’s Pacific also made it hard to resist.) I took my time working through Sea People and by the time I was finished I came away with a deeper understanding of the South Pacific region as well as a greater respect for the brave and resourceful people who colonized it.

Over the centuries as Europeans gradually explored this sprawling maritime realm varying theories were offered up in hopes of explaining how the islands came to be populated. Some thought the Polynesians had inhabited the far-flung islands since the time of creation. Others believed they were the descended from the former residents of a once mighty continent of which nothing remained save a constellation of islands spread throughout the Pacific. As explorers, naturalists and those like them learned more they began to suspect the islands were colonized by groups originating outside the area, be it Asia, Australasia or even South America. But only relatively recently, thanks to discoveries in the fields of archeology, linguistics, anthropology and genetics has a consensus emerged explaining the Polynesians’ origins.

Even though I didn’t enjoy Sea People as much as I did Guns, Germs, and Steel or Pacific it’s still a pretty good book. Somewhere tucked away in my personal library I’ve got a battered copy of Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. Now that Christina’s Thompson introduced me to fascinating world of Polynesia it’s high time I finally read it.

About Time I Read It: An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Some staff member at my favorite local library must be a fan of Richard Dawkins because for weeks a copy of the esteemed scientist’s  2013 memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist had been prominently displayed in the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section. One Saturday my curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to borrow it. Once the memoir was in my possession I slowly made my way through it, finishing mere days before it was due back at the library. Perhaps like most books, there as things about it I liked and things I didn’t.

This is the second book I’ve read by the renowned British evolutionary biologist, science writer and “New Atheist.” Over a decade ago I read his much talked about 2006 book The God Delusion. (Not long afterwards I followed it up with Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath’s Christian response,The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.) Written as the first volume of a two volume set, the book covers the lives of his parents, his childhood and his early career as a scientist, ending with the publication of his first book The Selfish Gene.

Before reading Appetite for Wonder I would have assumed even though I wasn’t an expert on Dawkins I probably knew more about him than the average person. After reading this book I learned quite quickly how ignorant I really was. For instance, I had no idea he was born in Africa. (His father had been working as an agricultural civil servant in what is now Malawi when he was drafted into the military. A few years later, after his father was posted to nearby Kenya Dawkins was born.) Likewise, I had no idea one of the world’s most prominent atheists was a devout Anglican in his youth, albeit for a short period. I also wasn’t aware he spent time at UC Berkeley as an assistant professor of zoology during the tumultuous late 60s and took part in anti-war protests. Lastly, I had no idea he was a pioneer in the field of computer programing.

My least favorite passages of the book are the ones where Dawkins goes on and on about early computer programming. I also didn’t enjoy some of the science-related stuff, but his thoughts on evolution towards the end of the book were pretty good. Overall, it’s a decent book and it’s left me thinking I might read more of his stuff down the road.

2019 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. In my perennial quest to win the coveted “Jet Setter” award I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, each year I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

2018 was a down year for me since I read and reviewed just 15 books. I’m happy to report this year I rebounded nicely with a final tally of 23. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Iceland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year I even read a book about Moldova.

  1. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Russia)
  2. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 by William R. Trotter (Finland)
  3. Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Iceland)
  4. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe (Belgium)
  5. Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein (Moldova)
  6. A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria)
  7. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’ (Hungary)
  8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (The Netherlands)
  9. The Swede by Robert Karjel (Sweden)
  10. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Denmark)
  11. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey (Romania)
  12. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (United Kingdom)
  13. The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White (Turkey)
  14. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range (Germany)
  15. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (France)
  16. Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes (Spain)
  17. The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather (Poland)
  18. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Vatican City)
  19. The Italians by John Hooper (Italy)
  20. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Austria)
  21. A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin (Ukraine)
  22. Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Czech Republic)
  23. North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots by Eleni N. Gage (Greece)

 

As you might guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: Island on Fire by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe

I remember years ago as a little kid watching TV images of a violent volcanic eruption in some strange faraway place with the exotic name of Iceland. As a young child it was hard to not be mesmerized as I watched an entire village get smothered in black volcanic ash and lava. Those televised images, as well the vivid photographs I saw in a subsequent issue of National Geographic must a made a lasting impression on me because I’ve always associated the Nordic island nation of Iceland with volcanoes. Needing something about Iceland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge maybe that’s why I borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World. After all , who can resist a book about volcanos?  I know I can’t.

One day in 1783 Iceland’s largest volcano Laki erupted with a vengeance and for eight months nonstop unleashed an unstoppable river of molten lava and towering plume of ash. So much volcanic material was shot into the upper atmosphere weather patterns in Europe, North America and as far away a Egypt were drastically impacted as temperatures plummeted, crops failed and livestock suffered and died. Countless people, especially across Europe were plagued by respiratory ailments caused by Laki’s eruption with many succumbing to it’s harmful effects. All this from a volcano on a small island in the remote North Atlantic.

Island on Fire isn’t just a book about Laki but volcanoes in general, especially those that erupt with such magnitude they change the course of human history by causing massive global climate change. (Scientists suspect based on the evidence one of these eruptions happened in Indonesia around 1256.) Even smaller eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull, another Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010 grounded air flights all over Europe. Should another super-volcano blow its top, the damage to our supply chain-driven global economy would be catastrophic. Just another thing to keep us up late at night worrying.

Ten Drugs by Thomas Hager

When I heard the news science writer Thomas Hager would be at my public library promoting his latest book Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine I couldn’t wait to attend. I’ve been a fan of Hagers for years, ever since I read his 2006 book The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug.

So a few weeks after hearing this good news, I showed up at my small town library, grabbed a seat and much to my surprise watched the room gradually fill with attendees. At  the appointed time, or a few minutes past it, our guest of honor took the podium and treated us to a selection of short passages from his latest book. He concluded things with an obligatory bit of Q and A  followed by an equally obligatory session of book signings, and I used this as an opportunity for him to autograph my paperback copy of The Demon Under the Microscope. I’m happy to say Hager is a cool guy and it was a please to meet him! Later, I was able to secure a copy of Ten Drugs from the library and eagerly went to work reading it.

Some of Ten Drugs, especially the chapter on the origins of bacteria-fighting sulfa drugs  was a review for me since it was the inspiration for Hager’s much earlier book The Demon Under the Microscope. But the chapter on first antipsychotic drug was not, and I was amazed to learn the how this drug it came to be, and more importantly how it was such a game-changer when used to treat the mentally ill. I also enjoyed learning the origins of pain-killers and Viagra.

The Demon Under the Microscope is a great book and therefore a tough act to follow. As  a result, I enjoyed Ten Drugs, but maybe not as much as The Demon Under the Microscope. But to say this feels unfair, because a book, just like any other created work should stand or fall on its own merits and not those of its predecessor. So go read Ten Drugs, and in doing so learn about all the drugs that have changed history.

20 Books of Summer: The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein

Late last year when I reviewed Ken Silverstein’s 2008 book Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship I mentioned in passing his 2008 book The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor.  Over the years I’d heard rumors a Boy Scout managed to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard and someone had written a book about it. Reading Turkmeniscam put me in the mood to read The Radioactive Boy Scout and luckily for me, I was able to borrow a Kindle edition through Overdrive. Like Turkmeniscam, it’s a short book around 240 pages. But unlike Turkmeniscam, which isn’t bad, The Radioactive Boy Scout doesn’t feel like a magazine article that’s been padded into a book. I found it succinctly well-written and difficult to put down.

One of the major reasons I enjoyed The Radioactive Boy Scout is it’s hard not to root for David Hawn, the young man whose adventures Silverstein chronicles in the book. Here’s a guy with a crappy home life, complete with a mother battling mental illness and alcoholism. He’s socially awkward, but in spite of himself still manages to have a steady girlfriend. Academically, his grades are terrible. Outside of school however he’s a scientific prodigy. Hunkered down in his series of makeshift laboratories he spends his waking hours concocting his own energy drinks, self-tanning lotions and homemade fireworks. Using a 1950s era intro to chemistry book as his guide he created his own ether and conducted a number of experiments, many of them totally unsafe for an unsupervised teen working in an impromptu home lab.

Eventually, David’s obsession turned to nuclear energy. His dream was to create his own breeder reactor, that is a reactor that creates more fuel than it consumes. In the pre-Internet age of the 1990s he scoured libraries, hospitals, colleges and government agencies for helpful open source material, sometimes posing as a college professor. In his quest to obtain fissionable material he bought stuff through the mail, did his own prospecting and even told a hospital he needed a sample of a medical grade isotope to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. Without revealing too much let’s just say in the end his ambitious project would attract the attention of not just local law enforcement but also several government agencies.

The Radioactive Boy Scout is must reading for all you geeks and techies.

About Time I Read It: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Back in 2012 I offered up my impressions of Tracy Chevalier’s 2001 best-selling novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, a thoroughly enjoyable historical novel I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read until 10 years after it was published. Later, in 2013 I featured her 2003 follow-up The Lady and the Unicorn. While I didn’t enjoy Chevalier’s follow-up as much as its predecessor, it entertained me nevertheless. But more importantly it left me hungering for more of her fiction.

Luckily for me my local public library has a nice selection of her novels, one of which Remarkable Creatures, has intrigued me ever since I read reviews of it almost a decade ago. The story of two British women in mid-19th century England whose shared passion for ancient fossils puts them at odds with both the male-dominated scientific community and the local churches is too good a story for me to pass up forever. So, a few weeks ago during one of my weekend library visits I finally borrowed a copy of Remarkable Creatures and later that day went to work reading it. And just like with Girl With a Pearl Earring, I kicked myself for waiting so many years to finally read it.

Roughly 20 years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Mary and Elizabeth spend their days hunting for fossils along the beaches and hillsides of a small English coastal town. Mary, the younger of the two is a local and blessed with “the eye”, that is the uncanny ability to spot fossils that no others can. Elizabeth, a middle age “spinster” originally from London but shunted to the remote English coast by her family shares Mary’s love of fossil hunting but also serves as Mary’s mentor as well as go between, helping the lower class Mary navigate the confusing and intimidating world of the British upper class. Their passion, hard work and self-taught paleontological knowledge eventually reap significant rewards and led to budding notoriety. But alas, 1830s Britain is firmly a man’s world, and Mary and Elizabeth like all women in that age are not treated as intellectual equals no matter how talented they might be.

Reading this novel as a former evangelical Christian, it was the faith versus science aspect of the novel that intrigued me the most. As Mary and Elizabeth uncover more and more fossilized remains of strange and never before seen creatures they and other fossil aficionados begin questioning their religious beliefs. Why would God create a species of animal just to let it die out? If, on the other hand, the fossils are of animals that haven’t gone extinct, why is it no one has seen any of these animals alive anywhere in the world? Lastly, with the very existence of fossils indicating the earth is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old, could it be the world wasn’t created in six days and isn’t 4000 years old?

While I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures more than The Lady and the Unicorn I must say Girl With a Pearl Earring is still my favorite of the three. It’s left me wanting to read more of Chevalier’s fiction. Thanks to my public library there’s a good bet you’ll see more of her novels featured on my blog.

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.