Monthly Archives: December 2009

Chasing Kangaroos

by Tim Flannery

Just looking at the cover of Tim Flannery’s Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Creature, you get a good sense of the book. It turns out that kangaroos are even stranger and more wondrous than I had ever imagined them to be.  But this is more than just the story of kangaroo life styles and life cycles, their mating habits, and their child-rearing techniques.  It’s also the story of the country the author loves best, Australia, and how its history and development are intertwined with that of its most iconic animal inhabitants.  Part geology, part travelogue, part ecology, part ethology, part anthropology, part history, part paleontology, part natural history, and all of it always interesting, Flannery’s book is a first-rate example of popular science writing.  The first line of the introduction will give you a good sense of Flannery’s style: “When I was young I met a man whose arse bore the bite-mark of a Tasmanian tiger.” Who could resist that?

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The Good Soldiers

by David Finkel

It was difficult to read David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers for more than a chapter at a time, because I found myself weeping at an alarming rate.   But of all the books I (and we) have read about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — all the excellent and not so great  “we were there” and “embedded reporters” accounts — Finkel’s book stands head and shoulders above the rest.  This is war as it is experienced by the soldiers on the ground.  We are with the 2-16, an Army Rangers battalion, who were sent to Baghdad at the beginning of “the surge” in 2007.  Finkel has a terrific journalistic eye (he won the Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for the Washington Post), and we share the soldiers’ experiences  as they attempt to bring a kind of peace to Baghdad.  The trauma of being away from friends and family, the daily boredom of patrolling a city that is all too frequently punctuated by the terror that comes with an attack or a suicide bomb, the lack of trust of the civilians — all this comes through in writing that is both vivid and visceral.  And Finkel is fully aware of the irony that this group of young men fighting what appears to be a rearguard (and losing) battle are led by Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, whose lifetime motto has always been “it’s all good.”  After reading about the reality of life lived under the constant threat of death and bodily injury, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion (and I have to believe that Finkel did) that a better motto would have been, “none of this is good.”   After reading Finkel’s fine book, I had a deeper understanding of both the physical and mental risks we are subjecting our soldiers to.  When we read about returning soldiers committing suicide or murder, or even the recent  incident at Ft. Hood, it’s not hard to see why these sorts of things occur.

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When Wanderers Cease to Roam. . .

by Vivian Swift

I cannot adequately convey how much I ABSOLUTELY loved Vivian Swift’s When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put (Bloomsbury, 2008).  For over two decades, Swift traveled the world, for work and fun, and then settled down with five cats in a house in a small village on the Long Island Sound. This is a diary (highly illustrated with her watercolor drawings) of those years, as well as the events of the past.  It’s charming, delightful, and captivating.  I loved the pictures of the single mittens that she’s found over the years, but I could have equally chosen any of hundreds of other examples of what made this book so much fun to read.  Here are others: it’s through this book that I learned about the mid-18th century French soldier, Xavier de Maistre, who was confined to prison for 42 years (for dueling), and decided to write about each of the items in his room as though it were an important tourist attraction.  Swift says that he “invented a new mode of travel.”  And Alexander von Humbolt, who was an explorer and naturalist, and almost an exact contemporary of de Maistre (although they probably never met).  He spent five years exploring Latin America and then, according to Swift, lived in Paris for 20 years and wrote 30 books about his Latin American adventures.  This is a perfect gift for travelers, those with artistic souls, those with a sense of wonder, those who are hug-the-hearths — in short, nearly everyone on your gift list.

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The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

T.S. Spivetby Reif Larsen

“Clever” novels frequently put me off.  You know the sort I mean: those that make use of different fonts, footnotes, and other similar affectations.  I often wonder if the purpose of all these bells and whistles is simply to disguise the fact that the author really has nothing much to say to the reader.  And I find that so often novels about child geniuses all follow the same story arc: kid burns out and comes to no good end.  So you can imagine my relief and delight when I discovered that Reif Larsen overcame both of my ingrained prejudices in his splendid and emotionally satisfying first novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet (Penguin Press, 2009).  Twelve-year-old cartography genius Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet lives at the Coppertop Ranch (just north of Divide, Montana) with his über-laconic rancher father, his scientist mother (who is obsessed with finding a certain type of beetle that nobody else believes exists), his older sister, Gracie, and the memory of his younger brother, Layton, whose death has left an unhealed scar on the family’s psyche.  T.S. spends his days mapping the world around him.  We’re shown examples of his maps: there’s one describing the behavior of the female Australian dung beetle during copulation, while another is a three-dimensional time-map of 26 of the Spivet family toasters, including “highlights of its career and the date and nature of its demise.”  Two other notable maps are of the family’s dinner table conversation and the correlation between the time and distance of the self-inflicted gunshot that killed Layton.  Then one day T.S. gets a call from the Smithsonian Institution, announcing that he has won the prestigious Baird award.  He’s invited to come address a select audience and receive the recognition due him for his outstanding scientific contributions.  (T.S. realizes that the man on the phone has no idea that he’s only 12, but he’s too shy to tell him.)  Almost on a whim, T.S. decides to hop an eastbound train and hope that he makes it to Washington in time to accept the award.  As T.S. travels toward the Smithsonian, we are along for the ride, experiencing the world through the eyes of this brilliant, funny, and emotionally wounded kid.  It’s a trip well worth taking.

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