Category Archives: Nonfiction

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

By Wade Davis

House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2009

This book comprises the 2009 Massey Lectures broadcast in November, 2009, as part of the CBC Idea Series.  I borrowed it from my library but am adding it to my holiday wish list.

When I was last at university I planned on getting a degree in Cultural Anthropology.  Due to changes in my life this didn’t work out, but I am still fascinated by the subject.

Wade Davis, now the Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society, has spent decades living with and getting to know different peoples all over the Earth.  While we are all aware and disturbed by the loss of species, both flora and fauna, across the planet, few know that many anthropologists believe that we will lose fifty percent of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world today within next 50 years.  Human cultures are going extinct at an alarming rate.

From the islands of Polynesia to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria of Columbia and the High Arctic of Greenland, Davis tells of the people who live and thrive in these many different environments.  Their skills and accomplishments are amazing.  Take for example the Polynesian Wayfinder, navigator of the canoe Hokule’a.

It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation:  the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or prehaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating  the crossbeams of the canoe.   Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots, 15 seconds and the vessel slogs at  a mere 1.5 knots.
But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves.  The science and art of navigation is holistic.  The Navigator must process an endless flow of data , intuitions and insights derived from observations and dynamic rhythms and interactions of the winds, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef – in short the constantly changing world of  weather and the sea.  From page 60.

Most of these people are what Westerners would consider poor and suffer for lack of modern conveniences,  but they carry within their cultures the abilities to adapt and survive in marginal landscapes.  They are physically and spiritual connected to the land they where they live and, it seems, wonder at us and all we have and do.  Some of them want what we have, many do not, regardless of what those of us who cry for development and modernization choose to believe.

What made this book wonderful for me was the level of description and detail, the care Davis’ has taken with each person he writes about, each story he tells.  Davis has spent years visiting with and living with many different individuals who are part of these many different cultures.  He has come up with some interesting observations.

The problem is not change.  We have this conceit in the West that while we have been celebrating and developing technological wizardry, somehow the other peoples of the world have been static and intellectually idle.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Change is the one constant in history.  All peoples in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life.  Nor is technology per se a threat to the integrity of culture.  The Lakota did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow for the rifle any more than a rancher from Medicine Hat ceased being a Canadian when he gave up the horse and buggy in favour of the automobile.  It is neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of culture.  It is power, the crude face of domination.  We have this idea that these indigenous peoples,  these distant others, quaint and colourful as they may be, are somehow destined to fade away, as if by natural law, as if they are failed attempts at being modern, failed attempts at being us.  This is simply not true.  In every case these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiably and overwhelming external forces.  This is actually a optimistic observation, for it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival.  From page 166/167.

In the end, Davis believes that we in the West have much to learn from indigenous cultures.  In fact, in order for us to survive climate change and our massive impact on the planet, we need to realize and honor the fact that there are different ways for human beings to live, to thrive in social and spiritual connection with each other and with their home ground.  I was enthralled by this book, saddened in some ways, but also filled with joy in the knowledge that these people are out there, living in ways that are not destroying the planet.  There are some wonderful videos on this subject here.

Other reviews:

she reads and reads

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Culture, Nonfiction, Review

Writing On The Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on the Front Line of Crisis by Tom Craig

Writing On The Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on The Front Line of Crisis

By Tom Craig, Edited by Dan Crowe

Published in association with Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres

Rizzoli, New York, 2010

Tom Craig, a documentary photographer, wanted to do something more than just take pictures.  He wanted people to tell the stories behind the pictures.  He invited authors to join him on trips to some of the most dangerous places in the world, and they said yes.

Things were elemental.  I knew it was cold in Armenia when the piss in our toilets froze, and I knew it was hot in Chad when the donkey next to me dropped dead like a cartoon cutout.  I knew I was frightened when I wanted my mum, and I knew I was doing the right thing when I overheard a girl on a bus in London crying as she described one of our stories in The Sunday Times Magazine. I learned that war was pointless, and that bad water kills nearly everyone, and if that didn’t get you the mosquitoes did.  I learned things about myself I could never have understood without the hardship and death I witnessed, or the instances of human fortitude and kindness I observed.  This is where hope comes in.  From the introduction by Tom Craig.

Some very fine writers  joined him on journeys to medical outposts set up by Medecins Sans Frontieres, in places far out on the borders of human existence.  Places like Burudi, Palestine, Cambodia and Congo.  People like Martin Amis, Tracy Chevalier, Hari Kunzru and Ali Smith.  They took these journeys and wrote about what they experienced.   These essays, along with Craig’s photographs, are gathered in this collection.

I picked this up off the “new book” shelf in my library,  not really knowing about it but intrigued by the names listed on the cover.  The essays are astounding, the photos are beautiful and disturbing.  Sometimes I just need something to help me get out of my own little bubble.  This book does that.

11 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current Events, Nonfiction, Photography

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Twelve, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

This book as won multiple awards and been on many Notable and “Best of”  lists.

I waited a long time to read this book.  Even though I had no desire to revisit this horrible event I kept hearing and reading about Dave Cullen’s in-depth study of the 1999 Colorado high school shootings.  I finally borrowed a copy from the library and discovered that Columbine is so well-written and well-researched that I couldn’t put it down.

I remember Columbine, I remember the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the horrible images that came over the television.  The stories of how these two students snapped and went after jocks, seeking revenge for bullying and harassment and how the “Trench Coat Mafia” was the group behind the murders was all over the media.  Turns out everything they told us about the Columbine shootings was wrong.

Dave Cullen,  reporting for Slate.Com, first visited Columbine High School at around noon on April 20th, 1999, the day of the shootings.  He spent 9  years researching this book, listening to tapes, watching videos, reading journals and conducting interviews. Talking to students, parents and teachers, investigators and police.   He dug deep and his reporting shows it.  It come across as clear and balanced.

Cullen gives us background on Harris and Klebold, in a way he makes these “monsters” human.  Reading their journals and listening to their friend,s investigators on the case believe Eric Harris was a psychopath and that Dylan Klebold suffered depression.  Reading their backgrounds and histories gives a very different view from the one the press reported.  The things I found most interesting in Columbine are Cullen’s analysis of the media circus surrounding the incident and the fact that the police covered up information they had on Harris and Klebold.  It turns out that this incident could have been avoided if certain people had communicated with other people, including some student who had hints of what was going on but never took the boys seriously.  Isn’t that always the way?

Columbine is not easy to read, the descriptions of the shootings and the suffering of the victims is intense, but I found it very worthwhile.

Other review:

Reading Rants

start narrative here

Have you read and reviewed this book?  Leave a comment so I can link you.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction, Notable Books, Review

The Collectors of Lost Souls by Warwick Anderson

The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen

By Warwick Anderson

John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008

Bought a used copy.

Those of you who have visited this blog in the past may know I have a love of anthropology and a love of science.  This intriguing book fills the bill on both counts.

It is the story of the Fore, a group of people who live in the isolated highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the mysterious disease that affected their villages. When white people first met the Fore in the 1930’s and 40’s,  they found them suffering from an illness that caused muscle weakness, tremors, lack of coordination and eventually death.  They also discovered that the Fore eat their dead as a sign of respect and that they believe in sorcery. It was mainly women and children who were ill and the Fore attributed this frightening, wasting sickness to very evil magic.  They call it Kuru.

Warwick Anderson, a medical doctor and science historian,  through years of research, travel and interviews with Fore people, medical researchers, anthropologists and others,  brings together all the different elements of the study of Kuru, that includes cultural anthropology, virology, epidemiology, colonial history and leads to the science of medical anthropology and to questions of medical ethics.  He follows the research of many anthropologists and epidemiologists and tells of their discovery  that, by eating their loved ones after death, the Fore where actually spreading the disease.  All this research, and the many scientists taking part in the study,  lead to the idea of a  “slow virus” and eventually to the discovery of Prions, the same biological cells that spread  “Mad Cow'” disease.

This book is also a record of the Fore, a previously isolated people, and how they made contact and adapted to the world by engaging with scientists, researchers and administrators.  How they struggled to make the meeting of the modern and the “primitive” something other than the usual colonial process.  How, once they realized that their blood and flesh was of value to modern science, they began to demand to be part of the undertaking.

We might also learn from the Fore how to understand the social dynamics of global science.  Kuru research occurred in the shadow of World War II and on the edges of the cold war.  It took place a scientific institutions flourished in advanced settler societies such as the United States and Australia, extending their reach into “primitive” colonies like Papua and New Guinea.  The traffic in specimens, equipment, reagents, and texts linked laboratories in large metropolitan centers with bush huts where autopsies were performed and tissues prepared.  Scientists came and went between these diverse sites, becoming cosmopolitan as they made their careers.  Parts of the Fore circulated, too, turned into globally available specimens.  Fore thus became medicalized even as they were first colonized.  They found themselves caught up at this striking conjunction, though never completely subsumed in it.  Rehearsed at a multitude of local sites, yet performed as though on a global stage, kuru research dramatized claims and contest over territory, bodies, and persons.  It shows us hoe science travels in the modern world and what it does when it arrives…

Anderson gives everyone, scientists, researchers and Fore alike, a say in the story.  He also exposes the moral and ethic dilemmas  involved with this type of medical research.  Who owns the findings?  The researchers, the biomedical companies or the people who donated their blood and bodies to the study of this disease?  It is a very important question as we delve deeper into the human body and its genetic makeup.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Science, Science Books 2010

Two by Emily Carr

Klee Wyck by Emily Carr

Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2003

Purchased at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC.

Klee Wyck, the name given to Emily Carr by the people of Ucluelet, means “Laughing One”.

A book of stories and word sketches based on the artist’s experiences visiting and living with First Nations people on Vancouver Island and along the British Columbia coast.  Beautifully written in clear and direct language, as vivid as her paintings.

After her death whole sections of the book were removed for an “educational” printing, including derogatory descriptions of missionaries at Ucluelet and observations of their negative reactions to Native beliefs and family life.

The Book Of Small by Emily Carr

Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2004

Purchased at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

This book is a collection of word sketches that describe Emily Carr’s life as a young girl growing up in Victoria, British Columbia, during the time the town grew from a frontier village on the edge of Vancouver Island, into a thriving community that would, in time, become the capital of that province.

As in Klee Wyck Carr’s simple prose paints clear pictures of the community and local characters.  She was an observant and rebellious child, often questioning the adults around her.  These traits served her well as she developed her independence and her art.

As far back as I can remember Father’s place was all made and in order.  The house was large and well built, of California redwood, the garden prim and carefully tended.  Everything about it was extremely English.  It was as though Father had buried a tremendous homesickness in this new soil and it had rooted and come up English.  There were hawthorn hedges, primrose banks and cow pastures with shrubberies.

We had an orchard and a great tin-lined apple room, wonderful strawberry beds and raspberry and currant bushes, all from imported English stock, and an Isabella grape which Father took great pride in.  We had chickens and cows and a pig, a grand vegetable garden — almost everything we ate we grew on our own place.

I  have mentioned before that Emily Carr is one of my favorite artists.  Her life and her art show tremendous determination at a time when being an artist was a very difficult path for a women.

Totem Walk at Sitka

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Nonfiction, Review

Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview

Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview & Other Conversations

Introduction by Marcela Valdes

Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, 2009

I bought this one.  It now sits on a shelf next to my copies of 2666 and The Savage Detectives.

“Literature is not made from words alone.” Roberto Bolano

A small book, containing four interviews and explanatory notes on Hispanic and Latino authors and book titles that may be unfamiliar to English readers.

I particularly appreciated the introduction by Marcela Valdes which goes into Bolano’s writing of 2666 in some detail.  Great for readers of that massive work.

As for The Part About the Crimes,  Bolano was in contact with Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, a Mexican journalist who wrote about the horrors taking place in Juarez.  Gonzalez Rodriguez’s book about the murders, Huesos en el desierto, has not been published in English.

I loved finding out that Moby Dick was one of Roberto Bolano’s favorite novels.

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Filed under Authors, Nonfiction, Review

Cold by Bill Streever

Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places

by Bill Streever

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

Bill Steever, an Alaskan biologist, takes his readers through the cycle of  a year visiting different places affected by cold.  Not just the temperature, but the geology, the impact on human habitation and plant and animal adaptations. He includes the history of the science of cold, the search for absolute zero  and human exploration into regions were temperatures fall to 60 below.

This is the kind of natural history-science book I love, the kind I can open up at any page and find something really intriguing.  He includes writings by authors who have studied the cold, animals that live in cold habitats or lived through expeditions into frigid climates including Apsley Cherry-Garrard, John Muir, Farley Mowat, and Bernd Heinrich.

There are sections on the discovery of  the ice ages.

A year later, in 1837, Agassiz presided over a meeting of the Natural History Society of Switzerland.  In his introductory speech, when he was expected to talk about fossil fish, he sprang the idea of an ice age.  Although Charpentier knew that the alpine glaciers had once covered more of the Alps then they currently did, Agassiz went further.  He described a sheet of ice that went from the North Pole to the Mediterranean.  He knew that some would view this as hairbrained.  “I am afraid,” he said, “that this approach will not be accepted by a great number of our geologists, who have well established opinions on this subject, and the fate of this question will be that of all those who contradict traditional ideas.  From page 62.

There are many references to animal adaptation, evolution and migration.  Why do some animals thrive in the cold and others migrate?  And its not just animals, all life forms have found their place on this planet and as the climate changes all living things adapt or die.

There is more to be learned.  There are , for example, physiological adaptations.  Not unexpectedly, birds put on fat, but in some cases nonessential organs shrink.  Just before migration, the bartailed godwit becomes fifty-five percent fat, but its kidneys, liver and intestines shrink.  Then it flies nonstop at something like 45 miles per hour for days on end.  The speed and exact route of many birds are not known.  Migrating sea ducks tracked by radar in the Arctic fly at more than 50 miles per hour.  A dunlin– a long-beaked shorebird–was once clocked at 110 miles per hour, passing a small plane.  From page 88.

Ranges of species go where species work best, destined by the character of their enzymes, destined by how well their enzymes work at different temperatures.  But also: Who will graze on my leaves?  Who will eat me?  Whom will I eat?  Is there space for my nest?  Is the soil right for my burrows or my roots?  Who will drive me away?  Puffins became scarce around Great Britain after 190 not because of air temperature, but because the fish they ate followed a shift in water temperature.  The birds followed the fish.  When water temperature shifted again around 1950, the fish returned, and with them the puffins.  The lives within biomes are interwoven, and if one species can go no further because of the temperature, it may affect another species, and another, and another, until it appears as though there is some definite boundary and that everything responds in concert.  But zoom in on the map, look a little closer, and the boundaries blur. Brown bears live in tundra and taiga and temperate deciduous forest.  Caribou migrate across biome boundaries.  The red fox, the tiger, the wolf, the wolverine and the raven all cross biome boundaries as if they did not exist, as if they have never read an ecology textbook, or studied a biome map.  From page 99

Streever talks about climate change in a balanced way, describing planetary changes and changes exacerbated by human technologies.   He is enthralled by the cold, and saddened by the prospect of loosing areas of colder climates.  This well-written little book is full of interesting facts about humans and animals that live in cold places.  I plan on adding a copy to my shelf of natural history books.

Often whales and seals and otters are the hottest things around.  A Wendell seal, a thousand pound of fur and blubber and heart and lung and rete mirabile, might lie on the Antarctic ice, open the shunts that let warm blood flow through its blubber, and create above a cloud of steam.  After a time, bored or hungry or spooked by a nosy human, it might flop from the ice into the water.  It might leave behind the marine mammal equivalent of a snow angel, an outline of itself melted into the ice, a negative image of belly and fins and head in three dimensions.  The Wendell seal thumbs its nose at the cold, leaving in the ice an image that is often called a seal shadow.  From page 129.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Science, Science Books 2009, World Citizen 2009

The Music Room by William Fiennes

fien0330444409.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Music Room by William Fiennes

Picador USA, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

In September I read and reviewed  The Snow Geese by William Fiennes.   I loved it so much I wanted to read his new book.

The Music Room is memoir written in narrative style.  It is the story of the house, actually a castle, where Fiennes grew up.  It is also a tribute to his brother, Richard.  Richard, eleven years older than William and suffering from epilepsy, was the family’s emotional center as well as it’s focus, but never in a way that detracted from anyone else.

The Music Room describes the great house, part of which was open to the public, and the people who cared for it.

Mid-morning, they came into the kitchen for coffee.  I’d last seen them passing through the door to the public side: it seemed they lived in that other world of portraits, plaster ceilings, suits of armour, swords.  In the corner, under domed wire-gauze fly guards that hung on nails like fencing masks, Joyce sat on her high stool, feet on the rung.  The kitchen was her domain.  She put a pan og milk on the hob, a china puck sitting in the bottom to stop it boiling over, and made milky coffee for Mrs Upton, Mrs Green and Mrs Dancer, and hot chocolate for Bert, who arrived with the cut-grass smell on him, unhitching his dentures so his teeth floated out towards me on his tongue.  By half-past ten they’d have gathered in the kitchen, Joyce perched on her stool like a tennis umpire, a bowl of cake mixture in her lap while Mrs Upton, Mrs Green, Bert and Mrs Dancer too sat round the green Formica table, delving into the Victoria biscuit tin, Joyce like a mother hen presiding over her chicks, providing for them.

If I wasn’t at school, I’d sit with them.

“How old do you think I am?” Mrs Dancer asked.

“I don’t know,”

“I’m about the same age as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”  from page 39.

This house is filled with history, the people who live and work there have lots of stories to tell.  There are all sorts of events held on the grounds,fairs, concerts and festivals.  Sometimes film crews show up, bringing with them actor and other interesting people.  Fiennes tells of the history of the land and of the house.

But the book is also an accurate description of the difficulties of  living with someone who suffers from epilepsy that has caused brain damage, the ups and downs of an illness that has no cure.  Fiennes intersperses his narrative with the history of the study of electricity and its effects on the brain, including the famous story of Mr. Phineas Gage.  He also includes descriptions of Richard’s bouts with anger, depression and lack of impulse control, and the amazing patience and love shown him by his parents.  I am awed by the graceful way Richard was accepted and included in their lives.

Whenever he was fully engaged in some physical task, his tongue dropped in front of his bottom teeth and pushed out his cheek below the corner of his mouth like a wad of dentist cotton wool.  Certain epilepsy drugs can cause unusual facial movements called extra-pyramidal movements, and for a while Richards pills caused him to circle his jaw unconsciously, as if he were chewing a cud, his lower lip enlarged and blubbery.   Now his tongue already probing his cheek in concentration, he leaned into the branches, fitted the blade and wrestled the saw back and forth until there  was only an inch of trunk intact.  We heard the first splinter-cracks as the tree teetered.  From page 61.

The Music Room is also filled with images of being a child and an adolescent  in such an amazing place, with such a challenging brother. Fiennes describes the private and the public spaces.  I had great fun just imagining an eight year old boy with free run of a castle, it even has a moat!

I start to look for ways of being alone, self-reliant, away from Richard and my parents.  I want, even within the circle of the moat, to be beyond observation.  So I disappear into the Barracks or out onto the castle’s roofs, scrambling across leads and stone slates, settling in secret enclosures like pockets among dunes, rooks crossing overhead between the worm-rich park and their rendezvous trees. From page 152

This little book is a loving  tribute to Fiennes’s brother and his family.  I found it very well written, lyrical and a bit melancholy.  I enjoyed it,  and look forward to other books by this fine British author.

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Filed under Memoir, Nonfiction

The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

wol1605980331.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

Pegasus Books, New York, 2009

I’m not really sure where I heard of this book, or why I chose to read it.  Maybe it was the beautiful photo of  the wolf on the cover or my initial, very negative,  reaction to someone keeping a wolf as a pet.  And philosophy?  I never really understood it’s purpose.  I suppose because I never had a teacher or mentor who explained it to me, or maybe I never asked what it was all about.  After reading Mark Rowlands’  book I have a much clearer understanding and admiration for those who follow this discipline. Perhaps because he writes in a way that is interesting and accessible.

The Philosopher and the Wolf is Rowlands’ memoir of living with Brenin, an Alaskan wolf, for over a decade.  It is the story of the bond that can exist between a human being and a wild animal.  Rowland dedicates his life to this relationship. Just that story would have  made it a wonderful book, but it is so much more than that.   I found it an amazing and educational read.

One of the thing I really appreciate about Rowlands’ writing and his philosophical position is that it is anchored in real life, it the events that happen to him, and those around him, every day.

His bond with Brenin allowed him to look at human evolution in a new way, comparing simian (ape), and therefore human, social development with lupine (wolf) social development.  There were times when I felt this comparison was a bit heavy handed but I need to do more reading of the latest research in animal behavior to be clear on this.  There were parts of his argument that really struck me.

If we humans place a disproportionate weight on motives, then to understand human goodness we must strip away those motives.  When the other person is powerless, you have no self-interested motive for treating them with decency or respect.  they can neither help you or hinder you.  You do not fear them, nor do you covet their assistance.  In such a situation the only motive you can have for treating them with decency and respect is a moral one: you treat them this way because that is the right thing to do. And you do this because that is the sort of person you are. Page 102

Mark Rowlands writes about morality, happiness, memory and time, always reflecting back on the years spent with Brenin. What he learned and experienced in that relationship has changed him in many ways.  This book is the result of those changes.  I really enjoyed it.

To learn more about The Philosopher and the Wolf visit Mark Rowlands’ blog.

Other reviews:

Moving Back, Moving On

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Filed under Animals, Nonfiction, Review

Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For The Origin Of Species – Sean B. Carroll

Rem015101485X.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For Origins Of Species by Sean B. Carrroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston & New York, 2009

A 5 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating.

A book to fill my head with thoughts of fieldwork!  Great stories from the history of geology, zoology, anthropology and genetics.

Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics,  follows scientific explorers from naturalist Alexander Von Humbolt to geneticists Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson as they pursue the geological history of earth and the evolution of life over time.  Covering the past 150 years he charts the development of, and changes in, the understanding of  human evolution.  Carroll is a wonderful writer and frames this book like a detective story, following the adventures of people who are familiar, like Charles Darwin, and those who are unfamiliar, like John Ostrom.

This is a wonderful book for those familiar with the sciences and those who just like a good adventure story.  My only problem with it is now I have a list of about a dozen books to add to my to-be-read pile!

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Filed under Challenges, Nonfiction, Review, Science, Science Books 2009