Tomes 2010: Geology on the Road

I didn’t mean for this installment to be travel-themed.  It’s just how we ended up.  There are two odd men out, so I suppose there’ll be variety for the sake thereof and all that.  Besides, the travel theme goes well with Silver Fox’s meme.  So why the hell not?

And so, without further ado, our final Tomes 2010!


Geology of the North York Moors

You may notice this isn’t accompanied by a book cover image.  Best I can do for a link for ye is to direct you to where I filched the picture, which discusses some o’ the geology, at least.  This tiny little book is one of those delightful bookstore finds.  My copy is vintage ’79, and must have been picked up by vacationing Americans.  It’s a quick, simple guide to one of the most interesting national parks in England.  If you can lay your hands upon a copy, do, but be warned: it will make you want to spend an outrageous amount of money to hop a plane for Great Britain.  At least you’ll have clear diagrams and succinct but solid text to help you find the best geology available.


Hiking Guide to Washington’s Geology

I picked this up at Mount Rainier, and it’s been my constant companion since.  It’s had horrible things done to its cover from being in the same bag as a hand sample of sandstone, but it’s soldiered through.  There are 56 hikes in here.  You’ll want to do them all.

It covers eight regions: the Coast Ranges, the Puget Lowland and San Juan Islands, the North Cascades, the South Cascades, the Columbia Basin, the Okanogan Highlands and Rocky Mountains (yes, Washington has Rockies!), the Blue Mountains, and the Four Corners.  No, Washington does not have a Four Corners region in the sense that four states meet in a corner, but it’s roughly rectangular, so that last bit covers all four corners.  The hikes are awesome.  Don’t quibble.

The trails are clearly described, so well done that even amateurs like me can figure out what they’re looking at.  Nearly everything intelligent I ever say about Washington state geology from now on will be on account of this book.  Just so’s you know.


Hiking Oregon’s Geology

This book was written by Ellen Morris Bishop.  That should be all I have to say about that.

What, you want me to sell you on this book?

Fine, then.  90 geological hikes.  Covers the Klamath Mountains and the Southernmost Coast, the Coast Range and Central-Northern Oregon Coast, the Willamette Valley, the Columbia River Gorge, the Cascades, the Deschutes Basin, the High Lava Plains, the Basin and Range, the Owyhees, the Blue Mountains and the Columbia Plateau.  Is that enough for you?  It should be.

And did I mention Ellen Morris Bishop?

If you don’t know her, go read In Search of Ancient Oregon.  Then you’ll know why I say, ’nuff said.


Geology of the North Cascades

This is the perfect blend of information and travel guide.  The first several chapters give an overview of the geology of the region.  This is no simple matter.  The North Cascades are a crazy-quilt of exotic terranes, plutons, oceanic sediments and seafloor, all scrambled and mixed up any-old-how by the vagaries of a subduction zone, then topped off with a bunch of young volcanics.  But after reading the first half of the book, you’ll have an excellent idea of which bits are where and why.

Then the second half of the book will take you on a long ramble through them.  There are 154 notes on geologic points of interest.  That means roughly 154 places I want to visit this summer, and I’m not looking forward to trying to whittle them down to a manageable handful!  Plus, there’s a recipe for roast chicken.  But it’s not just any ol’ recipe.  It’s one you can make and bake right in the Great Fill.  Yes, you will be burying chicken in old debris flows and baking it right inside the geology.  Is that not teh awesome?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  And no other book I’ve ever seen on geology has ever offered anything like it.


Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings

You may think that a book on Japanese architecture from 1885 would be dead boring.  In this book’s case, you would be wrong.

Soooo very wrong.

Not only is it richly illustrated with a great many beautiful engravings, not only is the prose clear and the descriptions of even the most fiddly bits of architecture and house construction concise and easy to follow, not only does it range from design to construction to decor, it takes many hysterically funny side trips.  Mr. Morse, you see, had a rather jaundiced view of American habits, and he wasn’t afraid to spend several pages bashing them.  He had a caustic wit.  He had a keen sense of timing and effect, and understood that sometimes a diatribe requires detail, and sometimes the detail is best left to the readers’ imaginations.

Two examples will suffice.  Here, on page 172, he compares Japan’s carpenters to America’s:

It is a remarkable fact, and one well worth calling attention to, that in the smaller towns and villages, in regions far apart, there seems to be artistic workmen capable of designing and executing these graceful and artistic carvings, – for such they certainly are….  I do not mean to imply by this general statement that good workmen in Japan are not drawn to larger cities for employment, but rather that the smaller towns and villages everywhere are not destitute of such a class, and that the distribution of such artisans is far more wide and general than with us.  And how different such conditions are with us may be seen in the fact that there are hundreds of towns and thousands of villages in our country where the carpenter is just capable of making a shelter from the weather; and if he attempts to beautify it – but we will not awaken the recollection of those startling horrors of petticoat scallops fringing the eaves and every opening, and rendered, if possible, more hideous by the painter.

That, my darlings, puts me in mind of Jerome K. Jerome’s remarkable ability to say ten thousand things with just a few choice words.

Here, on page 117, Mr. Morse goes after American interior decorating atrocities:

If a foreigner is not satisfied with the severe simplicity, and what might at first strike him as a meagreness, in the appointments of a Japanese house, and is nevertheless a man of taste, he is compelled to admit that its paucity of furniture and carpets spares one the misery of certain painful feelings that incongruities always produce.  He recalls with satisfaction certain works on household art, in which it is maintained that a table carved with cherubs beneath, against whose absurd contours one knocks his legs, is an abomination; and that carpets which have depicted upon them winged angels, lions, or tigers, – or, worse still, a simpering and reddened maiden being made love to by an equally ruddy shepherd, – are hardly the proper surfaces to tread upon with comfort, though one may take a certain grim delight in wiping his soiled boots upon them.  In the Japanese house the traveller is at least not exasperated with such a medley of dreadful things; he is certainly spared the pains the “civilized” styles of appointing and furnishing often produce.  Mr. Lowell truthfully remarks on “the waste and aimlessness of our American luxury, which is an abject enslavement to tawdry upholstery.”

We are digressing, however.

Such digressions season the book throughout, and have turned it from mere tome on foreign architecture into a delightful exploration of different cultural worlds.  There’s a good reason why this book is still in print and available 135 years after its birth.  I’ve spent nearly a year reading this book, dipping in to it a few pages at a time, savoring it for as long as I can, because I’m sure I’ll never read another book on architecture this good ever again.


Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings

I’ve read translations of the Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho), seen programs on Miyamoto Musashi, and read the works of other martial artists, but this is the first time I’ve read a translation of Musashi’s work and a history of his life by an actual martial artist.  Kenji Tokitsu does a wonderful job rendering Musashi as a human being, which is difficult, considering the man is a bloody legend.

And, for the first time, I’ve read a translation of the Gorin no sho that actually made sense.  That’s no mean feat!  Musashi wasn’t writing for novices, he was writing for people he’d already taught.  Most translators render the words without meaning.  Kenjii renders not only the words, but the concepts behind them, in a beautifully clear translation with extensive notes.  And he leads up to that translation by exploring Musashi’s life, his development as a martial artist, and the Japan he lived in. 

This book also includes some of Musashi’s lesser-known works, which helps complete the picture.  And, speaking of pictures, there are beautiful color plates of Musashi’s art work – he wasn’t just a martial artist, but a supremely gifted painter and calligrapher.

Musashi’s legendary status is well-deserved.  This book honors that, but also shows him as what he was: a human being.  And it’s written by a man who knows his stuff: how to translate, how to write, and how to think and act like a martial artist.  It’s rare to get hold of a book in English that combines all three.  This is one, and I’m very grateful he wrote it.

And that, my darlings, is that: the final set of Tomes 2010.  64 books, 12 months.  Stay tuned for Tomes 2011, which shall no doubt be as varied and filled with startling, cherished finds.  Happy reading!

Tomes 2010: Harry Potter Mania Edition

Don’t ask me why, but for some reason, I decided to re-read Deathly Hallows.  I think it’s because my coworkers were babbling about the film.  Then I decided, fuck it, I’ll read ‘em all.

I’ve got a story to tell you ’bout that, actually.  Not the most recent trot through the lexicon, but how I came to be a Harry Potter fan at all, and why Quidditch is my favorite sport outside of steeplechasing (the kind with horses, not merely humans).  So, settle in for a bit, even if you’re rabidly anti-Potter.

So this one time, back in Flagstaff, when my friend Justin was still my Entertainment Executive, he forced me to read the books.  I believe it was before I saw the movie, but my memory’s unclear on this point.  What is crystal clear is that I didn’t want to read them.

“Justin,” says I, “these look stupid.”

They were not, he assured me, stupid.

“Justin,” says I, “these are fucking kids books.”

They were not, he assured me, merely for children.  British author J.K. Rowling, in fact, thought more of children than most of our American authors tend to.  She even used big words.  Did you know, he said, that the title of Sorcerer’s Stone in Britain was actually Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone?  Because the British thought kids were smart enough to figure out what the real name of that famous alchemical substance was, but American publishers thought they’d scare the audience away if they so much as mentioned the word philosophy.

“Justin,” says I, “even so, I do not fucking want to read these books.”

Our arguments about entertainment usually ended in just one way.  And this one ended with me grumbling my way home with two books in hand.

My Doom #1

So, being obligated now, I cracked open the first one, not expecting much of anything.  A few hours later, I set it aside and opened the second one.  I don’t remember stopping for dinner.  I don’t know if anything at all about the world outside or my own biological needs impinged upon my awareness.  I was too busy fighting Voldemort at Hogwarts to worry about Muggle bullshit like that.

At about three or four in the morning, I finished all Justin had given me.  And I knew a few things.

1.  There were two more books in this series.

My Doom #2

2.  I had stupidly told Justin I’d borrow them later if I decided I’d ever read them.

3.  It was the wee hours of the morning and I had to go to work the next day.

4.  Wal-Mart is open 24 hours.

5.  But there was a blinding snowstorm, with several inches on the ground already, and the plows hadn’t been by.

6.  I owned the most obstinate, skiving, broken and temperamental Ford Escort known to man.

7.  It was doubtful the car would run long enough to go to Wal-Mart even in the best of weather, much less when it was peeing down snow.

8.  I was going to die if I didn’t get the next two books RIGHT BLOODY NOW.

So I forced the car to go to Wal-Mart.  At 3 or 4 in the morning.  On a work night.  In the snow.  And I came home with all that was currently available in the Harry Potter series.

My Doom #3

Got a good ways through Prisoner of Azkaban before I collapsed from exhaustion and slept for an hour or so before work.  I nearly strangled Justin that day – not because he’d got me hooked, but because he’d done it in the middle of the week.  During a snowstorm.  The fucker.

It took me a bit longer to finish these next two.  They weren’t the whimsical trip through fantasy-land the first two had been, and they were a bit longer.  I started noticing something about J.K. Rowling, and Justin backed me up on it: she doesn’t pull punches, and she lets the stories age with the character.  In the first two, the main evil dude Voldemort is still weak, so he’s the sort of threat a young kid can plausibly face off against.  We’re mostly having fun, here, leaping into the world of wizarding with Harry, who’s one of the most sympathetic characters ever created.  How can you not love a boy with a lightning-bolt scar who lives with horrible relations?  Doesn’t everybody dream of having secret powers as a kid?  And Rowling has a gift for names – characters, places, spells.  I don’t think people realize how much there is in a name, but she does.  Check out the names of the two main rival Houses: Slytherin and Gryffindor.  I don’t have to tell you which are the bad guys and which are the heroes.  You can tell that from the names, I’ll warrant.

But still, it’s all good clean fun with a little deus ex machina in the bargain.  The third one’s a bit heavier fare, with a murderer on the loose, betrayal, innocent people tortured as if they were guilty and all that, but it’s still kid’s stuff.  Not the kind of toothless kid’s stuff you’d expect, quite a lot of fun and utterly absorbing, but still nothing super intense.

My Doom #4

Then you hit the fourth book.  The first thing you notice is, it’s twice the size.  There’s stuff in there that makes you think serious thoughts about slavery and justice.  Abracadabra gets turned into something altogether sinister and evil: avada kedavra, the killing curse.  And you know that when a killing curse is raised, someone other than the villain is going to get killed.

Only it’s worse than that, because on top of the torture and murder, there’s a dark damned ritual that brings the Dark Lord back in all his power.  This isn’t kid’s stuff anymore.  This shit’s getting serious.  And if you’ll notice, it’s timed just about right: Harry’s a teenager now, and even though he’s very, very young, he’s old enough that fighting the dark side isn’t going to remain child’s play forever.

My Doom #5

Then the next book happens, and you find out that no one’s rallying.  No one powerful, anyway.  The Ministry of Magic would rather pretend reality doesn’t exist, and starts a huge disinformation campaign.  Very few people believe Harry.  So there he is, with 90% of everyone he meets believing he’s a glory-seeking maniac at best and a murderer at worst, he’s been isolated from the people who loved him all summer while trying to deal with the horrors he’s seen, and on top of all that, the Ministry’s placed one of the most evil people in the universe within Hogwarts.  And she’s pure evil, my friends: one of those people who hides a sadistic streak a continent wide beneath pastel cardigans and fluffy bows and walls full of cute purring kitten plates.  This book is actually difficult to read, not because it’s badly written, but because the bad news is so unrelenting.  It makes you squirm, remember every worst teacher you ever had, put you face-to-face with death and despair, and then kills off a major character to boot.  You’re left wondering how Harry can possibly hold up under the weight of so much loss.

My Doom #6

And just when you think it couldn’t get worse… it does.  Book 6 has its light moments, but it explores a lot of dark sides.  We learn how Voldemort came to be, so he’s no longer just a vaguely-defined Big Bad who went bad.  Harry discovers how hard it is to date while also being the Chosen One.  Snape, their least favorite teacher, gets what he’s always wanted, which is never a good thing where Harry’s concerned.  A lot of things that had been left as open questions get answered, and heroes are discovered to have clay feet.  It’s a book with a lot of difficult questions and themes, appropriate for someone who’s growing up, who’s very soon going to be an adult, and who’s facing an evil so powerful wizards still won’t repeat its name.

In the end, when you’re wondering just how Rowling’s going to top the previous year’s kill, you find out.  And you rage.  That woman is not afraid to kill off your favorites, your staunchest allies, the people you love and need the most.  This book, I think, is what cemented my respect for her as an author.  She saw what had to be done and did it, without flinching.  And if you’d thought Harry had been put through hell before, well, it’s nothing compared to what she does to him here.

My Doom #7

You may think you’re numb, now.  You may think you’re tough.  You may think she’s done her worst.

You’d be wrong.

I can sum up Deathly Hallows thusly: “It was a good book. Nearly everybody died.”

And if you’re still thinking this is a kids-only series by the end, you’ve got a warped view on what kids-only entertainment is. 

At least she leaves us with a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  After all of the emotional trauma, you’re shown that yes, it was worth it all.  But that’s the only consolation offered.  Mostly, it’s just brutal. 

So yes, this is a kid’s series. It grows up right alongside them.  And it’s not afraid of big words and bigger concepts and it’s got the greatest sport ever invented in it.  After reading these, get Quidditch Through the Ages.  I’m serious.  It’s hysterically funny.  That’s another talent J.K. Rowling’s got, that tongue-in-cheek, extremely British dry sense of humor that slays, even when discussing in seeming seriousness a completely made-up sport.

And if your own Entertainment Executive tells you that a set of books for kiddies might be worth your while, take them.  Take them all.  Otherwise, you, too, may end up at Wal-mart in the snow at 4 in the morning on a work night.

Tomes 2010: Written in Stone Edition

When this book:

came in the mail after I’d waited literal years for it, I was like, ZOMG,

And now that I’ve finished it, I’m totally feeling like

Brian, this had better be the start of a long and prolific career, because one’s not enough, buddy.

This book constantly surprised me – not because it was good (it’s Brian Switek, so obviously it’s good!), but because of the number of times it made me say, “I didn’t know that!”  It’s populated with bajillions of scientists I’ve read a lot about, people like Charles Darwin and Nicolaus Steno and Richard Owen, some of whom have been so extensively babbled about in the pop sci books that it seemed nothing new and interesting remained to reveal – but Brian almost always managed to find a little something awesome that hasn’t made it into the 42,000 other books about them.  And lest you think this is merely a history of paleontology, keep in mind that Brian fleshes out that history with the newest of the new discoveries.  I’m amazed by how much territory he managed to cover without seeming to skimp.  It’s not that big a book!

It wasn’t just things about people I didn’t know, but how and why certain traits evolved.  Brian’s filled gaps in my knowledge I didn’t even realize I had.  That chapter on horse evolution: definitely worth the wait.  Got me thinking in whole new directions, that did, and that kind of thinking is like solid gold to an SF writer.

He set out to prove that the fossil record, despite some arguments to the contrary, is essential to understanding evolution, and I do believe he succeeded.  It certainly seems like we wouldn’t have discovered as much as we did without the evidence those big, extinct critters showed us.  I love the way he lays things out, like a poker player spreading out a particularly fine royal flush.  Booyah, cretinists!

Like Ron Said

Brian’s not a particularly combative person – he doesn’t jump hip-deep into frays with the zest and verve of people like, oh, say, PZ – but don’t let his polite, sensible prose fool you.  He gives no ground.  I love this book not just because it’s Brian’s and it’s wonderful, but because it’s unflinching.  Evolution is fact, paleontology’s got the evidence, no quarter given.  And when the time comes in the human evolution chapter to talk about Piltdown Man, he dispatches that with such alacrity you don’t quite realize he just shot it through the heart.  It’s this simple: there was a hoax, some people fell for it, scientists figured it out and exposed the hoax, done.  I love that.  And the whole book is like that: one long demonstration that while science is sometimes messy, it gets the job done in the end.  Scientists aren’t perfect, but they don’t need to be in order to advance our knowledge.  And again and again, Brian takes down the evolution-as-linear-progress myth.  If you’re not left with the idea that evolution’s a big brushy, branchy tree rather than one great chain of being leading to inevitable us, then you weren’t reading this book.  Either that, or you’re ineducable.

There’s also quite a few shout-outs to geologists in here, which is much appreciated!

A lot of people need this book: people interested in science; the history of science; paleontology; evolution; people thinking about becoming scientists; anyone who’s ever loved dinosaurs, birds, fish, mammoths, mammals, whales, horses or humans; people ignorant of science; those creationist relatives who love to yammer about “gaps in the fossil record”; people who don’t know what a fossil record is….  Look, basically, everyone needs this book.

And if you’re not convinced by me, the link I pilfered the book cover from has links to plenty of other reviews that just might do it.  There’s Chris Rowan and Anne Jefferson’s review plus interviewWritten in Stone is inexpensive and the perfect size for most standard Christmas stockings, not to mention an easily-wrapped shape.  And, finally, it’s Brian Switek – what more do you need to convince you?

Once you’re done enjoying this one, join me in pestering Brian for another installment.  I want his second book in time for Tomes 2012!

Tomes 2010: Mix Edition

It’s a mixed bag, baby, yeah!  I haven’t had any themes to my reading just lately, so the only thing that holds this group o’ books together is that I read them in 2010.  Isn’t that enough?

I’m saving the best for last, so stick with me.


Greek Architecture

This book has been my constant bathroom companion for months now.  I learned some new words – metope, prostyle, tholos.  I discovered that a lot of architectural details, from the way buildings were built to design and structural elements, arose from the transition from wood and mud brick to stone.  And I learned that a lot of things that wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t know how gravity works make perfect sense when you take into account the fact that very heavy things naturally want to fall down.

It was extremely detailed, more of a catalogue than a narrative, but wonderfully informative, with plenty of diagrams and illustrations to help things along.  The best part, though, was the epilogue, which became positively poetic.

All in all, not a bad bathroom read – and my architectural ignorance is slightly less than it was before.  Win!


Trees: Their Natural History

I’ve loved this book since the first sentence: “Everyone knows what a tree is: a large woody thing that provides shade.”  The rest of the book didn’t disappoint.  It’s a clear, concise, and comprehensive introduction to trees, from how they evolved to how they work in this modern world of climate change and pollution.

Peter Thomas wrote this book because he became frustrated with the fact that there wasn’t a single source for all our knowledge about trees.  A lot of myths get dispelled, and most importantly, I learned things I never knew before – like how roots seek easy paths in order to grow, and how far they actually go.  The strategies various trees have – deciduous vs. evergreen, conical vs. sprawling, tall vs. short – begin making sense once you know why natural selection molded them in certain ways.  And there were things I’d never considered before, like how something so tall manages to stay upright for decades, hundreds or even thousands of years against the simplest antagonist of all: the wind.

Once I got done with this book, I felt I’d gotten into the mind of a tree.  And it’s hard to see them in the same way ever again.  They may not be conscious in the way we understand, but they are living creatures that respond to their world.  They’re magnificent.  And I’m very glad I got to know them better.

Towers of Midnight

This is the book I abandoned all y’all to read.  Took me three nights, it did, and it was worth it.

It’s never easy for an author to take on another author’s characters and world and try to do them justice.  And you know how complicated the Wheel of Time is.  Cast of practically thousands, very detailed world, more subplots than a Borgia family reunion, and Robert Jordan’s peculiar obsession with clothing.  At times, I could clearly see Brandon struggling, especially when it came to describing clothes (I feel for him.  No man outside a tailor’s shop should have to pay that much attention to fabrics, colors and cuts).  There was also that bit where, for several chapters, I thought he’d fucked up continuity big time, only to realize the continuity was fine, but his ability to skip back and forth between different time streams in said continuity had slipped a bit.  I can’t say as I blame him.  The thing’s almost 900 pages, hideously complex, and he wrote it in a year.

Any number of minor annoyances can be forgiven here.  My hat is fully off to Brandon for tackling this at all, much less doing such a great job, not to mention ensuring Jordan’s fans get to see how the story ends.  Which it will, alas, next year.  Brandon, can’t you maybe be just a wee past deadline just this once?

I want to see how the story ends.  Then again, I don’t.  I love these characters, I love how Brandon’s managed to grow them further, and I don’t want to see it come to an end.  Then again, I do.  Argh!

Sign of a good book, that.  And this was a very good book.  Kept me up past bedtime three nights running, and the only thing that saved me was the switch from Daylight Savings Time.


Life on a Young Planet

Lockwood recommended this one, and I’m glad he did.  I love reading books that give me physical pain when I realize I’m getting close to the end.  I hated finishing this book: it’s so beautifully written, so fascinating, and so informative that I could have happily spent the rest of my life reading it.

From mere chemical traces to exquisitely preserved microfossils, from the first ambiguous hints of life to stromatolites, from extremophiles to extraterrestrials, from ancient atmospheres to oxygen revolutions, this book is a journey through life itself.  Andrew Knoll’s sense of wonder is only matched by his scientific chops.  There are few people who can write using the big technical words and yet never for an instant seem dry.  He’s one of those rare talents.  He also explains things well  without stopping the narrative cold; tough concepts hold no terrors for the layperson in this slender book.  At least, not if said layperson has read a few books on evolution and biology first – I’m not sure how a total neophyte would fare, but I suspect the sheer power of the prose would smooth over any difficulties.

I can tell you this: a lot of the things that confused me about how really ancient life is identified got cleared up in the course of reading this book, and I understand quite a bit more about how a little rock from Mars caused so much excitement with ambiguous evidence for life.

Andrew Koll, if you’re reading this: I want a revised edition expanded by a factor of at least ten.

And that’s it for now.  Not much 2010 left, but I’m sure we’ll have at least one or two more of these before the end.

Tomes 2010: The “I Hate Connie Willis” Edition

Not because she’s a bad author, but because she’s precisely the opposite.  So we’ll start with her, although I only just finished her book.


All Clear

Longtime readers may remember my howls of outrage when I stayed up all night to finish Blackout only to realize it’s the first bloody half of a single book, the other half of which I’d have to wait six months for.  Now, hopefully, you understand why I abandoned all y’all for a night so that I’d have some chance to sleep a few hours before work.  Wasn’t going to wait any longer, damn it.

Like WWII and the Blitz, this is a chaotic, nerve-wracking, horrifying, sometimes ludicrously funny and occasionally sublime experience.  I have only two things against it: 1) I had to wait six months for it after being left on the mother of all cliffhangers and 2) was that added bit of cheese at the end strictly necessary?  Okay, I have a third thing against it: I ended up reading until 7 in the ay-em two bloody days in a row because there was never a good stopping point, yet the book’s too big to finish in one sitting in the middle of the work week.  Argh.

Anyway, if you want to see time travel done right, you owe yourself some Connie Willis.  And don’t worry, my dear atheists and skeptics: when she coulda gone there, she didn’t.  You’ll see what I mean when you read it.

I anticipate with dread the next Connie Willis tome.  I’m getting too old for this all-nighter shit.  But I know I won’t be able to sleep until I’ve read every word.

That book has the honor of being the only fiction I’ve read in months.  Now on to the science!


The Practical Geologist

We shall start with this one, as I want it out of the way.  I’ll say just this about it: I’m glad I waited to buy it until I found it used.  And I’m glad I read it in between calls at work instead of during my prime reading time at home.  It’s not that it was bad, it just felt rushed, incomplete, and too thin to really accomplish much.  As an introduction to field geology for those who might kinda sorta be thinking about it, this book probably would do fine.  But there have got to be better books out there for people who really want to get into the meat and the marrow of this stuff.

And that is all I shall say about it.


Invitation to Oceanography

Yes, I am the kind of person who reads textbooks for fun.  I found this Third Edition at Half-Price Books, and since I always have this vaguely guilty sense that I should really know more about oceanography, picked it up.  The worst problem with it is that it’s too floppy and big to read comfortably in bed.  Aside from that, it’s easy to read.  Everything’s clearly and logically laid out, the info boxes actually contain informative bits, and once I got done with it I felt rather less stupid when it comes to how the oceans work. There’s even a bit in there that has to do with Seattle and will come in useful as I’m writing up Seattle’s geology, so that’s a delight.

Right, we’ve had water, now let’s have some ice.  Lots and lots of ice.  Got on a glacial kick, didn’t I?  And it all started with


Living Ice

This one was a good one to begin with.  It’s a small book, but packed with delicious information and lots of educational photos.  Biggest problem being, this is a reprint, and some genius at the publisher decided they didn’t need no stinkin’ color plates this time round.  Grr.  Even without those, this is an excellent guide to how glaciers do their thing, eminently readable.

It might leave you feeling a little cold however.  A-ha-ha.


Frozen Earth

I’ve been meaning to read this one for years.  Anyone with even a passing interest in ice ages should pick this up.  It tells the story of the past, present and future of ice ages, from how we figured out there had been some to what they were like, possible causes, effects, and what we’ve got to look forward to.  You’ll find out how works of fine art can double as climate detectives, run in to our old friend Louis Agassiz, beat about the brush with Bretz, and engage in all sorts of other antics.

This book did a good job showing the investigative nature of science, and showing the sheer power of ice sheets.  I enjoyed it muchly.


Glacial Geology

Told you I read textbooks for fun.

This one was a tough slog.  For some reason, I have a hard time envisioning how glaciers work, and this isn’t your pop-sci explain-everything-in-dumbed-down-terms sort of book.  It is what it is: a serious motherfucking tome, chock full o’ technical terms, math, illustrations, diagrams, and references to papers.  It doesn’t coddle you.  And although I rather felt as if a large glacier had spent the last week grinding its way over my brain afterward, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Bonus: it’s written by Brits, and nobody Americanized the spelling.  Wouldn’t have complained about a better copy editor, though – apparently, it was proofed by a person who failed English 101.  But the typos don’t detract from the book, and give a former English major something to feel intelligent about just after being hit head-on with actual math, so that’s a little bit of all right, then.

And, after that book, I finally can look at glacial landforms and start to really see how and why they are the way they are.  Now that I’ve been through this trio of books, glaciers aren’t the cold ciphers they were before.  Hell, I can even talk to you about the difference between cold-based and warm-based glaciers, and what sorts of landforms they each produce.  That’s no small thing, considering the most I knew about glaciers till now was that they’re a) big, b) icy, and c) dig and dump a hell of a lot of rock.

With that, we’re at 46 and counting for the year, and that’s not counting the number of books I haven’t read all the way through yet, of which there are a lot.

Consider yourselves warned.

Tomes 2010: A Mere Quartet

I’ve been reading a lot lately, I promise, but it’s just that I’ve been dipping into many books at once, sampling here and there, and so I haven’t got as many completely read as usual.  I’m on the verge of finishing a few more, so I figured I’d best get these out there before we ended up with a monster book dump.


Geology Underfoot in Illinois

This book actually depressed me horribly, but that’s not a strike against it.  Everything about the Midwest (Chicago excepted) depresses me horribly.  I was born a Hoosier, but I just can’t live there.  This book reinforced that: the author talks about relief of 120 feet as if it’s amazing.

That’s just a wee bit pathetic.

However, that doesn’t mean that Illinois doesn’t have interesting geology, and this book points out quite a lot of it, including places I’d be happy to see.  There’s plenty o’ continental glacial landforms to peruse, some utterly delicious rock formations created by inland seas, and I’ve got to see Bell Smith Springs before I die.  That’s old-home stuff – I cut my teeth on sandstone landforms.

This book made me feel marginally better about the Midwest.  Perhaps my visit to my dear old mother won’t be unmitigated hell after all….


The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes From Seattle

You know what, it’s hard to praise this book enough.  I loved and respected Seattle before I read it.  I understood, loved and respected Seattle afterward.  And now I know “it rains a mere 11 percent of the time.”

After reading this book, I have a better relationship with the neighborhood crows.  I don’t mind goose shit as much.  I know where to go downtown for a good round of geology as revealed in the buildings.  I’m planning a field trip for next summer to follow the glacial erratics.  I’ve got a handle on the invasive vs. native species.  And I’m more conversant with our local fault.  Few books can immerse you in the natural world contained within your city; fewer can do it with David’s silken-smooth prose.  If you want to know Seattle, buy this book.  Carry it with you when you come visit.  And then open yourself to the natural wonders you might be able to find right in your very own city.


Natural Grace: The Charm, Wonder, & Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants

I bought this at B&N along with The Street-Smart Naturalist, figuring they made a perfect pair, and do they!  I’m normally not that interested in babblings about plants and animals that look like nothing more than groovy granola musings on how majestic the natural world is, maaan, but this book had one particular selling point: its opening line.  Observe:

“You animal, you.”

I fell in immediate love, and unlike most romances, this one survived its first young blush.  I read it as a follow-up to The Street-Smart Naturalist, and it proved the perfect compliment.  It expands the scope to the whole of the Northwest, taking us all the way from the most taken-for-granted animals round here (learned a lot about jellyfish and deer, f’rinstance), through dirt (which deserves more respect), up through geology, the tides, and killer whales.

After reading these two books, I’ll never see the Northwest in the same way again.  Especially not now that I can tell the difference between various trees.  They compliment each other with their knowledge, wisdom and humor.  Both are elegantly written, but not pretentious, and worth every instant I spent with them.


Beyond the Moon: A Conversational, Common Sense Guide to Understanding the Tides

The tides are a mystery to me.  They go in, they go out, I look at a tide table to understand when and where and how much.  I knew the moon and, to a lesser degree, the sun had something to do with it.  Suspected geography might as well.  Didn’t know jack diddly about how this stuff actually worked.

Well, thanks to this book, I know a bit more now.  I can kinda sorta explain why there’s only one high tide in the Gulf of Mexico, and why the Bay of Fundy has 50ft tides whereas many places only have 3-6ft.  I know the factors taken into account when making tide tables, how different bits interact, and why the Pacific Coast tides are so damned weird.  My city even makes a special guest appearance!

This is a book written by a (former) amateur for amateurs – James McCully isn’t a scientist, but he practically became one in writing this book.  And he gets definite kudos for this paragraph I marked out:

When people say, “Ignorance is bliss,” they mean the ignorance that is oblivious to the problem.  There is another kind of ignorance.  Once you become aware that you are ignorant, it is anything but blissful.

True, dat!

There are a few things in the writing style that grate, but overall, this is a good introduction to how tides work, and you’ll be less ignorant for having read it, which is a different kind of bliss.

And that’s it.  That’s all I’ve got – for now.

Tomes 2010: Special Edition

There are very few books that I immediately want to read again even before I’ve finished them.  This is one.


 Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet

What to say?  That Ted Nield writes with the kind of clarity and style that, should he turn it into a narrative, would make even the phone book fascinating reading?  That’s one thing.  Add that to the fact that he’s writing about something inherently fascinating, and you have the recipe for a truly outstanding book.

Nield tells two histories: the history of supercontinents forming and rifting, and the history of our discovery and understanding of them.  Many times, when an author tells two tales, one takes second place to the other.  Nield manages to unfold them both in tandem, so that neither is slighted.  And he still finds time for interesting diversions: gentle pokes at Madame Blavatsky and other purveyors of New Age lost continent woo, the United States’ brief flirtation with the Queen of Mu, snowball earths, why the supercontinent Rodinia may have been vital to the evolution of life on Earth and why understanding supercontinents is so very vital to our survival now.  It’s a lot of territory to cover.  He does it in 270 pages.

At the end, he fires a scathing broadside at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and those who abuse and ignore science for their inane ideologies.  One paragraph in particular stood out:

I have tried in this book to show something of how ideas in science often grade into – perhaps even sometimes derive from – myth, and I have done this to show how important it is to know the difference between the two.  The truth is that we, as a species, can no longer afford the luxury of irrationality and prejudice.  We are too many and too powerful to live in dreams.  And the greatest and most irrational of the prejudices from which we must free ourselves is one identified by Lucretius in the last century BC: the belief that the world was made for us.

This book makes the third of a trinity for me, the other two being Walter Alvarez’s The Mountains of St. Francis and Ellen Morris Bishop’s In Search of Ancient Oregon.  These three, so far, are my favorite books on geology for both the quality of their writing and their science.  But if I were forced to choose only one to give, it would be Supercontinent.  It says all that needs to be said about the importance of science in general and geology in particular, and it contains everything I love about science: the incredible power and beauty of the natural world, and the passion and persistence of the scientists who work so hard to understand it. 

If you want a taste of his writing, you can find one here, where he demonstrates the importance of not flying an airplane through an ash cloud.  Yes, I’ve become a pusher, giving you a taste for free so that you’ll get hooked.  I happily admit to being a science dealer, and I don’t think you’ll hate me much for it.  Not after reading this book.

Now go forth and get hooked.

Tomes 2010: The Joye of Science

Before we get to the meat of the matter, a quick intro for my new readers (huzzah!  I can haz nu reedrz!): Tomes 2010 is my reading report project, and you can find previous reports here, here, here and here.  I’ve already incurred the wrath of one reader by increasing the workload on his wishlist, so read on at your own risk.  I’ll put everything below the fold so you’re not unduly tempted.

Right, then.  I haven’t read as much as I’d like – too busy molesting sea mammals and so forth – but I’ve managed to reduce my groaning unread shelves a bit.  And yes, that is shelves, plural, of books I haven’t read.  There’s a slight gap in one of them, and I’m already feeling twitchy about it.


Cataclysms on the Columbia: The Great Missoula Floods

I wasn’t sure about buying this one.  I’d flipped through it on Amazon, and for some reason, it didn’t catch my fancy.  But I picked it up during our pilgrimage to Powell’s.  I do not regret the purchase: I regret waiting so long to make it.

How the authors managed to pack so much information into one slender book, I’ll never know.  It covers everything from the gleam of floodwaters in J Harlan Bretz’s eye to detailed explorations of the landscapes those floods created.  A good half of the book follows the course of the floods from their source in Montana to where they at last poured into the Pacific Ocean.  I wish I’d had this before I went to Grand Coulee, but it helped me comprehend the landscape in retrospect, and gave me plenty of ideas for further exploration.

The writing is outstanding.  The beginning bits are written by Marjorie Burns, who has a flair for scientific storytelling.  Her writing sucks you in as if you’d been caught in a current of one of those massive floods.  And it doesn’t turn dry when the boys take over – scientific detail does not equal boring, and they know it.  All of them are excellent writers who know their subject intimately.  This is the book that brought it all together for me, and really helped me comprehend the scope of those floods and the evidence of their passage.  So, if you want to borrow my copy: I’m happy to will it to you, and then you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Geology of Olympic National Park

I don’t know why, but it’s incredibly hard to find books devoted to the geology of the Olympics.  So when I saw this at our local bookstore, I did indeed squee, even though it’s nearly old enough to get a rental car.  This is a good introduction to the Olympics, even though some of the geologic interpretations have changed.  It’s got plenty of clear, concise illustrations of rock formations and geological processes, combined with an enormous section actually walking you through the park.  This is the kind of book I look for when I’m headed to a large, complicated national park – something that will explain not just stuff in general, but features in particular.  This one’s going in ye olde messenger bag when we head up there next week.


The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene

You know, I probably shouldn’t have tried to read this during  ye olde battle with the summer cold, but I did.  I think I even understood some of it.  This book wasn’t written for a lay audience suffering from complete nasal blockage and related loss of brain function.  So if you haven’t read it but would like to, I suggest you do so when you are in peak condition.

That said, it’s Dawkins: it’s clear, it’s intriguing, and even a suffering person’s few remaining thoughts will be provoked.  This book gets you out of the organism trap.  It can also extricate you from misinterpreting-what-selfish-genes-are traps.  And you’ll never look at a beaver dam in the same way again.

A lot of the difficulties in thinking about natural selection melted away when I read this book.  It really does make it easier to understand how these assemblages of genes can band together and evolve alongside each other to create complicated creatures and behaviors.  And it’ll also make you look at human cities in a whole different way.  But I don’t have to sell a Dawkins book – he sells himself.  Just go read it – or read it again.


Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries 

I’m ashamed to admit that I’d always meant to read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s books but hadn’t yet when I went to see him at Seattle Townhall.  Thing is, I’ve been on a geology and biology spree, so it took awhile to get back to astronomy.  And after reading Death From the Skies!, how else could I follow it up except by reading this?

I am thrilled to report that Neil deGrasse Tyson is just as snarky in print as he is in person.  And I loves me some science with snark!  I dog-eared a lot of pages, and it’s hard to choose just one quote from this delightful book of essays, but I’ll go with this one:

What are the lessons to be learned from this journey of the mind?  That humans are emotionally fragile, perennially gullible, hopelessly ignorant masters of an insignificantly small speck in the cosmos.
Have a nice day.Indeed!


Fire Mountains of the West: The Cascade And Mono Lake Volcanoes

You know what, this probably isn’t the best book for someone with even a mild volcano phobia to read, especially someone who lives right in the middle of all these fire mountains.  I used to console myself with the certain knowledge that volcanoes give warnings before they erupt, and that vulcanologists are keeping a wary eye on them.

That was before I read the chapter on Mount Rainier and got all the horrifying detail about how mudflows don’t need no stinkin’ eruption to go roaring merrily down the mountain and bury us all.

That said, this is a damned fine book.  I haven’t read anything quite so thorough, and it chases volcanoes from California to Canada, revealing their biographies in loving geologic detail.  Wanna go on a field trip now!  Everyone who lives in the shadow of the Cascades needs this book, especially the folks who have strange ideas that those lovely active volcanoes are a minor danger at worst.  And don’t worry – it’s not all gloom, doom, death and destruction.  There’s plenty of dry humor as well, especially in the chapter about Mount Shasta, in which we learn about the various mystical beings who inhabit the mountain, including the Yaktayvians.  If you thought Shasta’s caverns were natural features, you’re so totally wrong, cuz it’s all about bell power, baby, yeah!  What the authors think of such matters can perhaps be best summed up by the following quotation: “How these populous folk manage to share their space with the Lemurians, Atlanteans, and several other lost tribes who have set up housekeeping inside Shasta is not known.”  I imagine a tongue or two got sprained from being so deeply stuck in cheek during the writing of that sentence.

I hit the floor several times during the course of reading this book: several times in terror, and several times in side-splitting laughter.


Windows into the Earth: The Geologic Story of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks 

How else to follow up Fire Mountains of the West but with a supervolcano?  And I’m glad I did.  You see, if you watch teevee, you’re probably under the impression that Yellowstone’s gonna blow any second and kill us all in our beds.  The truth is a bit less exciting than that.  It’s not necessarily overdue for a catastrophic eruption anytime soon, and if it does blow, it may just be a series of much smaller eruptions that will not take out most of North America.  So that’s good.

I learned quite a bit I didn’t know about the history of the Yellowstone hotspot, like its eruptive patterns and the fact that it had actually managed to take down major chunks of mountain ranges.  People usually think of volcanoes as creating mountains rather than eating them, but Yellowstone’s a different animal.  I learned quite a lot about how the faults around the Park work, too, including their effects on geysers.  Then it was over to the Tetons for a short, sharp lesson in normal faults and their mountain-building activities.  We’ve got a lot more to worry about from hijinks on that fault than we do from Yellowstone itself.

Then there’s a wonderful little travel guide, complete with mileage.  Combine that with rich illustrations, and you’ve got a book that’s very much worth your time.

And that’s it for now.  I’m reading a book at the moment that I’m tremendously excited about and shall tell you about in its own stand-alone Tomes 2010 feature, but that must wait until I’ve actually finished it.  Besides, I think I’ve done enough harm to your wish-lists for one day.

(For those who are interested, we’re up to 34 books since the start of 2010.  No wonder my floors creak.)