A veteran geologist recounts time spent studying Greenland's remarkable landscape during a series of six expeditions.
Glassley’s (Geology/Univ. of California, Davis; Geothermal Energy: Renewable Energy and the Environment, 2010, etc.) exploration of Greenland’s wilderness and the "emotional truths" it contains is profound and moving. This is a rich reading experience for those interested in one of the few remaining truly wild places and how humans relate to it. Glassley’s narrative "unfolds in three parts, each part containing a suite of formative sensory experiences that shifted my perceptions.” The author’s writing skills are such that even those lacking any knowledge about Greenland or the science of geology will be readily transported to one of the world's most exotic locations. Though the titles of the sections—Fractionation, Consolidation, and Emergence—may sound daunting to some general readers, Glassley expertly combines understandable explanations (and a helpful glossary) with a beautiful, lyrical prose. Whether he is writing about the magnitude of the landscape, the silence that permeates each day, mirages, lichen, falcons, gulls, ptarmigan, fish, ice, or tidal currents, his descriptions capture the majesty of the area. Just as captivating are Glassley's detailed explanations of the complex geologic processes that formed this incredible environment. He conveys the significance of shear zones, straight belts, "root" zones, and the feeling of standing in the middle of a molten rock chamber formed 65 million years ago 10 miles below the surface of the Earth. The author’s final thoughts regarding the preservation of wilderness are especially poignant within our current turbulent environmental, political, and cultural arenas. “With infinite hubris,” he writes, “the modern world is imposing the consequences of its industrial avarice on lifestyles it knows nothing of. The moral bankruptcy of the rationalizations for the destruction of wilderness and the people who live in harmony with it is staggering."
A superb tool for a better understanding of the natural world and why real science matters.
One of the greatest—and most controversial—athletes of all time gets a well-balanced biographical and historical treatment.
Jim Brown (b. 1936) is arguably the best football player in the history of the sport, a truly larger-than-life figure who may have also been the best lacrosse player ever. “From the moment he stepped onto a playing field,” writes Nation sports editor Zirin (Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, 2014, etc.), “the operative emotion expressed in describing Jim Brown has been reverence.” Few would argue, but as always in Zirin’s books, the playing field is only one element of the narrative equation. The author ticks all the biographical boxes—multisport star in both high school and college; tumultuous career at Syracuse, where he truly began to understand the scourge of racism; Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Browns; up-and-down forays into Hollywood; lifelong activism—but what is most refreshing about this book is Zirin’s focus on Brown’s character, both awe-inspiring and highly flawed. Brown has spent his life fighting racism and advocating for economic and social justice for the black community, but he has also been accused of rampant misogyny and instances of violence against women. He has brought together rival gang members in his own home but also managed to shut out some of those closest to him due to stubbornness to remain on top in a “world of competing male egos and unfettered ids.” As Zirin notes, for Brown, maintaining his manhood—however he conceives of it—has been the most important driving factor of his life. Brown simply refuses to be “soft” in any way, and he is not shy about criticizing the current athletes who, writes the author, “have fumbled the baton passed to them and surrendered an awesome opportunity to affect seismic social change.” Zirin, who spent considerable time with Brown, deftly navigates this rocky terrain, providing ample room for Brown to tell his own story and for others to weigh in as well.
A truly rounded, fully fleshed portrait of a significant 20th-century figure.
An unflinchingly honest writer addresses the death of his friend and kindred spirit Edward Abbey (1927-1989).
Since Abbey’s death, he has been canonized as some sort of environmental saint, memorialized through what Bowden (Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, 2010, etc.), who died in 2014, has called the “Dead Ed Industry,” which has made him a hero to many whom the author disparages as the “mush-headed-crystal-gazing-safe-sex-tofu-munching souls.” Like Abbey, Bowden was first considered a nature writer before turning his attention to drug wars and other violence across the Mexican border. Both had an ornery streak, with Bowden occasionally recalling a more disciplined Hunter S. Thompson, without the self-indulgence. He is cleareyed, and he pulls no punches, whether writing about “the seriously haunted ground” where he lives—“the earth here is dotted with ruins and from time to time you can feel the bony hands of the dead on your shoulders”—or describing the process of honoring his late friend: “I feel like I’m being asked to introduce a badass rap singer to a herd of seminary students.” This concise, pithy volume focuses on a panel discussion he reluctantly moderated to celebrate Abbey and raise funds. He then uses that event as a springboard for all sorts of memories and meditations on Abbey, his literary reputation, fame in general, and the posthumous sanitizing that has rendered this cantankerous anarchist as neutered and housebroken. “The only safe way to keep dead people dead,” writes Bowden, “is to forget they were ever alive and lived in a manner as messy and sad and happy as the rest of it.” Abbey lives within these pages, which Bowden wrote in 1994, shortly after the conference on Abbey. This belated publication should not only send readers back to Abbey, but also back to Bowden’s work.
A memoir about an American original by an American original, a literary journalist who merits more than a regional readership.
An impressive biography of the “man who began the scientific study of birds.”
Birkhead (Animal Behavior and History of Science/Univ. of Sheffield; The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, 2016, etc.) studies the life and work of a birder who was in the “right place at the right time,” Francis Willughby (1635-1672). With his good friend and tutor at Trinity College, John Ray, the two formed “one of the great partnerships in biology.” After Willughby’s death at the age of 36, Ray went on to edit and publish Willughby’s three massive, major scientific studies in Latin of fish, insects, and his “blockbuster,” Ornithology. Until now, Ray’s contributions have historically overshadowed Willughby’s. Thanks to the availability of new primary source materials, Birkhead is able to provide a “far more complete portrait” of the man who formed the foundation of a new type of natural history in general and ornithology in particular. A member of the landed gentry, Willughby received a superb university education while the scientific revolution of the 17th century was in full bloom. With a novelist’s flair for narrative, Birkhead recounts the young man’s many adventures on expeditions, often accompanied by Ray, and his groundbreaking discoveries. He describes Willughby as industrious, enthusiastic, and “evidently a nice man.” But it’s his scientific accomplishments that interest the author the most. In great detail, he examines Willughby’s vast research in fish species, bird reproduction, migration, feathers, insects, sap, classifications, chemistry, and even “a book of games.” Birkhead describes examining Willughby’s large specimen case with 1,200 compartments and finding not just a vast collection of seeds, but also 133 eggs: “During my research career I have had a few Eureka moments, but this was one of the best.”
Bird lovers and fans of well-written science history will love this revelatory and intoxicating biography.
A debut travelogue chronicling a modern explorer's bicycle ride along the ancient Silk Road, a journey that beautifully reveals much about the history and nature of exploration itself.
“Born centuries too late for the life I was meant to live,” Harris cultivated an early love affair with wilderness, exploration, and the unknown. Due to a chance encounter with a children’s book, the author became particularly intrigued by Marco Polo, and she “decided to be just like him when I grew up.” Though she studied at such prestigious institutions as Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and MIT, school was merely “a venue…for exploration.” While the narrative is peppered with brief, entertaining vignettes about some of the author’s early travels, the meat of her story is the nearly yearlong bike ride following the Silk Road with her pal Mel. With humor, deep sentiment, and often poetic prose, Harris takes the reader not only through “the stans” (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, etc.) of Asia, but also through the history and current state of adventure travel. Along the way, the author provides insightful discussions of national borderlines, for which she clearly has little use. “The more I learned about the South Caucasus, with its closed borders and warring enclaves,” she writes, “the more the place seemed like a playground game of capture-the-flag, all in the dubious name of nationalism.” This is a tale of beautiful contrasts: broken landscapes and incomparable mountain vistas, repugnant sights and smells and euphoric baklava hangovers, geographic neighbors at war and the moving hospitality of total strangers. Harris explains the grueling and sublime nature of biking through descriptions of impoverished yet beautiful places as well as the fraught history and hopeful future of her kind. “Explorers might be extinct, in the historic sense of the vocation,” she writes, “but exploring still exists, will always exist: In the basic longing to learn what in the universe we are doing here.”
Exemplary travel writing: inspiring, moving, heartfelt, and often breathtaking.
Land and culture erode on an island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Journalist Swift (Auto Biography: A Classic Car, An Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream, 2014, etc.) spent more than a year on Tangier Island, among crab fishermen and their families, in 2000 and again in late fall 2015. In a graceful melding of history, nature writing, and perceptive cultural commentary, the author offers an affectionate portrait of the island and its “God-fearing, self-reliant,” close-knit residents—now numbering under 500. Although Tangier currently faces new social problems—drugs, alcohol (on an island defiantly dry), and loss of young people to the mainland—the island “is more Norman Rockwell than real American town, with morals intact, air fresh, and entertainments wholesome.” When Swift returned to the island in 2015 from his home in Virginia, he was particularly concerned with how Tangier was dealing with climate change that threatens to raise sea levels. Already, the island has shrunk from 2,163 acres, as documented in 1850, to 789. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that about a third of remaining acreage would vanish within the next 50 years without major intervention. Residents, however, ascribe topographical changes “solely to wind-driven waves, not climate change,” refusing to believe that accelerating winds were “a symptom of a global phenomenon.” Still, they feared for their future as crab fishermen. With hundreds of millions of crabs swimming by the island each year, Tangier supplies restaurants all along the east coast; New York, for example, pays handsomely for soft-shell crabs. Swift’s profiles of individuals are sharply drawn and empathetic, and he captures their frustration with government bureaucracy as they hope for federal financing of a sea wall. It will take a miracle, writes the author, for the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress to act “before a storm muscles up the bay and renders the whole thing moot.”
A well-rendered narrative about how one specific island’s fate stands as a warning for all coastal regions.
One of the most thrilling games in the history of college football serves as a window to the turbulent 1960s and as a mirror for our present.
Colt (Brothers, 2012, etc.), whose 2003 memoir, The Big House, was a National Book Award finalist, offers a richly detailed, engaging story of the 1968 Harvard vs. Yale football battle that pitted against each other two undefeated teams and two different cultures and served as a metaphor for the cultural clashes that were erupting in the late 1960s: civil rights, anti-war protests, political assassinations. There is a personal voice here, too: The author, who was 14 at the time, attended the game with his father; near the beginning and end of the book, he discusses that experience. In between, he takes us to Yale and Harvard (alternating chapters), introduces us to key players and other personnel, rehearses the games earlier in the season (“The Game” ends the season for both teams), and focuses on the cultural clashes and confrontations that were a mark of the era—and ours. Casual football fans may be surprised to see Colt’s reminders of some of the personnel involved in the game. Yale’s backfield featured running back Calvin Hill, who went on to a stellar NFL career; one of Harvard’s offensive linemen was Tommy Lee Jones. The author’s extensive coverage of the game does not commence until nearly 250 pages have passed—but they pass quickly and engagingly—and he concludes with stories of campus unrest at Harvard (and some players’ involvement) and updates on the lives of his characters. Colt is careful to credit filmmaker Kevin Rafferty, whose documentary on the game inspired the author, and he also includes an appendix with some relevant statistical charts and tables about the teams and the game.
First-rate reporting and writing that will appeal to gridiron fans and general readers as well.
Does the world need another biography of Babe Ruth (1895-1948)? If it’s this one, then the answer is an emphatic yes.
The ever excellent Leavy (The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, 2010, etc.) brings her considerable depth of knowledge of sports history to her latest project. She also brings considerable empathy for a man who, though notably boorish, at least made an effort to be civilized. Ruth had reason not to be influenced by the world’s niceties. After all, as Leavy writes, he was only 7 when his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys on the outskirts of Baltimore. As an adult, he was “six foot two and 215 pounds when he was in trim and made everyone else in uniform look like the boys who later played in youth leagues named for him.” He was also decidedly unsubtle: He smashed and hurled and fielded balls with a giant’s force, and he “taught America to think big—expect big.” Much of the narrative is a fine you-are-there reconstruction of Ruth’s big moments, including the 1927 race in which he smacked 60 home runs, led a Yankees four-game sweep of the World Series, and then went off barnstorming with friend and teammate Lou Gehrig. There’s tragic inevitability aplenty in that friendship, but Ruth’s end in particular, a terrible death to cancer, is particularly jarring. Fans of the latter-day Yankees should wince, too, at Ruth’s excoriation of the designated hitter. After another World Series sweep in 1929, Ruth “was back to offering opinions on things he knew about, expressing his disdain for a proposal to add a tenth hitter to the batting order to hit for the pitcher. He said it would take all the strategy out of the game.” A skilled strategist and nearly peerless player, Ruth proves himself worthy of, yes, yet another biography, this one warts-and-all but still admiring.
Sparkling, exemplary sports biography, shedding new light on a storied figure in baseball history.