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RAINFORESTS AND NATIVE PEOPLES
One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis - [Amazon.com] Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist interested in the native uses of plants, especially psychotropics. He finds many such plants in the travels he recounts in One River, especially coca and curare. (The first, famously, is a curse in the First World but is a necessity in the Andes, where it promotes the digestion of many kinds of food plants.) Framing Davis's narrative is an account of the dangerous World War II-era Amazonian expeditions undertaken by his mentor, Harvard biologist Richard Evans Schultes. Davis describes a few hair-raising encounters of his own, making this a fine book of scientific adventure.
TROPICAL NATURE : LIFE AND DEATH IN THE RAIN FORESTS OF CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA by Adrian Forsyth - [Newsweek] Tropical Nature...seeks to provoke curiosity about the forests -- not just provide facts about them -- and succeeds splendidly....Tropical Nature evokes the magic and wonder of a world completely contained within itself.
Wizard of the Upper Amazon: The Story of Manuel Cordova-Rios by Cordova-Rice Lamb - An account of life in an Amazon village from the early twentieth century. The authors discusses the use of hallucinogenic plants in religious ceremonies.
Savages by Joe Kane - [Amazon.com] In this impressive, funny and moving work, Joe Kane tells the story of the Huaorani, a tribe living in the deepest part of the Amazonian rain forest in Ecuador. The Huaorani have only in the last generation been exposed to such items as the wristwatch. But the modern world is reaching them quickly; for better or worse--usually worse--they live astride some of Ecuador's richest oilfields. Oil production in the Amazon has opened the forest to colonization and industrialization, often with alarming results: about 17 million gallons, of raw crude, more than in the Valdez spill in Alaska, were spilled from a Amazon pipeline between 1972 and 1989. Kane, who lived with the Huaorani for months, immaculately reports on the tribes' connections with the old world and its battles with the new one.
The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration and Exploitation of the World's Most Dramatic River by Peter Forbath - An account on Africa's mightiest river, the River Congo [Zaire].
Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets
by Mark J. Plotkin - [Amazon.com] Plotkin . . . [gives] an overview of how plants and animals are being utilized to treat disease. Trained as an ethnobotonist (a scientist who studies how people use local plants), Plotkin has the ability to translate science into engrossing anecdotes that are accessible to the lay reader. And he's got good news: the natural world, he writes, has made and will continue to make enormous contributions to modern medicine. (Penicillin, he reminds us, was derived from a fungus.) He describes, for instance, the work of Dr. William Fenical, who developed a chemical from a soft coral that may prove useful in fighting cancer. Plotkin also provides an eye-opening account of the curative properties to be found in the sea, in insects, in snake venom and in plants. But he also delivers bad news: the promise of this vast natural pharmacopoeia is threatened by unchecked population growth, environmental depredation and the destruction of native cultures of tribal shamans (who, he points out, discovered the use of plants that have led to the development of "everything from codeine for pain to quinine for malaria to podo-phyllotoxin for cancer"). A very interesting investigation into nature's medicine, this book also makes a strong case for conservation.
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World by J. R. McNeill - [Amazon.com] J.R. McNeill, a professor of history at Georgetown University, visits the annals of the past century only to return to the present with bad news: in that 100-year span, he writes, the industrialized and developing nations of the world have wrought damage to nearly every part of the globe. That much seems obvious to even the most casual reader, but what emerges, and forcefully, from McNeill's pages is just how extensive that damage has been. For example, he writes, "soil degradation in one form or another now affects one-third of the world's land surface," larger by far than the world's cultivated areas. Things are worse in some places than in others; McNeill observes that Africa is "the only continent where food production per capita declined after 1960," due to the loss of productive soil. McNeill's litany continues: the air in most of the world's cities is perilously unhealthy; the drinking water across much of the planet is growing ever more polluted; the human species is increasingly locked "in a rigid and uneasy bond with modern agriculture," which trades the promise of abundant food for the use of carcinogenic pesticides and fossil fuels.
The environmental changes of the last century, McNeill closes by saying, are on an unprecedented scale, so much so that we can scarcely begin to fathom their implications. We can, however, start to think about them, and McNeill's book is a helpful primer.
ECOLOGICAL HISTORY OF NORTH AMERICA
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples by Tim Flannery - [Publishers Weekly] If Nature itself has a nature, it's the desire for balance. In a fascinating chronicle of our continent's evolution, Flannery shows, however, that this desire must forever be frustrated. Flannery starts his tale with the asteroid collision that destroyed the dinosaurs, ends with the almost equally cataclysmic arrival of humankind and fills the middle with an engaging survey of invaders from other lands, wild speciation and an ever-changing climate, all of which have kept the ecology of North America in a constant state of flux. We see the rise of horses, camels and dogs (cats are Eurasian), the rapid extinction of mammoths, mastodons and other megafauna at the hands of prehistoric man, and the even quicker extinction of the passenger pigeon and other creatures more recently. Flannery also spotlights plenty of scientists at work, most notably one who tries to butcher an elephant as a prehistoric man would have butchered a mastodon, and another who had the intestinal fortitude to check whether meat would keep if a carcass were stored at the bottom of a frigid pond, the earliest of refrigerators. This material might be dense and academic in another's hands, but Flannery displays a light touch, a keen understanding of what will interest general readers and a good sense of structure, which keeps the book moving, manageable and memorable.
The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson
- [Amazon.com] Humans, the Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson has observed, have an innate--or at least extremely ancient--connection to the natural world, and our continued divorce from it has led to the loss of not only "a vast intellectual legacy born of intimacy" with nature, but also our very sanity. In The Diversity of Life, Wilson takes a sweeping view of our planet's natural richness, remarking on what on the surface seems a paradox: "almost all the species that ever lived are extinct, and yet more are alive today than at any time in the past." (Wilson's elegant explanation is a scientific education in itself.) This great variety of species is, of course, threatened by habitat destruction, global climate change, and a host of other forces, and Wilson revisits his oft-stated call for the protection of wilderness and undeveloped land, noting that "wilderness has virtue unto itself and needs no extraneous justification." We should, he continues, regard every species, "every scrap of biodiversity," as precious and irreplaceable, without attempting to quantify that regard with utilitarian measures such as "bio-economics." In short, Wilson offers with this book a simple, workable environmental ethic that extends the work of Aldo Leopold and other conservationists. A remarkably productive and influential scientist, Wilson is also a fine writer, and his survey of biodiversity makes for welcome and instructive reading.
Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?
by David M. Raup - [Library Journal
] In this book, Raup, a mathematically oriented paleontologist, discusses the role of extinction in evolution, attempting to differentiate the effects of natural selection ("bad genes") and extraterrestrial causes ("bad luck"). It is a nicely done work written for the layperson, much in the vein of his previous book, The Nemesis Affair ( LJ 8/86), which covers some of the same territory and which also favors extraterrestrial causes.
The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared by Peter Douglas Ward
- [Reed Business Information] Until 10,000 years ago, many species of large mammals still flourished on earth: giant ground sloths and camels, sabre-toothed tigers, and bison and elk, as well as mammoths. Most of these mammals had no natural predators, so why did they disappear? Currently, the top two theories are that humans overhunted them or that climate changes resulted in their demise. Ward reviews the continuing debate surrounding dinosaur extinction . . . [concluding] that the mass extinctions were the result of unique and catastrophic conditions.
Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams, Mark Carwardine
- [Washington Post Book World] Join bestselling author Douglas Adams and zooligist Mark Carwardine as they take off around the world in search of exotic, endangered creatures. Hilarious and poignant--as only Douglas Adams can be--LAST CHANCE TO SEE is an entertaining and arresting odyssey through the Earth's magnificent wildlife galaxy.
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson
- [Amazon.com] The biologist Edward O. Wilson is a rare scientist: having over a long career made signal contributions to population genetics, evolutionary biology, entomology, and ethology, he has also steeped himself in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences. The result of his lifelong, wide-ranging investigations is Consilience (the word means "a jumping together," in this case of the many branches of human knowledge), a wonderfully broad study that encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws." In making his synthetic argument, Wilson examines the ways (rightly and wrongly) in which science is done, puzzles over the postmodernist debates now sweeping academia, and proposes thought-provoking ideas about religion and human nature. He turns to the great evolutionary biologists and the scholars of the Enlightenment for case studies of science properly conducted, considers the life cycles of ants and mountain lions, and presses, again and again, for rigor and vigor to be brought to bear on our search for meaning. The time is right, he suggests, for us to understand more fully that quest for knowledge, for "Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us.... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become." Wilson's wisdom, eloquently expressed in the pages of this grand and lively summing-up, will be of much help in that search.
The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson
- [Amazon.com] The eminent Harvard naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Wilson marshals all the prodigious powers of his intellect and imagination in this impassioned call to ensure the future of life. Opening with an imagined conversation with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, he writes that he has come "to explain to you, and in reality to others and not least to myself, what has happened to the world we both have loved." Based on a love affair with the natural world that spans 70 years, Wilson combines lyrical descriptions with dire warnings and remarkable stories of flora and fauna on the edge of extinction with hard economics. How many species are we really losing? Is environmentalism truly contrary to economic development? And how can we save the planet? Wilson has penned an eloquent plea for the need for a global land ethic and offers the strategies necessary to ensure life on earth based on foresight, moral courage, and the best tools that science and technology can provide.
Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line by Penny Van Oosterzee
- [Amazon.com] Alfred Russel Wallace, the father of biogeography, discovered the flora and fauna of the South East Asian islands and the extraordinary way in which they are geographically distinct. In a lively historical narrative, Penny van Oosterzee tells the story of his achievement. His legacy is the Wallace Line, a faunal barrier separating the Asian from the Australian: monkeys from kangaroos, weaver birds from cockatoos, and pheasants from parrots. This invisible boundary and the difference between the species it divides catalyzed Wallace's theory of evolution and prodded Darwin to articulate his own theory.
In Where Worlds Collide, van Oosterzee follows Wallace's journeys through the islands of South East Asia. She draws on Wallace's natural history travelogue, The Malay Archipelago, a book he wrote after spending the years from 1854 to 1862 in Malaysia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Explaining his theory and how it has been interpreted by biologists, van Oosterzee also re-creates Wallace's sense of excitement with his discoveries. She devotes a chapter to the diversity of butterfly wing patterns, for example, because Wallace was so enamored of them
The SONG OF THE DODO: ISLAND BIOGEOGRAPHY IN AN AGE OF EXTINCTIONS
by David Quammen - [Amazon.com] In a wonderful weave of science, metaphor, and prose, David Quammen, author of The Flight of the Iguana, applies the lessons of island biogeography - the study of the distribution of species on islands and islandlike patches of landscape - to modern ecosystem decay, offering us insight into the origin and extinction of species, our relationship to nature, and the future of our world.
Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World--Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It by Ken Alibek - [Amazon.com] In this fast-paced memoir, Ken Alibek combines cutting-edge science with the narrative techniques of a thriller to describe some of the most awful weapons imaginable. The result will remind readers of The Hot Zone, Richard Preston's smart bestseller about the Ebola virus. That book focuses on the dangers of a freak accident; Biohazard shows how disease can become a deliberate tool of war. Alibek, once a top scientist in the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, describes putting anthrax on a warhead and targeting a city on the other side of the world. "A hundred kilograms of anthrax spores would, in optimal atmospheric conditions, kill up to three million people in any of the densely populated metropolitan areas of the United States," he writes. "A single SS-18 [missile] could wipe out the population of a city as large as New York."
Chilling passages like these, plus discussions of proliferation and terrorism, make Biohazard a harrowing book, but it also has a human side. Alibek, who defected to the United States, describes the routine danger of his work: "A bioweapons lab leaves its mark on a person forever." An unending stream of vaccinations has destroyed his sense of smell, afflicted him with allergies, made it impossible to eat certain kinds of food, and "weakened my resistance to disease and probably shortened my life." But it didn't take away his ability to tell an astonishing story.
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett - [Amazon.com] Where's your next disease coming from? From anywhere in the world--from overflowing sewage in Cairo, from a war zone in Rwanda, from an energy-efficient office building in California, from a pig farm in China or North Carolina. "Preparedness demands understanding," writes Pulitzer-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, and in this precursor to Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health, she shows a clear understanding of the patterns lying beneath the new diseases in the headlines (AIDS, Lyme) and the old ones resurgent (tuberculosis, cholera). As the human population explodes, ecologies collapse and simplify, and disease organisms move into the gaps. As globalization continues, diseases can move from one country to another as fast as an airplane can fly.
Her picture is not entirely bleak. Epidemics grow when a disease outbreak is amplified--by contaminated water supplies, by shared needles, by recirculated air, by prostitution. And controlling the amplifiers of disease is within our power; it's a matter of money, people, and will.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston - [Amazon.com]
The dramatic and chilling story of an Ebola virus outbreak in a surburban Washington, D.C. laboratory, with descriptions of frightening historical epidemics of rare and lethal viruses. More hair-raising than anything Hollywood could think of, because it's all true.
ORIGIN OF HIV / AIDS
The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS by Edward Hooper - [Amazon.com] For all the devastation and suffering AIDS has caused worldwide, we have devoted surprisingly little attention to its beginnings. Former UN official and BBC correspondent Edward Hooper hopes to find the source of AIDS in The River, a stunningly comprehensive yet deeply engaging scientific history of the disease. Through more than 10 years of research comprising over 600 interviews and untold hours of library work, Hooper has uncovered a complex, interlocking set of stories--of scientific research, of medical assistance to the Third World, of political and economic exigencies that drive the courses of our lives--and brought them together in over 1,000 pages of text, footnotes, references, and illustrations.
His thesis, that HIV made the jump from simians to humans via the administration of oral polio vaccine in Africa in the 1950s, is still controversial, but his arguments are powerful, broad, and undeniable--all that is lacking is conclusive proof. Like a good scientist (and, sad to say, unlike any HIV researcher to date), he offers several easy tests of his hypothesis. His tales of brilliant epidemiological deductions, biochemical comparisons, and physiological insights ought to convince the medical establishment that the answer can and should be found, both to help us deal with the current crisis and to keep us from creating new ones of its ilk. In a litigation-weary world, though, it seems that it will take the kind of tireless, impartial research found in The River to show us--and our leaders--that blame should take a back seat to truth when extreme circumstances demand it.
SCIENCE SHORT STORIES
The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder by David Quammen
- [Amazon.com] David Quammen, a highly regarded popular-science writer (Song of the Dodo) and novelist, brings a range of qualities to his work as an interpreter of nature: a journalist's talent for finding a good story and telling it well, a scholar's conviction that facts matter, and an amateur naturalist's passion for learning about the way things work. For 15 years, Quammen put these qualities to good use in his Outside magazine column "Natural Acts." The Boilerplate Rhino gathers 26 of those columns between book covers, and to good purpose: every one of them is a keeper. Quammen writes of such matters as the entirely reasonable human fear of spiders (which he shares) and snakes (which he does not); of the work of such groundbreaking theoreticians and thinkers as E.O. Wilson and Henry David Thoreau; of the history of American lawns; the life of the durian fruit; the commodification of nature by way of television documentaries; the strange scholarly fortunes of Tyrannosaurus rex; and the landing patterns of cats in free fall. (Really.) A single theme underpins these scattered pieces: namely, how humans "in all their variousness, regard and react to the natural world, in all its variousness." Quammen explores this theme with good cheer and hard-won knowledge, and his essays teach his readers much about the world.
SCIENCE SHORT STORIES
The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature by David Quammen - [Publisher's Weekly] Quammen's columns in Outdoor Magazine are famed as an entertaining source of offbeat information. In this collection, he casts sidelong glances at creationism and extinction, at giant earthworms and Canada geese. But he takes a direct view at the plight of Salvadoran refugees and at the Sanctuary Movement; he accompanied one group on a dramatic journey across the Sonoran desert. Quammen examines the special problems of species survival on islands (and tells us what is happening to the birds of Guam); he discusses the unusually small gene pool of cheetahs and how the Papago Indians survive in desert lands. There is a piece about visiting the Okefenokee Swamp, while the title essay is set in the Galapagos. Read ers who enjoyed Natural Acts will find Quammen's new collection equally interesting.
SCIENCE SHORT STORIES
WILD THOUGHTS FROM WILD PLACES by David Quammen - [Amazon.com] In this collection of "Natural Acts" columns from the pages of Outside magazine, wide-ranging ecojournalist David Quammen turns his attention to all manner of earthly matters: the physics of flowing water and the thrills of kayaking, the evolution of supercoyotes, and the lives of famous naturalists (Charles Darwin, Gilbert White). Above all, Quammen celebrates the joys of life in the outdoors, especially in his favorite haunts in the mountains and trout streams of Montana. "We never know what he have lost, or what we have found," he writes. That may be, but in these pages you'll know that you have found a lively intelligence and wonderful natural history writing.
SCIENCE SHORT STORIES
Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature by David Quammen - [Amazon.com] David Quammen is a naturalist, writer, and literary scholar who can turn from William Faulkner to theories of demographic stochasticity on a dime--or a comma. Natural Acts, a collection of Quammen's columns by the same name from Outside magazine, highlights his many interests. In its pages, he touches on Malthusian population dynamics, the mating habits of butterflies and snakes, Tycho Brahe's quest for the stars, magnolia trees, whales, and deserts--to name just a few of the matters that pass beneath his bemused gaze. This is humanely wrought science writing at its best.
The Third Chimpanzee : The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond
- [Amazon.com] Jared Diamond states the theme of his book up-front: "How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conqueror; and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight." The Third Chimpanzee is, in many ways, a prequel to Diamond's prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. While Guns examines "the fates of human societies," this work surveys the longer sweep of human evolution, from our origin as just another chimpanzee a few million years ago...
The chapters in The Third Chimpanzee on the oddities of human reproductive biology were later expanded in Why Is Sex Fun? Here, they're linked to Diamond's views of human psychology and history
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
- [Amazon.com] Explaining what William McNeill called The Rise of the West has become the central problem in the study of global history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond presents the biologist's answer: geography, demography, and ecological happenstance. Diamond evenhandedly reviews human history on every continent since the Ice Age at a rate that emphasizes only the broadest movements of peoples and ideas. Yet his survey is binocular: one eye has the rather distant vision of the evolutionary biologist, while the other eye--and his heart--belongs to the people of New Guinea, where he has done field work for more than 30 years.
The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, et al
- [Amazon.com] The title The Great Human Diasporas implies that this book is a history of human migration, but it is much more. It is a readable, accessible summary of the lifework of Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who has done more than anyone else to reveal the genetic makeup of human populations. Originally written in Italian with Cavalli-Sforza's filmmaker son Francesco, it maintains some qualities of an interview: The Great Human Diasporas is full of anecdotes about the Pygmies with whom Cavalli-Sforza works, the text is frequently personal yet not self-serving, and it clearly shows how he helped tie together population genetics, linguistics, and anthropology to offer a new, non-racist view of human diversity.
PRIZE : THE EPIC QUEST FOR OIL, MONEY & POWER by Daniel Yergin - [Amazon.com] The Prize, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, is a comprehensive history of one of the commodities that powers the world--oil. Founded in the 19th century, the oil industry began producing kerosene for lamps and progressed to gasoline. Huge personal fortunes arose from it, and whole nations sprung out of the power politics of the oil wells. Yergin's fascinating account sweeps from early robber barons like John D. Rockefeller, to the oil crisis of the 1970s, through to the Gulf War.
The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz
- [Amazon] Cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz was captured by the Red Army in 1939 during the German-Soviet partition of Poland and was sent to the Siberian Gulag along with other captive Poles, Finns, Ukranians, Czechs, Greeks, and even a few English, French, and American unfortunates who had been caught up in the fighting. A year later, he and six comrades from various countries escaped from a labor camp in Yakutsk and made their way, on foot, thousands of miles south to British India, where Rawicz reenlisted in the Polish army and fought against the Germans. The Long Walk recounts that adventure, which is surely one of the most curious treks in history.
Soldier of the Great War
by Mark Helprin - [Reed Business Information] In summer 1964, a distinguished-looking gentleman in his seventies dismounts on principle from a streetcar that was to carry him from Rome to a distant village, instead accompanying on foot a boy denied a fare. As they walk, he tells the boy the story of his life. A young aesthete from a privileged Roman family, Alesandro Giuliani found his charmed existence shattered by the coming of World War I. The war led to an onerous tour of duty, inadvertent desertion, near-execution, forced labor,...
The Last Hero by Peter Forbath - [Publishers Weekly] Historical adventure in the grand style, this is a richly fictionalized account of what was possibly explorer Stanley's greatest exploit: the military rescue of Emin Pasha, mysterious and beleaguered governor of Britain's only province in central Africa to resist the Mahdi and his dervish hordes after the fall of Khartoum in 1885. Thirsting to avenge the death of General Gordon and to restore its imperial honor, Britain chooses Stanley as the obvious, indeed the only man for the job. The wily, ruthless and indomitable Stanley eschews the easiest route of access and chooses the most arduous: through 5000 miles of uncharted Congo, having made a secret deal with King Leopold of the Belgians. Held together, though only just, by Stanley's iron will, the expedition survives disease, desertion, hunger, hostile natives and the treachery of the notorious Arab slaver Tippoo-Tib, not to mention the hazards of the great river it must navigate. The story is as much that of Stanley's chief lieutenants as of the great explorer and Emin Pasha; and Forbath ( The River Congo ) has a knowledge of the region that helps to give his narrative, with its exciting climax and ironic finale, an impressive authenticity.
The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
- [Amazon.com] The title character of Giles Foden's debut novel, The Last King of Scotland, is none other than Idi Amin, the former dictator of Uganda. Told from the viewpoint of Nicholas Garrigan, Amin's personal physician, the novel chronicles the hell that was Uganda in the 1970s. Garrigan, the only son of a Scots Presbyterian minister, finds himself far away from Fossiemuir when he accepts a post with the Ministry of Health in Uganda. His arrival in Kampala coincides with the coup that leads to President Obote's overthrow and Idi Amin Dada's ascendancy to power. Garrigan spends only a few days in the capital city, however, before heading out to his assignment in the bush. But a freak traffic accident involving Amin's sports car and a cow eventually brings the good doctor into the dictator's orbit; a few months later, Garrigan is recalled from his rural hospital and named personal physician to the president. Soon enough, Garrigan finds himself caught between his duty to his patient and growing pressure from his own government to help them control Amin.
From Nicholas Garrigan's catbird seat, Foden guides us through the horrors of Amin's Uganda. It would be simple enough to make the dictator merely monstrous, but Foden defies expectation, rendering him appealing even as he terrifies. The doctor "couldn't help feeling awed by the sheer size of him and the way, even in those unelevated circumstances, he radiated a barely restrained energy.... I felt--far from being the healer--that some kind of elemental force was seeping into me." And Garrigan makes a fine stand-in for Conrad's Marlow as he travels up a river of blood from naiveté to horrified recognition of his own complicity. As if this weren't enough, Foden also treats us to a finely drawn portrait of Africa in all its natural, political, and social complexity. The Last King of Scotland makes for dark but compelling reading.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
- [Amazon.com] When Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they're not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle," says Leah, one of Nathan's daughters. But of course it isn't long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they've arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan's fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?
In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan's intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor's animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member's fortune across a span of more than 30 years.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
- [Amazon.com] Barbara Kingsolver's . . . dialogue sparkles with sassy wit and earthy poetry; her descriptions are rooted in daily life but are also on familiar terms with the eternal. With Prodigal Summer, she returns from the Congo to a "wrinkle on the map that lies between farms and wildness." And there, in an isolated pocket of southern Appalachia, she recounts not one but three intricate stories . . . Kingsolver is one of those authors for whom the terrifying elegance of nature is both aesthetic wonder and source of a fierce and abiding moral vision. She may have inherited Thoreau's mantle, but she piles up riches of her own making, blending her extravagant narrative gift with benevolent concise humor. She treads the line between the sentimental and the glorious like nobody else in American literature.
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn
- [Library Journal] Winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, a literary competition intended to foster works of fiction that present positive solutions to global problems, this book offers proof that good ideas do not necessarily equal good literature. Ishmael, a gorilla rescued from a traveling show who has learned to reason and communicate, uses these skills to educate himself in human history and culture. Through a series of philosophical conversations with the unnamed narrator, a disillusioned Sixties idealist, Ishmael lays out a theory of what has gone wrong with human civilization and how to correct it, a theory based on the tenet that humanity belongs to the planet rather than vice versa. While the message is an important one, Quinn rarely goes beyond a didactic exposition of his argument, never quite succeeding in transforming idea into art. Despite this, heavy publicity should create demand.