• The Big Necessity by Rose George **** (of 4)

    Summary:  Everybody poops.  Nobody talks about it.  It’s a big problem everywhere.  In the First World disposing of sewage consumes too much water and generates unimaginable quantities of industrially and pharmaceutically contaminated waste.  In the Second World, sewage isn’t treated; just dumped in the local river.  In developing countries, 2.6 billion people crap in the open in close proximity to their drinking water.  Poop is one of those topics nobody wants to talk, write, or read about, but the author, Rose George, makes it seem like the most important environmental issue on the planet.  She runs out of steam toward the end of the book.  There’s a little too much focus on India and not enough on Africa, but those are minor quibbles.  Kudos to her for discussing the unmentionable.

  • The Tiger: A true story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vailiant *** (of 4)

    One of those intriguing books about an animal I knew surprisingly little of and a part of the world, eastern Siberia, about which I was completely ignorant.  The Tiger is the tale of a singular animal at the end of the 20th century that searches far and wide for one hunter that has done him wrong so he can eat him.  In addition to learning how tigers can distinguish and track one human from another for the purpose of avenging past injustices it was equally fascinating to discover eastern Siberia.  Here in the forest with winter temperatures routinely forty degrees below zero live both tigers and people abandoned following the demise of the Soviet Union.  Survival in the forest is not much different in the year 2000 than it must have been 300 years prior:  hunting, gathering wild mushrooms and pine nuts, log huts, and vodka.

  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese *** (of 4)

    This is a half-century story of Marion Stone, born in the late 1950s  as the twin son of a British physician and a nun (oops).  Both his parents vanish at his birth leaving him to be raised in a medical outpost in Addis Ababa by two Indian doctors, where he learns medicine first hand before becoming a surgeon, like his father, later in life.  The characters are lovingly drawn and Ethiopian poverty and politics provide the continuing backdrop, the most interesting character in the book is medicine.  I’ve never cared a great deal about the science and art of medicine, but Verghese, a practicing surgeon, lays it out in such graphic detail I was riveted by the myriad details, diagnoses, and decisions trauma surgeons must master.

  • Pompeii by Robert Harris ** (of 4)

    About the three days before Mount Vesuvius blew its top and decimated the city of Pompeii as seen through the eyes of a conscientious aquarius in charge of trying to figure out why the Roman aqueducts have stopped flowing. An interesting novel since you know how it is going to end, but watching how the Romans begin to uncover the signs of the impending explosion is fascinating.

  • Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean **** (of 4)

    Norman Maclean is like Roger Angell: an old school Master of wordsmithing. His command of English and of writing is simply superior. Maclean’s first great book, A River Runs Through It, about trout fishing took decades to write. Young Men and Fire is the story of smoke jumpers who get caught in a western canyon fire when the fire reverses and flies up a hill at them with the speed of a tornado. Maclean died before he finished the book so you can tell the last 70 pages aren’t as polished as the first four-fifths of the book. Still, it’s an outstanding read filled with excellent detail presented compellingly.

  • Tigers in the Snow by Peter Matthiessen ** (of 4)

    Everything you ever wanted to know about tiger life in the wilds of Asia from Siberia to India. Read the book or visit a zoo, because according to Matthiessen tigers are doomed. The book so plainly praises the dignity of wild tigers in their native habitat and the insurmountable threats to their survival I wanted to kill myself I was so depressed. June 2007.

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson **** (of 4)

    Shockingly, the book lives up to its pretentious title. Bryson, an accomplished travel writer and memoirist explains, with complete lucidity, the history of science. He starts with the Big Bang and proceeds through the history of the earth, discovery of chemicals and cells, the physics of gravity, and the evolution of all living things. Not once does he veer toward textbook droning; in contrast, his accounts read like mystery stories replete with unsual characters with full personalities (like Einstein, Newton, Crick, and Darwin) and what in any other setting would seem like random trivia, but in Bryson’s able hands feel like important anecdotes. All of his skills as a master storyteller are brought to bear to sift through what for most of us would require a lifetime of research. March 2008.

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot *** (of 4)

    Cells from Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cervix were the first to ever be cultured in a lab in perpetuity making the woman they came from in some ways immortal.  The cells were taken just before her death and without her permission thereby becoming on the one hand a source of great scientific richness and on the other the bane of her surviving, very poor, largely uneducated African American family.  Skloot does an excellent job of explaining the science and personalizing the plight of a family overwhelmed by America’s medical research establishment.