Books & Arts | Published:

Books in brief

Nature volume 524, page 33 (06 August 2015) | Download Citation

Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.

Katrina: After the Flood


Simon & Schuster (2015) 9781451692228

Ten years ago this month, New Orleans lay drowning, its levees breached by the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina. One million people were displaced and, despite federal preparedness exercises, the administration responded sluggishly. Journalist Gary Rivlin sweeps from street to boardroom in this history of the aftermath, studded with figures such as polarizing New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and seething with egregious political failings that deepened racial inequality during the city's recovery. As Rivlin sharply reminds, overcoming disasters is very much an issue of governance.

The Black Mirror: Looking at Life Through Death


Yale University Press (2015) 9780300217001

Death may be unimaginable, but former geriatric specialist Raymond Tallis explores it imaginatively nonetheless. Inspired by novelist E. M. Forster's line from Howards End (1910), “Death destroys a man; the idea of death saves him”, Tallis's meditation on his future corpse is a meshed march of philosophical musings and bald physical detail. As he sifts a lifetime's worth of sensory and emotional memory, Tallis's prose stuns like poetry — from the “crackling, rebellious stretching as paper balls unscrunch” to the self's continuity despite the “distracted, multiple” nature of life. Enchanting.

Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers

Mark Avery and Keith Betton. Pelagic (2015) 9781784270506

Whether spotting golden eagles in Idaho or long-tailed tits in London, professional birdwatchers are a rare breed — observational dynamos wedded to their craft. Wildlife campaigner Mark Avery and birdwatcher Keith Betton have captured 20 stories (including their own) from British luminaries such as wagtail expert Stephanie Tyler and birder extraordinaire Lee Evans. This is both a serious overview of the field and a flock of delights, from the shot of a youthful Betton with three young song thrushes balancing on his forearm to fond memories of first binoculars, whether Leica Ultravids or Swarovskis.

Pure Intelligence: The Life of William Hyde Wollaston


University of Chicago Press (2015) 9780226245737

He was crucial to the development of crystallography, and discovered the amino acid cystine and the elements palladium and rhodium. Yet scientific polymath William Hyde Wollaston (1766–1828) is largely forgotten. This meticulous biography, the life's work of late chemist Melvyn Usselman, reveals a man of indefatigable curiosity and methodological genius. As we see Wollaston crafting analytical instruments for Arctic expeditions, stargazing or showing scientific writer Mary Somerville the uses of a goniometer, we can only concur with Usselman that this was a “man worth knowing”.

Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home


Polygon (2015) 9781846973369

If you follow Shetland's latitude of 60° N around the world, you will encounter cultures “challenged by climate, by landscape, by remoteness”. So writes Shetlander Malachy Tallack in this powerful memoir detailing how, unmoored by his father's death, he traversed that line to explore geographies inner and outer. Whether in Alaska's Kenai peninsula dodging bears or among the Even people in “huge, cold and utterly strange” Siberia, Tallack is forever testing the psychological dynamics of the sense of belonging.

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  1. Barbara Kiser is Nature's books and arts editor.

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