August 2012

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Explore Your World

In all likelihood, you have not heard of Genevieve Jones and that, quite frankly, is a crime. My first glimpse of Joy M. Kiser's America's Other Audubon in the Princeton Architectural Press catalog had me in love with Jones, and that was before I knew her remarkable and utterly heartbreaking story -- or what her family did to honor her memory. Kiser, who became an assistant librarian at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1995, writes in the introduction to America's Other Audubon that her first day on the job, she walked past a display of volume one of the Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio by the Jones family. Her curiosity was piqued, and then, two years later at a conference, she became determined to figure out other places where the Jones book could be found and the story behind it. The result of all her hard work is the stunning publication of America's Other Audubon. This is the legacy of Genevieve Jones and it is the kind of tribute and type of work that will make nature-loving people, especially young adults, want to make their mark on the world.

As Kiser explains, Genevieve, born in 1847, grew up in a household that was passionate about natural history and ornithology. Educated primarily at home, she was brilliant and artistic, and after her brother left to attend college, she followed his studies in a duplicate set of textbooks he purchased for her. (Because, of course, girls could not go to college.) Over the years, she weathered the Civil War, suffering from several physical problems brought on by the stresses of the day, and then as a young woman found herself classified as a spinster. Genevieve did fall in love once -- letters from her family noting the unnamed young man exist -- but he suffered from a drinking problem and was not considered an appropriate match. After their devastating breakup, her father suggested she turn to a large artistic project to keep her mind off her romantic troubles, and the book on bird's eggs and nests of Ohio was the result.

But that's not all of the story. Initially Genevieve and a friend drew the pictures (and they are comparable to Audubon at his best), but then she became ill from typhoid fever and died at the age of thirty-two. Her friend moved on and it fell to the Jones family to complete the book, which had been sold on subscription. That they did so is an amazing accomplishment and testament to how very much they loved and mourned their "Gennie." The book itself, of which only twenty-six complete hand colored copies can be located in the world today, is extremely rare. This all makes what Kiser has done here that much more significant and a labor of love that would be appreciated by anyone who wishes there had been more life for Genevieve (whose lover committed suicide soon after her death), and can admire what she and her family accomplished.

So how are the illustrations in America's Other Audubon? Every leaf, every twig, ever spot or dash of color has been applied with such extraordinary care that puts digital photography to shame. This is intricate and detailed art that breathes life in a two-dimensional plane, that is as close to the actual object as you can find. With their original detailed descriptions and painstaking attention to the smallest of details, the artwork created by the Jones family and friend Eliza Shulze is the sort of creation that mesmerizes. They are only nests and eggs really, but they are impossible to dismiss and endlessly fascinating.

Kiser relied upon family papers, including a brief unpublished biography by her subject's brother, to tell Genevieve's story, but I really hope that someday a full and proper biography or at the very least a novel is written about her life. She was a singular individual, the sort of spirit who should be celebrated beyond the small circle of natural history admirers. Joy Kiser has done a great thing with America's Other Audubon, and anyone, teen or otherwise, who appreciates the beauty of the natural world has to seek out a copy.

Some of the coolest historic scientists were the globetrotting botanic warriors known collectively as "The Plant Hunters." This group, which included a number of women, great artists, and the gentleman credited with Charles Darwin for determining the theory of evolution, is profiled in breezy, fully illustrated fashion in Anita Silvey's great title of the same name: The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth. Broken up into chapters that explain how and why the whole European plant mania occurred, who the "Indiana Jones of the nineteenth century" was, and how the scientists got their discoveries back home alive (not an easy task when the journey could take months), Silvey packs a lot of information into an appealing package. This one on the table is going to invite perusing from everyone, adults, teens, and kids alike. The target audience is the middle school set, but I think it is perfect for high school as well -- great fodder for book reports and certainly a leaping off point for those interested in out-of-the-box careers.

(I should probably confess here that I long dreamed of being a plant collector, but, frankly, was put off by the whole notion of really big bugs. After reading Silvey's book I am now also freaked out by the really-big-everything-else-that-might-eat-you that these people encountered, plus the diseases. Reading about plant hunters is much safer. There are headhunters in this book, people -- headhunters.)

Silvey caps her history with chapters on "plant superstars," which are notable both for their economic effect (the worldwide demand for tea) and their medicinal benefits (treatments for malaria and leprosy). More interesting than those is the chapter on "contemporary plant geeks," where The Plant Hunters really shines. In the age-old question of what you should do with your life, traveling the globe to find the cure for cancer or save the planet's biodiversity has to tempt a few. Silvey was wise enough to see that while the history is a great sell, making her subject vital to contemporary teens required a bit of a hook, and she nails it here. Everybody -- even those of us scared of big flying bugs -- wants to be the next Indiana Jones. Plant hunting is thus the best combination of adventure and altruistic dream job that most kids have never heard of. Get outside, says Silvey, and follow the steps of some amazing scientist explorers.

In the wake of all the excitement generated by the Curiosity rover, it is a good time to celebrate the first Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Launched in 2003, they are the subject of The Mighty Mars Rovers by Elizabeth Rusch, the latest entry in the always outstanding Scientists in the Field series from Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

Rusch focuses on the story of Steve Squyres, an astronomy professor at Cornell who was lead scientist on the Spirit and Opportunity missions. Squyres has an enormously appealing personal story, and Rusch shares it all, from his first telescope at age eight to watching the moon landing at thirteen and taking a class on the Viking mission as a college junior -- taught by an actual working member of the Viking science team. The Viking class changed his life, as Squyres latched onto the idea of sending a geologist to Mars. The culmination of his efforts was found in the success of Spirit and Opportunity and the continued work of Curiosity. (Clearly the moral here is that college really can change your life!)

After NASA accepted the mission, Squyres and the rest of the team found themselves facing nearly insurmountable deadlines. Even after the rovers successfully landed there, problems ranged from control (the lag time between sending directions and actual movement was ten hours) to helping the vehicles get out of a variety of "traps" on the planet's surface. Solid work back on Earth (where Mars mock-ups were constructed to mimic the conditions the rovers were dealing with) got Spirit and Opportunity out of trouble and again and again. As the years went by, the team became emotionally attached to the machines, and Rusch's text captures how difficult it has been as they teetered more than once on the edge of permanent shutdown. Coupled with the dozens of photos, including many from Mars, this makes for a very compelling story, and should turn Steve Squyres and the men and women at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory into heroes for many readers.

One of my favorite authors, Jim Murphy, returned this year with another stirring nonfiction title (this time with wife and co-author Alison Blank) that manages to both inform and beguile on a subject few teens will be aware of. Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure is the centuries-long history of our battle to defeat tuberculosis, a disease that might have affected as much as seventy-five to ninety percent of the population by 1850. For centuries, everybody knew about tuberculosis, but no one knew how it spread or how to cure it. That is the story Murphy and Blank tell here, along with mentions of the Brontes, Doc Holliday, Adirondack hotels, rampant racism in medicine, and how we came to live in a time in which the disease is largely a forgotten subject. (Although a final chapter right out of a Stephen King novel makes clear it shouldn't be.)

Rather than moving in a strictly chronological order, Invincible Microbe follows the early periods of the discovery and inadequate treatment (dating back to the fifteenth century) and wanders into fascinating stories of the development of the rest cure and sanatorium business. This treatment required months -- even years -- of forced relaxation in the mountain towns of upstate New York and arid climates of the Southwest and California. To say it was difficult is an understatement. As one sixteen year patient is sadly quoted: "I was... ill with a disease that required a long stay in a sanatorium 300 miles from home, taken from a world that was just beginning and tossed helplessly on a heap of despair."

While the authors do an exemplary job of detailing the biology of tuberculosis and the use of x-rays and other marvels of modern science to effectively treat and cure it, the human stories are what make Invincible Microbe hard to put down. From the bewildering physical appeal of infected poets and artists like Keats and Shelly ("Decay and disease are often beautiful like the hectic glow of consumption," wrote an inflicted Swiss philosopher) to the pathetic attempts by the poor to create their own personal sanatoriums on city rooftops (these photos are devastating), this title both educates and intrigues. Murphy and Blank remind us there is so much we do not consider about our collective past, and so much we really should not forget.

For a contemporary earth-bound title, Oceanographer and photojournalist Chris Linder was in a unique position to team up with the National Science Foundation and create a gorgeous portrait of four scientific expeditions in the polar regions. Science on Ice: Four Polar Expeditions is a report on the work being done in the most extreme environments on the planet. This was not Linder's first exposure to a polar environment; he made several trips as a researcher for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and his familiarity with life in the cold is evident in the care he has given to this project and the images he presents here. I cannot stress enough how spectacular Linder's photographs are. They alone make Science on Ice a title well worth your time and tremendously increase the book's teen appeal. (Add The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott: Unseen Images from the Legendary Antarctic Expedition and Face to Face: Polar Portraits for a trifecta of polar awesomeoness that will draw any high schooler in to dreams of the cold and ice.)

Each of Science on Ice's four chapters focuses on the work of individual expeditions going on today in the Arctic and Antarctica, with text provided by several talented science writers. In the footsteps of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Edward Wilson, and Henry Bowers, the first chapter, written by Hugh Powell of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, covers an ongoing project studying Adelie penguins on Ross Island. (Fair warning: these pictures are as adorable as you would expect. Further warning: that whole "survival of the fittest" thing is alive and well on the Adelie colony.)

The second chapter investigates life in the Bering Sea, home to a delicate and important ecosystem increasingly affected by climate change. The third chapter goes underwater in search of evidence of volcanic activity (swimming robots vehicles!), and in the fourth chapter, scientists study Greenland's glacial lakes. In each case the writers involved (Powell, Helen Fields, Lonny Lippsett, and Amy Nevala) prove their adeptness at keeping the prose both accessible and interesting. (No dumbing down here, but it should be noted that the spirit of Lippsett's grad course "How Not to Write for Peer-Reviewed Journals: Talking to Everybody Else" is alive and well throughout.)

In his introduction, Linder writes, "I believe that scientists suffer from a branding problem," but he and his cohorts have gone a long way toward putting to rest the vision of "white bearded men scribbling obtuse formulas on blackboards." Science on Ice is informative, exciting, and beautiful. It is everything you hope for science to be and proves the many adventures that await those who are willing to learn.

Finally, I found Lost in Wonder: Imagining Science and Other Mysteries by Colette Brooks to be a good crossover choice for high school readers who might not be fans of standard science subjects. Brooks's short narrative style of linking a variety of scientific topics together in unexpected ways makes it truly delightful. In the first chapter alone, she moves elegantly from the seventeenth century's Sir Henry Cavendish (who determined the correct composition of water), to Galileo, to Werner von Braun. The larger point is that science is rooted in dreams, a concept which broadens the study of science considerably and should make many readers much more receptive to what Brooks wants to share.

In succeeding chapters, she discusses the Wright brothers, who simply asked each other one day "...why not?"; Ruth Siems, who was awarded a patent in 1975 for what became Stove Top stuffing ("I've always liked putting things together," she said); and Charles Lindbergh, who reached out to Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins as a kindred spirit, able at last to understand how utterly alone his epic New York to Paris flight had been. There are classic episodes of Mr. Wizard, the mind-boggling minutiae of Robert Hooke's microscopic experiments, and the potential found in the SETI program always listening for signs that we are not alone. (Go right now and watch Contact for Jodie Foster's foray into SETI-based drama.)

Brooks writes elegantly, understatedly, and yet she's determined to share the many connections that make scientific boundaries nearly nonexistent. Readers will find the wonder in science through her words, and it will undoubtedly make them want to seek some more of that wonder on their own.

COOL READ: Alex MacLean's Up on the Roof: New York's Hidden Skyline Spaces is all about perspective, and his overhead shots of dozens of New York City rooftops provide a unique look at city life. With spare text introducing each chapter ("Multiuse Roof Spaces," "Places of Rest," "Iconic Observation Roofs and Landmarks"), the bulk of this oversized full color title is all about the pictures. From pools, to gardens, to a couple of ocean-liner like designs on Rockefeller Center, it's hard to pick just one to gawk at. This is the best sort of voyeurism; we can see how other people live without worrying that our interest is going to be noticed (sort of a flyover HGTV). But it's also a serious book, as MacLean shows urban living at its finest and points out the many green ways in which roofs can be utilized to enhance our living experience. (Who knew there were so many solar panels and greenhouses in the Big Apple?)

Future architects are the obvious audience for Up on the Roof, as are urban planners or outdoor designers of any kind. But MacLean's addition of some humor (the "Oddities" chapter is full of graffiti) makes this far more pleasurable than an academic text. The sign of just how compelling Up on the Roof is can be found in the numerous people who could not resist it when it arrived on my doorstep. This is really what a coffee table book should be: interesting, beautiful, and enjoyable. MacLean hits on all levels, and he has done it with a completely off-the-wall subject. Well done!

Colleen Mondor is the author of The Map of My Dead Pilots, which is about flying in the cold and ice and snow of Alaska, something that she misses a lot in the middle of summer when it is ninety-plus degrees outside. Find more at