Land of Ghosts, Being a Photographer, Encyclopedia of Caves and more...
Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest
in Far Western Amazonia. David G. Campbell. Houghton
Like the sinuous Amazon River
he writes of so eloquently, ecologist David Campbell glides between
travelogue and natural history in Land of Ghosts. In the
prologue he broods, "How do I describe the inchoate green
tapestry of the Amazon Valley, this apex of earthly diversity?"
He comes up with a winning strategy: He describes a journey from
Cruzeiro do Sul, a remote frontier town on the Juruá River in
western Brazil, to his study site deep within the forest, where he
has followed hundreds of individual trees from their existence as
seedlings to their deaths. Interwoven with his account of that
journey are threads of the larger Amazon story—the river's
scientific and historical setting, engaging anecdotes recounted by
his unlikely companions (Tarzan, a peripatetic Syrian raised in a
brothel; Arito, a one-time caiman hunter, now a paleontologist; and
Pimentel, an ace canoe driver), and descriptions of Campbell's
encounters with tropical flora and fauna.
The tales are "edutainment," full of enticing tidbits of
information about various aspects of the ecology and evolution of
the rain forest. For example, in chapter 6, "On The Line,"
Campbell describes the refugia hypothesis, which proposed that the
ice ages, by locking up great quantities of water, dried out parts
of the rain forest, resulting in isolated wet patches in which
species became reproductively isolated, so that speciation rates
accelerated, resulting in the biodiversity hotspots seen today.
Then, without missing an oar stroke, Campbell describes an attack by
"arapúa bees that clamber over our faces and crawl into
our nostrils, mouths, and ears." But he takes comfort in
reflecting that, because he has "become the dinner of every
bee, chigger, mosquito, tick and biting fly," his nutrients are
"buzzing everywhere in this forest and will soon be passed on
in humble, hopeful eggs."—Roger Harris
Being a Photographer. Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Abrams, $45.
The name Yann Arthus-Bertrand
you might not know, but his photographs you certainly do. His
evocative, sometimes haunting images are presented in Being a
Photographer in approximately the order in which they were
taken, so that the collection highlights his evolution as a
photographer. From wildlife photography he went on to document
indigenous people; the photograph to the right of a tribesman from
Papua New Guinea was taken for a Paris fashion magazine. Next he
progressed to bigger projects, such as "Good Breeding," a
study of domestic livestock and their breeders; "Horses,"
a pictorial essay; and "Earth From Above," a compilation
of spectacular aerial portraits that illustrate the beauty and
fragility of our planet. There are plenty of stunning pictures, but
the book also offers much more: The accompanying text by Sophie
Troubac (translated from the French by Simon Moore) explains how
Arthus-Bertrand planned and executed specific programs to acquire
the images. In addition, copies of marked maps, checklists and log
books, as well as an accompanying CD, provide insight into the
teamwork and dogged persistence needed to get the awe-inspiring
photographs. Arthus-Bertrand emphasizes the importance of captions;
in "Earth From Above" each caption explains the picture
and describes the ecological or social problems (whether local or
worldwide) that the image illustrates. Sequences of slides from the
same roll enable the reader to see how the best images were chosen
and how, as time passed, the opportunities for exceptional images
arose and then faded away. But the lessons learned from this book
will never fade.—Roger Harris
Encyclopedia of Caves. Edited by David C. Culver
and William B. White. Elsevier/Academic Press, $99.95.
Prior to actually holding a
copy of Encyclopedia of Caves in my hands, I would have
been skeptical that it was something I'd want occupying my precious
bookshelf space. I'm fascinated by caves, mind you, but an
encyclopedia? On seeing the cover, however, I was convinced without
even cracking the book open: Coeditor and Penn State professor
emeritus William B. White is one of the greats of cave geochemistry.
I was not disappointed. Assembled alphabetically, the 107 entries
range from descriptions of exceptional cave systems, to
cave-formation processes, to the systematics of cave biota, to
evolutionary diversions of cave life—and well beyond. Although
scientifically rigorous, the articles are readily approachable by
the nonprofessional and at times include the reader in the
"hows" of cave exploration. Truly international in both
geography and contributors, this encyclopedia is one for
browsing—the perfect assemblage of 15- to 20-minute
intellectual diversions. I must confess, though, that my favorite
entries were those written by White himself.—David Schoonmaker
Digital Retro: The Evolution and Design of the Personal
Computer. Gordon Laing. Sybex, $29.99.
Some people use the various
cars they've owned over the years to delineate different phases of
their lives. Others—many scientists included—do the same
with their computers. Thus flipping through the pages of Gordon
Laing's Digital Retro, with its lavish photos and amusing
descriptions of computer models from the 1970s, '80s and '90s, will
likely send you on a sentimental journal back in time.
Did you own, or maybe just use, an Apple II (right) soon
after it hit the market in 1977? If so, the sight of that beige box
will probably conjure up memories of the time when Star
Wars was a fresh concept and the Force was still with
you. If not, perhaps Laing's description of the Radio Shack TRS-80
(the "Trash-80" to microcomputer aficionados) or the
Commodore PET 2001 will get the nostalgia flowing.
Those who are a little younger than this reviewer might have to
browse on further to enter the realm of personal
experience—say, with Laing's description of the first IBM PC
or the Apple Macintosh, which came out, respectively, in 1981 and
1984. But what makes Digital Retro so much fun is its
coverage of less successful models, such as the boxy MITS Altair
8800 or the luggable-if-not-exactly-portable Osborne 1. I was of
course disappointed not to see featured the first microcomputer I
owned (one with a genuine wood case, made by a company called
Polymorphic Systems), but I found plenty in Laing's book to keep me
wistful for that long-gone time when personal computers did a whole
lot less yet were loved a lot more.—David Schneider
Nature's Strongholds:The World's Great Wildlife
Reserves. Laura and William Riley. Princeton University
In this era of embattled
ecosystems, governments are setting aside natural areas to protect
them. These have been systematically cataloged for the first time,
by Laura and William Riley, in Nature's Strongholds, which
offers conservationists, wildlife enthusiasts, travel professionals,
ecotourists and armchair travelers detailed information about the
world's best reserves and parks. The entries for each
"stronghold" are organized by country, within chapters
corresponding to the continents. Each entry includes such
information as the size of the protected area, opportunities to view
the wildlife and the best time to visit. All the world's major
national parks are included, as are most of the important reserves
of lesser status. The book is not designed to be read from cover to
cover, but rather to serve as a reference.
In a few respects, the volume does leave something to be desired.
Each country map indicates the location of national parks with a
square icon, whereas an outline of the protected area would have
been more informative. Reserves discussed in the text are not
depicted on the book's maps at all. The photographs spectacularly
illustrate the wildlife (a roseate spoonbill from South America is
shown above right) but give little impression of place. These
criticisms aside, no other book compares with this one in scope. It
serves as a reminder of what humanity stands to lose in the battle
to preserve the world's last natural
The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.
Dalton Conley. Cloth: Pantheon, $24; Paper (with a different
subtitle): Vintage, $14.
Inequality starts at home,
says sociologist Dalton Conley. In The Pecking Order,
Conley demonstrates that, much as we might like to think of the
family as "a haven in a harsh world," it's actually
"part and parcel of the world, rat race and all." Status
hierarchies in families, which involve "battling wills"
and relationships that repeatedly realign themselves or break down,
affect us in ways that end up helping determine "our place in
the larger pecking order we call society."
What are some of the things that differentially affect siblings and
help determine their success or lack thereof? Conley discusses the
influence of family background, genes, the environment, birth order,
family size, death, desertion, divorce, remarriage, geographic
mobility, immigration, technological changes, gender dynamics,
physical appearance, maternal role models, family income, health
problems, imprisonment, war and personal tragedy. One of Conley's
more interesting points is that middle children, who never have
their parents' attention all to themselves, always live in a
child-dominated world, sometimes in the care of older siblings,
sometimes caring for younger ones.
The first chapter illustrates the inequality that manifests itself
within families by contrasting two siblings, Bill and Roger, one of
whom grows up to be the 42nd president of the United States, whereas
the other becomes a ne'er-do-well. Anecdotes and examples are
abundant throughout the text, which is geared toward grabbing the
attention of a general audience. Conley devotes 25 percent of the
book to extensive scholarly notes that refer readers to the research
on which his claims are based. Most of the counterarguments to his
position are confined to the notes; in the text itself, readers are
presented only with information that supports the argument that
family dynamics mold the child's success.
Will this book dispel all the folklore surrounding the effects of
birth order and chances of success? No, but it is both fascinating
and thought-provoking.—Nancy C. Lutz
The Science of Saving Venice. Caroline Fletcher and
Jane da Mosto. Paul Holbertson Publishing. Paper, $15.
Venice draws 16 million
visitors a year, but few of them realize that the city is in peril.
It's slowly sinking, and sea levels are rising: St. Mark's Square
(right) is now flooding six times more frequently than a
century ago. The Science of Saving Venice, by Caroline
Fletcher and Jane da Mosto, is the clear-eyed product of a
three-year research project based at the University of Cambridge and
a 2003 conference held there to explore solutions to the city's plight.
Finding a solution, Fletcher and da Mosto write, will require both
engineers and ecologists. Venice lies in a coastal lagoon, the
largest wetland in Italy, but 1,000 years of human intervention have
degraded it profoundly, and storm surges from the Adriatic now
threaten more extreme flooding.
Most scientists support building barriers at the lagoon's inlets, a
promising measure first considered in the 17th century. But time is
pressing: The city's population has already dropped by more than
half since the 1950s. Worse, global warming could raise the local
sea level by 70 centimeters by the end of this century, a perilous
outcome in a city whose highest land is only two meters above sea
level. For now, the authors write, "The city is under