Book Reviews: May / June 2007

By Staff

A New Glossary Comes to Terms with Nature: Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney (Trinity University Press)

Residents of the American West in particular become hobby geographers almost by default. Where Earth’s bones erode into shapes too bizarre to imagine, where the planet’s history dwarfs our own, curiosity quickly stirs. Within a few seasons newcomers learn to tell arroyos from acequias, comb ridges from flatirons, and mesas from buttes.

Each of this country’s geophysical provinces has signature landmarks, of course, and now a single book (nearly) covers them all. Enlisting 45 eloquent writers, National Book Award winner Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams) and co-editor Debra Gwartney have compiled an American landscape glossary solid as caprock but sublime as a parabolic dune. With an eye for the quirky and poetic, luminaries like Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Jon Krakauer, and Terry Tempest Williams researched nearly 900 terms descriptive of soil, water, ice, and topographic features. The resulting paragraph-length definitions transcend the reference genre, infusing technical jargon with life while respecting the facts. Between line drawings and literary quotes in the page margins sparkle gems like “kiss tank” (a shallow rainwater pool), “Pele’s tears” (congealed bits from a lava fountain), and the self-explanatory “candle ice.” Readers will discover reasons to stay out of “jackstraw timber” (deadfall resembling the child’s game of pick-up sticks) and “malpais” (Cormac McCarthy’s “burned-out floor of hell”).

Above all, Home Ground celebrates a sense of belonging, drawing from cultures long sustained by the land. Beneath the surface runs a substratum of meaning that is worth preserving because it roots us on this continent. Without language to convey what matters, public discourse becomes stunted. For refining the vocabulary of conservation, Home Ground is invaluable. — Michael Engelhard


Guitar Man: A Six-String Odyssey

by Will Hodgkinson (Da Capo)

“Those who can’t play, write.”

Surely it was some such taunt — along with the possibility of a book deal — that inspired British music journalist Will Hodgkinson to learn to play the guitar in six months and to chronicle his journey from clueless to competent player. The author has a leg up on other beginners: His music-biz connections open doors
as he seeks out advice from artists including British folkie Bert Jansch, jangle rocker Roger McGuinn, Mississippi bluesman T. Model Ford, and Smiths pop savant Johnny Marr. But there are no shortcuts to actually learning the instrument, and Hodgkinson is wry and often self-effacing as he describes his struggles with finger callouses, competing family demands, and his scruffy ad hoc band. Music fans and anyone whose instrumental expertise stops at the kazoo will take inspiration from his tale. — Keith Goetzman


2033: The Future of Misbehavior: Interplanetary Dating, Female Executive Dominance, Live-in Robot Lovers, and Other Good News from the Future

by the editors of Nerve.com (Chronicle)

In this anthology of short stories, 16 writers offer their visions of 2033 — and the future, it seems, is the direct descendant of today’s tabloids, an age in which we’ve fully embraced (and enhanced) our celebrity-obsessed, power-driven, sex-hungry selves. Lively, sharp writing makes a guilty pleasure out of what otherwise would be rather ominous portraits, in which Wall Street brokers bank on the appreciation of Dakota Fanning’s thong (from her first “accidentally released” sex tape) and the divorce rate has hit 100 percent. Gender roles are reversed, but rarely overcome; female executives harass their comely male assistants and glibly recall the end of the patriarchy. Is this good news from the future? Maybe not — but it is entertaining, smart, and, at times, even touching. — Julie Hanus


A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise: 20 Young Writers on Finding a Place in the Natural World

edited by Bonnie Tsui (Sierra Club Books)

These writers, all 30 and under, show us how bushwhacking through rhododendrons, navigating arctic rivers, and fleeing mountain lightning have helped them blaze a trail not just to the ideal campsite, but also to a solid sense of self. Yet these are no clichŽ accounts of conquering the wilds. They are the tales of diverse young people, most living in large cities, who share a longing for a deeper connection to the outdoors. Whether their leaky tents are set up in a suburban backyard, in a Brooklyn farmers’ market, or next to a mouthy drag queen, these writers illuminate the inevitable connection between geography and identity, and they zip open the doors to a whole new breed of nature writing. — Elizabeth Oliver


There’s No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants

by Gabriel Thompson (Nation Books)

Last year’s wave of hysteria over immigration brought with it all manner of “contributions” to the debate: Copious new books offered political solutions, economic analyses, Pat Buchanan’s frenzied (but best-selling) musings, and so on. There’s No Jose Here avoids well-trodden territory by focusing on the story of Enrique, a Mexican immigrant (and U.S. citizen) who lives in Brooklyn, and mapping out the trying lives of his family and friends. “This book . . . is not an authoritative study on Mexican immigrants,” Thompson writes. “My goal is more modest, more focused.” The effort succeeds not only because Enrique and his friends are worthy subjects, but also because Thompson is so steadfastly devoted to telling their stories. He even quits his job to trek to Mexico with Enrique, piecing together the lives they all left behind. — Danielle Maestretti


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