Utne Reader Book Reviews

By Staff
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Fallen Giant:
American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree
by Susan Freinkel(University of California Press)
The American chestnut was a grand and amazingly fruitful tree, carpeting the ground so deeply with nuts each fall that it was hard to walk in a chestnut grove. It was a pillar of the Eastern forest ecosystem from Georgia to Maine and, for many Appalachia mountain dwellers, a “true and trusted member of the community” that filled local bellies and fueled local economies. But an Asian fungus devastated the species in the early 1900s, killing 4 billion trees and leaving most survivors stunted shadows of their former selves.

In American Chestnut, author Susan Freinkel tells the tree’s story through the eyes of the people who have tried to save it, some driven mainly by scientific ambition and others chiefly by a fondness for the tree: chestnut huggers, in other words. It turns out that many of her subjects have a foot in both camps, such as Philip Rutter, a farmer turned chestnut crusader who lives a “near-Amish” existence in a one-room cabin and believes chestnuts could feed the world, and Fred Hebard, a gruff plant pathologist descended from a lumber baron. When a chestnut twig poked Hebard in the eye, he tells Freinkel, he realized that “they didn’t give a shit that I was trying to help them.”

Freinkel, a science journalist, makes a fine narrator because she too resists anthropomorphizing the chestnut yet acknowledges entomologist E.O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia,” an instinctive bond between humans and other species. By the time she reveals several promising new approaches to restoring the American chestnut, you’ll find yourself rooting for a cure.
–Keith Goetzman

Dead Man In Paradise: Unraveling a Murder from a Time of Revolution
by J.B. MacKinnon(New Press)
Every family’s myths are amplified by the fog of time. For J.B. MacKinnon, the author of Dead Man in Paradise, an uncle’s personal legacy also fuels competing myths of the Dominican Republic’s bloody past. Father James Arthur MacKinnon was an outspoken advocate for the country’s poor in a time when whispers of communist ways could earn one a spot on a death list. During 1965’s spasm of revolution, the Canadian priest was murdered in a case left unsolved, despite official contention to the contrary. MacKinnon navigates Kafkaesque archives and travels countless back roads to reconstruct an intriguing tale that is at once travelogue, murder mystery, family biography, and political history. Ultimately, his search for truth breathes life into the past so it can be laid to rest.
–Hannah Lobel

How To Believe: Teachers and Seekers Show the Way to a Modern, Life-Changing Faith
by Jon Spayde(Random House)
Jon Spayde isn’t preoccupied with the finer points of doctrine, and he isn’t interested in persuading anyone to convert. How to Believe deals instead with the inadequacy of everything left-brained when it comes to actual, lived faith. Spayde interviewed more than 30 people–clergy and laypeople, famous and unknown–about their beliefs and spiritual practices, and he describes how these individuals have influenced his own life and faith. A Catholic, he focuses chiefly on Christianity–an approach that doesn’t close off his ideas so much as helpfully situate them within his particular sphere of knowledge and passion. The book is an effective geography of transformative, holistic faith, of mystical practice that transcends the various binaries–individual/communal, contemplative/active, fundamentalist/relativist, orthodox/open–that dominate the way we think about religion.
–Steve Thorngate

Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System
by Silja J.A. Talvi(Seal)
After reading Women Behind Bars, one could recite a laundry list of shocking statistics and haunting anecdotes about female prisoners–but where to begin? Silja J.A. Talvi, an investigative journalist, tackles more than seems possible in one book, documenting the negligent medical care, abuse by guards, and contemptible meals that many female inmates endure, as well as smaller indignities like limited access to soap and tampons. Talvi interviewed hundreds of imprisoned girls and women, and she expertly combines their stories with the disturbing facts and figures that, on their own, don’t inspire nearly enough outrage. The author’s vivid descriptions of these women’s lives, and her exasperation over their “invisible struggle,” render Women Behind Bars a surprisingly readable treatise on a cumbersome topic.
–Danielle Maestretti

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