31 May, 2010

Tomes 2010: Parte the Third

We have some catching up to do.  My piles of unread books are growing faster than I can read them, but I'm trying to keep up.  It's only gonna get worse after I make my pilgrimage to Powell's in a couple of weeks.

Without further ado, then.

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution

I adore this book, not to put too fine a point on it.  It's one of the best books on evolution I've ever read: clear, concise and beautifully written.  I know that other books make a strong case for evolution, but I found this one of the strongest.  And it's full of things I never knew about, like "the bloodless fish of Bouvet Island."  Yes, seriously, there are fish in the sea that haven't got any blood.  They're fascinating.

That's just the beginning.  Sean B. Carroll goes on to explain "the everyday math of evolution," which explained said math in such a way that even a complete math ignoramus such as myself could grasp it.  He made it easy to understand how even the tiniest advantage can, over evolutionary time (which is sometimes remarkably short), add up to big changes.  And he doesn't stop there, of course - he shows us the immortal genes, which have been passengers in a great many species; how new genes can be created from the old; explores convergent evolution; sifts through fossil genes, and quite a bit more.

It's not a huge book, but it feels like a huge book - there's so much in here so clearly explained that it feels like taking a full semester of evolution, including evo-devo.  I plan to read this one again and again, not to mention recommend it to anyone who's confused about how and why evolution works.

The Restless Northwest: A Geological Story

I've been trying to learn more about the crazy-quilt geology in my backyard, and Hill Williams's little book is an excellent place to start.  I learned quite a bit in these pages, including about a tectonic plate I hadn't known existed (it's dead now, alas).  This book covers it all, from the time when the Pacific Northwest barely existed to the present, with a glimpse into the future.  It also got me more interested in the Glacial Lake Missoula floods, which led to more informed adventures in eastern Washington than I would have otherwise have had.

Helpful sidebars explore some geological concepts in greater depth, and there are plenty of diagrams, illustrations and photographs to support the text.  This book isn't a big as Northwest Exposures, a book I read last year and found useful, but it feels more substantial and less hurried for all its brevity.  That, right there, is a sign of a writer who knows his craft!

Crater Lake: Gem of the Cascades

The link above is to the 2005 version.  I haven't got that one.  I've got the one from 1982, which proved amusing, because plate tectonics was still a new and astonishing theory rather than a respectable middle-aged one.  I picked it up at Half-Price Books because it was cheap and it was about geology.  It's a good guide to the Crater Lake region, although some of the science was rather obviously out of date.  There were also ten tons of typos and a horrible abuse of the comma splice, which actually made it more fun to read.  It's one of those little guides that don't get a lot of spit-and-polish editing, and the typeface made it look like it just came off the typewriter.  All of these quirks may have been remedied in the 2005 edition, alas.

For all its quirks, it really was a good introduction to Crater Lake, and you can tell that K.R. Cranson loves his subject.  He provides plenty of photographs and helpful information on how to find neat things, which will make my eventual trip to Crater Lake all the more fruitful.

Fossils: The History of Life

Richard Fortey is one of my favorite writers ever, and while this book doesn't contain as much of his prose as Life or Earth, he more than makes up for that with his gorgeous photos.  Page after page after page of glorious, fantastic fossils in full, glossy color.  Yum! 

This is a kind of all-purpose book, which would be a good gift for anyone you know who's just now starting to develop an interest in fossils.  It explores everything from how fossils are formed to how to recognize them, collect, clean and even use them.  Any good fossil guide does that, of course, but this one goes further, explaining what they tell us about life, the Universe and everything.  It's even got a section on fossil DNA - not like Sean Carroll's exploration, which talks about genes fossilized within genomes, but actual fossil DNA dug out of frozen mammoths and such.  That chapter alone is worth buying the book, especially if you have an older copy without it.

This book is perfect: informative, with coffee-table quality illustrations in an actual readable size.  And it's by Richard Fortey, who is not only one hell of a paleontologist but also one hell of a wordsmith.  I actually read this one very slowly, interspersed with other books, because I didn't want it to end too soon.

Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

I have one quibble with this book: it should have included color photographs.  That's all it's really missing, though.  David B. Williams, who ended up interested in urban geology because he got stuck in Boston after living in the wild, wonderful geologic paradise of Utah.  Buildings clad in stone became his friends, a link to the natural world.  This book eventually resulted, and you'll probably never look at a city the same way after reading it.

Each chapter is about a different stone: brownstone, limestone, gneiss, marble, travertine and more.  Architecture connects to geology connects to oddball tidbits of history and human endeavor (and sometimes silliness) in one seamless whole.  And there's a websiteAnd David sometimes does geological tours of Seattle.  I'm so there!

This is another book I didn't want to put down, because it felt like it was introducing me to quite a few friends - the Getty Museum, the petrified log gas station, and others - that I didn't want to part from so soon.  And it's given me ideas for a great many more adventures.  Inspiring, informative, intriguing - perfect!

That's it for the moment.  There's going to be plenty more soon, though, one of which will occasion a discussion about the etiquette of cannibalism.  How's that for a cliffhanger, eh?

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