Books for Summer Reading


(This 1058th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 3, 2011.)


As usual, there are dozens of outstanding natural history books this year that are well worth your attention during the summer holidays.


This year, however, many of these books are very serious -- reflecting our current national and world problems. For that reason I will begin with less serious books, the kind you can carry to the beach, before commenting about books you'll have to study more carefully, perhaps -- like me -- in a rocking chair.


Don't miss my two main selections: First is Pete Dunn's Arctic Autumn (Houghton-Mifflin), third in his series of seasonal commentaries. Dunn has that power of the great travel writers: they have you join them in their adventures. Take, for example, a single sentence that I think characterizes much of his writing: "Heimo's cabin and his dog, Kenai, were haunted by a particularly territorial boreal owl who made a practice of dive-bombing the 140-pound Akita, who would take undignified shelter in his kennel and bark in protest." Any stateside birder will drool over the chance of seeing one of those tiny boreal owls, but here Dunn works it into a commonplace setting and a humorous situation. I found this book more philosophical than his earlier books with many interesting comments about hunting and trapping.


The other main selection comes from best-seller lists. It is John Vaillant's The Tiger (Knopf) about a man-eating tiger in, of all places, the wintertime (30 below zero) mountains of Russia north of Vladivostok. The true story is a simple one -- a valiant (pun intended) hunter seeking to confront an equally valiant hunter -- but Vaillant brings his protagonists to life by surrounding them with local and world stories about tigers, tiger hunting and, equally important, tiger conservation. While reading this book I dreamed one night of being awakened in my camping hammock by a soft growl. That was after reading of two loggers trapped in a flimsy shack praying for someone to come to their defense.


Oh, yes, and fiction: I recommend the series by and about author, bird-watcher and sometime detective Digby Maclaughlin's exploits: A Bird of a Different Color (Bantry) the latest.


A handsome book that will soon end up on my wife's coffee table is Peter Goodfellow's Avian Architecture (Princeton). It is enhanced by high quality photography and art.


Lots of books about creatures we love to hate: William Forge's House on Fire (California) about the battle to eradicate smallpox; Amy Stewart's Wicked Bugs (Algonquin), a fine follow-up to her Wicked Plants; and a series of introductions published by Princeton: Paul Hillyard's The Private Life of Spiders, Chris Mattison's Frogs and Toads of the World and Boas and Pythons of the World and Venomous Snakes of the World, both by Mark O'Shea. And on the floral side: Peter del Tredici's Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast (Comstock).


Every year it seems we get a new hawk identification guide. This year's "Hawks at a Distance" by Jerry Liguori (Princeton) offers many photos of each species: 72 for the various forms of red-tailed hawk alone. I consider it one of the most useful of these popular books.


Our suburban officials might want to look at Dietland Muller-Schwarze's The Beaver (Comstock) to see how they might interact with another beloved animal that poses serious problems.


And now for the serious stuff. First, two books heavy with math (I love them): Mark Denny and Alan McFadzean's Engineering Animals (Harvard) and Philip Ball's Branches (Oxford), the first providing useful analogies to clarify serious concepts and the second connecting fractals with growth.


Finally a remarkable six books related to our climate and energy problems. Each addresses these problems from a different vantage point: all, however, see us in crisis mode. I wish I could order them by preference, but I find interesting material in each. They are Paul Smith's College professor Curt Stager's Deep Future (St. Martin's); Arnold Taylor's The Dance of Earth & Sea (Oxford); Michael Graetz's The End of Energy (MIT); Paul Gilding's The Great Disruption (Bloomsbury); Stanley Rice's Life of Earth (Prometheus); and Stephen Gardiner's A Perfect Moral Storm (Oxford). The last differs from the others in that it considers the philosophies underpinning the arguments being put forward by claimants on both sides of the issues.-- --Gerry Risingy