Summer Reading


(This 1160th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 16, 2013.)


While many publishers complain about the decline in readership, the popularity of natural history and science books is made evident by the remarkable number published this year. Here are some I found outstanding.


Local authors first: My favorite book in years is E. R. Baxter III's Niagara Digressions, a collection of personal reflections about our region and its history. Bob's off-beat and often humorous commentaries I find every bit as good as those of Edward Abbey.


The prolific Larry Beahan offers two volumes of Inside Allegany, his extensive record of local lore that would otherwise be lost, and his whimsical novella, Adirondack Sasquatch. Nancy Avolese's The Wolf Man of Kane, Pennsylvania tells of a physician's rescue of wolves headed for extirpation.  And my own The Nature Watch Collection: Book Two is now available.


Farther afield: Entomologist E. O. Wilson's Letters to a Young Scientist speaks to the serious student who is considering a career in academic research. Although his target audience is narrow, Wilson hits all the right chords and I can imagine no better advice. My favorite: as a college faculty member, "avoid departmental administration."


Any book by Bernd Heinrich is worth our attention. His latest is Life Everlasting. Remarkably, in this book he brings life to the otherwise dismal subject of death. From ravens feeding on a dead squirrel to vultures at lion-killed giraffes with insect-infected trees along the way, Heinrich provides insights into what we all find inevitable. In one recycling example, he finds the carcass of a tick-infected moose fed upon successively by coyotes, ravens, turkey vultures, maggots and flies, and finally a black bear and a porcupine.


I first knew Julie Zickefoose as one of our finest bird artists, then as an artist whose writing supplemented her drawings and paintings. In her The Bluebird Effect, she has come full cycle: now her art enhances her outstanding writing. This book has content for every birdwatcher: from neophyte to expert.


An important contribution to scientific understanding is Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers' Zoobiquity about the extensive common ground between human and animal medicine. Their message is clear: physicians and veterinarians have much to learn from each other.


Four books from the hard sciences I found interesting. Bernard Carlson's Tesla is a biography of this remarkable physicist-engineer who was a competitor of Edison. Unlike previous biographies that have stressed Tesla's eccentricities, Carlson treats both his accomplishments and failures seriously. Mike Searle's Colliding Continents combines climbing thrills with serious geology in the world's highest mountains. Harm de Blij tells us, Why Geography Matters More Than Ever, even in one chapter tracing the spread of jihadic terrorism. Joe Schwarcz's The Right Chemistry offers serious answers to flip questions like, "How do you convert lime water into milk of lime?" Each essay is entertaining, insightful and instructive. And Eric Chaline's Fifty Machines that Changed the Course of History provides backstories for the inventions he has chosen.


Richard Crossley has teamed up with Jerry Liuori and Brian Sullivan to extend his identification technique of grouping species to The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. An interesting feature of this book is the opportunity it provides to refine your skills.


Finally, two beautiful coffee table books. The World's Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still is a splendid presentation of almost 200 birds that are teetering on the edge of extinction. And Jens H. Petersen's The Kingdom of Fungi is a richly illustrated book that offers new information about mushrooms on every page. If you want your name attached to a species, here's your chance. Petersen points out that over a million fungi are yet to be documented.-- Gerry Rising