A Non-Fiction Hat Trick (The Bone Woman, The Orchid Thief, and The Canon)
I’m desperately behind on reviews, so even though these three books have pretty much nothing in common, except that they’re non-fiction, I’m going to talk about them all at once!
First is up is Clea Koff’s The Bone Woman. In 1994, Koff was a twenty-three year old grad student of forensic anthropology. She joined a UN expedition to help uncover mass graves in Rwanda and the Balkans; this is her memoir. I picked this one up for several reasons: I did a big research project on Bosnia, so I’m always interested in Balkans stuff, I also apparently have a thing for UN workers (I loved Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures and Chasing the Flame), and I’m in love with the TV show Bones, which has a forensic anthropologist as one of its main characters. So you could say it would have taken a lot for me to not enjoy this book. That being said, it’s not at all what I expected. I guess I thought it would have more of a science feel to it, and also have a bunch of history about the two genocides.
Instead, Koff took a very human approach: she was young, and still trying to figure out who she was, both personally and professionally, so all of these struggles are definitely present. While reading it, I felt like I was alongside Koff, and I really connected with her (probably because we’re so close in age). She tells about the little inconveniences that eventually wear people down, about her nightmares, and about seeing people in the bones. She also talks about the genocides themselves, from an observational point of view (i.e.-she doesn’t reference research, so much as what she learned while she was there). I thought it hit a good note for a memoir, and I could handle the occasional self-congratulatory tone (if I were achieving my life dream at age twenty-three, I’d be pretty darn pleased with myself). That being said, I was surprised when I went to Amazon for a link that many people found her selfish and whiny. I’m not sure if these people have ever tried to live outside of the US or what, but when you’re in a foreign country the littlest things can suddenly become a huge deal.
And when you’re dealing with mass graves every day, it makes sense to me that you’d try to focus on other things. So, as long as you’re interested in how a young, intelligent, caring person deals with exhuming hundreds of bodies in a foreign country, I think you’ll enjoy this one. I know I’m keeping it on my shelves (and counting it towards the In Their Shoes challenge)!
If you are interested in genocide in the twentieth century, Samantha Power wrote an incredible book called A Problem From Hell, which is an extensive treatment of the topic. And her friend, Philip Gourevitch, wrote an amazing account of the Rwandan genocide in particular, called We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. I don’t have any recommendations for books that talk about forensic anthrolopogy and are accessible to laymen (that includes me!), so if you know of any, please let me know. As always, you’ll find my favourite passages at the bottom, which might help you decide if this is your style of book.
Now for a completely different topic, let’s go over to The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. First off, if you’ve heard that the movie Adaptation is based on the book, don’t worry: it is absolutely nothing like the film. I mooched this awhile ago, because I thought it sounded interesting, but when I saw on the cover it was the inspiration for Adaptation, my heart sank. That was a weird movie, and I’m not a huge fan of weird movies. Fortunately, the book is a straight-forward non-fiction, journalistic account of Florida, orchids, and the many odd people who are interested in them.
While the topic was interesting, I thought the book was very uneven; one chapter I’d be fascinated by, while the next seemed to drag on forever. I think that’s partly because it’s an eclectic book: there are history chapters, science-y chapters, and people-focused chapters. My favourites were the history and science parts: I learned lots of interesting things about Florida, about orchid hunters in the nineteenth century, and of course about orchids themselves. My least favourite, and this was a bit over half of the book, centered on the people. They were all a bit kooky, but not in a very interesting way, just in a “I hope he doesn’t sit next to me on the bus” kind of way. Especially the main guy she profiles, John Laroche (the orchid thief himself). You can tell from reading it that Orlean had a love-hate fascination for the guy, but he just seems incredibly slimy and cocky and unstable to me. So I didn’t really care about anything in his life. The rivalries between various orchid growers didn’t particularly interest me either. I had the same reaction to both of John Berendt’s books, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and City of Falling Angels; I’m much more interested in places and history than random people who seem a few cards short of a deck. That being said, Orlean has a very engaging writing style, so people who enjoy reading about quirky characters will probably really like this. And she’s very descriptive: when she was describing the Florida swamps I was right there with her! Even though I live in the mountains, I suddenly felt like I was breathing steamy air, with sweat trickling down my back, so kudos to those writing skills.
Finally, there’s Natalie Angier’s The Canon. I just realised that I reviewed these three in descending order; I gave Kloff four stars, Orlean three, and Angier, unfortunately, just got two. I picked this for the Science Book challenge, because it was described as a science primer for adults who weren’t paying attention in high school. Sounds right up my alley-I expected to absolutely love this one! Unfortunately, Angier played on several of my pet peeves in science writing. First off, the chapters are way too long. I’m really happy in the 10-20 page range, and once I get over 25 I begin to get really impatient and start counting down how much I have left. She started out fine: her introduction and first three chapters (covering scientific thinking, statistics, and calibration) all stay under thirty. But then, the physics chapter clocks in at 34. and, the chemisty and evolutionary biology at 36. Next, things calm down again with 29 pages of molecular biology, 23 pages of geology, but astronomy, the final chapter, gets back up to 32 pages. So that bugged me, but I could deal with it.
Except, Angier’s writing style is, well, neurotic to say the least. I should have been warned by the subtitle, A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, but somehow I didn’t realise she’d use the same effusiveness when describing complicated (to me, anyway) chemistry concepts. Here’s a random taste from that chapter:
The supple power of the melocular bond that ives us edible carbon fare and breathable oxygen pairs is crucial to life, but a covalent commitment can still be too ham-fisted when life demands Nijinksy. Here the secondary bonds come into play, and weakness becomes a source of strength.
Her writing often reminded me of my two-year-old niece playing with new sounds; she just gets caught up in her own worldplay and I’m sitting there just waiting for her to get back on topic. For me, the most important skill a science writer possesses is the ability to convey complicated ideas in a simple manner. Angier has the opposite ability: she makes the simplest things sound complicated. This makes things less than fun to read. She also does the constant attempts at lame humour thing I’ve noticed in more than one science book, which gets old very quickly.
Oh, and the entire evolutionary biology chapter is only focused on convincing the reader that evolution is a legitimate scientific theory. To me, this felt really redundant, although apparently way more Americans than I thought don’t realise that evolution is true.
And there’s no conclusion! The book cuts off abruptly at the end of the astronomy chapter, which makes it feel unfinished. So, while I enjoyed the opening chapters, things quickly went downhill, and I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you can handle ridiculous prose. Sure, there were moments where I learned interesting and important stuff, and there were even some moments when I enjoyed the whacky writing, but these moments didn’t make up for my dread every time I reached for the book. Have you read a book lately that disappointed you? Did you stick with it, or just quit?
Favourite Passages (The Bone Woman)
I peeked into Kibuye church that day after Ambassador Albright left, and saw that she had brought a massive wreath-of freesias, I think. I don’t know whether she’s aware that the bourgmestre (mayor) of Kibuye town placed her wreath with the body bags after we completed our work there. Of all the nonlocal dignitaries who visited the grave sites where I’ve worked, Madeleine Albright was the only one to bring something to mark the occassion.
To destroy a house is symbolic, especially in places like Croatia and Bosnia, where many people build their houses themselves, enlisting the aid of relatives or neighbors with skills i nbrkaclaying or concrete and returning the favors later. The houses are usually built over a period of years, one complete floor at a time, while the family saves the money to build the next floor. Most neighborhoods have a fair number of houses with completed first and second floors, but maybe only the outer walls and roof of the third. To destroy what people have spent decades building, maybe even a lifetime, with the help of neighbors, and then to leave the neighbor’s house standing, is a particular form of cruelty. The moment of destruction is intended to demoralize the owners and their families by sending a clear message: we undo your house, we erase your mark on the land. Don’t come back, because you haven’t enough lifetime left to start over again.
That leaves the question of why. Why did those governments decide to murder their own people? Why did soldiers and police and barbers and mechanics murder their own neighbors? I think the answer is self-interest. Particular people in a government of a single ideology with effectively no political opponents have supported national institutions that maintain power for themselves. What muddied the waters were the “reasons” the decision makers gave for their political agendas. Take Kosovo: were the killings and expulsions in the 1990s really meant to avenge the Battle of 1389, as Serbian president Solobodan Milosevic was fond of stating? Or was it because mineral-rich parts of Kosovo can produce up to $5 billion in annual export income for Serbia? Or take Rwanda: did Hutus kill their neighbors and their neighbor’s children simply because they were Tutsi, as the government exhorted them to do? Or was it because the government promised Hutus their neighbors’ farmland, land that otherwise could only have been inherited by those very children, and those children’s children, ad infinitum?
Favourite Passages (The Orchid Thief)
At last I was introduced to a park ranged named Tony who said he would go with me [to the Fakahatchee swamp state park]. I then spent the next several days talking myself into being unafraid. A few days before we were supposed to go, Tony called and asked if I was really sure I wanted to make the trip. I said I was. I’m actually pretty tough. I’ve run a marathon and traveled by myself to weird places and engaged in conversations with a lot of strangers, and when my toughness runs out I can rely on a certain willful obliviousness to keep me going. On the other hand, my single most unfavorite thing in life so far as been to touch the mushy bottom of the lake during swimming lessons in summer camp and feel the weedy slime squeeze between my clenched toes, so the idea of walking through the swamp was a little bit extra-horrible to me. The next day Tony called again and asked if I was really ready for the Fakahatchee. At that point I gave up trying to be touch and let every moment in the lake at Camp Carnidal ooze back into my memory, and when I finally met Tony at the ranger station I almost started to cry.
To get a good look at the orchids we had to walk from thigh-high water into waist-high and deeper. …When the four of us were gathered by the tree, the ranger introduced me to the giants and said they were in the inmate work-release program of Copeland Road Prison, just down the road from the Fakahatchee-I had passed it on my way in. Both of the men were bashful and spoke in tiny, mumbly voices. After we were introduced I noticed that both of them were carrying three-foot-long machetes. I’m not sure how I hadn’t seen the machetes before that…The ranger leaned over and whispered to me that she had given the men the machetes because they were both terrified of snakes and had refused to get into the swamp without some protection …The cold black water slapped at my belly button every time they would pop up and down. The swamp was hot and hushed except for the splashing and smack of the giants’ machetes against the water. You could disappear in a place like this, really disappear, into one of these inky sinkholes or in the warm muck under the thick brush. No one could find you in a place like this once you sank in.
[An orchid] has no natural enemies except bad weather and the odd virus. Orchids are one of the few things in the world that can live forever.
Orchids had been a high-class hobby in China for three thousand years.
Melaleucas love living in Florida. Since thei rintroduction they have multiplied by the thousands. They spread at the rate of fifty acres a day. …No one has any sentimental feeligns about the species, and most people now consider them a spreading evil. The problem is that melaleucas hate to die. If a melaleuca tree is frozen or starved or chopped or poisoned or broken or burned, it will release twenty million seeds right before it dies and resow itself in every direction, so in a sense it ends up more alive than dead. The trick is to kill the tree gradually, because the shock of dying is what causes it to shoot out its seeds. …you hack a little bit of the tree, squirt in just a little bit of herbicide, come back after a while and hack and squirt again, and keep hacking and squirting until the tree languidly dies.
If you like flowers, or fluorescent-feathered exotic birds, or a perfect turquoise swimming pool with a vanda orchid mosaic in the middle, or a coral-rock pond with a waterfall and a special kind of dappled fish that flash to the surface of the pond when you feed them, or a beautiful wooden grandstand where you can sit and watch the waterfall and the fish, or a dramatic, airy house filled with antique Limoges and Royal Worcester orchid porcelains and fine furniture and trophy heads of African game and a Faberge egg of gold and rubies with a tiny jeweled orchid sculpture for its yolk, or a front yard that opens onto a path leading to a spick-and-span nursery of seven greenhouses filled with a hundred thousand candy-colored flowers, you would probably like his house.
This has always been a puzzlement to me, how to have a community but remain individual-how you could manage to be seperate but joined, and somehow, amazingly, not lose sight of either your seperateness or your togetherness.
Favourite Passages (The Canon)
Another time, while I was standing around talking to a perfectly pleasant couple at a friend’s wedding near Sacramento-he a lawyer, she a businesswoman-I mentioned evolution as a jumping-off point to another subject I had in mind. My conversation partners stopped me right there. “So,” said the lawyer, “I take it this means you have no doubt that evolution is for real?”
“Um,” I replied, staring into the crystal depths of my champagne glass, which was, tragically wmpty at the moment. “About as much doubt as I have that, if I were to let go of this glass, gravity would pull it to the floor, it would shatter to pieces, and the bride would be pretty upset because it’s Waterford.”
This is the beauty of power of the cell, and one of the core insights to emerge from modern biology: A cell confronts the harshness and instability of the outside world by making itself a haven. A cell contains all the tools it needs to preserve order and stability within its broders, to keep its interior recesses warm and wet and chemically balanced. In this equilibrated, levelheaded setting, the cells’ vast labor force of proteins and enzymes will operate at peak performance, and so sustain the cell in its state of mild grace. There is nothing more natural than a cell; the natural world, after all, is full of them. At the same time, a cell is the ultimate act of artifice, a climate-controlled limousine with cushioend seats and a private bar, cruising through a mad desert storm.
Scientists have struggled mightly to impress on the public that the nature-nuture “debate” is dead, that it was an unscientific nonissue from the start, something pumped up and sustained by a media ever in love with conflict and horseraces. “It’s unfortunate that there’s a linguistic similarity between the words ‘nature’ and ‘nuture,'” Stephen Jay Gould once lamented to me, for the euphonia along “has helped keep this ill-formulated and misguided debate alive.” You can’t uncouple nature from nuture, he and other scientists insist, any more than you can uncouple a rectangle’s length from its width.
For geologists, every stone is a potential Rosetta stone, a key to a milestone moment in Earth’s history, and to accompany a geologist through a park is to leave no stone unturned or outcrop unlearned.
Astronomy is so easy to love. It is filled with outrageous magic that also happens to be true: novas and supernovas and pulsar stars that spin and click and are as thick as an atmoic heart, as thick as Joyce’s Muster Mark; and those thicker, darker collapsed star carcasses we call black holes, which are so dense that even light cannot escape their gravitational grip; and quasars, celestial furnaces at the edge of the known universe that are teh size of stars but as luminous as entire galaxies; and theoretical plausibilities like extra dimensions beyond the four we know, or the creasing of space-time into shortcut “wormholes,” which, if they exist, would be the equivalent of time-travel machines. Astronomy is about the heavens, the divinest of the final frontiers, and the presumed zip code of Ra, Vishnu, Zeus, Odin, Tezcatlipoca, Yahweh, Our Father Who Art In, and ahost of other holy hosts; and that religious resonance markedly broadens the discipline’s appeal, making it feel both cozier and more profound than it might otherwise.