“Writing about experiences afield is a way of reliving them,” environmental reporter Ted Williams writes in Earth Almanac, which synthesizes half a century of his nature observations into essays that mark the changing of the seasons, celebrating the diversity among flora and fauna that is revealed by careful attention.
Based on Williams’s long-running natural history column for Audubon magazine, the book accretes snippets on phenology and animal behavior. Creatures from common poorwills to turtles hibernate for the winter, but spring is on the way when one hears downy woodpeckers drumming and sees coltsfoot blooming. Summer is quieter but full of intoxicating smells, while fall is the favorite season in Williams’s New England household. The book’s attention moves between organisms great and small—from coyotes to skunk cabbage, and from gray whales to honeybees.
Williams’s expertise allows him to propose understandable explanations of birds’ vocalizations and courtship routines; of winter signs like tracks in the snow and dung; of how to get children interested in bugs; and of how to distinguish a jack-in-the-pulpit from a jill (the plants change sex back and forth based on the growing conditions).
The book includes recipes for sautéed fiddlehead ferns and wild grape jelly and craft projects like pinecone bird feeders and fire starters to create different colors of flame. Its educational functions at times outweigh the pleasures of its prose, but Williams’s optimism is infectious. Poetic quotations and John Burgoyne’s illustrations are inviting features.
Ideal as a coffee table or bedside book from which to read an entry or two a day to keep pace with the seasons’ unfolding, Earth Almanac is an enthusiastic guide for novice nature lovers.
REBECCA FOSTER (August 27, 2020)
An Earthquake, a Legendary Mountain Guide, and Everest’s Deadliest Day
That climbing Mount Everest is a risky and dangerous endeavor is well known, but never has that been more true than it was in April of 2015, when a massive earthquake struck Nepal, resulting in the deadliest day so far on the mountain. Jennifer Hull’s Shook recounts the story of a group of adventurers who were caught in the disaster.
Much of the story involves Dave Hahn, an experienced guide who had reached Everest’s summit more times than any non-Nepali. In the spring of 2015, Hahn and his team took eight clients to Everest. Through a narrative approach that’s complemented by excerpts from Hahn’s blog, the book details their ascent to base camp and onward, their reaction to the earthquake that rocked much of Nepal, the horrors that took place on the mountain, and the group’s perilous return from danger.
While it is most concerned with Hahn’s expedition and how it was interrupted by the earthquake, the book mixes in-the-moment storytelling with greater context. It covers other Everest disasters and the conditions that led to the deaths of specific climbers, making the risks for Hahn’s group clear. Hull also goes into detail about the roles that sherpas play, the financial costs of an expedition, and the ways that climbs have been chronicled, all of which help in understanding the breadth of the Everest experience. The book’s useful supplemental material includes photographs of the members of the expedition, thorough endnotes, and maps of Everest that call out the locations of story points and capture the scope of the climbing challenge.
With its focus on an expedition that worked to survive a calamity, Shook is a fascinating true adventure story coupled with an account of Mount Everest’s allure and danger.
JEFF FLEISCHER (August 27, 2020)
The characters of Rachel Swearingen’s beguiling short story collection sparkle with charisma, living high on testing boundaries.
A couple finds the perfect apartment, but it’s filled with the belongings of the previous resident, and her sad story and circumstances haunt their happiness. A struggling entomologist hatches a plot for vengeance on her inconsiderate, boisterous neighbors, but ends up unleashing a once-ally’s madness. A psychiatrist in remission, having lost his entire family to the disease he survived, watches the woman in the apartment opposite his indulge her pica in a nightly ritual, and decides to send her more ideals to consume. A Vietnam veteran is pulled along as his sister, careless of her mottled past, elects to kidnap her grandson and baptize him. An artist arranges objects to create bewitching stories from shadow, upending a stock broker’s curated sense of normalcy.
Following these story lines is a voyeuristic pleasure. Swearingen’s characters, all nerve and verve, upend social hierarchies: the “normal” among them are observed as if in stasis, while those who embrace and nurture their quirks compel interest, often persuading the less misfit people around them toward fuller lives.
But there are also hazards implicit in dancing along the lip of society’s cliffs; some characters, heedless of this, edge near to madness. “It’s the stereotype you fear most that you can’t escape,” comments a wealthy, fascinating, and troubled girl to her enchanted Midwestern roommate in their chaotic dorm, her observation visionary but her self-reflection shelved. She, and others, learn that the trouble with tantalizing centered friends toward rule-breaking is that you’re left with no one to save you from yourself.
In the shocking and appealing stories of How to Walk on Water, characters meet every ill-advised “what if?” with one-upmanship, resulting in dangers and delights.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2020)
In François Dominique’s esoteric novel Aseroë, a man ponders life, death, and the in between.
Mushrooms are an ancient, inexplicable life form. Their boundary-defying nature inspires François to undertake a study of the limit and power of language, of what makes reality, and of existence itself. He wanders Europe in search of answers, meeting people and viewing objects that further fuel his imagination and his drive for answers.
The world through François’s eyes is a mysterious, almost magical place that’s rich with symbolism. He is swept away by the process and implications of his work, forever questioning his surroundings and the new emotions stirred in him by his discoveries. Learning opportunities are everywhere, and while François doesn’t chase them all, those he does pursue are irresistible—so much so that they inspire real-world research to better understand the subjects of his fascination, to see what he sees and feel what he feels.
Something as simple as light streaming through a bistro window or as complex as a fungus can send him spiraling down a new road of inquiry. The results are inconclusive, cryptic, and spellbinding. He examines important paintings and texts, exploring the ephemerality of nature through them. An encounter with a stranger sparks meditation on man’s interactions with man. Sometimes, he finds that he can’t turn his brain off, which distresses him until he releases his new knowledge to see what it does.
Surreal imagery further displays François’s unique way of perceiving and interacting with the world. Flowing prose illuminates the beauty in unlikely or unlooked-for places, even the most repulsive of mushrooms. The story that springs from these images is a bizarre one, but full of wonder and unexpected outcomes.
Aseroë is a lyrical contemplation of how words affect reality and vice versa.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (August 27, 2020)
In Julian Winters’s perceptive young adult novel, The Summer of Everything, a gay teenager is afraid of loving his best friend.
In Santa Monica, Wes is an insecure, comic book-loving geek. He lives above an independent bookstore, and it has always been his haven. When he and his fellow hipster employees learn that the store is set for a buyout, they try to save it. At the same time, Wes struggles with his feelings for Nico, his best friend, and his concerns about attending UCLA when he’s unsure of what he’ll become. Wes’s estranged but loving older brother adds to his worries. Here, “adulting” isn’t an end goal: it’s a series of evolving decisions.
Nico, Wes’s childhood friend turned crush, is an empathetic, gentle counterpart to Wes, who, in his hesitancy, is frustrating and sweet. Wes’s problems are lifelike, and he’s surrounded by eccentric, supportive, and inspiring friends who challenge and encourage him. These include Ella, an iconoclast who hides her softer side, and exuberant Cooper, who embodies California’s laid-back cool. They, along with wise adults, help Wes to gather his courage.
Encounters at the store, where Wes and his friends banter over music and use social media, are interspersed with scenes at Santa Monica’s skate parks and beaches. Wes’s hopeful longings bubble into neuroses: he composes lists about first date plans that he’s too scared to implement. Mild complications and misread cues push him toward an unavoidable confession whose results are down to earth. Wes learns to risk being vulnerable, and his coming of age is endearing.
Set to a nineties alternative rock track, The Summer of Everything is a young adult novel about love, identity, and a close-knit community.
KAREN RIGBY (August 27, 2020)