Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 by Mary Roach

At the University of Minnesota's Journalism School I kept a dozen or so articles and poems that unlocked my writer's block like a "polyrhythmic jam session." This book reminds me of those inspirations. The in-depth reporting, clever arrangement, extensive resources, and beautiful writing has made this a favorite I won't be forgetting about in the near future.

A collection of nonfiction nature and science stories; my favorite was about fermentation. That's right. Fermentation. Author Burkhard Bilger includes all the elements of a fiction story giving readers a sense of setting, characters, and wit. What a gem. Bilger explores the world of Sandor Katz, famous fermentation guru who travels the country espousing the power of eating bacteria transformed foods and fermenting foods such as sauerkraut and dill pickles. Katz would have gladly picked up that moldy cheese on the basketball court that inspired such revulsion in Greg and Rowley, in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." Bilger begins the article with his lunch date at a house with a group, he dubs, the "oppotunivores," because they scavenge food from dumpsters. He describes the lentil soup made from the dumpster carrots and onions having a color that reminded him of the structures house paint. "The whole compound was painted a sickly greenish gray - the unhappy marriage of twenty-three cans of surplus paint from Home Depot." Bilger shows how Katz changes from a political activist to a "fermentation fetishist." The tale is so bizarre it will suck you in and leave you pickled, or tickled, afterwards.

Christopher Ketcham is a great article for studying similies and metaphors while learning about the adaptation of coyotes throughout history. His comparison of coyotes howling to gamelan music of Indonesia couldn't have been more timely as I read this book in Bali. Dan Koeppel creates suspense as he puts the reader in the place of free falling from 35,000 feet and surviving the impact. The "polyrhythmic jam session" comes from Geroge Mussler's piece on death, afterlife, and quantum physics. Or is it M-theory? Or cosmic singularities? His was somewhat technical and I can't remember specifics (obviously), although I liked his music metaphor.

My personal inclination was to focus on the nature stories more than the medical or space ones. Stephen Hawkings was too technical and theoretical for my short attention span, but it was still well written. Oliver Sacks story on prosopagnosia, people who can't recognize the faces of other people, was fascinating; however, a part of me shuts down after reading sentences such as "Here the data are clear: virtually all patients with prospagnosia, irrespective of the cause, have lesions in the right visual-association cortex, in particular on the underside of the occipitotemporal cortex." The article is quite clear, but medical terminology reminds me of learning a second language or suffocating in Beijing's air pollution.

These authors make magazine writing look like a stroll next to a waterfall, instead masking the hard climb to the mountaintop. The difficulty of taking multiple interviews, combining them with facts into a seamless story where the individuals become real is very difficult. Remember that these authors are collecting stories from a gaggle of folks attempting to get colorful quotes that spice up their articles. Not only do they succeed in seasoning their pieces, they surround factual details with rich sensory input that makes for a great reading experience. Hard for this lousy ex-journalism major to not admire their excellence in craft. If you are looking for ideas to write a novel, want a change from your normal reading fare, or love nonfiction, then pick up this winner.

5 Smileys

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