Book Reviews

Wildebeest In A Rainstorm: Profiles Of Our Most Intriguing Adventurers, Conservationists, Shagbags And Wanderers

Jon Bowermaster
Menasha Ridge Press, 2009, 224 pages

Some of us are familiar with Jon Bowermaster’s books describing his kayaking adventures in exotic ocean environments. Birthplace of the Winds and Descending the Dragon are but two of these. Those who have followed Jon’s writing a bit closer know he has written dozens of pieces based on interviews with outdoorsy types, “adventurers, conservationists, shagbags and wanderers” as he calls them, for a wide range of publications. Through profiles of people like Bobby Kennedy Jr., George Schaller and Warren Miller, Bowermaster enlightens his readers on the how of transforming environmental action into environmental policy. The selections in Wildebeest focus on the impacts of 20th and 21st century activists. There are no essays on John Muir, Henry Thoreau or any of the other early voices for nature.

All of the twenty-two individual pieces in Wildebeest are well written. From his insightful description of David Brower, “who was fired by every environmental group he founded” and his balanced presentation of Bobby Kennedy Jr’s wild early years contrasted with later success in both his life choices and as an environmental activist, Bowermaster’s essays prove masterful. The potential racial overtones of Winona LaDuke’s White Earth Land Recovery Project and the heart rendering description of Ned Gillette’s murder while on a trek in Pakistan are covered with tact and sensitivity.

Bowermaster’s own years of adventuring experience allow him to see the world through the eyes of his subjects; this understanding shines through the tales he tells. Though entries in the book follow the theme, “environmental action begets environmental policy,” this theme does not translate into the unifying thread allowing Wildebeest to make a concise statement. The section headings themselves, The Conservationists, The Artists and The Sportsmen only vaguely hint of a logical progression. None-the-less, Wildebeest is a good compendium of 20 years of Bowermaster’s biographical essays and should be on the reading list of all Bowermaster fans or those interested in the people who have helped frame environmental policy in this country over the last two or three decades.

Stan Miller

Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne
Viking, 2009, 297 pages.

Former Talking Heads front man David Byrne has been riding his bicycle around New York City since the early 1980’s, taking a folding bike on his travels for the last two decades (seven bikes for his entourage on a recent tour). Byrne rides to get around more quickly than he can by walking, driving or taking a cab or public transit, preferring the view from the seat of his bicycle. His latest book, Bicycle Diaries, chronicles much of what he has seen and learned while cycling many of the world’s cities. But before you buy or read the book, heed Byrne’s warning from a recent NPR interview: “the book is not really about bikes or biking.” At least not all of it.

The part that is about biking, but rarely about bikes, comprises the framework of the book. Readers accompany Byrne on rides through cities such as Berlin, Pittsburgh, Manila, Baltimore, Istanbul and Los Angeles. What Byrne finds in American cities are streets that facilitate “an undeclared civil war [between cyclists, pedestrians and autos] in which the car is winning.” But there is also a naïve sense of discovery as he rides, such as his wandering into a karaoke bar in the northern Philippines only to discover, when he’s propositioned, that it’s a brothel.

While chapters open and close around cycling, most of the book contains ruminations prompted by the free association that occurs while Byrne rides. The ruminations examine humanity as seen through art, politics, city planning (or the lack thereof), culture and commerce. The chapter on cycling in Berlin opens by describing how different German cycling culture is from America’s: no cars parked in bike lanes, traffic signals for cyclists, and practical bikes. But these ruminations veer off to Spandau Prison, political art, the “problem” of beauty, and Stasiland, a museum devoted to the former East German Secret Police.

Like any diary worth reading, Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries takes readers through more than the day-to-day as seen from the seat of a bicycle. Readers ride beyond his thoughts on bicycling and the bicycling infrastructure to see the world anew.

Bradley Bleck

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