Book Reviews


Shelley Lynn Jackson and Ethan Clark
Microcosm Publishing, 2008, 256 pages

DESPITE BEING WRITTEN FOR bicyclists wanting to develop the independence repairing one’s bicycle provides, particularly those longing for the simpler life the utilitarian bicycle offers, The Chainbreaker Bike Book: A Rough Guide to Bicycle Maintenance by Shelley Lynn Jackson and Ethan Clark misses the mark as a DIY manual.

While often engaging reading, the book’s problems are myriad. The authors promulgate a punk ethos through layout and design. While hand-drawn illustrations might be less intimidating than schematics or photos, they rarely help facilitate repairs. Typographical help is limited to bold headings, all in Courier New. There’s a shortage of bulleted lists to guide users through the particular processes and many paragraphs lack even rudimentary blocking or indentation to signal a break.

Organization is another concern. While it’s fine to start with the wheels, the last thing the novice bike mechanic is going to do is repack wheel bearings or true a wheel before they can fix a flat. Only after covering these more challenging tasks do readers get to the more mundane, and necessary, skills. The novice mechanic needs to start with what’s achievable before moving on to what requires particular tools and experience.

There are better repair manuals out there, so why buy this book? Chainbreaker evolved from a ‘zine of the same name published in New Orleans between 2001 and 2005. Roughly half of the book is excerpted from those ‘zines. This is one part of the book you’ll get something from, even though it doesn’t always reprint the complete original article and there’s little in the way of practical DIY advice.

What there is, in the book and the ‘zine excerpts, are stories about biking and wrenching in New Orleans and the bike culture of the city before the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Read this book not for mechanical help, but to understand the love many share for the utilitarian side of the bike and its place in our world.

Bradley Bleck
Kathleen O’Brien and Kathleen Smith
Timber Press, 2008, 300 pages

I WAS PREPARED TO DISLIKE and quickly dismiss The Northwest Green Home Primer. Given the current fad of overusing the word “green” for marketing purposes and profit, I tend to err on the side of skepticism when introduced to yet another publication with our favorite color in the title. However, O’Brien and Smith have given us a very pleasant surprise in this instantly essential addition to the crowded field.

The authors seemed to read hesitant-to-embrace minds like mine with the Preface that begins with an almost apologetic explanation of the mutation of several awkward terms to describe energy and resource efficient, healthy and environmentally friendly housing to the accepted term, “green building.”

Had I done my research on O’Brien and Smith before picking up the book, my skepticism may have vanished by the time I turned to the title page. Each if these two writers bring an impressive depth of knowledge to this project. Residents of Bainbridge Island, Washington, O’Brien and Smith are leaders in this emergent field both from an academic standpoint and in the housing in which they live.

This wealth of experience in design, architecture and education means that this book is much more than a pretty addition to the coffee table. It is packed with the interesting (why the Cascadia bioregion is especially vulnerable and how we can preserve and heal waterways and salmon with our building choices) and the helpfully practical (“Initial Needs Questionnaire,” “Healthy Building Checklist for Workers,” sections on passive solar, gray water and rain water collection 101).

The Northwest Green Home Primer is a gift (Christmas?) to those interested in creating sustainable solutions to housing. Whether you are seriously considering designing or building a new home or co-housing project, or if you are a current homeowner wanting to replace aging finishes or appliances, you will enjoy reading this book cover to cover, or simply thumbing through the gorgeous photographs and helpful asides. It is a comprehensive manual on future dwelling as we will and must live, beginning now.

Angie Diefdorff

Robert Macfarlane, Granta Books,
London, 2008, 320 pages,
Grand Prize co-winner Banff Mountain Book Festival

THE BANFF BOOK FESTIVAL jury identified the creation of a sense of “place” as a common theme in both The Wild Places and Sid Marty’s book The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, co-winners of the 2008 Grand Prize. Both stories create a strong connection between the reader and the environment in which the stories occur.

The Wild Places describes Macfarlane’s personal journey in search of the wildness left in the archipelago we sometimes call the British Isles. In his earlier book, Mountains of the Mind, Macfarlane probed the human psyche’s transition from the view of mountains as landscapes to be feared to one where the mountains became a place of adventure and even enjoyment. In The Wild Places Macfarlane is more focused on the need for wildness as a cathartic for the human spirit. Though he may not explicitly verbalize, it Macfarlane differentiates between wilderness as a large bio-geographic regime largely untrammeled and wildness as a region, large or small that stimulates awe in those who experience it.

Macfarlane walks, climbs (both cliffs and trees), swims and otherwise maneuvers through a myriad of landscapes: valleys and ridges, forests and capes, marshes, moors, beaches and tors finding the wildness in each. If Macfarlane teaches us anything he teaches us that wildness lies all around us; we need only go off the beaten path to places yet untouched because they lack wide open vistas or the weather is harsh or the terrain is rocky or wet.
Broken into “chapters” on the many “environments” Macfarlane finds, the book is perfect for savoring a bit at a time. It is better if you can read it cover to cover as there is a progression in experience that adds meaning when the elements are viewed as a whole.

In one dust jacket blurb, Bill McKibben comments, “I found it one of the most oddly comforting books I’ve read in a long time.” I think you will too.

Stan Miller



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