The Sirens of Mars

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World by Sarah Stewart Johnson

Another enjoyable popular science book that is part memoir. Planetary scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson describes human interest in Mars, from just seeing a bright spot in the sky to Lowell imagining canals and civilizations to William Pickering reporting the weather on Mars from Jamaica, with incredible descriptions. Then disappointments, with failed missions and bleak, lifeless images interspersed with joys, such as finding that there is water on Mars, and not all of it is acidic.

The summer after her freshman year in college, Sarah got to travel to the Mojave Desert to help test early versions of Mars rovers. She grew up in Kentucky, where her father was interested in astronomy and geology. In the book, Sarah describes a trip to Arizona with her father where she got to look through medium range telescopes, and it made a more personal connection with the solar system than with huge telescopes where she views images on a computer screen.

Sarah has worked on Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers, looking for the signatures of chemical compounds that might indicate life or the possibility of life, in the past or present. Her writing is accessible, enthusiastic, and lyrical. Clearly, including the Perseverance rover due to land on Mars next February, there are many more observations to make, and more discoveries to come. The author dreams of finding microscopic signs of life on Mars, or on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, including Titan, Enceladus, and Europa.

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Brenda

The Last Stargazers

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque

This memoir is a really enjoyable read for anyone interested in popular science. Levesque combines her own experiences with recent history and trends in astronomy. Interviewing numerous colleagues for this book, Levesque entertains with stories of viewing the sky at huge telescopes on remote mountains, complete with jet lagged drives on gravel mountain roads, encounters with tarantulas, scorpions, and close calls with lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions. Carefully planned observing time in places as remote as Chile’s Atacama Desert, scheduled far in advance, can be disrupted by bad weather or mechanical difficulties. Advances in astronomy, her own research, sexism and racism in the field, and controversy over building new telescopes are described, along with her excitement at viewing the 2017 solar eclipse, and the disorientation of remote viewing far away from some modern telescopes. Readalikes include Lab Girl by Hope Jahrens and The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seaver. The Great Courses video lectures A Field Guide to the Planets narrated by Sabine Stanley may also appeal. 

Brenda

 

 

 

Leave Only Footprints

Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton

Armchair travel has been a reading theme for me this summer. Fortunately, there are a lot of terrific books that can take the reader on a virtual journey. In his first book, Emmy award-winning television correspondent Conor Knighton visits all the National Parks in the U.S. in 2016, beginning with the first sunrise of the year in Acadia National Park in Maine. Imagine visiting Alaska, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and American Samoa in the same year, along with all the other National Parks! Conor, recovering from a broken engagement, isn’t sure where he wants to live when his year of traveling is over. His writing is insightful, and occasionally funny. I would have liked more photos, but enjoyed the ones that are included. For videos from his time in the parks, visit his website. Different chapters cover the night sky, climate change, diversity in the parks, and how the most popular parks are coping with crowds. Knighton talks with many park rangers and guides, and is smitten by a litter of puppies in Denali, where dogsledding often makes more sense than snowmobiling. He gets advised to not always climb the highest peak, as the view and experience may be better from another less popular peak. Every cave tour has a moment of utter darkness, and while dark skies in some parks make for amazing stargazing, it’s getting harder to find an area without cellphone service. I enjoyed Knighton’s writing so much, I read several short passages out loud to my family. Since 2016, Conor has visited our newest national parks, including the Indiana Dunes, some national parks in other countries, and many islands.

Brenda

 

The Smallest Lights in the Universe

The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager

This compelling memoir of an astrophysicist who searches for exoplanets is one of the best, most memorable books I’ve read this year. Sara is an accomplished, pioneering scientist whose career achievements alone could easily fill a book, However, it’s her remarkable personal story that has reviewers describing this book as luminous, insightful, and extraordinary. As a girl in Ontario, Sarah fell in love with the stars. She earned college degrees from the University of Toronto and Harvard, kayaked with her future husband Michael, and started a family, then began a journey through grief after her husband died of cancer. Sara reinvents herself with the help of the Widows of Concord, juggling work, single parenting, traveling, and dating, and learns that she is autistic. The Smallest Lights in the Universe will be published on August 18. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a good readalike.

Brenda

The Sun is a Compass

The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert

Real life adventure memoirs can make for wonderful reading, especially during a time when we’re staying close to home. Wildlife biologist Caroline, 33, makes an epic trek with husband Patrick, a home builder, to the Alaskan Arctic in 2012. Traveling by homemade rowboats, skiing, hiking, on inflatable rafts, and in a borrowed canoe, the pair make an incredible six-month journey. Along the way they meet with unexpected kindness from strangers and Caroline regains her love of science after completing her Ph.D. mostly in a lab. Their backstory and motivation for the journey are shared, along with glimpses of happy childhoods and their loving, supportive families. Caroline’s sister has a baby as they consider parenthood. Patrick is the optimistic adventurer and builder, while Caroline is the detailed list maker, organizing most of their food drops. Part of their journey is through areas so remote that available maps show little detail and the weather forecasts are unhelpful. The pair are often awed by the magnificent landscape and the wildlife, learning to trust the trails of migrating caribou, and encountering moose, bear, and many of the birds Caroline has studied. A compelling read, and a good readalike for Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and Sarah Marquis’ Wild by Nature, along with other adventure memoirs that can be found here. I read the print book, but listened to a sample of the downloadable audiobook I’ve just added to our Media on Demand collection.

Coming soon: a list of family friendly reads that can be enjoyed by older kids, teens, and adults, including titles suggested by staff in our Children’s Department.

Enjoy!
Brenda

 

Haben

Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma

This is a compelling memoir of a young black woman learning to advocate for her needs as she grows up. Haben is the daughter of Eritrean immigrants, where her grandmother still lives. She was born deafblind, with some vision and hearing, but both are getting worse. She frequently felt left out in group settings, and learning to connect well with others is a challenge she took on. With occasional humor, Haben’s triumphs and setbacks include sliding down an Alaskan glacier, struggling to train with seeing-eye dog Maxine, learning to dance, and finding out what food was being served in her college cafeteria. Her parents’ protectiveness, while understandable, occasionally felt stifling, especially when she wanted to travel with a student group. At Harvard Haben uses a text-to-braille system and becomes an accomplished public speaker and advocate for disability rights. Clearly and elegantly written, this refreshing and uplifting memoir is highly recommended.

Brenda

Into the Planet

Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth

If you’re looking for the ultimate real-life adventure memoir, look no further. A pioneer in the field of cave diving, Heinerth has helped explore the longest underwater cave system in the Yucatan, and dived all over Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, and most notably, inside an Antarctic iceberg. Her passion and joy in the challenge and discovery of cave diving is clear, but also the discomfort, the arduous preparation with bulky, heavy diving gear, and the loneliness of being a woman in the early days of cave diving. In this deeply personal account, Heinerth shares how the stresses led to the failure of her first marriage to a fellow cave diver. While some of her dives are apparently stunningly gorgeous (my digital review copy had only two of the photos that will appear in the finished book), other dives are arduous with tight spaces, low visibility, and moments of sheer terror. Heinerth also struggles with ever present grief over the friends she has lost to the perils of cave diving, and now focuses on diving for environmental and other scientific goals. The chapters on traveling to and diving in the Antarctic are thrilling and inspiring.

Brenda

Maid

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

This is an excellent debut memoir about a single mother struggling to provide for her young daughter, while dreaming of college in Missoula, Montana, and of becoming a writer. I think Stephanie is an amazing writer with a story that needed to be told. Readers will root for Stephanie and her young daughter Mia and cheer when they find a better apartment and finally visit Montana. Stephanie shares the insights gained by cleaning a variety of houses; a loving home in a studio apartment trumps a gorgeous house with a view. There is suspense when a car accident comes close to disaster for Mia and Stephanie, even without an injury. Deservedly popular, this is a candid look at a mother’s love for her daughter and how hard she works for their future, especially when the possibility of a grant or a tax refund helps her look beyond the end of a month. Readalikes include A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. For more of Stephanie’s writings and story, visit her website.
Brenda

Nanaville

Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting by Anna Quindlen

An engaging memoir about becoming a grandmother by the bestselling columnist and novelist. Quindlen, the mother of three, is delighted to welcome her Chinese-American daughter-in-law and then charmed by a grandson. Joyful anecdotes and reflections on her new role and how it differs from parenting make this a perfect gift for new grandparents. This is a charming, heartwarming read.
Brenda

Greek to Me

Greek to Me by Mary Norris

The author of Between You & Me has another fascinating memoir in which she reveals her love of Greek language, classical Greek literature, and describes her travels in Greece and Cyprus. Mary, a copy editor at The New Yorker, is excellent company, and while I’m not interested in learning to read Greek, her travels in Greece make a trip there sound very appealing. A very good choice for armchair travelers, history buffs, and anyone interested in reading about Greek mythology or drama.

Brenda