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The Green Life: Book Review Wednesday: Life on Rivers

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August 03, 2011

Book Review Wednesday: Life on Rivers

Book review wednesdayEvery Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today we're recommending books about rivers.

Up on the River: People and Wildlife of the Upper Mississippi (by John Madson, $20, University of Iowa Press, 2011): Drawing on a lifetime of experience along the banks of the Mississippi, Madson shares a multifaceted and engaging depth of insight about the river's interacting parts. Up on the River shifts between personal and historical anecdotes, conservational concerns, and fish-wrangling trips down the river. From the "civilization" of Harper's Ferry to the decimation of sturgeon and shellfish populations, Madson depicts a river that has changed significantly but not lost its soul. His witty, critical tone colors him a native and true scholar of the river. This reissue is a brisk read despite the specificity of its subject.

Once Upon a River (by Bonnie Jo Campbell, W.W. Norton & Co., $26, 2011): Margo Crane's story is the story of life on Michigan's Stark and Kalamazoo rivers. After a series of violent calamities strip the alluring 16-year-old protagonist of her innocence, she turns to the only thing she can trust: the river. Campbell's portrait of a silent beauty who prefers to see the world through iron sights comes through with blunt prose that suits his resilient characters and stark surroundings. This style is most effective in descriptions of tense moments of survival (much of the novel), with Margo training her .22 on a regal ten-point buck or treading lightly on frost-covered ground. Once Upon a River succeeds thanks to Margo's depth. Like a more seductive Huck Finn, her outward simplicity belies her actual complexity.

Take Me to the River: Fishing, Swimming, and Dreaming on the San Joaquin (edited by Joell and Coke Hallowell, Heyday, $22, 2010): The San Joaquin River has long been the lifeblood of California's Central Valley, but only its winding course has remained unchanged over the last century. This mosaic of tales is told by those who have witnessed the river's transition from a fish-rich paradise to a fragile ecosystem sapped by commercial farming ventures. Pinky Callahan witnesses the birth of big towns like Fresno, while Everard Jones recites an ode to the fat Chinook salmon. It's got enough nostalgia to leave the reader pining for the good ol' days, even while compellingly reminding us of how social change changes nature.

Riparia's River (by Michael J. Caduto, illustrated by Olga Pastuchiv, Tilbury House Publishers, $17, 2011): When Jason, Mark, and friends cannonball into their favorite swimming hole, they find themselves covered in green slime and smelling like a cow pasture. Tracking the source of the fun-ruining gunk up the river, they find the motherly Riparia, who schools the kids in protecting river habitats, then vanishes, leaving the kids to talk to a local farmer about his environmentally unfriendly ways. Riparia's River is a tactful and enjoyable introduction to environmental problems for young children with a budding interest in wildlife. Caduto, a biologist and storyteller, writes about pressing ecological issues in a kid-friendly way, while Pastuchiv's enchanting pastels set the scene beautifully.

Amazonia (By Sam Abell and Torben Ulrik Nissen, University of Oregon Press, $30, 2010): In 2003, National Geographic photographer Sam Abell set off into the rainforests surrounding the Amazon headwaters in Peru and Bolivia. Using only natural light and no filters or effects, Abell captured photos of the Amazon in an effort to represent the region "in its totality." The result is a captivating collection of more than 50 photographs. From sweeping landscapes of verdant brush punctuated by glimmering lakes to a haunting image of a lone jaguar peering at the photographer through his lens, this compilation offers a striking glimpse into the Amazing basin's last refuges. By showing the reality of this wilderness in unadulterated fashion, Amazonia triumphs as a work of art, as well as a conceptual effort to promote conservation.

--Colin Griffin

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