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The Northern Lights:
The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis

Lucy Jago
Alfred A. Knopf
300 pp.


Like shooting stars and solar eclipses, the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are a celestial phenomenon that no amount of scientific explanation can render any less wondrous--pulsing, wavering and arching across the night sky. For Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, they were an obsession, and he devoted his professional life to a frustrating effort to prove and win support for his theory of their cause, still pursuing his quest when he died, of a probably accidental overdose, before his fiftieth birthday.

In Lucy Jago's The Northern Lights, we are introduced to Birkeland on the windswept, stormy slopes of Haldde Mountain, so far north in Norway that it lies within the Arctic Circle. Birkeland, along with four assistants, would spend a long, dark winter living atop the mountain, in a pair of stout huts built specifically for this expedition, painstakingly recording a voluminous number of details about wind, weather and atmospheric conditions in order to prove or disprove centuries of myth and speculation about the Northern Lights--and, Birkeland hoped, to substantiate his own theories of their cause.

The expedition was troubled from the start; weather-related delays in construction of the huts had put the team several weeks behind schedule. Indifferent accounting on the part of Birkeland was already resulting in cost over-runs that would continue to mount significantly. The climb to the top of Haldde, through a raging storm that pinned the group in a flimsy canvas tent for nearly two days, left expedition member Bjorn Helland-Hansen with severely frostbitten fingers that in the end would have to be amputated, bringing to a halt the medical student's dreams of becoming a surgeon. On top of the mountain, another storm later in the winter pinned them in their hut for a dark and terrifying twenty-one days, with winds so savage that the team feared that at any moment they might be ripped from the mountain and tumbled into the abyss. Midway through the winter, Birkeland received word that his father had died, and not long after, another member of the expedition, enthusiastic young Elisar Boye, was killed in an avalanche.

So it went with Birkeland's life, according to Jago's carefully detailed account--no monumental, single tragedy, but a plague of setbacks, misfortunes, and even betrayal would pursue him until his early death. Through Jago's book, we meet a man compelled mercilessly by his intellect. He had the clear markings of a troubled genius, suffering from depression coupled with a driving obsession with his research. More than once, he worked himself to the point of physical and emotional collapse. Following one such event, his well-meaning physician brother prescribed him veronal, to which the insomniac Birkeland soon became addicted (it was the veronal that eventually would be the likely cause of his death).

He was bitten by a probably rabid dog in a town in the far northern reaches of Russia and had to be rushed by train to Moscow, where he was saved by a twenty-day round of injections of the recently-developed Pasteur vaccine. He was beset by financial problems much of his life. An inspired inventor, he developed and patented a method to extract nitrogen fertilizer from air, but his jealous and unscrupulous business partner in the venture squeezed him out and through behind-the-scenes machinations may well have been instrumental in robbing Birkeland of the opportunity to be considered for the Nobel prize. Improbably, the research-obsessed Birkeland married, almost immediately virtually abandoning his wife for his work, and within only a few years was divorced by her.

But the most bitter and enduring of Birkeland's sorrows was the larger scientific world's refusal to accept his theories of the aurora borealis. Although some recognized Birkeland's genius and espoused his cause, many didn't. The highly influential British scientific organization, the Royal Society, dismissed his treatise out of hand because it failed to agree with their own current (and ultimately proved inaccurate) theories of space. It was not until a half-century after Birkeland's death that satellite observations began to vindicate the virtually forgotten scientist's ideas. "Since 1967," Jago writes, "scientists have been looking at the satellite data in relation to phenomena such as the Northern Lights, rediscovering Birkeland's extraordinarily prophetic theories and completely reassessing his work. Today, he is credited as the first scientist to propose an essentially correct explanation of the aurora borealis, supported by theoretical, observational, and experimental evidence."

In addition to recovering Birkeland's life from historical obscurity, Jago's book suggests interesting questions about unrecognized genius and the pursuit of knowledge. Birkeland was deeply admired and supported by a small but loyal coterie of friends, patrons, and associates, but seemed to inspire jealousy, resentment, and antipathy in many more. Is it enough to be right, even if few will acknowledge that fact, or did Birkeland's theories become meaningful only when validated by later discoveries? Are scores settled and wrongs righted if a man's reputation is restored only after all the principle players in his life are dead? What inspires us to climb mountains, chase mysteries, and, sometimes, to pursue discovery with a single-minded disregard for any consequences? Like the Northern Lights, those questions flicker tantalizingly at the edge of Jago's story.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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Reading Chekhov:
A Critical Journey
Janet Malcolm
Random House
213 pp.


Prospective readers of Janet Malcolm's new book, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, should pay close attention to the book's full title and look especially hard at its subtitle. While Malcolm does in fact travel to Russia and visit important Chekhov landmarks in Yalta, St. Petersburg and Moscow, this is not a travel book that simply takes Chekhov's geographical wonderings as its theme. Rather, it's a close reading of Chekhov by a critic who went to the trouble of confirming her theories first-hand.

Or at least that's partly what it is.

The Russian travels give the book its shape and pace, though, and Malcolm lets the pleasingly loose structure amble along at a casual, strolling pace that mutes the impatient traveler's overwhelming need to get anywhere immediately. No complaints here: I've always thought travel is best done with a penchant for lazy meandering (I'm barely keeping myself back from calling it a sleepy, Russian bear's pace). As long as the author is sharp-eyed enough to find pleasing distractions and details along the walking path, it's always an adventure no matter what the speed, isn't it? And Malcolm is particularly sharp. (Sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, that is. While she doesn't give last names (thereby avoiding lawsuits, I suppose), her descriptions of her travel guides and drivers are often as acerbic as they are witty and well-drawn.)

One of the more cunning uses to which Malcolm puts her travels is as meditative devices that lead her into deeper understandings of Chekhov himself. After having her luggage stolen in Yalta (the setting for Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog"), for instance, she writes that "The weight of being thousands of miles from home with nothing to wear but the clothes on my back fell on me. I tried to pull myself together, to rise above my petty obsession with the loss of a few garments, and to that end invoked Chekhov and the heightened sense of what is important in life that gleams out of his work." She muses over Chekhov for a few more moments of walking, she tells us, and then something happened.


I continued climbing the hill, in the inflexible grip of unhappiness over my lost clothes. And then the realization came: the recognition that when my suitcase was taken something else had been restored to me--feeling itself. Until the mishap at the airport, I had not felt anything very much. Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison to ordinary life.


To some, the payoff might seem a bit too easy when described in such short space, but the lesson is instructive nonetheless, I suppose. Literary-minded travel as edification: an enterprising Russian should set up a travel agency to provide well-heeled, well-read Westerners with just such experiences (although they might consider it wise to avoid the Anna Karenina Express Train).

There's another, far more important reason Malcolm's travel experiences are great fodder for her literary insights: one of the more important points in the book is that Chekhov leads us relentlessly back to ourselves and our conditions. And so it's appropriate that a book about Chekhov is ultimately about what he can teach his readers about their own lives.

Did I mention this is not a simple travel book?

In addition to not being travel book, Reading Chekhov is also not a biography. Malcolm dutifully (and helpfully) includes short passages that describe Chekhov's rise from humble beginnings (as a shopkeeper's son) to a relatively wealthy life as a landowning writer (although he trained as a physician, he never charged fees for his services; his clients were the peasants who lived around his houses). But Malcolm warns--rather grimly--against biography as the ends of this (or any other) book:


Chekhov's privacy is safe from the biographer's attempts upon it--as, indeed, are all privacies, even those of the most apparently open and even exhibitionistic natures. The letters and journals we leave behind and the impressions we have made on our contemporaries are the mere husk of the kernel of our essential life. When we die, the kernel is buried with us. This is the horror and pity of death and the reason for the inescapable triviality of biography.


(What's a book about Russian literature without a little bleak philosophy, right?)

As a literary critic, Malcolm is a card-carrying member of that all-but-banished school of formalism, and her close readings of Chekhov's fiction are far more valuable as tools for understanding Chekhov than her travel experiences are, in the final analysis. Indeed, some of her criticism is breathtakingly good (and useful too: bone up on Malcolm's take on Chekhov's relationship to Dostoevsky the next time you want to wow a cocktail party.)

I know, I know: formalists and biographers are like oil and water, but just as Reading Chekhov isn't exactly a biography, it's also not simply an unalloyed work of literary criticism. (Leave it to a writer who has mused profitably over such widely disparate subjects as Freud, Sylvia Plath, photography and True Crime to find multiple ways to approach a subject as seemingly monolithic as Chekhov...)

So what are we left with? A book that's neither a travel journal nor biography, and not really merely a work of formalist criticism...and somehow (with a lot of help from the author's sheer skill as a writer), it comes off wonderfully. Indeed, for all its coy genre-juggling, it's the perfect book for a casual (if intellectually stimulating) winter night's fireside reading.

--Doug Childers

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Uncle Tungsten:
Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood

Oliver Sacks
Alfred A. Knopf
341 pp.



Oliver Sacks's new memoir Uncle Tungsten should be the first thing handed out on the first day of high school chemistry, and not a word should be breathed of lessons, formulas or the Periodic Table of the Elements until everyone has finished the book. For every young student (and I count myself as one of them) who ever plodded wearily and drearily through chemical equations and lab notes, Uncle Tungsten is the answer to the exasperated question, "Why do I need to know this stuff?"

Uncle Tungsten is the story of young Oliver Sacks's love affair with chemistry, his avid, joyful, piece-by-piece discovery of the structure of the universe through reading, museum visits and, most importantly, experimentation.

Sacks grew up in England, in an extended family of exceptionally scientifically gifted individuals; his grandfather had eighteen children--nine boys and nine girls--all of whom he encouraged to pursue scientific educations, and most of whom eventually were drawn to mathematics, physical sciences, education, research, invention or medicine. Both of Sacks's parents were physicians. The Uncle Tungsten of the title was his uncle Dave, whose firm, Tungstalite, manufactured light bulbs made with tungsten-wire filaments. A true hands-on scientist, "Uncle's hands were seamed with the black powder [of tungsten], beyond the power of any washing to get out."

"It was our business, the family business, to ask questions, to be 'scientific,'" Sacks writes, and as a boy he was encouraged to make the world his experimental oyster. A barely preadolescent Sacks set up a home laboratory for brewing, boiling, reducing, burning, purifying and otherwise peering into the secrets of the elements.

"My first taste was for the spectacular--the frothings, the incandescences, the stinks and the bangs," Sacks writes, and to feed his habit he would make regular expeditions to a chemical supply house where apparently even a young boy with a fistful of pocket money could walk away with arms full of lethal stuff--hydroflouric and nitric and sulfuric acids, mercury, potassium cyanide, not to mention the radioactive elements. "I gathered, over a couple of years, a variety of chemicals that could have poisoned or blown up the entire street, but I was careful--or lucky," Sacks notes.

As he leads readers through his own expanding knowledge, we follow as well the progression of discoveries in the field of chemistry. We experience the excitement, the world-changing implications of these discoveries in a way that is sadly missing from the typical classroom textbook, starting with those basic stinks and bangs and working our way up to the Big Bang itself, to that place where chemistry and physics merge in the realm of the quantum.

At least, I'm pretty sure that's the way it works. Having, I admit, retained almost nothing of what I learned in chemistry class, I found long passages of Sacks's book to be something of a foreign language, a fact which detracted not a whit from my thorough enjoyment of the book. Uncle Tungsten inspires the reader with Sacks's own curiosity, and when the book was finished I found myself wondering and aware, too, imagining the ordinary world as an intricate atomic web of actions and reaction. One of the most charming moments of the book is when Sacks describes himself, now in his seventies and a resident of New York City, rediscovering some of his boyhood passion, and wandering the streets of the city at night with a pocket spectroscope to fracture the streetlights into "atomic emissions."

If there is a place where Sacks's sure touch falters, it is in those moments when he is compelled to turn the lens of his microscope onto the messy realm of the human. There are wonderful sketches of family, of his sprawling home, of strange moments when his family's devotion to science seems to outweigh common sense or human feeling, such as when his mother brings home from her obstetrical practice grossly malformed fetuses and stillborn infants for her young son to dissect. But most of these remain sketches, brief interludes in the narrative, and in some cases they simply leave the reader hanging, as when Sacks mentions that his older brother Michael, mercilessly beaten and bullied at his boarding school, becomes psychotic. It is his brother's psychosis that drives Sacks deeper into the world of science, in search of order and structure, "holding myself together in the chaos." But what of Michael? This is the last we hear of him specifically, and whether he regained his sanity or wandered forever in the realm of the mad is a question left unanswered.

This is not quite a memoir, then, but, as the subtitle suggests, "memories," falling, as memory tends to, not in neat narrative but rather as brief, bright sparks flaring up to illuminate a particular place here, a particular individual there, and, collectively, the making of a scientist's mind.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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Lost Soldiers
James Webb
369 pp.



The hero of James Webb's Lost Soldiers, suitably sporting the macho moniker 'Brandon Condley,' is the sort of character you'd expect--and want--to find in a strong military novel. A tough ex-Marine, he's an outsider who never left Asia after the Vietnam War ended. Now, having spent most of his career killing people on behalf of the U.S. government, he assists the government in its effort to find and identify the bodies of American soldiers left behind in Vietnam. But, as an American general affectionately points out, Condley is a 'shit magnet' who seems to attract trouble unstoppably, and it's a safe bet that Condley's going to unload on somebody before the novel's finished, right?

Lost Soldiers certainly starts out promisingly. A body, presumed to be an American soldier's, has been found in a remote mountain region of Vietnam, and Condley and his anthropologist sidekick retrieve it (at some peril) for identification. There's an unexpected twist, though. The body is in fact that of an Australian murder victim, and the likely suspects are two U.S. Army deserters who were known during the war as Salt and Pepper. Bad news for a public hungry for heroes, to say the least. But the issue facing Condley now is more immediate: where are Salt and Pepper now? It's a great plot device, and Webb uses it to send Condley and his sidekick to such distant locations as Thailand, Russia and Australia.

Appropriately, Webb's work with Condley strikes a nice balance between existential angst (Condley is a burnt-out soldier from a lost war, after all, and he shows it) and a cynical macho swaggering that hides, perhaps inevitably, a heart of gold. As the anthropologist sidekick says, "You're a rogue, Brandon, but in a way you're a saint." It's not a scenario that allows for a lot of range, necessarily, but it's fine for the genre. The sidekick is another issue. He's too broad, frankly, and he lacks the careful attention Webb brings to some of the novel's strongest characters. He's a minor character, though, and he shouldn't hold many readers back.

Despite the promising opening (a mystery inside a military novel seems irresistible), Lost Soldiers's best features are its deeper themes and Webb's well-researched insights into Vietnam. Ultimately, the novel is about freedom--freedom from the past, freedom from your inherited identity, freedom from being a haunted ghost. Sometimes, the freedom is illicit and wrongly won. Sometimes, rarely, it's earned. And earned freedom, of course, is what Condley is after.

Webb sometimes seems less interested in the plot than he is in its themes and settings, but Lost Soldiers is certainly an interesting, intelligent addition to the military genre.

--Woody Arbunkle

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