Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire, by Murry A. Taylor (Harcourt, $26). If Norman Maclean was the preeminent philosopher of wildfire, then Murry Taylor, at 59 the country's oldest active smokejumper—he's parachuted into fires from Alaska to the Lower 48 since 1965—is its most intrepid foot soldier. His diary of one summer on the job is a grand adventure that captures a lifestyle of violent oscillations between terror, boredom, and exhaustion. Taylor takes us through the jumper's countdown ("Jump-thousand, look-thousand, reach-thousand, wait-thousand, pull-thousand, check your canopy, check your airspace") to the ground and into the standby shack, where jumpers sleep in cargo bins and while away downtime with "a rather extensive collection of Playboy, Penthouse, and College Girl magazines." He chronicles nights on fires eating handfuls of instant coffee to stay awake, the hazing rituals of guys like Quacks and Secret Squirrel (the author's nickname is Old Leathersack, a reference to an intimate part of his anatomy), and other routines that distract them from the daily prospect of being speared by trees, hanged by their own parachute lines, burned to death, or slammed into the ground at high speeds ("augering in"). He also gleefully captures the mordant joys of so-called brush monkeys: "running chain saws all night...eating stale candy bars, spilling gas and oil all over ourselves, filling our eyes with sawdust, ruining our hearing, and then lying in the dirt like a bunch of pigs, snoring and farting." With wildfires burning everywhere this drought-plagued summer, readers may agree with the smokejumper who calls his buddies "the greatest fucking heroes who ever lived."—CAROLINE FRASERDriving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain, by Michael Paterniti (Dial Press, $19). One winter a few years back, writer Michael Paterniti assembled the ingredients for a classic American road trip: a Buick Skylark, a few chunks of Albert Einstein's brain sloshing around in formaldehyde in a Tupperware bowl, and a geriatric former pathologist named Thomas Harvey. In 1955, Harvey autopsied the great physicist at Princeton and, with or without official permission, made off with his brain, apparently wondering, along phrenological lines, does size matter? (It doesn't.) Paterniti finds himself ferrying Harvey across the country, à la Rain Man, to do the brain's business; among other encounters, they meet with various neuroscientists to whom Harvey had sent the odd slice of Einstein over the years, and with Evelyn Einstein, a disapproving granddaughter. Harvey, who was fired from his pathology job and concluded his career in a plastics factory, proves to be a maddeningly banal eccentric, given to blurting out such remarks as "Look at that cow!" Meanwhile, the author riffs amusingly on the history of our morbid fascination with human relics as he grows obsessed with laying hands on the one locked away in Harvey's duffel bag. Like much else about this tale, Paterniti's conclusion—in which he finally communes with the gray matter when the good doctor leaves the Tupperware unguarded in the backseat of the Buick—doesn't exactly resound with Einsteinian assurance: "Do I feel the thing that relics, totems, and fetishes are supposed to make people feel?...Have I touched eternity? I'm not sure."—C.F.Volcano Cowboys: The Rocky Evolution of a Dangerous Science, by Dick Thompson (St. Martin's Press, $27). After covering the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980, the author, a Time magazine science correspondent, found himself drawn to those who study volcanoes up close. The "cowboys" of his title try to predict such cataclysms for the U.S. Geological Survey; more sober scientists than lava wranglers, they range the ragged edges of the earth's shifting plates, where they carbon-date ash on crater rims, detect seismographic rumblings, and test for "overpressure," magma buildups that often precede eruptions. They are menaced by projectile geology, red-hot boiling rock, and pyroclastic flows—silent, lethal clouds of gas traveling at hurricane speed—and are often frustrated by tightfisted bureaucrats reluctant to recognize imminent disaster. The author discerns two factions of American vulcanologists: "coneheads" (geeks who toil at USGS headquarters in Virginia) and "meatballs" (tectonic ambulance chasers "irresistibly drawn to volcano crises"). As the reader rambles with the latter through some of the most beautiful of violent viewsheds—from the Cascades to the Andes—politics is as prevalent as scenery. Despite abundant early warnings, the Mount Saint Helens disaster was downplayed by officials, resulting in several dozen deaths. But things may be getting better: Researchers' predictions prevented a number of fatalities during the eruption of Pinatubo, on the Philippines' fiery rim, 11 years later, and cutting-edge analysis of Hawaii's volcanoes in the late 1990s appears to have put vulcanology on firmer ground. —JAMES CONAWAYPrecious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States (Oxford, $45). A joint project of the Nature Conservancy and the Association for Biodiversity Information, this encyclopedic species census "presents the most comprehensive and accessible account of the state of American biota to date," writes eminent conservationist E.O. Wilson in the foreword of this groundbreaking work. At left, a county-by-county look at endangered and threatened species.