| Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest, by Jamling Tenzing Norgay with Broughton Coburn, introduction by Jon Krakauer (Harper San Francisco, $26).
As a teenager in Darjeeling, India, Jamling Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, Edmund Hillary’s Mount Everest partner, tried to talk his father into letting him join an Indian expedition to the peak. Dad refused. “You aren’t ready,” he told his son. Thirteen years later, in 1996, Jamling had a family of his own and another shot at Everest, this time as a climbing leader for David Breashears’s audacious IMAX film, Everest. His father had passed away ten years earlier, and Jamling had unfinished business with the old man. “I felt that only by following my father up the mountain,” he writes, “by standing where he had stood, by climbing where he had climbed, could I truly learn about him.” Touching My Father’s Soul rises above the bumper crop of books on Everest’s tragic 1996 season. Beyond being only the third memoir by a climbing Sherpa—the others are his father’s autobiography, Tiger of the Snow (1955), and its follow-up, After Everest (1977)—Jamling’s story chronicles the social and spiritual dynamics at play on the world’s highest peak, and neatly intertwines his own climb with his father and Hillary’s 1953 ascent, a feat that needs only a few details—leather boots, 20-pound oxygen tanks—to leave the reader awestruck, again, at its boldness. As for Norgay the younger, climbing Everest, he writes, “freed me from the confinement of my ambitions” — and from his father’s shadow. Gaining the summit under his own power, “the mountain itself came alive for me, as it had for him.”—Bruce Barcott
Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly, by Sue Halpern (Pantheon, $23). In one of many beautiful passages in this book, the author and her baby daughter visit a preserve in southeastern Mexico where tens of millions of monarchs have alighted after migrating thousands of miles: “I watched my daughter watching the butterfly resting on her shoelace, watched her reach down and wait until the butterfly crawled up the ladder of one of her fingers, climbed over the hump of knuckles, and rested on the back of her hand. She was completely silent, as if she had lost her voice.” However, Halpern (author of Migrations to Solitude, a book of essays) has not simply written an appreciation of one of the world’s most charismatic insects; but a concise reflection on how science—with all its human flaws and foibles—happens. As she describes it, the study of monarchs is a messy business of uneasy alliances between amateur naturalists, academics, and landowners. But it’s also sheer, unadulterated joy. Halpern takes to the air in a glider to experience butterfly flight vectors; searches for monarch roosts on Mexican back roads; and captures the excitement of schoolkids who tag monarchs heading to Mexico in the fall and then follow their spring migration back northward, posting reports on Internet sites “like a national wave cheer.” Halpern’s observations on the nature of scientific inquiry float through the text as lightly as monarchs, and her conclusion—”how better to describe the endless pursuit of knowledge than passion?”—is no only precisely accurate but intensely satisfying.—Caroline Fraser
Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910, by Stephen J. Pyne (Viking, $26). Anyone who smelled smoke last summer should check out this sobering history of the Big Blowup of 1910, which solidified the disastrously oversimplified national fire policies for which we’ve just begun to pay the price. Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne, whose previous books include Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter’s Season at the Grand Canyon, sets the stage by describing how 1880s America “resembled 1980s Brazil, a fire-flushed agricultural country that was rapidly industrializing.” From the South to the Great Plains to the once-wooded Great Lakes states, loggers, miners, and homesteaders burned indiscriminately, and locomotives sparked blazes across entire states. The fledgling U.S. Forest Service hoped to stifle these unruly practices, even though research was already showing that fire was an integral part of forest ecology. During the droughty La Niña summer of 1910, great fires broke out across the country, the worst of them covering the Idaho Rockies “like Rorschach ink blots.” Seventy-eight firefighters died during the wors fire season in U.S. history, and legends were created: Big Ed Pulaski, for example, saved most of his imperiled crew by holding the panicked men a gunpoint in a mine shaft. Pyne’s muscular style is perfectly suited to his subject—the Forest Service, he writes, “fully failed to appreciate how thoroughly nature did not care”—and his dramatic history lesson is an important corrective to America’s recent fire blindness.—C.F.
The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapu´sci´nski, translated by Klara Glowczewska (Knopf, $25). Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapu´sci´nski’s 1976 book, Another Day of Life, published in English in 1987, is a classic—an intensely personal, almost fevered, vision of Angola on the eve of independence. His new memoir proves he hasn’t lost his form. This harrowing, at times shattering, chronicle of 40 years of adventures in Africa finds Kapu´sci´nski in trouble again and again. “The heat was terrifying,” he writes, lost in the web of rust-colored laterite roads leading across Tanzania to Uganda, “and it intensified with every minute, as if the road we were on, and all others as well, led directly toward the sun, and as we drove we were inexorably approaching the moment we would be consumed by fire.” He crushes a cobra to save his life, moves with nomads through Somalia, and waits to die from thirst beneath a truck in the Sahara. Kapu´sci´nski alternates between plain prose and shimmering imagery, using understatement to dispel easy stereotypes about Africa and Africans, and finishing a paragraph or two of spare exposition with some dazzling revelation or note of remorse that leaves you reeling. With rare exception, these distant episodes amaze.—Brad Wieners