Tuesday, May 22, 2018


A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

Tim Samaras was one of those uncommon individuals who turned his childhood obsession into a lifelong passion that he used to change the world. Captivated by The Wizard of Oz and a PBS storm-chasers special as a boy, Samaras evolved into the greatest tornado researcher of our time. The Man Who Caught the Storm is journalist Brantley Hargrove's intimate portrait of the soul and intellect of a fascinating man whose life goal was to do the undoable--map ground-level data from the heart of a supercell twister.

Samaras, a self-taught weather forecaster and electrical engineer, made his living testing weapon systems at the Denver Research Institute, a job he obtained with no experience and a resume hand-written on a lined sheet of paper. The fervor and fortitude that jump from Hargrove's well-researched profile evidence Samaras as a person who simply would not be denied his legacy. During tornado season, Samaras lived and breathed storms, chasing weather fronts along with funding to continue his research. Finding greater renown on Discovery Channel's reality series Storm Chasers, Samaras's level-headed yet persistent boundary pushing made him a legend in the weather community.

Writing about weather is difficult at best, but Hargrove does a marvelous job mixing heady science with an engrossing and personal narrative. Nirvana for weather fanatics, the storytelling remains appealing to a broad audience, infused with the soul of a loving family man on a mission to reach his dreams and dance with nature's devil while trying to make the world a safer place.

STREET SENSE: I can't tell you how much I hate tornados. Having been born and raised in the fair climes of Northern California, anything much different than 70-degrees and sunny is foreign (P.S. earthquakes, but eh)(P.P.S. Not counting the short time I spent white-knuckling it while living in "Tornado Alley," never to be repeated). Scary weather, the type of weather that brings (seemingly) 8,000 days of anticipation angst, I hate it. I wouldn't be caught dead watching an episode of Storm Chasers. But Brantley Hargrove did such a great job with this book that I loved the hell out of it despite my anti-tornado sentiments. It is scientifically detailed yet heartwarming, and made me wish I had been able to meet the man it profiled.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Until the early 1950s, official policy forbade even the utterance of the word tornado in weather forecasts. The government was convinced that citizens were no more sensible than stampeding cattle, that entire cities would descend into hysteria upon hearing the dread word, resulting in far more fatalities than the thing itself. Tornado was a word of power: deadly if spoken; deadly if left unspoken. Better to leave it unsaid, decided the U.S. Army Signal Services, and later the U.S. Weather Bureau, since few within their ranks believed tornadoes were actually predictable. The forces causing the winds to coalesce were shrugged off as the acts of a jealous God. All that meteorologists could do was catalog their epidemiological particulars: deaths, injuries, property damaged.

COVER NERD SAYS: Hatred of extreme weather be damned, photographs of extreme weather are some of the most beautiful you'll ever see and this cover is a perfect example. I believe it's an actual photograph of Tim Samaras, which makes it all the better. The beauty along with proximity to danger make this a dead bang winner.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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