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From the sky, soil, and sea, tales of wonder

The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds
By Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Perigree, 320 pp., illustrated, $19.95

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden
By William Alexander
Algonquin, 288 pp., $22.95

Underwater to Get Out of the Rain: A Love Affair With the Sea
By Trevor Norton
Da Capo, 385 pp., illustrated, $25

In 1959, Lieutenant Colonel William Rankin, a US Air Force fighter pilot, was cruising along 8 miles above Norfolk, Va., when the engine of his jet failed. He yanked on an auxiliary power lever, but the lever came away in his hand. He was wearing a lightweight flying suit, his airplane had died at 47,000 feet, and the outside temperature was minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit.

He ejected. Directly below him was a cumulonimbus cloud, a massive vertical thunderstorm, tens of thousands of feet high. A big, mature cumulonimbus like the one below Rankin has been estimated to contain the same amount of energy as 10 Hiroshima-size bombs.

First there was the searing cold of the atmosphere, then the massive swelling from decompression. Then his chute opened, and he became the first and only human to fall through the anvil of a cumulonimbus and into its heart.

``This was nature's bedlam," Rankin said afterward, ``an ugly black cage of screaming, violent, fanatical lunatics." Along with millions of hailstones, Rankin was swept up and down, through thunder and lightning and curtains of freezing rain. The descent, which should have taken about 10 minutes, ended up lasting 45. He was covered with welts and bruises, and his skin was discolored from frostbite, but he survived.

His ordeal, and plenty of other interesting cloud stories, are detailed in ``The Cloudspotter's Guide," by the British designer Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

In 2004, Pretor-Pinney started the Cloud Appreciation Society for folks who believe, among other things, ``that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul." A year later, his society had 1,800 members from 26 countries, and a website ( that was receiving 7 million visits in a single month.

Now he has a book. Pretor- Pinney is as likely to describe a stratocumulus as something that ``looks like someone couldn't find the `off' switch on the cotton candy machine" as ``a low layer of cloud, usually forming between 2,000 and 6,500 feet." This informality makes the book charming -- its author never takes his subject too seriously, and as a result the text spills over with strange and interesting asides on everything from electrical phenomena called sprites (high-altitude, jellyfish-shaped lightning) to Morning Glory, a single roll cloud that forms in the Australian spring and is often longer than Britain.

Another quick and very entertaining summer read is ``The $64 Tomato," by William Alexander.

A decade ago, in New York's Hudson Valley, Alexander and his wife designed and built a 2,000-square-foot vegetable garden on a slope outside their kitchen. Over the years, Alexander's not-so-humble plot became ``a self-imposed purgatory of endless weeding, pruning, and harvesting" that nonetheless fed his family, his intellect, and his soul. And gave him a herniated disc.

Alexander is a man who admits, ``When my fruit-tree catalogs arrived in the dead of winter, I pored over them with a fervor most men reserve for Victoria's Secret." He is obsessive and perhaps slightly unhinged: He exalts in topsoil, falls ``in love with the hoe," and can ``remember the year purslane [a common North American weed] arrived as vividly as I do the arrival of my children."

Each of Alexander's tragicomic anecdotes begins with a romantic ideal -- he wants to grow pesticide-free apples, say, or groundhog-free tomatoes, or create a `` Sound of Music " -style meadow next to the garden, or use a hand mower to trim the garden paths -- that soon collides with the weed-pulling, deer-attracting realities of suburban gardening.

Alexander is Icarus; his garden is the sun. Where these two meet makes ``The $64 Tomato" very endearing.

Trevor Norton, a renowned diver as well as marine biologist at the University of Liverpool, has published a sumptuous memoir called ``Underwater to Get Out of the Rain."

From his childhood as a poor student and lover of underwater films, through his development into director of a major marine laboratory, Norton uses stories from his life to carry us around the world: We sail the Sea of Cortez, wheel through whirlpools in the Hebrides, dive at night through a kelp forest in a loch in Ireland, and wade through muddy shallows in Yemen.

His memoir is equal parts mythology, marine biology, and autobiography, and he always seems to know when to turn off the science and turn on the storytelling. He is as adept at describing the locomotion of limpets as he is at describing how he and a colleague keep beer cold in an electric cooler meant for collected specimens.

Ultimately, Norton's skill with language and his love for going underwater infuse his book with a sweet and tranquil beauty. ``Once, when diving to get out of the rain,'` Norton writes, ``I noticed that someone was throwing gleaming pearls into the water. It was just another mundane shower such as I had seen a thousand times before, but as I had never seen it until that moment."

It's summer. There's no better time to put your feet in the ocean, your hands in the garden, and your head in the clouds. Anthony Doerr is the author of ``The Shell Collector" and ``About Grace."

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