Archive by Author

Earth Day: Quote Saturday

25 Apr

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~April

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Earth Day: A 51st Children’s Book for the List

23 Apr

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I’ve been doing a lot of posts on overviews of different types of book, but there’s been one book this week I’ve found myself carrying around and recommending to everyone that comes within a few feet of me.  Piggybacking on Robin’s post yesterday on children’s books, this is also a picture book.  I found it on our new books cart this week amongst many other earth and spring related titles.  The first time I read it, I got a little teary eyed.  It reminded me a bit of Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. I immediately started thinking of parents I might be able to foist this upon.

You Nest Here with Me is a sweet bedtime story by the wonderful Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.  Robin recommended Yolen’s Caldecott-winning Owl Moon in her post.  In Yolen’s new tale, a mother tells her child about all the places that birds live, in rock, ledges, tall trees and sandy dunes, but reminds the child that while the birds nest all those places, “You nest here with me.”  She goes on the explain that the mother birds keep their babies safe and teach them all they need to know until it’s time for them to leave, but until then, they stay in the nest with Mama Bird. I don’t even have kids and I almost need tissues just thinking about it.

At the end of the book, there’s a description of all the types of birds Yolen mentioned throughout.  The beautiful illustrations will introduce children to species of birds both familiar and strange and may spur a new generation of birdwatchers.

~April

Earth Day: Environmental Villains of Literature

21 Apr

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We’ve been exploring great books about people who love nature and want to protect the earth, but in any good story there’s also a villain.  It’s a cliche for any villain to say they want to destroy the world, but there are certain ones that are doing their best through environmental degradation.

Let’s take a break from the books and talk about three fictional characters that are the big bads of environmental destruction.

Serena Pemberton from Serena by Ron Rash – Serena is a cold-hearted killer.  She and her husband run a timber company in 1920s North Carolina, but let’s be honest, it’s Serena that calls the shots.  Nothing can stop her ambition to turn all the lumber in the Appalachia forests into pure profit.  One of her primary conflicts is with the real-life founders of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  In the midst of allowing her employees to work themselves literally to death harvesting logs for her lumber empire, she’s also nefariously blocking the preservation of the forest.  The book will be made into a movie this year, but all reviews suggest to avoid it.  Stick to the gothic environmental novel instead.

Saruman from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien – If the hobbits are peace-loving, living-off-Middle Earth, nature-dwelling hippies, then Saruman is their antithesis.  He turns against the people he has sworn to protect and instead starts messing with nature by creating Uruk-hai and destroying the ents.  The scenes of underground smelting pits in the movies pretty much sums it up.  There are lots of images of the Industrial Revolution woven throughout the trilogy and Saruman is the best example of Tolkien’s criticisms of the era.

Kurtz from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Like many of our villains, Kurtz is a representative of another entity.  In this case, he represents an ivory trading company.  In any analysis of Heart of Darkness, you’ll see Kurtz bandied about as the epitomization of European imperialism.  That imperialistic bent reflects his role in the subjugation of nature as well as people.  Kurtz uses his superior technology to secure the area’s resources at the expense of the local inhabitants.

The Once-ler from The Lorax by Dr. Seuss – The poor Once-ler will always be remembered for the destruction of the Truffula trees.  To be fair, he did allow his greed to destroy a pretty Utopian place and turn it into a polluted wasteland.  Unlike the other villains, he finds redemption at the end by turning over the last of the Truffula seeds to our young protagonist.  Let’s all hope this child with no horticultural experience manages to keep this one seed alive long enough to revive a whole species of trees.  I know if the Once-ler gave it to me, the Lorax wouldn’t be returning anytime soon.

There are hundreds more titles with even worse environmental villains.  I haven’t read much Dickens, but since my images of his novels are always populated with smokestacks and street urchins, I imagine he has some worthy contenders.  I also considered Captain Ahab from Moby Dick since he was on a one-man whale killing mission, but decided his anger was too targeted at a specific whale.  Michael Crichton (the author) almost made my list for his climate change-denying ways, but I felt too much guilt at including a real human being.

Who are your favorite (or least favorite) environmental villains?

~April

Earth Day: Books in Nature

19 Apr

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This is not a nature book.  In fact, it’s not a book I would recommend to everyone.  You’ve probably seen at least one of the poems in the book.  Magic has been disseminated all over the internet, mostly without credit.  It took me a bit of digging the first time to figure out it was not by Shel Silverstein, but Bo Burham.  Burham is pretty similiar to Silverstein with his clever wordplay and irreverent humor.  Sometimes, though, it feels a bit like Burham is American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman channelling Silverstein.  So if you’re offended by things normal humans are offended by, I feel like I need to add a trigger warning for pretty much everything.

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Still, when Burham isn’t making his readers uncomfortable, he’s making them laugh out loud at his verbal dexterity and delighting them with his wit. So, if you don’t mind dodging a few jabs to find something great, pick up Egghead by Bo Burham.

~ April

P.S. I took these pictures in the park behind our library.  I had to fight a gaggle of birdwatchers in my path, but I love this part of the park.

Earth Day: Food Policy Non-Fiction by Fiction Authors

17 Apr

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When I started writing my post on food policy books I realized I had two books left to talk about, but I’d already gone on far longer than even I wanted to read.  So I saved them so I could talk about them a little more in depth.  Have you noticed I really like talking about food?  Especially food policy?  I also really like to eat.  And I like to see why other people eat the way they do.  These two books are by authors that normally write fiction, but obviously also spend a lot of time thinking about food.  They spend so much time that they both took a chunk of time out of their writing careers to publish non-fiction books on their food journeys.  I think that it’s because they write fiction, that these books are so enjoyable and interesting.  Even if you decide, as I did, that you couldn’t possibly model your diets off of theirs, their journeys into how various parts of the food system work and how those parts affect the earth, will make you a more mindful and informed eater.

I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close mostly on an airplane.  Considering how emotional I usually get on plane flights (I recall crying to Enya once), the story of a young boy whose father dies on September 11th was probably not a wise choice. Despite that, I loved Foer’s sensitivity and creative storytelling.  While you won’t find the alternative formatting in his nonfiction book, the ethos is certainly there.  In Eating Animals, Foer takes on factory farming.  In his novel Everything is Illuminated, the main character, also named Jonathan Safran Foer and also a vegetarian, goes to Ukraine and is humorously offered all sorts of animal products.  His family has never heard of a vegetarian before.  Foer tells almost the same story in non-fiction form in Eating Animals.  That’s when you know that the author has been working through these thoughts for some time.

Foer is pretty graphic when he talks about his visits to factory farms and commercial fisheries.  If you don’t like to read about animal mistreatment or canals of feces you should probably skip this book.  He’s a little more fervent in his views than the authors I mentioned in my previous post, but he still shines a light on a lot of practices that should be a problem for anyone who cares where their food comes from.  This is a book that covers all the reasons people might have to be vegan, from the animal welfare angle to the environmental aspects.  Even though it’s packed with so much information, Foer’s lyrical style makes it as gripping as any novel.

Barbara Kingsolver has written so many things that I should read, but haven’t.  We chose her book The Poisonwood Bible for our book club, but it was one of the few that I skipped.  I think I was just busy.  Or maybe reading Game of Thrones.  I don’t know.  Flight Behavior is one of the top books on any cli-fi list and most of her novels have a strong sense of place.  This is also very true in her non-fiction food experiment, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Kingsolver and her family move to a farm in Virginia and commit to eating only things they can grow themselves or source locally.  Each chapter covers a month.  Some months, as you can imagine, have much better menus than others.  Every time I eat asparagus I think of her celebration of the short growing season of the vegetable.  It seems like it must taste so much more delicious, not only because of its freshness, but because of its scarcity when it’s only eaten in season.

Unlike Foer, Kingsolver has no problem eating meat.  She describes in detail how her youngest daughter raises chickens and how the girl learns to be a savvy businesswoman between selling the eggs and the meat.  Even though I read the book a few years ago, her descriptions are so succulent that I can feel my mouth watering as I recall her forays into cheesemaking.  It was a struggle for her family to follow the guidelines and she knows this is not a realistic lifestyle.  She uses her experiment to discuss the differences between factory farming and big agriculture, and the locavore movement.  While her book doesn’t quite have the activist fervor of Foer, her gentle passion is just as motivating.

While approaching the food issue from very different angles and with their distinct styles, it’s evident that both authors use their expertise with fiction to bring life to their non-fiction.  If you’re looking for something that’s lest “just the facts ma’am” and more emotionally fulfilling, either of these books will provide satisfaction.

~April

Earth Day: This Post Will Not Tell You What To Eat

15 Apr

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If you look at The New York Times Advice & How-To list, you’ll see a good percentage of that list populated by food books.  This week, five of the ten are cookbooks or diet books.  We love getting advice about how to eat – what to eat, what not to eat, how much of it, and so on.  Dr. Phil tells us that there are 20 key foods we should focus on while Trisha Yearwood says don’t sweat it, you only need to eat well 80% of the time.  The advice is confusing and contradicting.  It’s hard to ever feel like you’re eating properly…. and that’s just when we consider how food affects our bodies.

As you may have heard, our diet has a huge impact on the environment.  According to Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet, our food system probably contributes to about one third of the world’s emissions.  “…[L]ivestock production alone is responsible for as much as 18 percent of the global warming effect.” (11)  Once you start reading facts like that, it’s kind of hard to ignore our food’s connection with our climate.  Lappe’s book is a good introduction to the ecology of the food system.  She isn’t really advocating for a single diet, just setting out the facts and talks about food politics on a much more systematic level, along with some guidelines at the end.

I also don’t advocate for any single diet change.  I don’t eat most meat because that’s something I feel like I can do to help the planet.  Robin doesn’t eat fish because of the impact it has on our oceans (and she can’t eat shellfish anyway so doesn’t know how delicious it is).  I like to think that between the two of us, we make a great vegetarian.  There are books out there that will tell you that unless you eat a certain way and feel guilty about every bite that is not local, water-conscious, or doesn’t have a mother (don’t all living things genetically have mothers?) you are an eco-failure.  I don’t believe that’s helpful to anyone.  That’s why I really like reading books about the food system a lot more than I like reading books telling me what to eat.  These authors pay more attention to how we eat and why than giving us a list of unbreakable rules.

The rock-star critic of the food system is, of course, Michael Pollan.  I finally got around to reading In Defense of Food when it was assigned to the freshman class of the university I was working for.  This is the book from which the best diet advice for both human and global health originated.  “Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not too much.”  Talk about simple and non-judgemental.  Pretty much any diet, except maybe hardcore paleo, works with those parameters.  It’s always what I come back to when I get overwhelmed by people telling me to only eat acai on Tuesdays or binge eat for three days and then fast for two.  Side note, Michael Pollan is one of the most interesting people to follow on Facebook if you’re interested in all things edible.

Another food juggernaut is Mark Bittman.  I love him for his How to Cook Everything books which I’ll elaborate on in another post.  For this topic, though, I direct you to VB6, which stands for Vegan Before 6.  He eats a vegan diet for breakfast, lunch and snacks and then allows himself to eat whatever he wants at dinner.  Instead of choosing a very earth-friendly vegan diet or remembering to not eat meat on certain days, this way he significantly limits his meat intake while still enjoying all sorts of food.  I did try this technique myself, but found out I like dairy with pretty much every meal way more than I crave chicken. Bittman’s newest book, A Bone to Pick will compile his insightful articles on food politics.

Toward the end of Diet for a Hot Planet Lappe relates the story of a professor she was working with that followed all the green rules that we like to promote – use less water, don’t buy plastic bottles, recycle, bike to work…  That woman went to New York City, stood in Times Square, and looked at all the energy being used around her.  “In one minute of standing there,” she says, “more energy was used up than I had personally saved in my entire lifetime.”  We have all felt like this.  I recently read a statistic from Steven Johnson, author of How We Got To Now, on how even if everyone south of LA moved up to Oregon, it wouldn’t improve the drought as much as a 10% reduction in water use for crops in the Central Valley.  (source)  That makes cutting a few minutes off the shower feel much less virtuous.

So why should we read these books and take a stand by changing our diets? Recycling or using greener products are usually just a change in routine, but what you eat is attached to your health, identity and social life.  It’s a big deal to change your food habits, especially when you may wonder if it’s worth it.  The truth is, your single choice probably won’t do much.  It takes major institutional change to bring about the future we need.  However, that type of change doesn’t happen without individuals.  When you take a stance to purchase more locally grown, whole foods and less resource-intensive products, companies start to take notice.  They try their hardest to get you to do what they want with advertising, but if their customers want something new, they need to change or die.  They know it.  And if no one makes that change because they think it won’t matter, then nothing happens.  Being informed about our food system enables you to be a good consumer and make small changes that, when compounded, can have big results.

~ April

 

Earth Day: Green Libraries

13 Apr

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Below is a picture (albeit not a very good one) of one of the owls that lives outside of our library.  It’s only one of the reasons that I think my library is one of the coolest places ever.  We’re smack dab in the middle of a 350-acre park, the largest city park in Orange County.  It’s no Yosemite, but I think it makes a difference when every window looks out onto trees and ponds.  I get to park under a huge bank of solar panels that pay for almost our entire facility’s electricity.  It’s fun working somewhere that I can feel good about our impact on the planet.

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Libraries tend to be pretty socially-minded places, since they’re supposed to be havens for all sorts of people and ideas.  They’re also usually under tight budgets, meaning they have to be creative in finding ways to reuse and make do with less.  I think these two attributes mean that libraries are more likely than not to try out green initiatives.  Our library’s eco-friendly traits are actually pretty minor when it comes to the library world.  Here are four other public libraries that are doing their part for books and the planet.

McAllen Public Library – You may have heard of the “Walmart” library.  It was pretty big news on Facebook and got press worldwide.  This is one of several libraries that have reused abandoned structures.  After its renovation, the McAllen library became the largest single-story library in the U.S. (which also tells us something about Walmarts).  When big box stores fail, they are often left as empty urban blight.  The library’s reuse of the space not only improved the community, it also helped rid the town of an abandoned eyesore.

San Francisco Library Environmental Center – Filled with resources for anyone wishing to increase their environmental knowledge, the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center contains programs, information, and exhibits on sustainability.  Especially in larger libraries, these centers can be great resources for their cities.  The San Francisco Library also has a page called Green Stacks, which points out all the ways that the library champions the environment.  For example, they changed their receipt paper to a BPA-free brand.

Pima County Library – PCL is an example of the growing trend to add seeds to the collection.  While there are specific seed libraries, public libraries are joining the mission.  Seed libraries keep heirloom versions of seeds to preserve unique and heritage plants.  Members can borrow seeds to start their own plants and are then encouraged to keep the seeds so they can continue to share them.

Wilmette Public Library – It’s not many libraries that include their green initiatives in their “about us” statement on their web page.  Their list includes both a commitment to purchasing from eco-friendly companies and promoting environmental programming to their patrons.  It’s a simple mission that works really well as a starting point for any library that wants to contribute to saving the planet.

As sources of information sharing, a lot of libraries find ways to promote their eco-friendly tips.  Here’s some further reading:
Green Libraries from the University Library at UIUC
Green Libraries from ALA
Sustainable Libraries Facebook Group
10 Wonderful Libraries Repurposed from Unused Structures

~April

Earth Day: Saturquoteday or Something

11 Apr

I came across this quote when I was reading the aforementioned Wild and I loved it.  I loved that it gives permission not to be the best, as long as you complete whatever it is you have put your mind to.  I’ve though about it a few times when I’ve wanted to quit a particularly grueling hike (including the one up Mount Baldy that’s pictured in this photo).  It comes as special comfort today when I just completed a 5K that I was pretty sure I was going to have to walk.  Yeah, I think that Abraham Lincoln was definitely talking about finishing fun runs and hikes when he said this.  He has some ideas.  I think he’ll do good things.

~April

Earth Day: Why I Still Like Stories About People Who Do Dumb Sh*t in Nature; or, Books with “Wild” in the Title

9 Apr

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You know what books I’m talking about*.  They’re the ones where some idealistic yet world-weary young man (or woman) decides that the only way to overcome their problems is to disappear from modern life into the wilderness.  True, they are unprepared, but their mettle more than makes of for their lack of planning. Armed with nothing but their pioneering spirit they venture off and… probably something awful happens.  Because they weren’t prepared.  Because as far as determination takes you, it doesn’t replace healthy caution.  Because nature doesn’t care about life goals.

Before I defend this genre, I should elaborate on the critics.  To do this, I called across the room and asked my husband why he hates these types of stories so much.  The complaints include (paraphrased and edited for length and language):

  • As someone who enjoys the outdoors, I feel zero sympathy for a person that went off into the wilderness without any sort of preparation.
  • I’m supposed to have sympathy for idiots who got themselves killed, or almost killed, because of their own poor choices.
  • Why is someone who made horrible life choices supposed to be a role model?
  • People who have no experience outdoors think that they can do the same thing and everyone will think they’re so strong.
  • But I think most people who don’t like Into the Wild are just Republicans that are like “Ah! Sean Penn and hippies!”

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

There you have it folks, the case against survival bios.  I definitely identify with some of the points.  When Cheryl Strayed described heading out onto the PCT in hiking shoes she was breaking in for the very first time, I practically screamed at my computer (I listened to the audiobook) as my feet broke out in sympathy blisters.  I get that people who have not been out-of-doors much might read these books without much cynicism and that might get them into trouble.  Actually, from every intellectual angle, I can see why these books should be deeply offensive.

The problem is, I really like them.  Even with all their foibles, I get caught up in the inherent optimism of their protagonists.  These people, who generally have not been brought up loving nature, feel pulled toward it to reinvent themselves.  I’d also argue that while not nearly as prepared as they should be, both Cheryl Strayed and Chris McCandless did what they thought was their due diligence.  Strayed discusses her foray into online discussion groups and McCandless carried in a plant identification book, thinking it would be enough.  While most seasoned veterans can immediately see their errors, these people didn’t have the life experience to know just how much they didn’t know.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The mistake they both made was that they believed that nature is a restorative force.  They’d read the romantics and saw the wilderness as something that would provide for them and heal their souls.  Unfortunately, anyone who’s spent any time in the wild knows while those things can be true, nature is very unforgiving to even the best prepared.  I think it’s that tragedy that draws me to the stories – the dichotomy between two of nature’s most powerful attributes.

I don’t see McCandless or Strayed as role models.  They’re interesting characters, but not my heroes.  Their stories may be the reason these books were written, but that’s not why I read them.  I like them because it reminds me of why we need to respect the wild places of the world.  They remind us that we are small parts of something large and we are not always in control.  That’s the feeling these people were chasing in the first place and, whatever else happened, I think they probably found that.

~April

*If you don’t, they’re Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Earth Day: Cli-Fi is the New Zombie Apocalypse

7 Apr

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Aliens invade.  Robots become sentient. Nuclear war rages. Something is turning humans into flesh-eating zombies.

We’re familiar with the tropes and we’re fascinated by them.  Dystopian themes are everywhere in our movies, tv shows, and books.  They reflect our most primal fears – outsiders, technological change, violence, disease…  Dystopian fiction captivates us because it’s a safe place to explore our worst fears.  We can read a story about the arrival of unknowable creatures that turn anyone that sees them into deranged murderers (Bird Box, I recommend it) and then put it down, feeling thankful that, while the story seems possible (plausible, even!), today the sun is shining and all is right in the world.

It’s no surprise then, that there is a whole genre of books chronicling humanity’s doom from environmental catastrophe.  These are stories that deal with peak oil, climate change, and mass extinctions.  Pretty heavy stuff.  And there’s a snappy new name for it: Cli-fi.   As in sci-fi, but the “cli” stands for climate.  Get it?

From the handful of books in the genre that I’ve read, one thing that stands out is the sheer hopelessness of them.  Cli-fi, not that surprisingly, is a pretty bleak genre.  If you’ve read The Road, a loosely classified cli-fi, you have an idea of what the basics are.  Earth is dying, or has died, and humanity is trying their hardest to hold on, despite the fact that they all know they’re doomed.

I picked up The Book of Strange New Things to get some more cli-fi under my belt and while the story didn’t captivate me, it does hit the themes pretty hard.  In this book, the author tells the story of earth’s destruction through letters to the main character from his wife, Bea.  Peter, our protagonist, is a missionary to a pretty benign alien species on a strange and habitable, if somewhat boring, new planet.  Meanwhile, his wife is mostly hinting at the devastation of extreme weather and resource depletion back in England, until her fate is no longer avoidable.  I found myself wanting to hear Bea’s story much more than Peter’s, but the structure does allow the author to make an interesting point.  What do people do when they know the worst is happening, but it seems far removed from their own reality?  Do we choose to engage or ignore?  It’s a question we are increasingly actually facing, and in its mission as a true sci-fi novel, The Book of Strange New Things forces you to tackle it.

Though the vast majority is, not all cli-fi is depressing.  Well, the earth will pretty much be shot, but sometimes humanity survives.  I racked my brain (and Google) trying to come up with a few “happy ending” examples, but I could really only come up with one.  Interstellar, last year’s underrated Christopher Nolan film is a great cinematic example of cli-fi.  Switching back and forth from the survivors on earth and the astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity, Interstellar navigates the different ways both parties react to the inevitable.

I imagine now that book lovers of the future will look back on cli-fi the same way we look at much of the science fiction of the 50s and 60s.  They’re filled with anxiety about space travel, an anxiety which has ebbed, but not vanished.  Now we find the fear of little green men to be quaint, even as stories of abandoned space crews and black holes remain.  I wonder what aspects of today’s cli-fi will be considered overblown hysteria, which will still hit close to home, and which will be realities of everyday life.

I apologize for such a downer of a post, but I’ve been reading a lot of cli-fi lately.  Maybe Robin can cheer us all up tomorrow?  I’ve got to find a picture book about a kitten or something…

Further Reading and Some Book Suggestions:
The Storytellers Will be Cli-Fi Heroes
The Rise of Climate Fiction
Global Warning: The Rise of Cli-Fi
So Hot Right Now

~April