Category Archives: Book suggestions

Deep, by James Nestor

James Nestor's DeepIf you have ever wanted to know what it’s like to live life as a dolphin, take a trip into the blue abyss through James Nestor’s Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.

The book is a first-hand introduction to freediving. The underwater diving technique, sans-SCUBA gear, was, until recently, remarkably widespread among fishing communities worldwide since time untold. Freediving is still used today by a handful of traditional fishing folk — and by some devoted researchers who want to come face-to-face with their cetacean subjects.

Nestor explains that humans share some of the physiological faculties that are used by modern marine mammals, but that few of us landlubbers have any idea what we’re capable of. He learns from the masters how to hold his breath, virtually to the point of blacking out, and explains in vivid detail the seemingly frightening techniques that he is taught.

Along the way, Nestor introduces us to a group of extreme athletes that compete to stay underwater for the longest and to dive to the deepest depths. These athletes certainly know what they’re capable of — but they often overestimate their abilities, in a mad rush for glory within their small community, with sometimes crippling or even deadly results.

To reach greater depths than can be reached with lungfuls of air alone, the book also describes humanity’s error-plagued history of building machines that help us plunge to seemingly fathomless depths. It explains the biology of much of what we have found once we got there.

Deep is a wonderful read that will entrance even the most knowledgable of ocean experts.

Reason in a Dark Time, by Dale Jamieson

Reason-In-A-Dark-TimeThis new addition to the burgeoning bookshelf of global warming riffs provides a probing history of generations of climate inaction, both in the U.S. and internationally. Philosopher Dale Jamieson, currently a professor of environmental studies at New York University, offers this definitive account of failed climate negotiations as he meticulously explains the repercussions of ceaseless political dithering on greenhouse gas pollution.

What’s most extraordinary about this book is that it took Jamieson almost 25 years to write, beginning the manuscript he was 40 years old, and finally finished when he had nearly reached 60.

“I would like to say that it was a labor of love, but it was really an avocation that became an obsession,” Jamieson writes in the book’s preface. “When people asked me why my first attempts to write a book on this subject failed, I would say that it was impossible to write the book until I knew how the story ended.”

A major emphasis of the book is how America’s leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have so far prevented the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change from delivering any kind of international agreement that could actually make a difference for the world. And it was the ongoing failures of international climate talks that finally spurred him to finish his manuscript.  “When Copenhagen went down the way it did, I knew that I had the story that I wanted to tell,” he told me.

The depth of knowledge of this climate-watching veteran shines through in the clarity of his oft-depressing, but always intriguing, assemblage of facts and illuminating observations.

This is not a book that dwells on the technicalities of the science of climate change. It focuses instead on ethics and politics. It’s not always an easy read. But, particularly for those who spend more time immersed in climate science than in the politics or philosophy of the warming crisis, it’s a read that’s well worth the time.

John Upton

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

flight-behaviourClimate change affects the entire globe, but its effects are felt locally. It nudges animals from one area to another, it changes local weather patterns, and it takes a toll on the men and women who till and cultivate the soil so that the rest of us may eat.

Barbara Kingsolver understands all of this. Flight Behavior, published last year, is a touching tale of an unusually warm and wet Appalachian winter and its effects on a hardscrabble farm. The unseasonable season is made all the more extraordinary by the arrival of a wayward rabble of migratory butterflies.

An ambitious protagonist trapped with young kids and a dull husband in a small town is thrust suddenly into a harsh spotlight shone by the insects that she discovered. And while struggling with newfound fame, the young mother comes to grips with the changes ravaging the tiny world around her.

Kingsolver is one of modern literature’s greatest practitioners. It’s a delight to see her take on climate change with this thought-provoking yarn. The story is imbued with a scientifically-refined grasp of global warming and loaded with well-placed cynicism of the media’s coverage of this most pressing issue.

John Upton

Recommended novel: Lexicon, by Max Barry

Click to buy from AmazonA cultish group of self-described poets has mastered the art of persuasion – by figuring out which words and sounds can be used to hack the brains of different personality types. When the poets’ lab develops a word so powerful that almost nobody can resist being coerced by it, at least one among them uses it to destroy an Australian mining town.

This is a high-octane action novel with a hefty mix of science fiction and a touch of old-fashioned romance.

Being a dual Australian-American citizen, I enjoyed this novel in part because its literary set spanned Washington, D.C. and the Australian outback. And I absolutely loved Max Barry’s dry Australian sense of humor, which left me laughing out loud at the most surprising moments.

— John Upton

Recommended novel: Fallen Land, by Patrick Flanery

Click to buy.This deftly subdued thriller charts the dovetailing lives of five members of three tormented families living in a corner of a subdivided farm.

An old widow squats in the farmhouse where she was born, grieving as her ancestral land is carved up, torn up and developed around her. The new neighborhood is left partly built when the developer goes bust, losing his wife, kids, home and sanity along the way.

When a family moves in next door to the widow — into the model home where the developer intended to house his own family, replete with a secret bunker and passageways — only the youngest among the new tenants knows a terrifying secret: In this house, they are not alone.

This is a remarkable story — not just for its riveting plot and creative storytelling, but for the deep connections that Patrick Flanery explores between Americans and the places they call home.

This might never be marketed as an environmental novel, but the story drips with a cynical exposé of the desecration of urban planning by failures of modern democracy.

— John Upton

Recommended novel: The Appeal, by John Grisham

Click to buy.John Grisham paints a bleak picture of how justice can be bought and sold in America.

After a chemical factory sickens the residents of a small town, a team of local attorneys secures a colossal — and precedent-setting — payout for one of its many victims. But before an appeal can reach the Mississippi Supreme Court, the factory’s owner sets about replacing a centrist judge on the state bench with one that is controlled by industry.

This gloomy tale of environmental injustice reveals the shortcomings of the very concept of judicial elections.

— John Upton

Recommended novel: Breath of Death, by Saad Shafqat

Click to buy from Amazon.On one level, this is a well-composed thriller that thrusts medical researchers into a race against a bio-terrorist. On another, it’s an exploration of the challenges that scientists face in Pakistan – and the discrimination they can face when they attempt to collaborate with their peers in America.

An exciting story by a talented Pakistani author who grasps the cultural and financial divides that hold science in the East asunder from that in the West.

John Upton

Recommended novel: State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

Click to buy from AmazonThis adventure romp around the world could leave you living in fear of environmentalists.

In one of his final novels, Michael Crichton throws climate skepticism into full throttle, casting a crew of enviros and academics as bad guys out to wreck the weather for their own financial gain. But look out, you homicidal crew of greedy activists, a gang of independently-minded lawyer types is hot on your trail.

The premise of this fast-paced novel may have sounded to some like it could have held water when it was published in 2004. But in an era of wild weather and growing climate literacy it’s laid bare as a fantastical conspiracy theory by one of science fiction’s greats. A wonderful read for any cynic.

John Upton

Recommended novel: The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells

island-dr-moreauThis 1896 classic opens a portal into dusty notions of genetic modification predating the discovery of DNA.

Written by one of the world’s great science fiction writers and adapted by numerous filmmakers since, The Island of Dr. Moreau takes readers on a bizarre journey to a tiny Pacific island to meet its oddball inhabitants.

A castaway discovers that the curious people who share his new land aren’t people at all. They are the vivisected creations of the resident mad scientist, sculpted with a scalpel from live animals.

John Upton