A kinda, sorta environmental summer reading list.

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Are books still a thing? Yup. Our staff’s summer picks.

July 3, 2017

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News 

Books seem so quaint these days. But we still love them. And it certainly does seem prime time for some good old-fashioned escapism.

I asked the staff to give me a few of their favorites for this year’s summer reading list. You may notice this isn’t your “Must Environmental Reads” or “Top Climate Books of the Summer.” We sift through thousands of pages of environmental health and climate change news everyday. Give us a break.

But the enviro links are there if you look hard enough. (My top recommendation, Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch, has an essay on a 37-course lunch he once ate in Paris … surely there’s a food waste angle?)

When you’re ready to put down your phone and turn off the Twitter firehouse, here are some stellar reading options.

Brian Bienkowski’s picks:

A Really Big Lunch, by Jim Harrison

Where I live—in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—Jim Harrison is legend. Harrison, who passed away last spring, spent a good chunk of time up here at a remote cabin because he preferred grouse and trout to people. (I can relate). His latest book of essays is food and wine themed and takes us from home cooked meals with famous chef Mario Batali to the gluttonous 37-course lunch he shared in France with friends. (“I began to reflect that this kind of eating might not be a wise choice in the late autumn of my life,” he recalls.)

Food is the entry point but like any Harrison book, whether poetry, fiction or essay, the matter at hand is living. Whether hunting for doves at his winter casita along the Mexico border, bird watching in Livingston, Montana, or roaming France looking for the lost poetry of Antonio Machado, he squeezes as much life as he can into each of his senses.

“As with sex, bathing, sleeping, and drinking the effects of food don’t last,” Harrison writes. “The patterns are repeated but infinite. Life is a near death experience, and our devious minds will do anything to make it interesting.”

Pour yourself a healthy glass of Domaine Tempier Bandol. These essays will interest any devious mind.

Lentil Underground, by Liz Carlisle

Dirt is so in right now. Foodies, journalists and activists are finally realizing what scientists have known forever—soil is vital to human life and is under threat. Lentil Underground starts with dirt and a group of “renegade” farmers’ desire to work with the precious resource instead of fighting and contaminating it.

Carlisle takes readers to Middle-of-Nowhere, Montana, and tells the story of Timeless Seeds, a lentil and heritage grain company that started decades ago when few radicals didn’t feel like spraying chemicals. The Northern Great Plains are the backdrop, but don’t let that fool you—this is a book about our out-of-control food system and those brave few who are resisting the growing machine that is corporate farming.

Growing organic food for a living is hard. Writing a book on lentils (that isn’t boring) is hard. Timeless Seeds and Carlisle succeed on both fronts.

Douglas Fischer's picks:

The Names of the Stars, by Pete Fromm

The advantage of shopping at a local bookstore is that you can walk in at a complete loss about what to read et voilá!, a helpful face leads you right to a magnificent, unexpected find.

Such was the case at Bozeman's Country Bookshelf a week ago. I needed a recommendation for my book club. "Something nonfiction?" was all I could offer in desperate bid to narrow the field. Wendy smiled. And then she led me to Pete Fromm's The Names of the Stars.

As a 20-year-old, Fromm spent a winter in a tent in Idaho's unforgiving Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness babysitting salmon eggs. The experience formed the foundation of his memoir, Indian Creek Chronicles ―Into the Wild.

Twenty-five years later, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks invites him to the Bob Marshall Wilderness to again watch over eggs. But now he's a father of two sons, looking back instead of ahead at his career.

The Names of the Stars chronicles that transformation, exploring the changes fatherhood brings and the power of wilderness to break monotony and sustain passion.

"It's an astonishing read," Wendy told me as she pulled down a copy. Who knew?

Slickety Quick: Poems about Sharks, by Skila Brown and Bob Kolar

Set aside for the moment the earnest, do-goody books urging environmental action and awareness. It's summer. And no kid wants to read such things anyway.

You're at the beach. You want your kid to know a thing or two about the ocean. My suggestion: Try poetry.

Specifically, poetry about sharks.

Slickety Quick: Poems about Sharks is full of quirky verse about the ancient predators. Aimed at the 9- to 12-year-old set, it offers insight about tiger sharks, carpet sharks, blue sharks and more, all without hitting you over the head.

He'll only bite
when the time is just right—
(yet every fish thinks it's very wrong!).

Now this is beach reading I can get into.

Peter Dykstra's pick:

Insane Clown President, by Matt Taibbi

This is the book of the summer (and was a gift from EHS Director Douglas Fischer). Taibbi makes a worthy bid to be the Hunter S. Thompson of an election-season press bus gone truly mad. And the potential sequel on President Trump could put the exploits of Candidate Trump to shame.

Also worth noting in a summer reading list, a complicated Arizona court case could decide whether seminal books like Henry David Thoreau's On Civil Disobedience, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Shakespeare's The Tempest, and a work by Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz may all be banned from a Tucson school's Mexican studies program. It's a reading list of its own.

Kara West’s picks:

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

When our staff started talking about a summer reading list, I promptly picked up the hot climate fiction of the moment, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. The oceans have risen 50 feet, the streets of lower Manhattan are canals, the skyscrapers have yielded their lower floors to the tide, but life goes on.

Centering on the residents of one building, Robinson spins the story of their lives in this future, drowned world. The stock trader commutes by boat, the diligent building manager dons a wetsuit as needed to check the building’s structural integrity, some mysterious coders disappear from their rooftop squat and two boys skimboard toxic water covering sidewalks at high tide.

It all builds to a literal existential crisis with all of human life in the balance … but I didn’t get that far. At 600 pages, it’s a commitment I wish I had time for. But if you are looking for a complex yet compelling, character-driven tale of New York under water for your beach house week, check out New York 2140. You can get a glimpse with an excerpt published by Nautilus last week.

Killers of the Flower Moon. The Osage Murders and the birth of the FBI, by David Grann

So there is another reason I didn’t get through New York 2140. Another book that I picked up kept claiming my attention. A couple nights this week, as I was staying up too late reading Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, I would think, "OK, back to that climate fiction." Thankfully, I realized the Osage murders are perfect for this list and gave myself full permission to dive in.

Killers of the Flower Moon is the story of a series of murders of wealthy Osage tribe members for their extremely lucrative oil rights in Oklahoma in the 1920s. Sadly, killing (or at least robbing) people for natural resources is an old story. But these killers were super devious. Some white men went as far as many year plots involving marrying Osage women and having families, only to murder them – by slow poison and quick gunshots – to inherit fabulous black gold wealth.

I’m not going to give much away. If you haven’t heard of the Osage murders, don’t Google! Give yourself the gift of this masterly suspenseful tale by David Grann. Go ahead, give yourself permission. Stay up too late and enjoy.

World Without Fish, by Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by Frank Stockton

My 8-year-old son is a reading machine these days. A monster even. He’s a reading monster machine. I am not likely to find something for myself among his stacks and stacks of Captain Underpants and Origami Yoda library books, but this week I found an absolute treasure.

Aimed at middle schoolers and beyond, World Without Fish is a uniquely illustrated, narrative account of the imperiled state of the world’s oceans and how kids’ own behaviors can affect change for the better. A lone, forlorn looking scuba diver floats in a red-hued, dead looking, fishless ocean on the cover. The speech bubble says it all, “How could we let this happen?”

Author Mark Kurlansky, a former commercial fisherman, leads the young reader through factors impacting oceans and their relationships to each other – biology, economics, politics, climate, history, culture, food – with clear, kid-friendly prose and eye-catching graphic treatments to the text.

The interwoven graphic novel and full-page illustrations by Frank Stockton take this book to a whole other level. Each chapter opens with a page of the wonderfully drawn fictional story of Kram and Ailat, a father/daughter fishing duo on their own life-long, discovery journey of the ocean challenges presented by Kurlansky.

You may recognize Mark Kurlansky as the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, arguably the grown up version of World Without Fish. In this case, I encourage you to also sit at the kids’ table and enjoy the visual feast of this book.

Laura Pyle's pick

Weregirl, by C.D. Bell

Move over Michael J. Fox, there’s a new teen wolf in town and this time it’s a GIRL. Not realizing I was in the young adult section, I recently stumbled across Weregirl at the local bookstore. The haunting text on the jacket cover – "everyone has an animal inside" – intrigued me, as did the promise of an empowering, refreshing female twist on the werewolf mythology.

Weregirl offers a coming of age story about a young high school girl named Nessa who lives in a tiny Michigan town poisoned by the local chemical company. She is an avid runner, eager to win a scholarship to flee her depressed hometown. One morning during a run through the forest there is an encounter with a wolf, a bite, a transformation.

Nessa recovers and experiences heightened senses (think Teen Wolf’s – 1985 that is – mad skills on the basketball court), including the ability to run faster than ever before. With the wind in her hair and a connection to nature like never before, Nessa harnesses her new strengths to uncover a dark conspiracy by the polluting corporation.

So come on, balance out some of the doom and gloom you read in our daily newsletters and indulge in a fun and fast-paced novel this summer. Weregirl will not disappoint. Yes, you can pretend it belongs to your tween if you’re really that self-conscious. But I say own it. This is way better than Twilight.

 

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For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 

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