“Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment” by Sandra Steingraber
In her epic book, “Living Downstream,” biologist and poet Sandra Steingraber picks up where Rachel Carson’s landmark book on environmental change caused by humans, “Silent Spring,” left off and further making the case that the things we greedily shove into our environment can have, and have had, negative effects on human life.
Steingraber has battled cancer since her twenties, and so have other members of her (adoptive) family from rural Illinois. Obviously, this wasn’t genetic, so this got her wondering, and so she’s delved into the higher rates of cancer in industrial areas, and areas where the most chemicals and other toxins are created and released – and the spike in this correlation since World War Two. (Many chemicals were developed for warfare during WW2, then were repurposed as pesticides afterward. All the data shows the surge in cancers and other diseases in humans and animals after that time. Charming, huh?)
Steingraber writes of her own personal battles with cancer, as well as the battles of many MANY others, beautifully. She points out hard truths and asks tough questions.
“As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I am grateful that my father did not die in a typhus epidemic in Naples. But as a survivor of cancer, as a native of Tazewell County, and as a member of the most poisoned generation to come of adult age, I am sorry that cooler heads did not prevail in the calm prosperity of peacetime, when careful consideration and a longer view on public health were once again permissible and necessary. I am sorry that no one asked, ‘Is this the industrial path we want to continue along? Is this the most reasonable way to rid our dogs of fleas and our trees of gypsy moths? Is this the safest material for a baby’s pacifier or for a tub of margarine?’ Or that those who did ask such questions were not heard.”
“Living Downstream” is a hard book to read, despite the fact that it’s well written, compelling and actually quite lovely. It’s a book that will make you think twice about going outside, and will definitely open your eyes to the dangers in the world around us — and how, despite scientific evidence, the companies and governments with the money are going to do whatever they want unless someone stops them…
I picked up Johnathan Yardley’s “Second Reading” during what I consider a BookNerd’s pilgrimage to Mecca – a visit to BookPeople in Austin, TX. BookPeople is such a fantastic bookstore, I can’t imagine a setting more perfect for booklovers.
Now that THAT is off my chest.
“Second Reading” is a perfect book for booklovers.
In 2003, Washington Post columnist Johnathan Yardley began a series where he would re-read a neglected, forgotten, or otherwise faded from the forefront book and write his impressions of said book. It was a hit. In “Second Reading,” Yardley collects a bunch of these past columns regarding books both known and unknown. Yardley loves books, and – bless him! – not just snooty books that are loved by critics. He likes popular things, too, which is always an endearing trait. Anyone who likes “Treasure Island” is fine by me.
From “The Catcher in the Rye” to Moss Hart’s autobiography of his life in the American Theater, every book Yardley discusses in his candid and forward way sounds utterly fascinating.
The book made me add the following titles to my own “to-read” list.
- The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The House on Coliseum Street, by Shirley Ann Grau
- Revellie in Washington, by Margaret Leech
If you like books about books, “Second Reading” is pretty grand.
This one’ll be hanging around on my bookcase.
(Happy 2013, everyone! I’ve officially begun my “not buying any new/used books until I’ve read all the books I own and haven’t read” project, so here goes!)
Peter Laufer’s “The Dangerous World of Butterflies” is a book full of wonderment for the reader. In these pages, he takes us behind the pretty colors of butterflies as a sweet and magical insect, and delves into things like illegal butterfly trade, the battle between purists and the commercial breeders who sell them for things like wedding releases, and even the sort of creepier aspects of butterfly life.
Did you know that male butterflies will sit on a pupa that is a few days away from hatching a female butterfly, and will puncture the skin of the pupa to mate with the female who hasn’t even hatched into a butterfly yet?
Me neither. Geez! The things you learn from books.
The story behind the book is almost as good as the book itself. Laufer is a journalist whose previous books include works on Iraq and life in prison. It was at a speaking event when he made a quip about his next book being about “butterflies and flowers” that triggered the research behind this incredibly smart book. He was invited to a butterfly preserve in Nicaragua, and was off and running.
The most interesting parts of the book include the story of a Fish and Wildlife officer who wound up capturing the “world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler,” and a section dealing with how the creation of a border wall along the Rio Grande will be devastating to butterfly habitats. The book is pro-conservation, and Laufer becomes a sort of unintentional advocate for butterfly preservation. There are a couple duller segments, but nothing that made me want to stop reading. (Also, for the Chicagoans, Laufer visits the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum butterfly haven, which is a lovely place I’ve been to several times and will never stop marveling at.)
For those of you who dig science and a good non-fiction read, this might be the book for you. It’s made me look at butterflies in a different light.
With books, a website, audio seminar recordings, and kits to help you get your family on the “cheap” track, they’ve forged a business out of saving money, which Americans are hands-down terrible at.
Regarding the book — It’s broken down into sections for how to save on everything from cars to clothes to prescription drugs. Most of the tips are fairly common sense (There’s a huge emphasis on second-hand clothes/stores, which seems obvious) but there are a few truly clever nuggets to be found, mainly in the system they used to teach their five kids about money. Also, they emphasize more planning things to avoid impulsive shopping/spending.
There are a few “WTF” moments, though. I can’t be speaking only for myself when I say that the suggestion of purchasing a second-hand slow-cooker to cook your meals in your hotel room while on vacation is a little weird, and is it legal to purchase your prescription drugs in Canada, regardless of the savings?
Still, if you’re looking for a book to aid you in getting your family finances on track, this isn’t a bad place to start. Kudos to the Economides for their money-saving savvy, and for turning it into (I presume) a profitable business.
FYI — I borrowed this book from the Chicago Public Library, which is one of the ways the Economides’ encourage people to save.
On that note, it’s National Library Card Month. Do you have yours?
“American Dream” quite literally fell off the bookcase at Open Books in it’s demand to be read. So I bought it, and I read it in 24 hours because I simply could not put it down.
Is there a more hot-button issue than welfare? Okay, abortion will probably light people up just as well, but welfare is one of those topics that everyone has an opinion on — and they’re always those opinions that cannot be reconsidered and are set in stone.
“American Dream” should be a required read before forming any of those opinions.
Did you know that when the program we now refer to as “Welfare” began, it was aimed at white stay at home mothers who found themselves widowed? That’s a far cry from where the system is now — viewed by many as a dependent class. (And, in the words of some current Presidential candidates, people who view themselves as victims. Oh, politics.) Under the leadership of Bill Clinton in the 90s, there was a massive drive to try and get people receiving these benefits back to work and off the rolls. It’s an incredibly intricate story of the U.S. government at all levels trying something and succeeding (Oregon), and failing (Mississippi), and doing better, and doing worse.
Things are not cut and dry. Or black and white.
DeParle does something genius with this book. While he’s relating the history of the Clinton Administration’s efforts to get welfare recipients back to work — and the substantial bureaucratic screw-ups to follow — he also puts the story on the backs of three real-life women/mothers who are on-again-off-again receivers of welfare benefits; hardworking Angie, holding out for a man in jail Jewell, and Opal with the drug problem. If you can’t find some sympathy for at least one of the three of them, I’d question your heart.
“American Dream…” is a really powerful piece of non-fiction writing about an issue that’s still being hotly debated in American politics. If you like this sort of read, this one is a must-read.
This is officially my least favorite book by Jon Krakauer, who I would ordinarily say is one of my favorite authors. He’s a journalist/writer who normally has an uncanny way of bringing true stories to life in such well-written detail that you’d almost believe you were reading a novel. His “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air” are two of the most riveting reads I’ve ever had the good pleasure to encounter, but “Under the Banner of Heaven” is another story.
In 1984, two brothers (acting, they believed, on God’s orders) murdered a mother and her infant daughter in cold blood. They were Mormons, and the case was one of many things that brought the dark side of the Mormon faith into the limelight.
Mormonism, known largely in America for the whole polygamy thing, is a huge religion. Heck, we even have a Presidential candidate who is a Mormon. However, like many religions, some people take things/their beliefs way too far. My problem with “Under the Banner of Heaven” is that, while the polygamy and murder case parts of the book are fascinating, the rest of it – a detailed history of the Mormon religion – was pretty dull. It felt like I was reading a textbook. So I started skimming those parts, which to me doesn’t equal a strong read.
Mr. Krakauer is awesome, and I realize not everyone can be amazing all the time, but “Under the Banner of Heaven” was disappointing to me. Good thing I got it for $1.o0 at a used book store, right? Read “Into the Wild” instead to get a better idea of the power of this gifted non-fiction writer, but this book isn’t worth your time.
In 1925, an expedition led by Colonel Fawcett headed into the Amazon searching for the fabled City of Z, more commonly known as El Dorado. This team was never heard from again. Many more expeditions followed them, hoping to learn the truth about their disappearance, and many of those expeditions disappeared (or simply died) along the way of the various dangers of the Amazon — ferocious tribes, strange diseases, starvation, pirahna…
So of course writer David Gramm decided to go into the Amazon and investigate this decades-old mystery.
Because that always works out so well.
If nothing else, he’s a thorough lunatic. Before embarking on his own quest, Gramm details the life story of Fawcett and his history as a famous explorer. (This dude had been into the Amazon many times previously.) Gramm also gets his facts straight and does every bit of research he can on where this gleaming magical city might be.
Also, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shows up? Win.
Oh, and Fawcett’s wife is a fascinating character who could be a book all by herself.
Does Fawcett reach his goal? Does Gramm? Like I can tell you that here. All I’ll say is that if you’d like a pretty conclusive answer to WTF happened to this 1925 expedition, you should read “The City of Z.”
Also, if there’s any part of you that’s ever suffered from Wanderlust, for this book reads as a great travelogue.
It’s also darn good non-fiction, and pretty great journalism.
Yeah, I liked it.
First, he makes science accessible to the reader, regardless of their level of education in the field of tree biology.
Second, he makes you remember how awesome trees are.
Who doesn’t like trees? They’re pretty spectacular. Wouldn’t it suck if they all went away? Yet, they’re vanishing pretty fast – thanks to human interference and climate change and other factors.
Fortunately, there are people like David Milarch in the world. Milarch is a former addict who died, went into the light, and came back with a mission to save the trees. Seriously. Based out of a nursery in Michigan, Milarch is leading a charge to take samples from the best of the best trees – for example, the Redwoods of California – and clone them to be planted in other areas. By choosing the genetic champion trees, Milarch is helping pass on the best traits of the trees that won the survival of the fittest game. Scientists are now joining in and saying he’s really on to something, and he might even be saving the world. (Not bad for a pretty regular dude, huh?)
Robbins cuts Milarch’s remarkable story with chapters that are mini-case files on a few examples of specific trees that require rescue, and fast. Beside the amazing Redwoods, there are Willow trees, there are Ulmo trees, and the wonderfully named Stinking Cedar, among others.
There are moments of elation and heartbreak in this book, which is not what I was expecting. When Robbins recalls the story of Prometheus, a bristlecone tree cut down by a grad student for research that may have actually been the oldest tree on earth, you feel like yelling “No!” Your heart hurts a little. It’s thrilling when an elm tree is discovered after nearly all elms have died off. You find yourself getting emotional about trees – which is probably the point.
Care about the earth? Read this book. Then plant a tree. (Inspired, I’m already planning to plant a couple when I head to Northern Michigan this summer.)
Thanks for what you do, Mr. Milarch. Thanks for documenting it so well, Mr. Robbins. Keep it up, guys.
Blast Off! – “Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and my 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission” by Andrew Kessler
Maybe, deep down, I’m a space nerd. Who knows? For some reason, despite knowing very little about science, I’m drawn to books like Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars,” and now Andrew Kessler’s “Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and my 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission.”
In the summer of 2008, Kessler got the gig of a lifetime – he was invited to take part in the Phoenix Mars Mission, documenting the entire summer the ground crew would spend working round-the-clock at Mission Control to operate a lander on Mars. From their office-like base in Tuscon, Arizona, a crew of brilliant scientists and engineers from around the world gathered to see what mysteries of Mars they could solve. In addition to returning amazing images of the red planet, the mission discovered such amazing things as what the soil of Mars contains (calcium and magnesium, for two) and the fact that it snows on Mars. (Did you know that? I didn’t!)
Kessler is the odd man out. Not only is he not a scientist, but his very being in the hub of all these discussions and experiments would probably be frowned upon by NASA. Phoenix’s principal investigator Peter Smith brings Kessler on board to document the project in a new way in the hopes that he can help make space inspiring again.
Spending his days as part of Mission Control, Kessler gets to know the crew and write them lovingly as hyper-smart individuals rather than the geek squad they could have become in lesser hands. From a PR lady who doesn’t care much for Kessler’s presence, to a young man who’s actually royalty back in Ghana, to the Danish members of the crew, to a Brazilian scientist who pushes everyone’s buttons with his insistence water has been found on Mars, everyone Kessler comes into contact comes off as a fascinating character who could probably be the focus of their own book.
Of course, they don’t feel that way.
“No, what are you really doing here?” Matt asks. I tell them I’m here to write about the people who work in Mission Control.
“That doesn’t sound very interesting,” Ashitey says. There’s no hint of irony in his voice; a purely professional assessment.
Kessler manages to walk the line between being honest about how incredibly un-glamorous working in Mission Control is, while at the same time keeping space exciting. By the end of the book, you’re holding out hope that the intrepid Phoenix, millions of miles away alone on Mars, can hold out and complete the tasks it needs to finish in order for the mission to be deemed a success. You’re rooting for a machine on another planet as much as you’re rooting for the gaggle of people who work tirelessly (and through huge amounts of sleep deprivation) to make it work.
Will the machine’s arm hold out? Will the batteries last? Will the memory be enough? (FYI – Did you know the Phoenix only had 100MB of memory. To put that in perspective, my ipod – an older model – has 80GB.)
Kessler’s book is an exciting read, and the kind of book that could awaken an interest in the other side of working in space. Not the Hollywood hero kind of working in space, but the actual day job of being a part of a crew making important discoveries on worlds far away.
Note: In what I happen to think is a clever move, Kessler launched his book with a great stunt – opening a bookstore that sold ONLY his book! Wacky, but I like it. My personal review copy of the book came courtesy of the folks at Open Road Media, an e-book publishing company. Nice to see at least a few people realizing that the audience for books is shifting a little, and it might be time to adapt. I mean, nothing will ever replace ink and paper, but I’m in love with the convenience and ease of my Kindle, and don’t see it coming to an end anytime soon.
“This is our monster. This is the monster we know so well, the monster we have taken into our hearts and lives, the monster we love to tremble and to cheer for, the monster we fear, the monster we seek, and the monster we have become. This is the monster made by man. This is the monster called by his creator’s name, if named at all. This is the monster known as Frankenstein.” – Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s “Frankenstein: A Cultural History.
America loves their Frankenstein. Or at least, the monster that has come to be known as simply Frankenstein. (This Mary Shelley nerd will refrain from the oft-repeated argument that at no point in the original novel is the monster called “Frankenstein,” and that – in fact – Frankenstein is the name of the monster’s creator.) From cartoon appearances, to Halloween costumes, to seemingly ubiquitous iconography, everybody can identify Frankenstein from a young age.
Susan Tyler Hitchcock is a Frankenstein fan herself, and seems to revel in tracing the origins of this monster from being a character created in a novel written by a teenage girl to being one of the most famous monsters of all time. Her book “Frankenstein: A Cultural History” is a blast to read, and full of useful information. As the monster morphed from book character to common character in stage plays, and finally made his way to the movies, the features became more and more known and iconic.
Much of Tyler Hitchcock’s book focuses on the Universal Studios horror film starring Boris Karloff that gave the world the flat-headed, green, bolt-necked face we’re so familiar with today. (Karloff was a big fan of his character, calling the monster his “old friend” years late in reverence.) Frankenstein’s appearances in a string of movies are examined, and we even get a backstage pass as to how the Bride of Frankenstein’s famous hairstyle was created.
From becoming a mega-monster, Frankenstein’s renaissance seemed to come with two more modern films – “Young Frankenstein” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It was around the 70s/80s that Mary Shelley’s novel came back into play and started to receive serious scholarship, bringing the origins of this adored monster full circle.
If you’re interested in literary/film/media history, this book is right up your alley. As one who can’t get enough Frankenstein, I adored it. Tyler Hitchcock is smart, funny, and an encyclopedia of knowledge on the topic she’s writing about and the result is just great. Two thumbs up.