Just like Hiaasen's other children's fiction, this one is charming hilarious. The young protagonists are smart and funny, just like you would expect fJust like Hiaasen's other children's fiction, this one is charming hilarious. The young protagonists are smart and funny, just like you would expect from Hiaasen. And they find themselves combating adults as they support nature, just like in his other books. But the journey is so charming that you can't help but enjoy the ride. I mean, with main characters named Tuna and Wahoo (female and male, respectively), how could this book not be charming and funny?
And even though Tuna and Wahoo have to deal with some pretty unfunny situations (child abuse, for one), they do it with grace and humor, as you would expect. ...more
I enjoyed this book a lot, though the occasional scientific diversions sometimes distracted from the narrative.
The author is a great writer, with lotI enjoyed this book a lot, though the occasional scientific diversions sometimes distracted from the narrative.
The author is a great writer, with lots of colorful and descriptive tools in her arsenal. I enjoyed the fact that she wove historical anecdotes and scientific concepts into the book. The main scientific thrust of this book is the effect that climate change is having on Antarctica, which is awful but true. Still, I felt that was a bit too much of a focus.
But when she's writing about the people who live and work in Antarctica, and about the historical figures who have been a part of the story, the book is fascinating.
I wanted to like this book, but in the end, I thought that it was basically Annie Dillard-style writing, but not nearly as polished and seamless as DiI wanted to like this book, but in the end, I thought that it was basically Annie Dillard-style writing, but not nearly as polished and seamless as Dillard's work.
This book tries to weave birdwatching into the process of the author's mother's death from (I believe) cancer. So it had the potential to be beautiful and heartbreaking. But it never did really become either beautiful or heartbreaking.
The alternation between scenes of birdwatching and mother's illness was kind of jarring, and broke up the emotional content of both topics.
I recently reread this after many years and it's been interesting to note my reaction.
While I was definitely inspired by the lofty ideals and sweepinI recently reread this after many years and it's been interesting to note my reaction.
While I was definitely inspired by the lofty ideals and sweeping language of this book on my first reading, my much-older self is forced to note the many, many holes in Thoreau's premises and arguments. His passion can't be denied, but his prose reads exactly like the "minimalists" of the present day, who pare their belongings down to 50 things, or 100 things, or 15 things, or whatever the current fad is.
The thing that rubs me the wrong way about Thoreau and the minimalists is their insistence that their chosen life is the only one worth living, and that all other ways of living are suspect, wasteful, or otherwise undesirable.
Yes, I'll read it again for its exploration of the beauty of nature and the value of finding inspiration in your own backyard, but I lost some idealism along the way, and perhaps one needs idealism to fully appreciate Thoreau....more
This was one of my favorite books when I was young. I'm sure I read it five or six hundred times. The main character, Sam, runs away from New York CitThis was one of my favorite books when I was young. I'm sure I read it five or six hundred times. The main character, Sam, runs away from New York City to live on his family's historic farmland in the Catskills. He has decided to live "off the land," and after doing research on just how to do that (in the library!), he actually does it.
I loved the fact that he hollowed out a tree as a house, made his own clothes out of deer skin, ground up acorns as flour, dug tubers, and generally managed to live a pretty good life in the wilderness.
Of course, the end is kind of sad when various people find him, and then his family comes and moves onto the land also. But I suppose Sam had discovered that humans are social animals after all.
I definitely found this book to be thought-provoking. Even if you disagree with the book's central point, you can't deny that it's thought-provoking,I definitely found this book to be thought-provoking. Even if you disagree with the book's central point, you can't deny that it's thought-provoking, which is where its strength lies.
The central premise of Sex at Dawn is that the human institution of monogamous relationships is a socially-constructed one, and, more significantly, one that goes against evolutionary biology. With the shift from forager societies to agricultural societies, humans shifted from a value structure that placed sharing (of resources and, it turns out, mates) at the top, to a value structure that emphasized possessions and hierarchy, which created the need for purity of bloodline (for inheritance purposes).
This change, according to the authors, is a kind of social veneer on our biological instincts. This explains the seemingly-insane tendencies of well-off people to sabotage their lives, livelihoods, and families to have affairs, as well as various mid-life crises, high divorce rates, and marital boredom.
Most of the book is given to refuting the dominant narrative in most (?) modern human society. That dominant narrative is as follows: men want to impregnate as many women as possible, while wanting their own wives to remain faithful in order to maintain bloodline purity. Meanwhile, women want to bond with rich, strong men who can support and defend them, while having fun on the side with young, handsome men who can broaden the genetic pool. These conflicts of interest are what contributes to the rifts in human relationships. OK, that's the dominant narrative. The authors spend most of this book trying to disprove it.
They use a lot of evolutionary biology and biological anthropology as source material, as well as some psychological studies, to support their points (though I have no training in those areas, so I can't speak to their sources' validity).
Their other major point of support is the sexual practice of the bonobo apes in central Africa. They're our closest cousins, genetically speaking, and their sexual practices differ significantly from chimps, baboons, and gibbons. For one thing, unlike nearly all other mammals (besides us!), bonobos don't confine their sexual activities to females' fertile times. Sex, for bonobos and for humans, seems to be as much about pleasure as about procreation.
The authors also use existing human societies that still practice non-monogamy: a group of people in China, a handful of forager societies in Africa, and, in an example of a matriarchal society (to disprove the notion that hierarchical patriarchy is natural), an indigenous group in Sumatra.
The writing in this book is a little on the salty side, which could be seen as positive or negative, I guess, depending on your perspective. I found it pretty amusing most of the time, but some other reviewers found the superior tone annoying or offensive.
A few criticisms: the book is organized into large sections that don't seem to have a lot to differentiate them from one another. Additionally, because of the nature of their arguments, of the book feels like literature review. I kept waiting to get out of the literature review-ish sections and into the meat of the book, but that never happened, so I was a little distracted. I should probably read it again so that I don't have that distraction in the back of my mind. Because they're evaluating a lot of existing research (some of it goes all the way back to the nineteenth century, or before), I should have expected the lion's share of the book to contain a literature review-ish quality.
Another small complaint is the tiny amount of space that the authors give to homosexuality. I found myself curious about their take on this, but all I got was a brief mention about bonding. I suppose that the authors would simply fold that kind of human relationship into all the others, which is to say that since human sexual relationships (in their hypothesis) *aren't* simply about procreation, that homosexuality makes complete sense. Just another example of humans enjoying each other. But it would have been nice to see that spelled out more clearly, since it does give validity to a gay equality argument.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I mostly enjoy anything that pokes holes in any dominant narrative: it's my contrarian nature. But I really do agree that my own society's unhealthy attitude toward sexuality causes strife and tension where it could be avoided. Whether or not one agrees that monogamy is an unnatural state, surely the authors' final point is the most important: the key to healthy relationships is to acknowledge what you personally need from your partner(s), and then to communicate those needs....more
I really enjoyed this book. From the title, you can probably guess that this book appealed to my slightly fatalistic fascination with end-of-the-worldI really enjoyed this book. From the title, you can probably guess that this book appealed to my slightly fatalistic fascination with end-of-the-world, apocalyptic scenarios. I love pondering the unavoidable and the inevitable. And this book presents, of all the environmental, weather, and disease-related possibilities for humans to kill themselves, absolutely the most unavoidable events, with absolutely the most fatalistic perspective. Which is why I loved it.
Each chapter in this book is devoted to a different way that the planet could be destroyed from outer space. And the title of the book isn’t overreaching at all: note that it isn’t called “These are the Ways the World *Could* End,” or “the Ways the World *Might* End”: it’s definitely how the world will end. The only question is when.
The first chapter is definitely the most gripping, since it’s the most likely to happen during the tenure of humans on Earth: asteroid and comet impacts. Not only is it extremely likely, it’s happened before: the asteroid that landed on Earth that killed the dinosaurs created a crater so large that you can really only see it from space. The really alarming part of asteroid/comet impact is that we could see it coming. The author points out that the comet Hale-Bopp, which passed us a few years ago, was twenty-five miles across, and, had it hit the Earth, “would have made the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs look like a wet firecracker.”
The rest of the chapters cover such fun and comforting subjects as annihilation by sun malfunction, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, black holes, hostile aliens, and the eventual death of the entire universe. I really enjoyed the way each chapter begins with a little scenario that describes what an observer on Earth would see as the event unfolded. (And, if the human observer wouldn’t have lasted very long, the scenario carries on without the benefit of that human perspective.)
The author, Philip Plait, is a witty and engaging writer who manages to make potentially dull astronomical details come to life. Some of my favorite moments in his way with language:
“For those of you clinging to hope, there is some life that might survive this stage of the Earth’s distant future [the death of our Sun]. Footnote: My suggestion: let it go.”
“The Sun is a mighty, vast, furiously seething cauldron of mass and energy. . . . Invisible forces writhe and wrestle for control on its surface, and when it loses its temper, the consequences can be dire and even lethal. That is what it means to be an ‘ordinary’ star.”
“Sure, black holes can kill us, and in a variety of interesting and gruesome ways. . . . Remember: when you stare into the abyss, sometimes it stares back at you.”
However, even his wit and facility with language couldn’t save me from getting bogged down in the black holes chapter. To be fair, black holes and quantum physics aren’t the easiest subjects for a lay reader to absorb in 75 pages or so. I know that he tried to keep things moving, but I ended up skimming a bit.
The last chapter is the most staggering, in terms of its scale and its topic, and, besides the chapter on alien invasion, is the one that left the greatest impression on me. It’s the end of everything in the universe. Plait explains how, over the almost unimaginable eons of time to come (he tries to explain just how long this will take, but it really boggles the mind), slowly everything will end. After all the stars have burned themselves out, after the galaxy itself has evaporated through interstellar collisions, after even neutron stars have burned out, after matter itself has reached the end of its existence (remember the “half-life” of atomic particles?), even black holes will disintegrate. At that point the Universe will be “an ethereally thin slurry” of particles, “dark, randomized, silent.”
Am I just crazy, or is it totally fascinating to consider this stuff? I guess I’m captivated by things that are completely out of my control. And with cosmological events, there’s not much to do but sit back and see what happens. Of course, by the time black holes manage to disintegrate, humans will be long gone, but still.
Recommended if you love apocalyptic scenarios, astronomy, or a wittily written combination of the two!...more
I loved this book. I mean, I was entranced by it and couldn't put it down. The book answers the question: "what would happen to the planet if all humaI loved this book. I mean, I was entranced by it and couldn't put it down. The book answers the question: "what would happen to the planet if all humans disappeared tomorrow?" Maybe I'm just a morbid person, but I've played that game with myself many, many times. While driving past the petroleum district here in my town, I've wondered what would happen to them after we've gone. I've wondered how long it would take for my apartment building to molder back into the ground. How long would the landfills take to break down? Will they remain mountains forever? These questions occupy my mind sometimes while I'm driving or otherwise unoccupied.
Well, this book answers all of them, using expert input from paleo-climatologists, evolutionary biologists, marine biologists, archaeologists, and many others.
A few of my favorite parts include: a chapter on the fate of the world's 441 nuclear reactors, a chapter on what would happen to New York City, and a chapter on what faces the petroleum production corridor of the Texas and Louisiana coasts (where I live!).
The chapter on the fate of plastic was terrifying. I mean, it made me swear to stop using it: plastic wrap, bottles of shampoo, grocery bags, sandwich baggies--I felt guilty for ever touching it.
But the nice thing about this book is that the author manages to avoid being preachy. I've read lots of other environmentally-oriented books and articles that go on and on about what we should be doing to improve the situation. This author avoids that whole can of worms, and instead just presents the facts as scientists understand them at the moment. I appreciate that kind of fatalistic realism.
Since I'm carrying on with my summer reading project, even though it's no longer summer anymore, here's the latest installment. I was really looking fSince I'm carrying on with my summer reading project, even though it's no longer summer anymore, here's the latest installment. I was really looking forward to reading Seeds of Change (Henry Hobhouse, 1986). I'd heard from someone else, years ago, who used it in writing a research paper, that it was a really great book. I also happen to love books about food, plants, science, and history. Win-win, right?
Let me start by saying that I certainly learned a lot from this book. I probably could have learned more if I'd been taking notes or annotating as I read. This book is packed, and I mean jammed, with information. For such a short book (232 pages, and that's counting endnotes), it ranges over most of world history, with some botany, biology, and archaeology thrown in for flavor.
This book devotes one chapter each to quinine, sugar, tea, cotton, and potatoes, describing the history of each plant and how its use by humans has affected our history. This might sound a lot like Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, and while they share a basic theme, the two books are quite different. Pollan's subtitle sums up his approach--"A Plant's Eye View of the World."
While Pollan investigated the history of several plants and their interactions with human history, casting plants as the active agents and using their stories for environmental and political discussion, Hobhouse's starts and ends with human history, with much less emphasis on botany and current politics. Hobhouse's book is very much a product of its time: the 1980s revisionist historians' push to change the dominant historical discourses (Howard Zinn is the major example, of course). As such, the book contains some odd-sounding phrases and habits of writing; he uses lots of "mankind," "fellow men," and even engages in some surprising stereotypes (the industrious Asians, the inscrutable Chinese, etc).
I found each chapter of this book fascinating, full of historical information, and well-researched (complete with endnotes, clearly written for a more academic audience than Pollan's book). But many of the chapters suffered from trying to be a little too complete. For example, the chapter on tea is so wide ranging (because the topic itself is huge) that trying to pack all that information into one small book chapter was a mistake. In the introduction, Hobhouse summarizes the impact of tea on human history: "Tea was more than an incident in the American War of Independence, was instrumental in the development of porcelain in Europe and China, permanently influenced sailing ship design, and by transfer in the nineteenth century developed 'gardens' in Indian and Sri Lanka which changed the history of the subcontinent" (xiv). Just summarizing these events is a massive undertaking, so it's not surprising that reading this chapter was slightly overwhelming. I found it hard to even process so much information.
The chapter called "Quinine and the White Man's Burden" (see what I mean about the language?) is another one that, while fascinating in its information, is far too big in its scope. Not only does Hobhouse write a fairly detailed history of white peoples' interactions with the cinchona tree and quinine (the drug derived from the tree's bark), but he tries to squeeze in a quick summary of the history of synthetic drug manufacturing and its origins with the Germans in the World War II era. It was just a little too much; it felt tacked-on and awkward.
The chapters that are more circumspect work better. The chapter on cotton and the American South, for example, was very interesting and much easier to follow, since it was confined to only two continents and a fairly limited period of time.
I'm happy to have read this book, but it didn't grip me in the way that other Natural Revisionist History of [Insert Noun Here] books have gripped me. Recommended if you're really into food, plants, or European history (like I am!)....more
This book falls into my mental bookshelf for naturalist writers like Annie Dillard, Wallace Stevens, Aldo Leopold, and others of that type. I was exciThis book falls into my mental bookshelf for naturalist writers like Annie Dillard, Wallace Stevens, Aldo Leopold, and others of that type. I was excited to read it ever since I moved away from the Midwest. I've been craving seasons and reading about them.
The writing in this book is lovely, and recalls Dillard's attention to small details and Leopold's passion for the Midwestern prairies, though without Dillard's luminous prose or Leopold's occasional preachy-ness.
There's a lovely essay on a prairie thunderstorm, a great summary of the paleo-history of the Great Plains, and numerous bits here and there that make me miss the prairies. For some reason, the essay on the role of the bison in plains Native American life rubbed me the wrong way, with its tendency to romanticize Native American life on the prairies. But the essay on the phenomenon of prairie fires redeemed it.
The book is divided into four sections, one for each season. In each season, Gruchow includes several short essays on seasonal phenomena: insects, the wind, grasses, animals. He also weaves in childhood memories of growing up in the upper Midwest.
I can't tell if I like this book because I miss living in the Midwest, or whether I like it for its own merits. I suspect it's a combination, and it makes a nice addition to my naturalist writers collection.
Recommended if you like the Midwest or naturalist writing in general....more
This book captured me in a way that some fiction can. I was totally absorbed in Pollan's perspective in this book, and in the four stories he presentsThis book captured me in a way that some fiction can. I was totally absorbed in Pollan's perspective in this book, and in the four stories he presents here. The apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato become agents in their own evolution, in Pollan's view. He proposes that these plants (and others too) manipulate humans by appealing to our various senses/appetites in order to control their own destiny.
Even if that particular twist of viewpoint doesn't appeal, the descriptions and histories of these four plants and their interactions with humans makes for a fascinating story. The story of Johnny Appleseed alone is worth reading, not to mention a whole chapter on intoxicants like marijuana.
Pollan's research is integrated seamlessly into his easy-to-read narrative. ...more