In Part 2 of our Book World retrospective, we share a trove of outstanding books on science, natural history, and the human condition from Green News Update selections over the past five years. You can dive into interviews, book reviews, excerpts, and TED talks. Part I features Heroes & Heroines, Questing and Cities You Can’t Forget.
Please note: You can access more than 200 book selections from 2012-2017 by going to our homepage. Use the Category drop-down menu and select “Books,” or scroll down, look to the left and use the “Search” function on the homepage to search for something specific (e.g. Charles Dickens, Sebastian Junger, The High Line).
Outdoors and the Natural World
Scientists and journalists featured here are intrepid in their search for the oldest, smartest and rarest creatures on the planet– and why they’re in jeopardy.
Brooklyn-based Rachel Sussman spent 10 years in her epic quest to photograph The Oldest Living Things on the planet. Her pilgrimage began in Japan with a trip to Jomon Sugi, a cypress more than two thousand years old. Where it leads her – from the Antarctic to the Mohave Desert– is for you to find out! In its large format 269 pp, with essays by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Carl Zimmer, we think it is a book to cherish and pass on to your grandkids.
Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America by Roberta J. M. Olson, (Skira Rizzoli) was produced for the three-part John James Audubon sesquicentennial exhibition in New York. It’s a showcase of the watercolors that Haitian-born Audubon painted—a herculean effort — for creating for his masterpiece–The Birds of America. In addition to 474 fine color plates (710 illustrations in all) the book offers plenty of backstory. Named one of Amazon.com’s top books for 2012, this book is a keeper for your grandkids.
The Sea and Its Abundance is a themed story, a special compilation of more than a dozen books on ocean life that first appeared in Green News Update in 2014. Below (◊) are four selected works that have stood the test of time and make great additions to any personal library. You may access all four of them, plus many more, from this link.
◊Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Left Behind, Richard Fortey. The “old timers” is what we might call them, the species that have survived multiple mass extinctions. Fortey calls them “messengers from deep geological time.” For example, Horseshoe crabs are essential for human medical science, and are terribly imperiled. Read more about the fascinating species Fortey pursued.
◊Juliet Eilperin’s Demon Fish: Travels through the Hidden World of Sharks, covers 400 million years of evolutionary history–sharks have proved to be survivors (remember the dinosaurs, woolly mammoth and saber tooth tiger?). Eilperin documents the insatiable demand for shark – the limitless demand for shark fins, which leaves sharks dying an excruciating death once finned. Today’s figures are just as staggering – 70 million+ killed a year. Kudos for her firsthand research: she has swum with whale sharks, black tips, lemon sharks and even great whites (even as the mother of a newborn!).
◊In The Extreme Life of the Sea, by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi: A father-son duo (dad a marine biologist; son a novelist/science writer) investigate the lengthy and diverse development of life in the seas – from microbial soup to viruses, from the Pompeii worm, Alvinella pompejana, that lives in nearly boiling hot thermal vents, to creatures of icy seas.
◊Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish. Author James Prosek explains that the first “American” Thanksgiving was not turkey and trimmings. Eel was served at the dinner given to the Pilgrims by the Patuxet the day after they made peace with Massasoit, leader of the region. Eel were plentiful, long-lived and nutritious – until now. They are sought by Japanese diners and extremely imperiled.
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness, Sy Montgomery (Atria Books). Based on both science and emotion, this book is a window into the world of the highly intelligent and intriguing octopus, from behind the scenes encounters at Boston’s New England Aquarium and diving in Polynesian waters. Montgomery’s most emotional connection is to Octavia, a giant Pacific octopus who is transported to the aquarium via Federal Express. Montgomery experiences Octavia through physical contact: “I stroked her head,” Montgomery reports, “her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me.” You’ll learn more than you thought possible in this book.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Frans de Waal (Norton) “What could be more dignified than primates who use their natural gifts to build a humane society?” A celebrated primatologist and prolific author, Frans de Waal manages to live in two worlds – as a serious researcher who has devoted nearly 40 years to the study of primate behavior and social intelligence, with some dozen popular books that inform and illuminate the parallels between human and primate behavior. Are We Smart Enough to Know…investigates how other animals, including octopuses, birds, even insects, can be adept at solving problems
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina (Henry Holt and Co.) A professor at Stony Brook University, marine conservationist, author of seven books, MacArthur Fellow, and popular TED Talk presenter (over 750,000 views), Carl Safina loves free-living creatures and respects for their intelligence. It has driven him to his latest work, in which he travels to Africa, Yellowstone National Park, and the Pacific Northwest to observe “who” they are—in this case, great elephant gatherings, wolves, and killer whales.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co.) by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has been called a major “…book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes.”
In a Guardian interview, she states: “One third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are heading towards oblivion.” We feature an essay from her book.
The Human Condition
The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner) 592 pp . Mukherjee’s brilliant first book The Emperor of all Maladies (2010) won him the Pulitzer Prize and other awards for his in-depth history and analysis of the disease that has plagued humans (and some animals!) for thousands of years. The book became a 3-part series on PBS and has been described (by Time) as one of the 100 most influential books written since 1923. In The Gene–thought of as a prequel to The Emperor— he reprises his fundamental approach – both as a history and in themes (biology, information science, psychiatry) with plenty of players along the way. Mukherjee himself calls the discovery “one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science.”
Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, David J. Linden (Viking) Neuroscientist David J. Linden normally studies learning and memory, but he was drawn to the question of how touch – from early infancy to throughout life – affects who we are, our personality, health, and the entire human experience. Children abandoned to orphanages under Romania’s dictator Ceaucescu experienced extreme sensory deprivation, especially touch, which has devastating consequences for their mental and physical health. Biology, chemistry, physiology, our emotions, and culture all play a role in how touch affects everything from shopping to sex.
Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us, Lee Goldman(Little, Brown) Cardiologist Lee Goldman who reviews how humans continue to hang onto survival traits that worked well in the Paleolithic era, but today threaten us with obesity, heart attack, stroke, depression and suicide. Here are the four “deadly sins” that early humans used to advantage: craving for high-calorie foods and the ability to store excess calories as fat; the craving for salt; fear and self-protection for escaping prehistoric dangers; the ability to form blood clots (a good thing if you’re wounded, but not if you are sitting on your tush all day). Each of these helped provide an evolutionary advantage for humans in its time, but not now!
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss. ( Random House) Wonder why you can’t stop with one Oreo, Dorito or Cheeto? Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss had unprecedented access to major food manufacturers and got them to reveal how they formulate what we crave and enjoy – salt, sugar and fat – in processed foods and how those foods addict us.
RECLAIMING CONVERSATION: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle. (Penguin Press) “Facebook…compulsive texting, the tyranny of office email, and shallow online social activism all come in for paddling” says award-winning author Jonathan Franzen, in his New York Times review. Turkle makes the case for parents (and adults too!) to reclaim intimate connections only possible through face-to-face conversation. Franzen’s review has its own merits as an essay, and makes a great case for following up her previous book with a close read of this one
SPECTACLE: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, Pamela Newkirk.(Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers)Pamela Newkirk seeks the truth – and finds it – in the story of Ota Benga, a Congo boy who was probably abducted and brought to the United States to be on display as an African Pgymy. After an appearance at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, he was brought to New York and was put on display – locked in a cage with an orangutan at the New York Zoological Society (now the Bronx Zoo) –under the aegis of its director. You will long for a better ending than you will get, as you read this book.
Celebrate our 5th Anniversary as a web/blog with these other special features
Our 5th Anniversary 10 Great People (features on real world heroes and heroines)