Magisterial in scope and passionately cogent in expression, “The Earth Transformed: An Untold History” is a vast undertaking that should not succeed but does so with panache. Oxford University historian Peter Frankopan has dared to take on a revised history of humans on Earth viewed through the lens of the planet’s changing climate. What’s more, he bravely attempts to cover the entire globe, not just the main continents of Europe and Asia and (later) northern America. As an amateur historian tackling a daunting enough project myself, I gasped in awe at Frankopan’s absorption of historical data, including the transformative recent analyses permitted by new dating and genetic technologies. After a first chapter encapsulating the first four-and-a-half billion or so years of Earth’s existence, he introduces (over some seven million years) the species of us, then moves forward in chunks of history from 12,000 BC, hitting “the Roman Warm Period” straddling AD zero by Chapter 9. Ten more chapters reach the industrial age, four chapters find us in a chapter titled “The Sharpening of Anxieties (c. 1960-c. 1990), before wrapping up with three decades of the climate crisis. I was constantly flabbergasted by new knowledge: so many volcanoes plunging the planet into cooling; so many local cooling or warming spurts; such a clear early signal of manmade warming via fossil fuel burning! Throughout, the overwhelming flood of climate-rich data never, in fact, overwhelms, so clear is the author’s control and style, and he never over-eggs the climactic evidence, remaining quite the scrupulous evidence-based historian. There has never been a history like The Earth Transformed and I venture to suggest that in this intersection between climate, planet, and dominant species, there might never be another as impressive.
Flight Paths by Rebecca Heisman [7/10]
On an Earth plummeting toward mass extinctions of many animal, plant, and bird species, passionate scientists and naturalists are striving to accomplish the impossible, to save the species closest to the cliff’s edge. To do that, dramatic and imaginative solutions are employed, and to do that, knowledge is key. In the case of our 10,000-plus bird species, where, when, and how they fly is a crucial knowledge piece, and until the past few decades, was a scientific gap. “Flight Paths,” written stylishly and cogently by America science writer and naturalist Rebecca Heisman, plugs the gap with a wonderfully informative recent history of the often-unknown heroes who have revolutionized ornithological understanding of avian flight. Progressively covering better and more authoritative surveying across the immense distances over which birds, incredibly, migrate from the birder with her binoculars; to scanning moonlit skies in peak migration season; to clumsy early leg bands; to lighter and lighter on-bird trackers; to the stunning use of radar; to mass community science efforts; to satellite tracking; and (the most amazing feat of all, to my mind) analysis of radioactive isotopes in feathers … all this is explicated. Talking to and visiting a band of modest and sometimes eccentric ornithologists, engineers, and birders, the author brings to life the excitement of rapidly escalating understanding of the creatures that have been in our planet’s skies long before we walked its lands. Highly recommended, Flight Paths is.
Aftersun by Charlotte Wells [8/10]
A bold arthouse movie that alienates many from the first scene (I know, having seen the film in a party of ten), “Aftersun” covers a few days in a seedy Portugese beach resort. Calum, a young Irishman, is treating Sophie, his eleven-year-old daughter to a holiday, and it is immediately clear that Sophie lives with her mother and Calum is desperate to reestablish a relationship with her. Sophie, played with immersive brilliance by Frankie Corio takes jerky home movies that form part of her adult memories, as we see from a few flash-forwards. Calum is sweet (another wonderful performance from Paul Mescal) but we begin to see hidden despair behind his clumsy efforts at loving fatherhood. Willfully oblique in cinematography and narrative direction, Aftersun mixes brief cryptic images and scenes with drawn-out episodes of what seems to be banality, but behind every moment, it becomes clear hidden emotions swirl. This is a film to give you a headache from concentrating but the emotional depth is astounding.
The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black [7/10]
Science writer Riley Black takes no prisoners in her barnstorming “The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction and the Beginning of Our World,” an exuberantly portrayed depiction of the “dinosaur extinction” event that took place around 66 million years ago when an asteroid eleven kilometers in size ploughed from space into Arizona. Using extravagant, lyrical prose that would not be out of place in a wild space opera sci-fi novel, she brings to life the panoply of lumbering beasts on land, in air, and undersea that dominated the planet, and then works forward from the point of impact in gradually escalating time shifts to indicate the workings of evolution in the aftermath, capturing the rise of birds (my particular interest) and pointing toward the advent of mammalian humans. This is a bold approach that eschews the usual academic cautiousness when dealing with the uncertainties of fossil evidence, but the author, at the end of her narrative, doubles back to explain the scientific underpinnings, including the necessary caveats. It is tough for the layperson to absorb the workings of deep time; The Last Days of the Dinosaurs enables just that, and in style.
Built to Move by Juliet Starrett & Kelly Starrett [8/10]
Is “Built to Move: The 10 Essential Habits to Help you Move Freely and Live Fully” an old person’s choice of reading? Certainly pensionability most readily drives an interest in the topics covered in this fascinating, readable, stylish, and useful plea for a conscious approach to bodily mobility and balance. But as the authors keep pointing out, the earlier one attends to those parts of the body that fray and stiffen with age, the more readily one maintains resilience and physical freedom throughout life. As they reiterate often, the modern office and home environments encourage basic inbuilt bodily flexibility to fray. At my age (68), as someone who exercises and indeed stretches (albeit a tad incoherently), I was enraptured from the start. The “ten essential habits” cover more general concerns such as sleep, breathing, walking, dietary basics, and the office environment, but the book’s foundational value lies in five chapters dealing with balance, squatting, neck/shoulders, hip mobility, and sitting/rising. Sounds easy, you say? In my case, I plan to work through the book gradually over a year, incorporating their progressive programs, and, based on my read-through, I am confident I shall be a more limber, alive individual at the end. I commend Built to Move to any reader keen to maximize joyous enjoyment of the world.
Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder by Kerryn Mayne [6/10]
“Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder” is a spirited Australian take on novels like Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, that is, a tale of a female teacher in a outer suburban Melbourne school who is “on the spectrum” and suppressing horrific childhood traumas. Lenny Marks was taken away from her parents as a child and lives a regimented, orderly life, until a government letter lifts the veil from her past. I enjoyed the central character. the well-staged plot, and the cast of characters orbiting Lenny Marks. The author’s style is fresh and vivid. All that said, two shadows were cast onto my reading: I was not fully convinced of Lenny’s character and its inconsistencies (I am aware this is a personal reaction, others may well find the depiction true); and the energetic style lacked some nuance. Overall, Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder should receive a decent readership and is a welcome look at this fraught subject matter.
EO by Jerzy Skolimowski [6/10]
A surreal road trip movie from the eyes of a donkey, “EO” treats the viewer to a number of richly evocative scenes but falls short of creating a compelling narrative. The donkey, EO, appears to us first in a circus, bathed in the love of a young woman, a narrative anchor that recurs a few times in the form of memories but then peters out. As EO is passed from one semi-bestial human (braying soccer hooligans, animal traders, horse/donkey-meat transporters) to another, brief moments of joy pop up in the form of children and a returning prodigal son, before an ending that clunks down like a guillotine. Mesmerizing scenes (EO walking across the front of a dam cascading deafening water, his hooves clip-clopping in courtyards) command attention, amidst baffling avant-garde moments (robot creatures, Isabelle Huppert in a humans-only piece) that sap any emerging plot. If the intention is to portray animals in servitude to evil humans, the donkey’s doleful eye does evoke some sympathy, but (to this viewer at least) that sympathy never progresses to revelatory empathy. The cinematography is amazingly adventurous and the music is dramatic, often surging, but also sometimes overly crude. Overall, I recommend you see EO, for you might respond more viscerally, but I thought it (like many recent films) a squandered opportunity.
Outlive by Peter Attia [8/10]
Peter Attia, a Canadian-American doctor, is fascinated, in a very geeky but also practical way, in longevity, and has created a kind-of medical practice around the concept. But as “Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity” confidently avers, Attia is just as concerned about how physically and mentally viable and fruitful the final decades of life—what he calls “healthfulness”—can be, as about how long we live. In general we humans are living longer but as mere shadows of functioning people from as early as our 60s. This is familiar terrain for me, obsessed as I am about existential issues, and a recent health scare has seen me radically transform my diet and sharpen my focus on other aspects of health. Outlive surveys the latest science (and the art, as Attia puts it) of extending and improving longevity. The author is a captivating stylist, freshly honest, with just the right mix of geekiness, advice, and credibility (he acknowledges kudos to almost-coauthor Bill Gifford). Commencing with the most potent weapon in our armory, exercise—not just aerobic, but also strength and stability)—he covers nutrition, sleep, and emotional health, all cogently, steadily, and with a practical bent tailored to individuals. Having read many such books, I can say that Outlive is one of the best (even though I disagree with his nutritional advice) and can be recommended to anyone exploring how to live a better life.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au [4/10]
I came to “Cold Enough for Snow” with high expectations: a much lauded novel with story thrusts close to my heart, parent-child closeness/distance, and art versus real life. And set in Japan, which I have loved traveling in! Alas, it fell flat from the outset. I could divine what the author was trying to get to with the way she portrayed the estranged daughter-mother pair’s touristing in Japan, the daughter’s sophistication yet separation from reality, etc., but the form of her narrative was very limp. Even the most “nothing much happens” novel can build up tension and mystery but this slim volume did none of that. It reminded me of those foreign films that don’t seem to have learnt Storytelling 101. The mother is portrayed subtly and effectively but the daughter felt wooden and unrealistic throughout. Setting is the novel’s strength, delivering wonderful scenes in places I think I’ve been but even here, something fell awry. The author’s style is my biggest beef, a toneless, unrhythmic style that sometimes even felt amateurish (e.g. she uses the phrase “such that,” which I normally only see in corporate comms, a few times). Overall, despite yearning for Cold Enough for Snow to take off, it settles as a mild-mannered, disappointing read.
Everyone I know who has seen “Living” mentions that “Bill Nighy plays Bill Nighy really well,”but that throwaway comment downplays his superb performance as a characterless civil servant in 1950s London who receives a terminal cancer assessment and proceeds on a journey of rediscovery of life’s meanings. Nighy graces us with his usual effete, over-mannered depiction but also soars in naked, emotional scenes. Ably supported by a fine cast, notable for stellar performances from, among others, Aimee Lou Wood and Tom Burke, Nighy turns what is an over-soppy story into a graceful meditation on final days. Also notable is Kazuo Ishiguro’s agile, understated screenplay. Living reaches for no heady heights and carries its sentimentality a little too visibly, but provides oddly welcome viewing in this age of froth and fury.