On the Move: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America, written by an accomplished journalist, is climate migration’s equivalent to that recent masterpiece, Jeff Goodell’s Heat: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. As the author puts it, “roughly half the population of the United States lives in the regions that are shifting outside of America’s ideal climate niche for human habitability. Just how large, then, will American’s great migration be?” The author travels to the crucible case of Central American countries wracked with drought, streams of refugees heading north. He recounts how even the most liberal Mexicans, committed to absorbing migrants, eventually need to harden their hearts and turn back the hordes or ghetto-ise them. He paints a picture of the same unsupportable waves of climate migrants surging in bubbles of agonized poverty and death toward the Mecca countries of the world, America in particular. He outlines the growing sophistication of science that explores, to increasingly granular levels, those segments of Earth unsustainable as temperatures rise, wildfires proliferate, seas rise, and storms intensify. If today only a sliver of Earth is truly uninhabitable, research indicates that by 2070 twenty percent of the planet will fall into that category. He covers the emerging detailed science of how migration unfolds, both in dire areas and in the United States. And American climate migration is today’s reality, first from utterly burnt out towns and utterly flooded coastal areas, then more slowly from the unsupportable heat in Phoenix and similar places. The author dates our U.S. climate migration, the most significant since the post-Civil-War northward “Great Migration,” to “years ago” before now. Overall, superbly written, brilliantly researched, On the Move is troubling, essential reading.
Didn’t we all hang out for Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour magnum opus, Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s ferocious 2017 nonfiction expose of American-Indian killings in the 1920s? Having missed out at the cinemas, I waited for the streamer offering and sank in for what I hoped was a classic Scorsese triumph. Alas, the film is a drastically overlong mess. For every scene dramatically and starkly posed and filmed (the best ones are the violent ones), there is a scene announced without scripting prompts, often baffling, or a dull plod of a scene underpinned by cheap throbbing music. Leonardo DiCaprio is valiant as Ernest, the easily led bad guy / fall guy, but his scripted dialogue is turgid, his scowls are false, and I cannot believe Grann’s novel treats him as a dumb clod as the film does. Robert De Niro offers a shallow villain and Lily Gladstone, while sometimes offering moving, plaintive tableau images, portrays her Osage victim as a klutz. The film’s overall tale of terrible wrongs committed in the name of money is virtuous but the entire storyline is telegraphed early and never properly dramatized. The denouement is sloppy. Overall, Killers of the Flower Moon may be worth watching for Scorsese completism but is a sorry coda to an illustrious career.
Dr Michael Greger is a quirky, heartfelt crusader for better, evidence-based (his saying is “put it to the test”) health, especially relating to diet, and his consistent push over years has been the Whole Foods Plant Based diet, which is effectively veganism plus resisting ultra-processed foods in favor of whole foods such as legumes and vegetables and fruit and whole grains. His earlier books, principally How Not to Die and How Not to Diet, are touchstones for the WFPB movement, of which I’m a proponent. Unlike most public doctors espousing healthfulness/diet/etc., let alone the many “influencers” in this space, Greger does not sell supplements or behind-paywall memberships or courses, and all book sales go to charity, so his integrity is unimpeachable. His latest, How Not to Age: The Scientific Approach to Getting Healthier as You Get Older, is his most ambitious, a brick of a book even allowing for 13,000 references hived online. The 2020s is a heady time of meomentous research into the intricacieis of aging and healthfulness. Greger outlines the eleven recognized pathways of aging, including some that might be familiar, such as cellular senescence and telomeres, and others that sound like science fiction, e.g. IGF-1 and mTor. Then, drawing on fundamental research but also the clear evidence of the world’s Blue Zones, which max out on centenarians, Greger outlines thirteen elements of an “optimal anti-aging regimen,” including diet, exercise, weight, sleep, and stress management. He covers how one might do one’s best to “preserve” sixteen human functions, from bones to skin to mind to vision, before a final eight-point “recipe” called “Dr. Greger’s Anti-Aging Eight.” The book is a triumph of distillation and condensation and serves as a go-to reference. It is less successful as a readable book, being over-jammed with scientific findings, but it remains invaluable. Buy How Not to Age and stick it on your shelf next to the cookbooks.
Social psychologist Ellen Langer has been championing the concept, now rather bastardized, of mindfulness for a long time. In The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Lasting Health she argues that a positive, mindful approach can radically improve health, through a form of union between body and mind, in ways that the medical profession can scarcely believe. Telling stories of her own experience but also of decades of highly original, imaginative research, Langer advocates for a new positivity. Rejecting standard diagnoses adhering to “normal curves,” calling for youthful attitudes, and pushing for aggressive mental approaches to aging and ill-health, she paints a beguiling picture for people in their “middle years” such as myself. A fluent stylist who can sometimes under-emphasize the novelty or beauty of her ideas, Langer will find sceptics among the general public reading this, but if you are ripe for the notion that there is more to health than pure physical mechanics, a stance underpinned by her research, you will find The Mindful Body to be most rewarding.
Books about stretching and strengthening are, by definition, generally only for those seeking to improve their bodies. Some such books seek to draw in a more general audience, and I belong to that group. I read two such books in 2022-2023 but the net result was no change. Katy Bowman’s Rethink Your Position: Reshape Your Exercise, Yoga, and Everyday Movement, One Part at a Time is different, at first glance a bit homespun, but quickly rewarding reading. The author has a way with encouraging words and her simple photographs and diagrams are beguiling. I fell under the book’s spell. One suggestion, a simple one, the Head Ramp, is an invaluable exercise, although “exercise” is not quite the correct term for this activity, since it refers to a near-constant decision to stop hunching the head downward, instead lifting the top of the head and sending the head backward. Many of the author’s suggestions are like this, not something one does daily or weekly or whatever, but a new way of being physically in the world. I value her tips on how to improve hand and arm mobility; and how to interrogate the subtlety of “touching one’s toes,” by distinguishing moving forward via hips versus via spine. Some of her tips/routines I find easy, such as the calf stretch that comes from the toes of one foot being raised up on a block or rolled-up towel; presumably being a jogger helps with this one. Other bodily movements that look simple tax me, such as hanging from a high bar (sounds easy, doesn’t it?). Overall, Rethink Your Position comes recommended if you possess any curiosity about moving and “being” physically in the world.
Novelist Jami Attenberg came to personify the strange provenance of NaNoWriM0, National Novel Writing Month, the challenge to spend November writing enough each day to complete, yes, a full novel. Her exhortations to pump out 1,000 words each day, struck a chord and over time, other writers chipped in to help her encourage writers, and the end result is this book, 1000 Words: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round. The book is exactly what it says, the spirit of NaNoWriMo expanded into one of those writing how-to books such as the classic Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Attenberg, who is a judicious stylist and a prodigious worker, as well as being a kindly soul, offers a range of advice over the book, covering the four seasons, and over fifty other writers contribute pithy letters of advice and support. Books such as this can seem vacuous unless you are either desperate or primed to write the skin off your life, but if this is the book you need, well, 1000 Words delivers and with oomph. I found that a couple of the external missives chimed perfectly with my current writing situation, and I also enjoyed some of Attenberg’s lyrical bullet-point exhortations, such as this one: “We all need support. We all need the time to write. We all need feedback, even if it’s just from one other person. We all need to read. We all need a vacation. We all need to feel valuable or recognized. We all need to feel safe.” More specific writing/editing advice such as this—”There are two questions I ask myself repeatedly about my writing until I’m so far along in a project I don’t need to ask them anymore. They are: Who are you writing this for? What do you hope to accomplish with this work?”—arrived just in time to benefit my current work. All in all, 1000 Words is the perfect gift for anyone you know who clearly longs to write but cannot, for whatever reasons, commence the actual labor.
Over half a century, Paul Auster has produced a dizzying array of novels, plays, nonfiction works, and poetry. I lost track of him after his initial success with mysterious, avant-garde novels like The New York Trilogy, but recently I returned to praise his 2022 polemic Bloodbath Nation (see my review) and his stunningly impressive magnum opus novel 4 3 2 1. Baumgartner, his latest, possesses the same literary flair as those two but is, regrettably, a mere shadow. The tale is a simple one of a writer and professor who cannot forget his wife and one true love, and who in his seventies falls into a journey of reverie as he begins, finally, to emerge from grief. Auster is as supple a stylist as ever, and several virtuoso scenes reminded me of 4 3 2 1. But the plot is … barely a plot at all, not necessarily an issue with better novels, but here the gentle exploration of the beauty in the memory of details shines as a patina over nothing much at all. Call Baumgartner a wistful novel Auster had to write, but approach it with caution.
Australian novelist Richard Flanagan never repeats a story and this can make reading him a hit-and-miss affair. This time around, the effect is wondrous: Question 7 is a dazzling, weird creature, an extended memoir/reflection/narrative, written in swift bursts of prose. It conflates a key event in his life, a near-drowning, with Leo Szilard, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb, with the horrors inflicted by the wartime Japanese on his father, with the Hiroshima/Nagasaki horror bombings, with H. G. Wells trysting with Rebecca West, with the brutality in Tasmania’s history, and quite a bit else. Employing rhymical prose either savage or contemplative, Flanagan examines morality in the age of modern warfare and the nuclear shadow, the legacy and memories of family, the nature of trauma and healing through country, and the fundamental purposes of life. The raw power of his writing about humanity’s evils seized me by the throat. Question 7 is not for everybody, for it provides no easy narrative journey, nor any simple resolution, but it is a fine work indeed by one of our most spellbinding authors.
In Dirt Town, in a rundown town of dirt and faded aspirations, in a town named Durton (get it?), a twelve-year-old girl goes missing at the start of this century. Two detectives are sent from Sydney and for the next week or so, they circle the town’s residents, attempting to uncover the truth, hopefully to find the missing girl. It turns out that small-time secrets abound, and suspects arise, and witnesses to events on the day of disappearance lie to protect their own infelicities or reputations. Joining the ranks of Australia’s bush crime fiction bonanza, debut novelist Hayley Scrivenor spins a convincing yarn from multiple points of view. I suspect many readers will enjoy Dirt Town and its secrets and revelations, but this reviewer experienced the plot to be as familiar as many before it, familiar enough that the climactic revelations fell flat.
Documentarian Errol Morris is, I suspect, a matter of personal preference. His offscreen, camera-up-close dissection of his eclectic target list of human subjects could put viewers off. I find his forensic research (he seems to have dug into his subjects’ lives with the passion of an academic historian) and no-holds-barred questioning to be riveting and revelatory. His recent The Pigeon Tunnel tackles famed spy fiction master John le Carré just before his 2020 death, and he finds the master of sleight of hand in a rare revelatory frame of mind. Much of the narrative explored by interlocutor and subject will be familiar to anyone who has read the novels and the previous, often slightly sly autobiographical writings, but Morris elicits truly moving admissions from his subject. Morris uses period and archival footage, plus recreated scenes, to magnificent effect, imbuing the entire documentary with a Cold War dread. The Pigeon Tunnel might seem like it is for specialists only but anyone interested in storytelling, espionage (as an expression of the pleasure of deceit), and truth should lap it up.