A concise examination of the carbon implications of a typical day’s meal, “Climate-Smart Food” is an easily entertaining ride through complex terrain. How does a cup of coffee impact my carbon footprint? My morning toast? How could my evening’s rice portion be better managed, across its lifecycle, to reduce emissions? How will global warming effect chocolate? How much more carbon intensive is chicken than my vegetarian meals? Dave Reay, a UK climate scientist, addresses such aspects of fourteen elements of a day’s three meals. Jammed with illuminations, it’s well worth a read, although some additional context would have helped a neophyte like me understand whether I should eat that banana (100-200g of carbon equivalent). And is “Climate-Smart Food” aiming to educate me about my food choices, or to educate policymakers about cutting food’s emissions, or to inform me about how a given food might suffer under global warming? I suspect the author intends all three but I longed for greater direction. Reay is a smooth, engaging stylist and this is a valuable resource.
“Three Dollars” made Australian author Elliot Perlman and it was one of my favorite books of that year, but since then I have felt that Perlman’s work has suffered under the weight of serious intentions. “Maybe the Horse Will Talk,” despite being a satire clearly intended to be comedic (and it does have some funny moments), labors over too many pages with a plot of overpowering complexity and characters that often perform roles. The basic story – a rookie lawyer, struggling to save marriage and finances, offers to make a loathsome client’s sexual harassment charges go away – is topical but the story’s machinations paled a bit for me. Perlman writes wonderful dialogue and the corporate world of Melbourne, if a tad over-parodied, rang true. Overall, an odd mixture of lad-lit and serious satire that makes for a slow read.
I’m as bedeviled by short-term horizons as most of us, so I turned to “The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World” with bated breath. With good reason: this book is a panoramic overview of a philosophy/mindset of far-seeking intergenerational morality. Philosopher Krznaric is a superb writer in charge of his material: wonderful, memorable structural organization of the book; comprehensive and fair-minded surveying of the terrain; and just the right amount of detail. He loves a pithy explanatory image and “The Good Ancestor” has a number of brilliant visual aids. I’ve always believed in responsibility towards younger and future humans, and recently I’d set myself a motivational timeframe of 2100, based on when my grandchildren might have grandchildren, but Krznaric has persuaded me to peer much, much further ahead, to expand my moral ambit. I encourage you to read “The Good Ancestor.” Its weighty subject is handled with such unassuming aplomb that I can guarantee at least one of his “six ways to think long” will strike a chord. And the second half of the book covers motivating examples of others acting rather than just thinking long-term. Scintillating.
Wildly inventive time travel always makes for fascinating sci-fi novels, and “Permafrost,” from the pen of renowned Alastair Reynolds, crackles with ingenious plotting. Set in the frigid wilderness of the Arctic in 2080 and 2028, a future Earth, poised on the precipice of doom, sends an elderly teacher back into the past to tweak their present. Valentina Lidova is an engaging heroine and the book’s early pages, chock full of character twists and explanatory time travel science, make for sprightly, intelligent reading. At 176 pages, novella length, I felt the the necessarily complex plot swamps any sense of story, and towards the end, when AIs are introduced, my involvement waned. So … intriguing ideas and a believable protagonist make “Permafrost” a short but perhaps uninspiring futuristic read.
“Years and Years,” a kinetic yet character-rich drama from the mind of Russell T. Davies, rockets through its six episodes spanning a decade and a half into Britain’s future from the present day. We follow the Manchester Lyons family, two sons and two daughters, together with their grandmother, plus a constellation of brilliant bit players surrounding them, as the United Kingdom decays in a surreal but oh-so-recognizable extension of the Brexit era. From the first minute, there is no let up; the tightly directed script sprints so fast that viewer attention cannot divert. Each of the core family characters plays a key role, and the acting is superb, especially from Russell Tovey (as Daniel Lyons), Ruth Madeley (sister Rosie), Rory Kinnear (brother Stephen), and Emma Thompson (rampaging across the screen as populist politician Vivienne Rook). The plot plunges England and indeed the world into turmoil, refugees flood borders, technological inventions spring up, the family loves and bickers … what a maelstrom. The cinematography is brilliant and the dialogue crackles. All up, an immersive character study of an absorbing family amidst chaos. Highly recommended.
The first season of “After Life” was, I expressed in a review, Ricky Gervais at his best. It somehow married sentimentality to wisdom and side-splitting laughter. What then of Season 2? Well, from the outset the viewer is in no doubt about the storyline, for the first episode quickly establishes that Tony, the sad sack in Season 1 who can’t get over his wife’s death, is still mired in grief. Gervais’s script bestows upon Tony a smidgen of insight and hope from the earlier season, but the routine remains the same: Tony mooches around, berates his acquaintances and wallows in grief. The splendid cast of characters revolving around Tony remains the same, and the acting is terrific, and the rural English town setting is picturesque, and Gervais’s writing and pacing are masterful … but too much sameness is too much sameness. In the first season, I roared with laughter, this time I chuckled appreciatively. In the first season, I often misted with tear, now I chafed at the ickiness. Overall, Season 2 is a pleasant outing over a week of viewing, but is far too unadventurous to be anything but a shadow of Season 1.
Who can resist a fast-paced space opera novel in our current time? “The Final Dawn” kicks off a new series starring Jack Bishop, who volunteers for an experiment on a dystopian Earth, only to find himself careening through space with sentient automata fleeing criminals. Can he survive? Will he be able to return home when no one has even heard of Earth? Ashford is an engaging writer, well in command of his fast-paced plot, and the set-piece scenes in the void of space or in various spacecraft are wonderful. I especially enjoyed Bishop’s growing interrelationship with the eclectic group of automata. Space has never been so enjoyable to read about. Recommended for a fast read in front of a fireplace.
What a brilliant concept Ted Floyd, author and birding magazine editor, has devised! “How to Know the Birds: The Art and Adventure of Birding” offers 200 short essays on American birds, each of the lessons building a cohesive education on how to watch birds. Walking through the calendar year (which is essential given how much bird behavior and location depends on season), he builds up birding skills, including spotting; sighting; recognizing calls; understanding migration and breeding and ecology; population dynamics; and that bane of the amateur, taxonomy. He also delves into the modern world of eBird (a global birding app that combines list making, citizen science, and a bird location library), sound libraries, and other revolutionary Internet-based tools. Floyd is a witty raconteur and a precise educator. I’m a middling birder who reads lots of “how to do better” books and I can say that “How to Know the Birds” is my only recent journey of this kind that has markedly deepened my knowledge and skills. But it is not only for birdwatchers. Anyone with a yearning to be something of a naturalist will fall in love with Floyd’s passionate, zesty style.
Lawrence Block is a master at what one might call philosophical noir, dark thrillers that hinge on explorations of the mysteries of good and evil and human motivations. “Dead Girl Blues,” Block’s first full-length work for a number of years, launches with a gut-wrenching tale of evil, and then settles into an ooze of tension: will justice prevail or will evil recur or is there another available path? Written in a voice at once deadpan and endlessly reflective, the tale ratchets up tension not through action but through dialogue (and Block is superb at this) and rumination. In the end, I was not sure whether “Dead Girl Blues” resolved satisfactorily, and part of the philosophical heft of the book is just that quandary. In conclusion, not typical noir at all, not a pell-mell thriller, but a slow-burn, tense read best savoured.
Environmental studies academic Sarah Jaquette Ray offers us a timely in-depth look at the emotional and existential burdens of global warming, whether for activists or citizens, in “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet.” She describes it as “an existential toolkit,” and it certainly offers ideas on how to cope in our fraught era, but most of the book is an exhaustive, cogently written academic summary of a number of fields pertaining to climate change emotions and attitudes and approaches. If anyone from the fields of psychology, sociology, philosophy, social movement studies, or mindfulness, has written about how we can deal mentally and emotionally with our fearful future, Sarah Jaquette Ray. For my liking, “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety” is less the “How-To” book that I desperately seek and more the treatise I don’t need, but Ray is such a skilled educator and clear scribe that a reader can’t help but leave the book wiser. And towards the end, some core ideas on hope, guilt, and the end of the world spring to the forefront, and the final chapter is, in my opinion, exhilarating. A valuable, pertinent addition to the many books we should be reading about the Anthropocene Era.