“Full Circle: Power, Hope and the Return of Nature” is the magnum opus of Scott Ludlam, a climate change activist and former Greens senator who epitomizes the concept of courage through action. In this book, he intertwines his own global travels in search of insights into how individuals face up to the climate emergency; a virtuoso exposition of the history of life on Earth; and his amazingly comprehensive readings on philosophy, economics, culture, and science. Ludlam is a beautiful writer, always on point in terms of precision but possessed of great eloquence. Any reader like me, constantly bisected between hope and nihilism, will be taken on a journey of place, time, and ideas, questing for a fresh political paradigm. That he was an Extinction Rebellion arrestee, at the same time as I was, attests to his ongoing determination. Full Circle deserves to be read and pondered by anyone struggling to find a way forward in these dark times.
I’m a steady fan of Detective Chief Inspector Brendan Moran, grappling with heinous murders in southwest England, while commandeering an eclectic, fascinating police crew. “Closer to the Dead” is the ninth in the series and strikes me as a welcome detour from the usual frantic investigation. This time, Moran is assigned the task of clearing up the cold case of a murder four decades earlier on an RAF base. At the same time, the blowback from an earlier case, in the form of a malevolent nemesis, crowds Moran’s crew and explodes into panicky pursuit. As ever, the author honors all the hallowed requirements of this genre: wonderful core characters, excellent characterization amidst the storyline, easily pictured evocations of England, a curly plot, and delicious ratcheting-up of tension. Closer to the Dead: another winner, Scott Hunter!
“Hell of a Book,” is the first novel I’ve read from black author Jason Mott, and my oversight has been my loss, for this is scintillating, daring, and moving. An unnamed author is on book tour for his bestseller, called “Hell of a Book” (you can see the author’s playfulness), a book he can barely remember drafting. Weighed down by ennui and self-loathing, the author begins to receive visitations of The Kid, a black boy who looks like the one recently shot by white police. Hell of a Book is at once a scorching, funny satire of the book world; a beguiling work of metafiction; and an emotional, searching examination of the ruinous legacy of police violence against African-Americans. Somehow, this swirling concoction also flows sweetly, imbued with an easy sense of poetry. I read it in two sittings and emerged at the end full of admiration. Hell of a Book deserves all the accolades it is bound to earn (it has already won the National Book Award for Fiction).
Along with tens of thousands of other Australians, I listen daily to Coronacast, a perfectly pitched podcast about Covid-19, run by a journalist and centered on “physician/journalist Norman Swan,” as he introduces himself. On the podcast, Swan is eloquent, sensible, deeply knowledgeable, and straight talking. His new book, “So You Think You Know What’s Good for You?” is pitched at the same general audience, but covering general health issues, especially dietary ones. This mightily useful book reads as if the doctor is talking to the reader, using understandable language (without ever oversimplifying) and peppering the text with chuckle-worthy asides and jokes. Swan’s general thesis, one I agree with, is that no magic bullets exist, that human health is complex, that the mind and body interact seamlessly. He slams fad diets, argues for sensible indulgence, and throws in cutting-edge research results. On psychological matters and general “happiness,” he is a fount of fatherly advice. So You Think You Know What’s Good for You? is a fascinating, germane compendium to be revisited and revisited, each time selecting whatever preoccupies you about your well-being.
“Mouth to Mouth” revisits a revered plotline of a stranger (or near stranger in this case) relating a twisted tale to our narrator hero in the bar (actually an airport), with slow reveals and a juicy ending twist. Set in the arcane world of high-end art galleries, it recaps a young man saving an art dealer’s life and then insinuating himself into the other man’s life. It’s not easy to maintain control of a narrative told to another in a short time, avoiding the shaggy dog aspect of the setup, but the author carries it off with aplomb, eking out the tension. A patina of unreliability clouds the entire tale, to good effect. Mouth to Mouth is concise at under 200 pages and I read it in a single satisfied sitting, although after the climax, even with the nifty surprise, I was left with an impression of a modest achievement. Nonetheless, Mouth to Mouth will grace many a book club’s considerations, I am certain.
I last read Joanne Harris when she hit the big time with Chocolat over two decades ago. I guess I typecast her thereafter and ignored a steady stream of novels in diverse styles and genres, including a series of standalone thrillers set in a fictional boys’ school, St Oswald’s. The third in this loose trilogy, “A Narrow Door,” captivates from the very first chapters, spilling a deliciously twisty yarn about the new female headmaster (one of the two voices present) regaling her puzzling familial and career pasts from decades ago to an ancient St Oswald’s teacher (the other alternative voice). The stimulus is a body under the sports ground, a body from the past. Harris is a salty, evocative storyteller, clearly enjoying laying down clues for the crime fiction reader, and her two narrative voices are both strong and true. I like to think I can figure out a mystery’s potential paths by the book’s midpoint, but A Narrow Door baffled me as much as it gripped, and I read in a flurry. The novel climaxes with a thoroughly satisfying and devious confluence of past lives and the present.
What happens when humans jettison, deliberately or due to circumstance, cities, towns, factories, or farms? What does such retrenchment of Homo Sapiens’ reach signify in our Anthropocene Era? Scottish writer/journalist Cal Fly traveled the world to discover and reflect, and in “Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape,” she has produced a comprehensively researched and deeply examined book that is also a pleasure to read. In the British Isles, Tanzania, western and eastern Europe, Cyprus, and America, she explores nuclear exclusion zones, near-abandoned cities, people-less islands, environmental disaster areas, and ex-war zones. I had read about the industrial/urban wasteland of Detroit, and I have visited Chernobyl, but much of the author’s coverage was revelatory to me. In lyrical prose, she flirts with doomism: “How will it unfold, I wonder: the creeping decline, or the sudden collapse?” But finally, hope springs nonetheless: “… I have found new life springing from the wreckage of the old, life all the stranger and more valuable for its resilience.” Highly recommended.
Walter Isaacson never disappoints, and with “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race,” he has written a fascinating, bang-up-to-the-minute account of a biochemistry milestone, the invention of CRISPR, a revolutionary, easy-to-use means of editing DNA code. CRISPR is most often credited to Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, and Isaacson hangs this book on her story, but a large group of associates aided her, and several brilliant rivals goaded her to her success, and Isaacson gives their stories air time. Doudna has herself written an account of the CRISPR discovery, but Isaacson’s book is not only far more fulsome and interesting concerning the race to bag credit, it is also (surprisingly) better at explaining how bacteria mesh with viruses to create CRISPR. Isaacson is a fluid writer at the apex of his craft and The Codebreaker is a fast, immersive read. And the book tackles head on the ethical dilemmas now confronting humanity (Doudna has spearheaded much of the discussion). One of the most useful yet human-oriented science books of the year, The Codebreaker deserves to be read widely indeed.
Brilliant, prolific biologist Dave Goulson, one of the key scientists exploring the decline of bees, now turns to the general case of insects in “Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse.” This highly readable book is an unusual mix of general overview of insects, fascinating snippets, systematic discourse on the threats that have hammered insect populations over the last decades, and love poem to his beloved six-legged Earthly residents. That combination should flounder but doesn’t, due to Goulson’s strong grip on the narrative. I cannot say Silent Earth offers much optimism, despite closing chapters that outline “what we can do,” because the litany of evidence he presents is damning indeed. A curious hypothetical chapter, “A view from the future,” says it all: we, the human beings on this planet, are undoubtedly sending insect populations into a spiraling decline towards extinction. As insects are a bedrock of the panoply of living things, this should strike fear in our hearts. I finished the book better educated but despondent. Despite that, I recommend Silent Earth as part of the armory of information one needs to face the climate crisis.
An English-language remake of that rousing, funny French film, La Famille Belier, “CODA” hews closely to the original but still strikes a fresh chord. CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and in this telling, Ruby is the only hearing member of a four-person fishing family in Massachusetts. The three deaf family members are superbly played: the seemingly gruff father, the insular mother, the rebellious son. But it is Ruby’s movie, her love of family clashing with an instinctive love of music that finds expression with her untutored voice. Eugenio Derbez is pitch perfect as the new music teacher who takes Ruby under his wing. Of course a movie like has a familiar trajectory, and the ending is calculated to wring out a tear, but Sian Heder’s screenplay and direction are strong and intelligent enough to make it all work. In a pandemic world, CODA is an antidote, a reminder that dreams can be real.