Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Gift Books: Nature and Environment

Some books I've seen, evaluated for gift-giving potential:

On the literary side, The Maine Woods by H.D. Thoreau has been reissued, annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer (Yale University Press.) Like Cramer's 2007 annotated selection from Thoreau's journals (I to Myself, also Yale) and perhaps his edition of Walden (which I haven't seen), this is comfortably large-sized book that presents the text in two center columns of facing pages, with lots of white space and annotations in columns on both sides, of equal size. So essentially the facing pages are divided into four columns, with the text in the center two. This format may appeal to some people but it doesn't appeal to me. The text feels squeezed, and I find it hard to read. It's puzzling as well, because a lot of pages have only one or two annotations, and a lot of white space. There are no illustrations. Of course, these matters of format may not matter to hardcore Thoreau fans.

Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems by John Felstiner (Yale) is an attractive and useful book, though it is about how to read poetry more than about the relationship of poetry to nature. But it does discuss that as well. It's nicely illustrated, and the poems alone are worth the price of admission. More here.

Water edited by John Knechtel (MIT Press/ Alphabet City) is an eclectic and perhaps eccentric collection of pieces on the subject of water, with some art, some science and a lot of urban planning. The book is about as tall as a paperback and a bit wider. There are a lot of illustrations, of varying quality and interest--some of them are really eccentric. If you or your gift recipient is a fan of Alphabet City or books similar to this published by MIT, this one may interest you. It does nothing for me.

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker (Beacon Press) is a pretty straightforward account concerning a part of the world where a lot has been going on but little has been reported. This book is for someone motivated to know more about Sri Lanka. The travelogue writing can be oddly revelatory: "We ate on a beach that the police assured us had been de-mined..." The author makes brave attempts to understand the country's conflicts from the various cultural perspectives in play. She also describes the effects of the 2004 tsunami, which happened at Christmastime. However, this book is available only for preorder for the holidays, unless your bookstore gets early copies. It's officially available Jan. 1.

Green Intelligence by John Wargo (Yale) is an expose of the long-term effects of chemicals, from the effects of nuclear bomb testing to industrial and consumer chemicals in the environment that the author believes are hidden causes of some of the childhood disabilities and epidemics that characterize our times (obesity, asthma, learning and developmental problems) as well as dementia in the elderly. So it's not a cheerful holiday book by any means, but there may be someone on your list who would like to--or might need to--read it.

Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future by Saleem H. Ali (Yale) offers a carefully worked out, big picture view, serving an approach to future policy. It links confronting poverty to dealing with environmental problems, in an argument with a philosophical point of view about human nature as reflected in society. This book is for someone who wants to grapple with big ideas, argue with the author and possibly come away convinced that this is a new and useful way to see the interlocking problems that threaten the future.

While the easy choice for a Climate Crisis book would have to be Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis by Al Gore (Rodale Press), I'm still a big fan of Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley by Stephan Faris (Henry Holt). While Gore's book is about what we can do in the present to save the future, Faris is a journalist who covers what is happening right now, which more than suggests what is likely to happen in the future. There's a concrete quality about his reporting that can illuminate the topic for those who aren't quite sure what it's really all about, plus the quality of his writing keeps you reading. More here.

Finally, here are a few books I'd put on my Wish List--books I've read something about but haven't seen myself: James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Princeton University Press) sounds fascinating and useful, as described by Tim Flannery in this review. Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse by David Orr (Oxford University Press), Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology by Mark V. Barrow, Jr. (University of Chicago Press), Seasick: Ocean Change and Extinction of Life on Earth by Alanna Mitchell (Chicago), Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand (Viking), look intruiging. None too cheerful, but if this season is about heritage and the human future, then for the right readers these can be appropriate choices.

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