• River of the Gods by Candace Millard **** (of 4)

    By the 1860s California had absorbed an influx of hundreds of thousands of gold miners, the southern states of the U.S. had seceded, and North America’s native populations were mostly subdued, and yet in those years the only parts of the African continent known to western Europeans was its long perimeter. Ninety percent of Africa’s interior was unreliably mapped by whites. River of the Gods describes British expeditions to locate the source of the Nile River.

    An expedition into Africa’s interior required a combination of hubris, fearlessness, undaunted courage, and an unquestioning belief in racial superiority that is mortifying to behold. Without ever becoming overbearing, Millard’s description of the men, British and African, who risked their lives in search of the Nile’s origins, pits innate curiosity and urge for exploration — who doesn’t want to know the headwaters of the world’s longest river? — against the sheer audacity of believing that exploration can only be achieved by khaki-clad Britishers in charge of scores of largely nameless local guides, porters, and pack animals. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke hiked for months at a time, enduring, no exaggeration, more than 20 diseases and fevers which left them periodically blind, paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and crazed for weeks and months on end. Yet they marched forward, sometimes born on litters, often to the complete detriment of their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

    Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Credit.

    River of the Gods is part adventure tale, part biography of key explorers, and a rendering of an age of recognition, that colonialism, though not yet finished, was nearing its climax. Africa’s interior was about to be overrun by European countries whose competition with one another would expand from the purchase of bonded human chattel to the exploitation of timber, minerals, and colonial boundaries. It is a marvelous book that can cover the intricacies of Richard Burton’s courtship with his wife, the swarming insects of Africa’s jungles, and the international race for hegemony.

  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr *** (of 4)

    There are a lot of layers to this book. On the surface is the retelling of a fragment of an ancient Greek story about a simple shepherd who longs to visit a heavenly city in the sky. Doerr interweaves versions of the story as it appears to readers who stumble upon it in Ancient Greece, in Constantinople at the time of its fall into the hands of attacking Saracens, in Iowa during the 80 or so years before today, and on a spaceship that appears to be operated by a stand-in for Google, about 75 years in the future.

    The half dozen or so stories are told in simultaneous, intermingled fragments, a lot like the remnants of the original Cloud Cuckoo Land’s stained and moldering parchments that have survived to present. Thematically, Doerr is laying down a manifesto in defense of an earth imperiled by pollution and a warning to a population too enthralled with technology to slow down enough to appreciate the timeliness of a simple story well told. Interestingly, the protagonists in each era are misfits in some way, on Odysseian journeys of their own. This is a book for a book club as there is that much to discuss. Or it’s possible that Doerr is trying to do a little too much in one book.

  • Between Genius and Genocide by Dan Charles *** (of 4)

    Fritz Haber may be the most important forgotten man in history. He is responsible for saving more lives than any other human being and, at the same time, can be blamed for some of the most concentrated killing ever perpetrated by a single person. First, the good news. Prior to Fritz Haber’s discovery of how to transform inert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer, the only way to nourish crop plants was with manure: from animals or people. Or by burning and plowing forests and grasslands into submission. By the beginning of the 1900s nearly all of the earth’s arable land had already succumbed to the plow and the production of manure was never going to be able to keep pace.

    When Haber created a process for making nitrogen fertilizer from air (and a ton of energy) he released humanity from a perpetual cycle of famine. Without exaggeration it is estimated that 40% of the population of the world today (more than 3 billion of us) eats on a regular basis because of nitrogen fertilizer. Of course, there are numerous downsides affiliated with nitrogen fertilizer, including the additional demands of a global population that has quadrupled since Haber’s 1913 invention.

    Haber is also infamous for the invention of chlorine gas first used by Germany’s military to slaughter French troops in World War I. The pain, terror, and death inflicted by chlorine, then phosgene, and finally mustard gas were never before experienced, and was so awful that they have been used rarely ever since.

    Dan Charles does an outstanding job of laying out the man, the science, and the context for Fritz Haber and makes us wonder if he was a genius or genocidal maniac? Was Haber inhumane for using chemical weapons first or no different in his methods of killing than the first person to kill from a distance using a bow and arrow, a bullet, a laser-guided missile, or a drone operated by a soldier half a world away?

  • The Martian by Andy Wier *** (of 4)

    The Martian of this book refers to an American astronaut accidentally left stranded on Mars while his crew, thinking he had died during an intense windstorm, barely escapes the planet with their lives intact. Mark Watney, the Martian in question, is a wise-cracking botanist-engineer, and astonishingly easy-going, considering he’s left behind on a planet by himself. He can grow things, calculate how many calories he will need until a rescue mission is launched (in four years!), fix broken equipment, and assemble new contraptions from existing parts. It is man versus nature, only Watney has to manufacture all of his oxygen, food, and water himself, and he has to hope nothing catastrophic breaks. Oh yeah, and communication with NASA is a problem because the departing crew took the radio with them. The author, Andy Weir, is a proud geek so every calculation is correct from the number of liters of carbon dioxide that can be converted into oxygen to the amount of fecal material it would take to bring martian soil to life in an effort to grow potatoes that Mark the botanist could conceivably grow.

  • The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr **** (of 4)

    At some level all of us who shop for food know that canned tomatoes don’t really grow in cans and that frozen shrimp don’t really come from the freezer. What Benjamin Lorr does so engrossingly well is write about the people who make the system run. He speaks with Burmese shrimpers enslaved by Thai boatmen — seriously enslaved in every sense of the word. He rides with truckers who move every item we own in our homes — try to think of an item that has not been transported by truck — and discovers an industry where nearly every driver is simultaneously on the verge of incipient bankruptcy and utterly replaceable.

    He meets brokers driven to amass new products (check out the cereal aisle to see what is new this week) and interviews entrepreneurs convinced they have the next best thing since the invention of Sriracha. Lorr explains why Fair Trade, and other certifications, are primarily designed to drive sales (to self-aggrandizing shoppers like me), but might not make much difference to growers or to the planet.

    Floor-workers in supermarkets from WalMart to Whole Foods are all subject to unpredictable hours (so no childcare planning and no second jobs) and held to just under the number of hours needed to receive benefits.

    What every hidden stage of the commodity chain has in common with the next link is the capitalistic insistence upon unlimited abundance at the lowest possible price. It all appears as tens of thousands of distinct products whose glaring availability is only possible if we treat the people who make and deliver them as interchangeable, standardized machine parts.

    No one does it more effectively than Amazon (now owner of Whole Foods). The company places haptic monitors on the bodies of its workers to ensure efficiency of motion and penalize wasted efforts, like a pause to scratch an itch.

  • The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips ** (of 4)

    Take my review with a grain of salt. Disappearing Earth was a National Book Award Finalist and top-10 book of the year for the New York Times. Its incomparable strength is its description of post-Soviet life on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the very far northeast of Russia. In the larger cities – the action takes place in and around Petropavlovsk – there are businesses, traffic, research centers, industry, hustle and hassle. Just beyond the outskirts lie unpaved roads, volcanoes, hot springs, reindeer herds, and indigenous villages caught between the past and present.

    In the opening scene, a pair of schoolgirls are abducted suggesting that subsequent chapters will reveal who took them and where they went. But, subsequent chapters overlap just a whisker, making the book feel more like a collection of short stories than a whodunnit. The protagonists of each chapter are women whose lives are miserable. They are sick, abandoned, abused, overworked, and lonely. I’m told the perpetrator is unveiled at the end in a village a dozen hours north of Petropavlovsk, but I was too depressed to get all the way through.

  • The Dry by Jane Harper *** (of 4)

    The first of Harper’s Australian mysteries in which Detective Aaron Falk is the lead investigator, and Australia’s harsh environment plays a main character. The fictional communityo of Kiawarra is suffering through its second year of devastating drought putting everyone in the small farming town on the edge of despair and rage. Day after day the unrelenting heat has parched grazing lands, dried up rivers, and brought the day of financial reckoning with destitution a little closer. Luke Hadler’s wife and son are inexplicably found shot dead in their home, until Luke is found apparently having committed suicide in the back of his truck a few miles off. Luke is the obvious suspect in a the combined murder-suicide.

    The crackling dryness of brush and tinder feel ready to explode into fire; the personalities of neighbors who have known one another and one another’s parents since pre-school spark with equal veracity. Most notably the conservative bullies and blusterers who have had their way with sheep and with the sheepish since their successful roles as taunters and bruisers in the classroom, remain frightening to any of us who have ever been pushed about. There is something about an Australian farmer in a rural community whose refusal to buckle to authority, and whose bellicosity drowns out other emotions, that feels rather close to home and rather global at the moment. The question of who really killed the Hadlers is plenty engaging, but the atmospherics are what helped put Jane Adams on the world stage as a mystery writer.

  • In the Kingdom of Ice by Hamptom Sides **** (of 4)

    At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea.  One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean.  In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole.  At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing.  Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette.  The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia.  The  test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly.  The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.

  • The Wildlife of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn *** (of 5)

    Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives.  In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species.  He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow.  When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix.  In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed.  Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist.  There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief.  Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for  pages when he could just get to the punchline.