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8 May 2019

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush

A book review of one of the runners-up for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction: Elizabeth Rush’s chronicle of modern sea level rise.

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1 May 2019

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

Peter Wohlleben is a forester, managing a forest in Germany. Over decades among the trees, he has had major insights into the “inner lives” of the trees, and uses this book to collate them and share them with a wider audience. The book opens with an anecdote: he walks by some moss-covered lumps in the forest, and peels up the moss to see what he expects will be “stones” underneath. …

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25 April 2019

How We Got To Now, by Steven Johnson

I was very impressed with Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air when I read it last summer. So recently, I decided to sample another of his books, this one a six-part microhistory about innovations that altered the course of human history. The six are: 1) cleanliness/hygiene (specifically in medicine and drinking water), 2) measurement of time, 3) glass (think lenses!), 4) understanding of light, 5) refrigeration, and 6) the recording …

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24 April 2019

Venomous, by Christie Wilcox

Here’s a fascinating book that combines biology and chemistry with human health and ecological consciousness. Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry is Christie Wilcox’s masterful account of all things that inject toxins into other creatures. The book covers how those toxins are produced, how evolution has modified them, how they get injected and what happens then. Caterpillars and playpuses, jellyfish and ants and octopuses, sea urchins and shrews and …

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17 April 2019

The Dragon Behind the Glass, by Emily Voigt

A whole book about aquarium fish? Yes, it’s possible, when the fish is the Asian arowana. The subtitle of Emily Voigt’s The Dragon Behind the Glass is “A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish.” The arowana is a fish that can be found in the Amazon (sometimes called the ‘water monkey’ there for its habit of jumping out of the water) but another species can …

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15 April 2019

The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson

In 2009, a thief broke into England’s Tring Museum and stole hundreds of curated bird skins. The thief was a talented American musician attending school in London. He broke apart specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace and Lionel Walter Rothschild and sold the feathers to men who tie salmon flies (originally for fishing, but now an art form in its own right). The story of this crime is well documented by an author who became obsessed with solving the case of the missing birds.

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3 April 2019

Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, by Danna Staaf

Here’s a cool little book about the paleobiology, ecology, and behavior of cephalopods: Squid Empire. The author, Danna Staaf, has a PhD in marine biology and –more importantly– a lifelong fascination with squid, octopuses, cuttlefish, and nautiloids. This work is a history of the cephalopod clade – going back into deep time, before the Cambrian Explosion, dwelling on ancestral forms and luxuriating in the ammonites (now sadly extinct — or …

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2 April 2019

Spying on Whales, by Nick Pyenson

A book by Nick Pyenson (of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History) details the past, present, and future of whales. Combining paleontology, oceanography, environmental awareness, evolution, and history with personal stories of field work and insight, it’s a compelling tale of modern science on charismatic, mysterious creatures.

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27 March 2019

Timefulness, by Marcia Bjornerud

[Note: this book review was scheduled to run in the July 2019 issue of EARTH magazine, but with the announcement two weeks ago that EARTH was being shuttered, I was notified that nothing contributors or freelancers had written scheduled for after April 2019 would be published, and the rights were returned to me. While that’s disappointing, it frees me up to publish it here instead. Enjoy!] _____________________________________________ Geology is a …

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25 March 2019

The End, by Phil Torres

I’ve been fortunate lately to get to meet and interact with Phil Torres, independent scholar of existential risks. At my prompting, Phil came to a GSW meeting where Peter Brannen was talking about mass extinctions, and later he came to my class to talk to my Historical Geology students at NOVA about risks humanity faces. I figured it was about time I read his books, and now I can report …

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