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The best environmental books we’ve read in 2017

It’s that time of year again, a time to reflect on the books that have left their mark on us.

Books that will, over time and with luck, leave their mark on society as well.

I polled our contributors to see what books they’ll remember best from 2017. And here we have it — a selection of children’s books and adult fiction and nonfiction — some of which we’ve reviewed and some of which we hope to still.

A word of thanks — to our contributors, for reading and reviewing books that make a difference; to the authors of these books that inspire us to make the world a better place; and to the readers who make what we do worthwhile.

See you in 2018…

 

Anna Monders

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King. 2017.

Obe Devlin is a sixth grader who loves being out in the woods, identifying animal tracks, and cleaning up the creek. But housing developments are going in where there used to be fields and trees. When Obe discovers a new animal by the creek—one that eats only plastic—he wants to keep it safe from the new neighbors and his former-best-friend-turned-bully. (Middle-grade fiction)

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas. 2017.

Author and wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas spent three years living on the Masai Mara wildlife reserve in Kenya. While there, she was foster mom for an orphaned serval kitten, raising him until he could survive on his own in the wild. Splendid photographs and good conservation information. (Nonfiction, grades 2-5.)

Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of by Martin Brown. 2017.

This is not an animal book about elephants, tigers, giraffes, or pandas. Instead, readers are introduced to zorillas (stinkier than skunks), banded linsangs (slinky like snakes), sand cats (cats that like…sand), and gaurs (twice the size of an average cow), among others. An unusual—and funny—biodiversity book with great illustrations. (Nonfiction, grades 2-5.)

 

Midge Raymond 

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe

It’s difficult to think of a title more important to the oceans—and therefore to the earth’s entire ecosystem—than Jonathan Balcombe’s New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows. Not only does Balcombe introduce us to the fascinating, complex lives of these sentient creatures, he shows us how devastatingly we are treating them, to the point of endangerment and extinction. Each section in this book is more interesting and engaging than the last, with information on the habits, abilities, and perceptions of many of the 30,000 species of fishes in our waters. What a Fish Knows is a powerful, accessible book that will ensure that we never look at a fish the same way again.

 

Jacki Skole

What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns
At the heart of neuroscientist Gregory Berns’ newest book is this question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The answer, garnered through ground-breaking studies of the brains of domestic and wild animals, should fundamentally reshape how we think about—and treat—animals.

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby
If you felt like your life was breaking apart, where would you go to try to put it back together?
If you’re thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling, you’d go to the South Pole. For a year. Gosling is the central character in this wry, compelling story of relationships, art, science, climate change, and life at the bottom of the earth.

 

John Yunker

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a passion for cephalopods, And by the end of this book I suspect most readers will as well.

The Dig Tree: A True Story of Bravery, Insanity, and the Race to Discover Australia’s Wild Frontier by Sarah Murgatroyd

The tragic true story of early Australian hubris and the outback. Spoiler alert: The outback wins.

 

 

Center for Humans and Nature

Best Books of 2017

Wildness: Relations of People and Place coedited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer, University of Chicago Press

Published in association with the Center for Humans and Nature, this collection of essays explores how people can become attuned to the wild community of life and also contribute to the well-being of the wild places in which we live, work, and play. With this book, we gain insight into what wildness is and could be, as well as how it might be recovered in our lives—and with it, how we might unearth a more profound, wilder understanding of what it means to be human.

The Driftless Reader coedited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley, University of Wisconsin Press

The Driftless Reader gathers writings, paintings, photographs, and maps that highlight the unique natural and cultural history, landscape, and literature of the Driftless Area—a region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. Through texts by Black Hawk, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Aldo Leopold, and many others, the book reveals the transformative power of the land and its capacity to make our lives more meaningful.

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams, W.W. Norton & Company

For centuries, poets and philosophers extolled the benefits of a walk in the woods. Intrigued by our storied renewal in the natural world, Florence Williams sets out to uncover the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into new research, she uncovers the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships.

Henry David Thoreau:  A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, University of Chicago Press

Thoreau has long needed a fresh portrait that looks beyond both mythology and simplistic myth-bashing and recontextualizes him for our time.  Walls, a former fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and one of our finest interdisciplinary scholars, provides it in this meticulously researched biography.

Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming by Benjamin R. Barber, Yale University Press

A follow-up to his earlier book, If Mayors Ruled the World, Barber’s proposals for transnational governance of climate change have taken on a new importance and urgency now that the American national government is under the control of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. Responsible action now falls to other levels of government and to the private sector. Acting in concert, cities can have global leverage.

Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming by William E. Connolly, Duke University Press

A wide-ranging discussion of advanced thinking in ontology, ecology, evolutionary theory, and more by a noted political theorist. What Blake referred to as “Newton’s sleep” is over. Connolly is a demanding but rewarding guide to the new age.

Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene by Clive Hamilton, Polity Press

Vintage Hamilton. Trenchant, widely-informed, unconcerned about stepping on toes. This book shows the danger of interpreting the Human Epoch once more in anthropocentric terms.

Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity by Jeremy J. Schmidt, New York University Press

An original and sophisticated study of how thinking about water as a resource to be managed was constructed by the disciplines of geology and anthropology beginning in the nineteenth century. His critique offers a new philosophy of water and a rich way of understanding the formation of knowledge-systems more generally as well.

Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene coedited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan, University of Minnesota Press

There are many ways to read this graphically and intellectually innovative book. It offers creative tools for living in a more-than-human Anthropocene. One half is devoted to landscapes injured by humans in the modern age—Ghosts of the Anthropocene. One half is devoted to essays on interspecies and intraspecies entanglements—Monsters of the Anthropocene.

 

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Upcoming deadlines for environmental writing (nonfiction/fiction/poetry)

Calling all ecolit writers…

A number of journals are closing their submissions windows over the next month:

Ecotone: October 1st

Alluvian: October 11th

The Fourth River (Tributaries Special Issue): October 15th

Camas: October 20th

For our growing list of outlets for environmental writing (now at 40), click here.

 

 

 

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Book Review: South Pole Station

Ashley Shelby’s debut novel, South Pole Station, takes readers to the bottom of the earth for a wry, multi-layered story that tightly packs art, science, polar history, climate change, politics, humor, and human relationships into a vivid tale of courage and redemption.

The novel’s central character is thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling, whose life has hit its nadir. Cooper’s art career is going nowhere, her relationship with her parents is strained, and her twin brother’s suicide has left her emotionally unmoored. Seeking something—there’s an ambiguousness to what that might be—Cooper applies to the National Science Foundation’s year-long Artist & Writer’s Program at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, “the most remote research station on the planet.” (Vetting includes 500 questions—a “pelvic exam of the mind,”—that includes such queries as “How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? A day?” and “Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?”)

At the station, Cooper establishes an easy camaraderie with her fellow “Polies,” an eclectic group of scientists, support personnel, and artists whose defining characteristic is that they “don’t fit in anywhere else.” This commonality of sorts is what sustains the station’s fragile ecosystem. But cracks begin to emerge following the arrival of Frank Pavano, a scientist in the pocket of climate change-denying politicians and their allies in the fossil fuel industry.

Pavano’s presence at Amundsen-Scott—he’s out to prove global warming is a hoax—infuriates the station’s scientists and puzzles many of the non-science personnel, including Cooper, who befriends Pavano, and Pearl, a cook with Machiavellian ambition. When the scientists seek to undermine Pavano’s every activity, Cooper agrees to travel with him to the “ice-coring camp,” on the fringe of the polar outpost. It’s there that a freak accident will change Cooper forever, imperil the station, and ignite a global controversy.

This climate thread, one of many plot lines woven into South Pole Station, is what givethe novel its tension and an unexpected timeliness. (The book is due out in July.) In a recent article for Slate Shelby writes:

In 2010, I began work on a novel set in a time I was certain would be looked upon as one of the most embarrassing periods of the climate change “debate”: the George W. Bush era. The novel, set at South Pole Station and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, … is, in part, a dark comedy, and it was a fun story to write—mostly because Obama was in office and the absurdities of politicians trying to legislate climate change out of existence had begun to fade away.

But as the opening scenes of the Trump era began to play out, these gremlins are springing back to life.

How much will Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and his administration’s claw back of Obama-era environmental regulations energize “these gremlins”? How much might they slow, or even reverse, progress made over the last decade? My hope is very little. But “hope,” as Shelby sees it, is, ironically, what climate deniers often prey upon. Thus, this exchange between Cooper and two scientists—Sal and Sri—following a well-attended climate lecture by Pavano:

“No, she’s right,” Sal said, still looking at Cooper. “Pearl is the test case. She was buying last night. She was feeling guilty about participating in a consumer economy that is leading to the destruction of the earth. Remember what she said? ‘I don’t want the earth to be warming.’”

“So? None of us do,” Sri said.

“But when Pavano told her it wasn’t, she said that made her feel better. She was relieved. Pavano gave her the out she was looking for.”

“Pearl is Everywoman,” Cooper said, through a mouthful of pancake.

Sri looked from Sal to Cooper and back again, his black unibrow furrowed. Suddenly, his eyes widened. “And it took Pavano two-thousandths of a second to plant doubt in Everywoman’s brain.” He stared at the wall. “Shit. People are dumb.”

“Pearl’s not dumb,” Cooper said…

“The problem isn’t brain power,” Sal said. “It’s hope. They’re hopeful. Deniers provide hope. We don’t. We’re doom and gloom, and that’s what makes it so easy for Pavano to convert.”

Shelby likely didn’t intend for South Pole Station to be a call to action, but in the age of Trump it may become one. That would be a good thing. But I’d be remiss not to emphasize that South Pole Station is a solid read for any era. Shelby’s quick wit and journalistic eye for detail ground a story that will appeal to readers of environmental literature, polar enthusiasts, and anyone who loves a story with complex, quirky characters and a compelling plot.

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Looking for a new ecolit book to read? Here are 20 from which to choose…

I’m happy to be participating on a unique promotion, organized by Margi Prideaux, that showcases 20 environmentally themed eBooks on Instafreebie.

And, yes, these book are free to download. All you have to do is sign up for the author’s email list.

To see the full list of books, click here.

The promotion goes from today until June 15th.

And I think I speak for all authors by saying that if you enjoy the book we welcome your reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. These reviews really do matter — and not just to our egos.

 

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ASLE announces 2017 book award finalists

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment has announced the finalists for their bi-annual book awards. The ASLE book awards “in the areas of ecocriticism and environmental creative writing recognize excellence in the field.”

 

Creative Award Finalists

The judges were Emily McGiffin, the winner of the ASLE Creative Writing Award in 2015, who lives in Vancouver, BC; Rich King, a finalist for the 2015 Creative Writing Award, a research associate with The Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport; and Tom Hallock, who teaches in the Visual & Verbal Arts Department at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.

Branch, Michael P.  Raising Wild:  Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness.  Boulder:  Roost, 2016.

“A beautifully-written collection of essays that splices memoir with natural history as it carries us deep into the unsung terrain of domesticity in the wilderness. Michael Branch is keenly observant and unfailingly witty as he schools us in the natural wonders of his home.”

 

 

Hanson, Chad.  This Human Shape.  Northfield, MN:  Red Dragonfly, 2016.

“A beautifully-written collection of essays that splices memoir with natural history as it carries us deep into the unsung terrain of domesticity in the wilderness. Michael Branch is keenly observant and unfailingly witty as he schools us in the natural wonders of his home.”

 

 

Moore, Kathleen Dean.  Piano Tide:  A Novel.  Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2016

“A beautiful, unique, and suspenseful novel. Kathleen Dean Moore has somehow channeled the ecology and humanity of E. Annie Proulx’s Shipping News and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row into Good River Harbor, an imaginary town in Southeast Alaska. Even while focusing on the details and spinning a page-turner, Moore encompasses most of the major issues of the twenty-first century in the Pacific Northwest: salmon, water, tourism, jobs, global warming, wilderness, and the lives and legacy of First Peoples. Howard, her straight man caught in the middle, begins to think the same as Nora, the eco-activist: Imagine how you can live in a place without wrecking it.”

Raymond, Midge.  My Last Continent: A Novel. New York:  Scribner, 2016.

My Last Continent is a love story. Raymond teaches us how and why to love Antarctica. She lures us into loving her nuanced protagonist, a field ornithologist named Deb Gardner. And Raymond shows us how and why to love all the other scientists and romantics who spend part of each year at the bottom of the world:” those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide.” Can a drama of romance and shipwreck and penguins also have something to say about ecotourism and climate change? Yes. My Last Continent is what happens when a nature writer crafts an event like the Titanic.”

(Midge Raymond is an EcoLit Books contributor!)


Savoy, Lauret Edith.  Trace:  Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2015.

“Well researched, timely, gracefully written; particularly intriguing on the connections between landscape, memory and race.”

 

 

 

Sutherland, Kate.  How to Draw a Rhinoceros:  Poems by Kate Sutherland.  N. p.:  Book Thug, 2016.

“Surprisingly insightful in its contemporary adaptations of earlier natural history traditions.”

 

 

 

 

Tevis, Joni.  The World Is on Fire:  Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse.  Minneapolis, MN:  Milkweed, 2015.

“Some of the most explosive prose I’ve read in some time. Unsettling.”

 

Ecocriticism Book Award Finalists

The judges were Nicole Seymour, winner of the the winner of the ASLE Ecocritical Book Award in 2015, Tom Lynch, founding coordinator of the ASLE Book Awards and editor of the journal Western American Literature, and Molly Westling, Professor Emerita at the University of Oregon and author of The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender and American Fiction.


Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

“This book is a rich, very original extension of Alaimo’s influential concept of “transcorporeality” from her previous scholarship. Exposed explores the radical ways such a perspective erases illusions of human separateness from the rest of the living world, thus leaving Cartesian objectivism far behind. With ingenuity and nuance, Alaimo here applies queer theory, marine biology, feminist posthumanism, and exciting aesthetic analysis to insist on human embeddedness in the deep material reality of earth and especially sea on the one planet where we belong and whose climates are rapidly, dangerously changing.”

 

Derek Gladwin, Contentious Terrains: Boglands, Ireland, Postcolonial Gothic (Cork University Press, 2016)

“An original, richly theorized examination of the deep landscape histories embodied in Northern European boglands, especially in Ireland, and literary treatments of their meanings by writers from Bram Stoker, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney to more recent poets and playwrights and remarkable geocultural nonfiction writer Tim Robinson. Gladwin as a Canadian ecocritic brings fresh postcolonial approaches to consider these shifting spaces that are part water, part earth and that have moved and changed in radical ways over geological time and more recently through empires from Celtic and Roman to Viking and Anglo powers.”

 

Ursula Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

“Heise brings her formidable analytical skills and erudition to an analysis of how we think about and respond to one of the main aspects of the Anthropocene, extinction. Makes a strong case for the importance of the humanities in how we understand what is often considered to be a purely scientific problem. Well written, this will be a key text in the field for years to come.”

 

Erin James, The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

“James adeptly combines three fields often seen as distinct: ecocriticism, narrative studies, and postcolonial studies. Of special note is how the book uses narrative theory, supplemented by cognitive neurobiology, to explain how readers come to inhabit the world of stories, helping us to move beyond the poorly theorized “mimesis” conundrum that has bedeviled ecocriticism. Surprising and innovative insights on every page.”

 

Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf. (University of Virginia Press, 2016).

“This book fills a significant gap in terms of ecocritical work on both Victorian studies and modernism. Indeed, Taylor makes a persuasive case for literature of that period as Anthropocene literature – and, in so doing, offers a stronger account of the notion of Anthropocene literature than I’ve seen elsewhere. This book seems as important to ecocriticism/environmental humanities as it does to studies in the novel, modernism, Dickens studies, etc. – which I think is quite a feat. It’s also elegantly written and displays highly original thinking.”

Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Writing the Goodlife: Mexican American Literature and the Environment. (University of Arizona Press, 2016).

“This book also fills a significant gap — in this case, when it comes to coverage of Latinx/Chicanx literature and culture. I believe it’s the first book-length ecocritical study of Mexican-American literature. While groundbreaking in these ways, the book also provides a nice complement to extant work on African-American, queer, and other minority traditions of eco-engagement. It makes a bold, counterintuitive but ultimately crucial case against terms such as “environment” and “environmentalism,” showing how they are coded in racially exclusive ways. I also appreciate how the preface models the importance of the personal in the scholarly.”

 

Winners will be announced in June.

ASLE

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