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Book Review: Junk Raft by Marcus Eriksen

Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution tells the terrifying and important story of plastics in our oceans, framed by Marcus Eriksen’s journey aboard Junk, the all-plastic raft he and his sailing partner took from California to Hawaii to raise awareness of the plight of our seas.

Eriksen, who would later go on to co-found the organization 5 Gyres Institute with his wife, Anna, writes about the 2,600-mile journey over eighty-eight days and its challenges—among them, structural problems with the raft and bracing storms—interspersing the narrative with facts that all consumers should know about plastic and its effects on the environment, especially the oceans. For example, even if we are among those who recycle, it’s not enough: up to 12 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean.

The statistics are staggering: Plastic production, which was zero during World War II, rose to 40 million tons by 1972, to 311 million tons in 2013, and is projected to reach 1 billion tons by 2050. Yet the recycling rate in the United States is only 9.2 percent (based on the latest study in 2013), and, even more alarming, non-recyclable plastics are exported to countries where environmental standards and workers’ health are unregulated. Of a visit to a processing site in India, Eriksen writes, “After ten minutes, my eyes were tingling and the back of my throat burned. The men [working] in this room absorb the largest dose of volatile plasticizers and pollutants, and according to a local NGO, they give up somewhere around twenty years of their lifespan for two dollars per day sorting our trash.”

India and China are among countries that send the plastic right back to the U.S. via new products created with the plastic sent to them. To tackle the problem at its inception, Eriksen advocates for an end the “throwaway culture” that leads to such waste in the first place. “I’ve witnessed a growing movement to end throwaway living…We need zero-waste and end-of-life design for everything we create; a world in which social and environmental justice becomes part of product and systems design.”

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Ericksen has a unique perspective on the politics of plastic: After the war, while rafting on the Mississippi, he “witnessed a never-ending trail of trash, which had its roots in the petroleum I had been sent to defend in Kuwait. Now I watched it drift to the ocean via America’s greatest watershed.” During some of the quieter moments during his journey onboard Junk, he reflects on the sense of betrayal he felt as a veteran: “I had given everything, a willingness to kill and be killed, for the sake of cheap oil and national interests.”

Junk Raft details the history and contemporary problem of plastics, including their production, the powerful lobbying that keeps such items as plastic bags in the marketplace, and the devastating effect plastic has on marine life. Countries like Germany and Chile are on the forefront of recycling that works—from reducing packaging to requiring producers to recover the waste from their own products—and by contrast, Eriksen writes, the U.S. is the only country of the thirty-five members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that does not have extended producer responsibility for packaging. Only ten U.S. states have bottle-recycling programs.

When it comes to plastics, marine animals are the biggest losers of all. Various studies have estimated that between 9 and 35 percent of fish have plastics in their stomachs—and this doesn’t even include sea lions and seabirds, and all those animals caught in discarded fishing gear. If today’s plastic waste goes unabated, up to 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050. “Even in fish markets,” Eriksen writes, “clams and fish have been found with abundant micro- and nanoplastics in their guts, which we ingest if we eat them whole.” One recent study in the U.S. and Indonesia found that 25 percent of the fish in markets had plastics in their stomachs.

While the statistics are daunting, Eriksen writes with optimism—yet it is only through commitment to change our ways that life will improve for the oceans and its creatures. Eriksen writes, “I have tremendous hope. I am confident that we possess the collective intelligence and will to overcome the course that was set in the last century…Are we capable of replacing the globalization of stuff with the globalization of new ideas to transform our culture of consumption? To rebut Kurt Vonnegut’s epitaph for our species—‘Nice try’—I argue: ‘Not done.’”


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Happy Earth Day

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.

Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. We founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature … this combines two of our passions: stories and taking care of our planet. There are myriad ways to help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in your own life.

  • Immerse yourself in environmental literature! We love books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, we also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
  • Watch movies. A few environmental films that are interesting, important, and well worth watching: Earthlings, Cowspiracy, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, If a Tree Falls, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel … the list goes on, but this is a great start.
  • Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
  • Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
  • Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
  • Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we feel are worthy of our support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.

We wish you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!

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Book Review: Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, co-edited by Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby

Reviewed by Lucia Hadella in partnership with Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project and Environmental Arts and Humanities program.

How does one go about telling the story of hydraulic fracturing in the United States in a way that illuminates its repercussions for humans and nonhumans? Through poetry? A short story? An essay? Does one travel to a town where fracking is prevalent and talk with its residents, see the operations, walk across the scarred ground? Editors Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby made the decision, when putting together Fracture, to include all of these approaches in an effort to capture the qualms and indignations surrounding fracking.

The story of fracking is globally relevant, contributing to the larger saga of climate change and energy production, but it is also local, personal, and intimate. In her poem “Small Buried Things,” poet and singer-songwriter Debra Marquart writes to fracking states, such as North Dakota, with a warning and a plea. Highlighting the sacrifice of life-sustaining water and air for the quick returns from fossil fuel development, she writes, “more oil than we have water to extract / more oil than we have atmosphere to burn.” Addressing her home state, she urges, “north dakota   dear sleeping beauty   please, wake up / they have opened you up and said, come in   take everything.”

I first learned about fracking during my senior year of high school, and I can still remember those infographics depicting the cracks that spread through the shale layer, sometimes more than a mile below the Earth’s surface, branching like a system of roots where trees will never reach. I remember the video of a woman in Pennsylvania turning the knob to her kitchen sink, lighting a match, and flinching as the water ignited with a flash. She talked about methane levels, about getting dizzy in the shower, about the money the gas companies gave her to lease her land for drilling. As an Oregonian who had not witnessed fracking firsthand, my schooling on the subject was important but incomplete.

Indeed, one can only learn so much about fracking by watching videos and studying diagrams. A collection like Fracture helps to humanize the on-site damage done by fracking and offer a more complete look at the political and economic forces at play. In order to gain insight for his Fracture contribution “The Occupation,” writer and professor Paul Bogard traveled to southeastern Ohio to better understand how communities there are affected by natural gas extraction. “What I saw in Ohio,” he writes, “is a land under occupation.” Between the “ubiquitous tankers labeled ‘brine’” and the “constant industrial noise, like a factory’s churn and whine,” Bogard quickly determines that the real-life fracking scene is far different from that described by the oil company Halliburton.

Fracking wastewater pond, courtesy of the Filmmaker Fund

On their website Halliburton depicts fracking operations as quick, quiet, and safe. Advertising to communities made vulnerable by poverty and limited access to education, the company downplays the environmental disruption and chemical contamination while emphasizing opportunities for job growth and “easy money.” Bogard learns from his hosts, Appalachia locals, that the oil and gas companies first try to coax landowners into signing leases, and then they revert to divisive tactics if that doesn’t work, “turning neighbor against neighbor.”

Like so many other contributors, Bogard’s narrative style entices Fracture readers, and I found myself roped in by the human intrigue of his journalistic approach—and then I remembered that these disturbing stories are real. The threatening industry representatives, the landowners who are duped and coerced, and the ground that “has the look of a recent battle, torn up and scraped bare, all yet to heal” comprise the reality right now in many towns across the nation. It seems appropriate that some authors in Fracture chose fiction as their avenue for exploring a practice whose implications for the future are both significant and unknown. The subject is heavy, and it tugs at the imagination, demanding an explanation and a way to look forward for what actions must be taken.

This heaviness is the reason why Fracture, which reads smoothly from page-to-page, author-to-author, and genre-to-genre, is also demanding. It requires from its readers a degree of empathy and self-reflection, all the while provoking frustration with a larger system that allows and perpetuates suffering at the hands of power. In her essay “The View from 31,000 Feet: A Philosopher Looks at Fracking,” nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore stares down at an eastern Utah landscape speckled with fracking wells. From her seat in the airplane she wonders, “By what right do humans take what they want from the land—not just what they need, but whatever they want—with no regard for the living, animate community that already exists in that place?”

Indeed, some Fracture contributors, such as Moore, take their discussions beyond fracking, seeing the practice as one component of a broader system of resource exploitation in the name of growth, convenience, and progress. In his essay “Insanity,” activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen examines fracking as one part of a dominant culture obsessed with growth at any cost. He reminds readers that “[f]racking is not one lone mistake. It’s not one lone act of greed. It’s part of a larger pattern. It’s one symptom of the disease—the insanity—that is this culture.” He urges readers to fight fracking with this larger picture in mind and to understand that what is needed in taking action against fracking is a systemic shift and not one that views the extractive practice in isolation.

And indeed, Fracture is a call to action. In fact, it comes complete with several guides on how to take charge against fracking. In “A Feminist’s Guide to Fighting Pipelines,” activist-publisher Ahna Kruzic and sociologist Angie Carter share sage advice on getting started, building community, moving forward, caring for oneself, and adhering to radical imagination. I will leave you with their words as a gesture of resistance: “Trust that through the undoing, the dismantling, the collapse, we will learn to remake and will remember to question, to honor, to debate and disagree and come together again.”

Lucia Hadella grew up in Talent, Oregon. She received her B.S. in Natural Resources from Oregon State University, where she is currently earning an M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities.

Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

Ice Cube Press

Read and share your own thoughts on the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for a Resilient Future Series: Does fracking violate human rights?

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Our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe

We are thrilled to announce that our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe.

Jonathan’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, an extraordinary journey underwater that reveals the vast capabilities of fishes. He is also the author of the books The Exultant Ark, Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Use of Animals in Higher Education.

Jonathan has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, and has published more than 50 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection. Formerly department chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University and senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Jonathan is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. Learn more at

This year marks our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize, and we are delighted to be offering a $1,000 prize and a four-week writing residency thanks to the generosity of our amazing prize partner PLAYA. All manuscripts submitted for the prize will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press.

Please visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details about the prize — submissions open September 1, 2017. We look forward to reading your work!

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Book Review: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

Alexis M. Smith’s lovely novel Marrow Island envisions environmental catastrophe on several levels, beginning with a devastating earthquake and the subsequent oil refinery accident whose effects, even though these events are backstory, linger on every page.

The novel begins with a mysterious opening chapter, in which Lucie Bowen, twenty years after the earthquake, is again fleeing the island of her youth, this time under very different circumstances. Unlike during the earthquake, which Lucie and her best friend, Katie, survived together, Katie now is a suspicious presence (“I’m not leaving you alone with her,” says Lucie’s boyfriend, Carey); by the end of this short chapter, Lucie says of the inhabitants of her former childhood home: “I forgive them for trying to kill me.”

When Lucie left Marrow Island, it was uninhabitable, or so she and everyone else believed. Yet when Katie writes decades later with stunning news — she has been living on the island with other “colonists” in a thriving community — Lucie’s affection for her friend and her journalistic curiosity bring her back.

On the island, Lucie witnesses an astonishing transformation, but she knows all cannot be what it appears. During her time on the island, through those from her long-lost friend to the colony’s leader, Sister J, Lucie begins to uncover what is really happening, and what she finds is both inspiring and devastating. While the story moves inexorably toward more devastation still, there remains a lot of hope, a belief that perhaps not all is lost after all; we see this in the colonists and attempts to recover the land, as well as in Lucie’s reconnecting with her past: “I felt Katie taking my hand. My body relaxed, a conditioned response that should have been lost years ago.”

Marrow Island is a book as much about a woman’s attempts to reconnect with her past as it is about the environment. With a narrative that alternates between Lucie’s visit to the island and her life in Oregon with Carey, Smith’s novel portrays the connections between eco-disasters natural and man-made, between relationships past and present, and how we recover — or do not — from landscapes forever changed.

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Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell


The Penguin Lessons is the story of a young Englishman who, on vacation in Uruguay from his teaching job at a boarding school in Argentina, rescues an oil-covered Magellanic penguin. This memoir will charm anyone who loves these tuxedo-feathered birds — and Neil Baker’s illustrations, on the cover and scattered throughout the book, are enchanting.

Author Tom Michell first encounters the penguin on a beach among thousands of dead birds, and he manages to bring it back to his vacation apartment to clean its feathers of oil. “The penguin was filthy and very aggressive. Its beak snapped shut with a metallic clack like a pair of dental pliers as it continually twisted and turned in its attempts to savage me.”

And this is the last time the bird behaves like a wild penguin. As Michell begins to clean the bird’s feathers, “it became a docile and cooperative partner in this cleanup operation.” And when the time comes for Michell to return the penguin to the sea, the bird won’t go, instead following him across the beach, and then back across the road. (Michell learned much later, from a keeper at a sanctuary, that penguins can’t be released on their own, “without a fellow creature of their own kind; they won’t leave.”) And so Michell has no choice but to bring him home.

Woven into Michell’s story of smuggling the penguin, eventually named Juan Salvado (“John Saved”), back into Argentina and attempting to find him an appropriate home are tales of his experiences teaching and living in a Buenos Aires suburb during the mid-1970s. Before the military coup that ousted Isabel Perón’s government, inflation was 100 percent a month, and the local markets doubled their prices every couple of weeks, which meant that the best use of one’s paycheck was to spend it all at once, and then trade for whatever else you might need. “I bought jeans that wouldn’t fit and shirts I’d never wear,” Michell recalls, “…and I had no trouble bartering my goods later on.” Among those who suffered most were school employees, like the housekeeper Maria: “The poor, the descamisados, were rewarded with money that rapidly devalued, leaving them nothing to show for it. The rich were the beneficiaries, because their assets maintained or increased in value, as a result of labor they paid for with worthless money.”

In the midst of this poverty, uncertainty, and political strife, Juan Salvado wins over staff, students, and employees alike as he lives on the outdoor terrace of Michell’s campus housing. Students vie for the privilege of buying him food from the local fishmonger and taking part in his care. Many simply enjoy spending time talking to Juan Salvado. “Juan Salvado was such a good listener, patiently absorbing everything that was said to him, from observations about the weather to secrets of the heart, and he never once interrupted. He looked people straight in the eye and always paid such close attention to what was said that his guests were inclined to talk to him on equal terms—they thought him a wise old bird.”

Michell’s is not the only tale of Magellanic penguins (for some reason referred to as “Magellan penguins” in the book) acting more like pets than wild animals. There is Turbo of the Punta Tombo colony, who has never been fed by researchers but who nevertheless sees himself more as one of them than one of his own colony. And there is Jinjing, who after feeding at sea returns to Brazil rather than his native Argentina, to visit the retired bricklayer who rescued him from an oil spill. The many charms of this species—and the incredible nature of all penguins—are lovingly told in this story.

Michell’s travels include a quest to find a new home for Juan Salvado, and readers are sure to enjoy the travelogue as well as the story of the penguin himself (Michell’s description of the noses of elephant seal bulls on Peninsula Valdés is one of the best I’ve read: “having a pendulous protuberance like a large crumpled boot where they could reasonably expect to have a nose”).

While this book is overall a light, easygoing read, Michell also poses tough but necessary questions about what he sees on his travels, and how he came to discover Juan Salvado in the first place: “How, in a world so full of astonishing beauty and priceless wonders, had humans devised such misery, and not just for our own species?” He experiences an environmental awakening, making the very real and important connection between how humans treat one another and how they treat the planet: “In an equivalent way that millions of Marias paid indirectly for all the mortgaged homes of the middle classes in Buenos Aires thanks to inflation, it is the penguins and the rest of nature’s descamisados who pay the real cost of our way of life, in the only currency they have.”


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Book Review: The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston


Imagine a world that is just like our own—same countries, same technologies, same history—but with one major difference: dragons. The dragons in The Story of Owen don’t limit themselves to feeding on damsels in distress. They’ll eat anybody. And livestock, too. But if there’s one thing these low-intelligence beasts truly can’t resist, it’s carbon emissions. Fossil fuels are like candy (and of similar nutritional value) to all species of dragons.

Dragons were a nuisance before the industrial revolution, but every small village had its dragon slayer. Now with increased carbon emissions, dragons are a major threat, and all dragon slayers get conscripted to protect the world’s oil reserves. After their years in the Oil Watch are over, dragon slayers usually stay in cities with high-paying corporate contracts. This leaves rural areas largely unprotected.

It is big news, then, when the Thorskards, a preeminent dragon-slaying family, announce they are going to move to a small town in Ontario. Lottie Thorskard has been forced to retire after a dragon injury she received while protecting automobiles in morning rush hour. She’ll focus now on training her nephew Owen.

Sixteen-year-old Siobhan McQuaid doesn’t think the arrival of the Thorskards in town will make much difference in her life. She’s focused on her music and avoiding her parents’ questions about what she’s going to do after high school. But she becomes friends with Owen, dragon-slayer-in-training, and his family asks her to become his bard. From there, Siobhan’s future is deeply intertwined with Owen’s, and with protecting her region from increased dragon attacks.

The Story of Owen brings alive an environmental dystopia, but it’s different from many in the genre. It’s not a futuristic scenario that tries to show what could happen if we don’t shape up. Instead, the narrative is rooted in a present-day parallel universe that seems to underscore the lengths to which we go to hold onto a fossil-fuel based life. This is a thought-provoking read—but also a very engaging story. (Recommended for grade 7 and up.)

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Siskiyou Prize update – new award, extended deadline

The winner of the Siskiyou Prize, in addition to a cash prize of $1,000 and book publication, will also receive a four-week residency at the PLAYA retreat in central Oregon.


PLAYA is a nonprofit organization supporting innovative thinking through work in the arts, literature, natural sciences, and other fields of creative inquiry. On the edge of the Great Basin in central Oregon, PLAYA offers creative individuals the space, the solitude, and the community to reflect and to engage their work.

playa pond

The winner of the Siskiyou Prize will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA, which provides private lodging in a fully equipped cabin with kitchen/living room, a place to write, and two dinners a week (Mondays & Thursdays) with a cohort of residents, at no charge. (Transportation and other meals are not included.)


PLAYA allows uninterrupted time and solitude amidst a spectacular landscape — the perfect recipe for environmental literature.  The prize deadline has been extended to October 15, 2014, so that more writers have an opportunity to submit.

Please visit The Siskiyou Prize and PLAYA for more information, and feel free to contact Ashland Creek Press with questions.

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Fill ‘er up: A review of Living Oil by Stephanie LeMenager

Living Oil by Stephanie LeMenager

Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century by Stephanie LeMenager  is an academic book and priced accordingly.

In other words, this is not the sort of book you’d find in an airport bookstore.

Perhaps it should be.

This book provides historical and cultural insights into our complex relationship with oil — from the “peak discovery” period of the early 20th century to the “tough oil” period of today — in which oil is tougher to extract, with more environmentally severe consequences.

The book is divided into loosely chronological sections that span from “Origins, Spills”  to “The Petroleum Archive” — in which the author visits oil museums in Los Angeles, Texas, and the Alberta Oil Sands region. Yes, there is an actual Alberta Oil Sands Discovery Centre that the general public can visit, and I now feel a strange urge to go see for myself.

And, yes, the author is well aware of the irony of consuming oil in an effort to write about oil. She also notes oil’s role in the entertainment industry and the publishing industry, and she even calculates the energy consumed to print her book.

LeMenager begins in 1969, when an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara awoke many Americans to the negative side effects of our oil addiction. Video footage and photos of oil-stained birds and sea lions gave momentum to the growing ecology movement, and many environmental laws soon followed, as well as the first celebration of Earth Day in 1970.

But how does one resist oil when one is so dependent upon it?

That is one of the central issues the book raises. This book excels at raising issues, making connections, and at illustrating just how relatively brief our love affair with oil has been. We use the word “addiction” now, but oil was once the fuel that led the country into the modern age.

And it should be noted that the discovery of oil as a fuel source helped save the whales from extinction (an earlier energy source). Moby-Dick is very much a novel about a dying industry.

LeManager writes extensively about Los Angeles — at one point the source of 20% of the world’s oil and, years later, a seemingly endless source of smog. She writes:

When the complexity of an effective smog abatement treatment became clear, smog grew from the status of an “attack” or “atmospheric freak” to a regular “season.” The season was September, southern California’s late, hot summer. In fact, smog is oil weather, like the industrial fires that were originally named as such by oil-field roughnecks. Initially the industries targeted by antismog activism argued that smog could not be a legal matter precisely because it was weather…

My own relationship with oil was forged in the 1970s, during the oil crisis, when I can remember massive gas station lines, and gas rationing was a brief way of life. But addictions are hard to break, particularly if most people would rather pretend they don’t exist.

Which brings us to today — a period of time that LeMenager calls “petromelancholia.”

She writes of the significance of Hurricane Katrina and the BP blowout in contributing to our current mental state:

We learn from these two events on the Gulf Coast of the southern United States not only that modernity and ecology are entangled objects, to paraphrase the philosopher of science Bruno Latour, but also that the melancholia for a given nature that has characterized modern environmentalism might be eclipsed, in the twenty-first century, by an unresolvable grieving of modernity itself, as it begins to fail.

This book has led me to many more books to read and artists to seek out, and makes me wonder if we will ever break our addiction, or if our addiction will ultimately break us.

Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford Studies in American Literary History)
Stephanie LeMenager
Oxford University Press