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The best environmental books we’ve read in 2018

This is our third year of recapping the best books we’ve read over the past year.

Here are the 2017 and 2016 lists.

We’re so glad that the number of both readers and reviewers of EcoLit Books have grown enough to now have an annual tradition of celebrating our favorite books of the year.

And this is indeed something to celebrate because there were some amazing environmental and animal-themed books published over the past year, and these aren’t necessarily the books you’ll see on more mainstream “best of the year” lists. 

But these books are, in our humble opinion, some of the more important books of the year. Tackling topics that range from rethinking farming practices to how to coexist with wildlife in urban areas to our evolving relationship with the land and its many creatures.

I hope you enjoy the list. Thanks so much to our readers — and especially our contributors — for making EcoLit Books an online hub for eco-literature. Here’s to another year of reading like you give a damn.

Jacki Skole

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee 

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee is a riveting account of the life and untimely death of O-Six, Yellowstone’s most famous wolf. It is also the story of humanity’s timeless attempt to bend nature to its will, no matter the cost.

Rising by Elizabeth Rush

Rising by Elizabeth Rush takes readers on a graphic tour of U.S. coastal communities grappling with the devastating effects of climate change. From Maine to Miami, the Gulf Coast to the Bay Area, Rush reveals how lives, livelihoods, and entire ecosystems are undergoing irrevocable changes that are destined to leave many of these communities uninhabitable. It is not an uplifting read, but it is an important one.  

Midge Raymond

Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro. 2017.

While the notion of “cultured meat” or “lab-grown” meat may sound odd to many, Paul Shapiro’s book makes the case for why this new industry is among our best hopes for, quite literally, saving the world….Clean Meat should be read by anyone who cares about the planet, but most of all by those who currently eat and wear animals the way these products are made today. This book provides a detailed, well-rounded examination of a new industry that highlights the challenges — and the incredible possibilities — of feeding and clothing us all in an increasingly populated and demanding world. 

Heather Taft

Reflecting on the environmental books I’ve read this year, two really stand out to me. My first recommendation is a children’s book I read this summer for 8-11 year olds called Poacher Panic by Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler, illustrated by Diane Le Feyer.

This book focuses on the rescue of a wild tiger in Sumatra and her two cubs that are set to be taken by poachers once the cubs are old enough to leave their mom. Ben and Zoey work to track down the tigers, while they try to figure out who the poachers are, so they can rescue the tigers before the poachers get to them first. Their research also teaches them about the trafficking of wildlife and animals parts. The book is written at an appropriate level for children. It is also the first book in the Wild Rescue series, so there are more books focused on other species and wildlife issues around the world to choose from if your child likes this one.

Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Big Cats by Andrew Loveridge

Clearly I have a passion for big cats. As a conservation biologist I knew trophy hunting had devastating effects on lion prides in Africa. This book explained the nature of lion prides and the impact of losing males over and over again, leading to decreasing pride sizes. I also was not aware of the extent of government involvement in trophy hunting and the impact this can have on a researcher trying to save the lions they are using to make money. It was a very interesting and informative read for me.

John Yunker

Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World by Tim Low

Thanks to DNA, we now know that Australia is the wellspring of the planet’s songbirds. And it wasn’t until the second half of the last century that Australians themselves began to appreciate that songbirds evolved in their backyards. And it’s not only songbirds that Australia gave the word but parrots.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

When we started EcoLit Books five years ago, this was the type of book I had in mind. A novel that places nature in its proper place in relation to people. That is, above us — in this case, both figuratively and literally. In The Overstory, Richard Powers has crafted an epic novel that stretches hundreds of years, culminating in a series of life-and-death environmental battles. But even more so, this is a novel about rediscovering the largest and oldest living creatures on our planet.

The Center for Humans and Nature

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman, Chelsea Green Publishing 

Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature by Liam Heneghan, University of Chicago Press

Rust Belt Arcana: Tarot and Natural History in the Exurban Wilds by Matt Stansberry, Belt Publishing

This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent by Daegan Miller, University of ChicagoPress

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

The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers, W.W. Norton

Food from the Radical Center. Healing Our Land and Communities by Gary Paul Nabhan, Island Press

Wildly Successful Farming Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic by Brian DeVore, University of Wisconsin Press

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen, Simon & Schuster

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press

 Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli, Farrar, Strauss Giroux

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future by James Bridle, Verso

Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Verso, 2018

The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds by Gavin Van Horn, University of Chicago Press

Frog Pond Philosophy: Essays on the Relationship between Humans and Nature by Strachan Donnelley, edited by Ceara Donnelley and Bruce Jennings, University Press of Kentucky


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The Friend: A Novel

Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend, is a meditation on grief, writing, and the transcendent power of the human-canine bond. It is also the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for fiction.

How is one to mourn the sudden death of a loved one? For the novel’s narrator, whose best friend and literary mentor has taken his own life, there’s writing. There’s therapy. And there’s the unexpected companionship of a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound harlequin Great Dane.

The dog, a one-time stray, had belonged to the narrator’s friend. After his death, his widow, who had never wanted the dog, has put him in a kennel. “He didn’t understand that Daddy was never coming home again,” she tells the narrator. “He waited by the door day and night. For a while he wouldn’t even eat, I was afraid he’d starve to death. But the worst part was, every once in a while, he’d make this noise, this howling, or wailing, or whatever it was. Not loud, but strange, like a ghost or some other weird thing. It went on and on.”

The dog’s despair recalls, for the narrator, the remarkable story of the Japanese Akita, Hachiko, who is memorialized with a statue outside a Tokyo train station. The Akita would meet his master at the station each day upon the man’s return from work. After the man died, in 1925, the dog continued to show up at the station at the hour of the train’s arrival. He did this day after day, for nearly a decade, so devoted was he to his owner.*

It’s this devotion of dog to human, notes the narrator, “so instinctual that it’s given freely even to persons who are unworthy of it,” that has turned her into a cat person. “Give me a pet that can get along without me,” she says.  

Still, despite her fondness for felines and living in a tiny, no-dogs-allowed New York City apartment building, the narrator opens her home to the mighty Dane. At first, he takes no interest in her, and she views him more as burden than companion. But that will change.

Whether the narrator will be able to keep the dog—and her home—provides the drama and the one plot line that runs through the novel. Otherwise, The Friend reads less like a narrative and more like a series of musings, scribbled in a diary, by a woman grappling with loss, loneliness, and the changing world she inhabits.

This unconventional structure gives the novel the feel of nonfiction as the narrator, a creative writing professor, wrestles with topics both timeless and contemporary, including suicide, the #MeToo movement, trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the writer’s life. All the while, weaving in quotations and anecdotes from the lives and works of writers and poets too numerous to name.

The narrator contemplates, for example, whether there is utility in writing to heal one’s wounds and discovers that on this, there is debate. Natalia Ginzburg said no, “You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.” But Isak Dinesen “believed that you could make any sorrow bearable by putting it into a story or telling a story about it.” Such storytelling worked for Virginia Woolf, who, the narrator points out, said that writing did for her what psychoanalysts did for their patients. But, wonders the narrator, “Does the effectiveness of the catharsis depend on the quality of the writing? And if a person finds catharsis by writing a book, does it matter whether or not the book is any good?”

Nunez’s prose in The Friend is crisp and spare; it is also infused with wit and humor. The characters go unnamed, save for the dog, Apollo, and the building’s super, Hector, who repeatedly tells the narrator, “You cannot keep that animal here.” 

The Friend is a page-turner, due in large part to the unconventionality of the storytelling—as a reader, I was eager to discover just where the narrator was taking me. At its heart, though, The Friend is a novel about friendship—friendship between people and friendship between people and their dogs, those magnificent creatures who, the narrator says, “may well, in their mute unfathomable way, know us better than we know them.”

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*Hollywood’s version of Hachiko’s story, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, was released in 2009. In the film, which takes place in a quaint New England town, Richard Gere stars as a music professor who takes in a lost Akita puppy. It’s a tear jerker, so have a box of tissues close at hand.

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The Great (Unknown) Pet Massacre

The title of this book almost begs incredulity.

The Great Cat & Dog Massacre?

When I first saw the book cover I struggled to imagine what the book was about exactly. One of the pictures features men in helmets carrying animals, so I initially assumed the massacre was the result of bombings.

But, no. This massacre — and it was indeed a massacre — was entirely self inflicted. 

During the earliest days of the war, British citizens killed their pets. Not because the government asked them to. Not because veterinarians asked them to. But because, for lack of a better word, they panicked.

It was September 1939. The bombing was still many months away. But, the people could not know this. They knew only that war was imminent, that bombs would eventually fall, that Germans could wash ashore at any moment. And many people thought it wiser to put their companion animals to death than risk the great unknown that awaited. And, given human nature, a stampede soon developed.

In less than a week approximately 400,000 cats and dogs, bunnies and birds were put to death. The run on shelters was so great that one shelter saw a line of people and their pets a half-mile long. Shelters ran out of chloroform and animals were buried in mass graves. Vets pleaded with people to rethink their decisions but a mania of sorts spread through communities rich and poor. In the end, roughly 26% of all London cats and dogs were put to death.

This book clearly illustrates how the widely accepted narrative of Brits keeping calm and carrying on was not all that it was cracked up to be.

Author Hilda Kean does a thorough job of collecting anecdotes, letters, news clippings that collectively shed light on the many experiences of pet owners, their children, vets, animal rescuers, politicians, and the animals themselves. Because this was not a phenomenon that was widely publicized and, after the war, was quickly forgotten, this book provides an important historical record.

I particularly appreciated the focus on the animals themselves — how their lives were so often an afterthought. How animals became just another element of the virtual war with the Germans, a war that was as much about “civilization” as anything else. At the time, the Germans were vilified for their poor treatment of animals, so it became incumbent upon the English to rise above. How should a civilized people treat its animal companions? This is a question that was debated then — and is still rightfully being debated today.

There are many sad stories in this book. Such as the accounts of children who lost their pets, often for reasons not at all made clear by their parents. And there are stories of parents who took a hands-on approach to killing their pets, which was equally traumatic on not only the children but, in some cases, the parents as well.

Now it is likely that a number of these animals would have died during the years of German bombings. More than 60,000 citizens died during that six-year span. But how much more difficult were those years for the people who so quickly sacrificed their companions? This was a tragedy during a time of so many tragedies. And this book does a service to those animals who gave their lives before their time.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy (Animal Lives)

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