Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization ambitiously considers fishing as a source of food from pre-historic times to today. Starting with Neanderthal bands on the banks of the Rhone river, the author reports on the weights and shapes of fish bones (since the rest of the bodies are long gone), and I wonder about how many grad students painstakingly separated tiny bones from the rest of the excavations! We should be very thankful for those bones, and the grass students counting them, since the fish have no antlers or other distinctive features that would indicate their bring consumed otherwise. As we step into the centuries it becomes very obvious that fish has been a very important source of food, and especially protein, through winters, ice ages, and droughts. Interestingly, technology in the form of spears, harpoons, nets of all kinds, boats of course, and basins for raising fish is a surprisingly large part of the story.
My exploration of disasters continues: after rising waters, wildfires! And I’m no happier with Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame than I was with The Water Will Come.
This book is built around a series of deadly fires, most in the US, and the author seems more interested in depicting heart-wrenching personal stories than exploring the larger phenomenon of why wildfires have become so large and so deadly, although if you sift through the stories you will find that overly-controlled fires, massive building in wooded areas, and drought are the main ingredients for starting fires. Add to that under-resourced local, state, and federal firefighting power and a surprising lack of solid scientific evidence for best practices, and it seems that we will continue to see more massive fires with little in the way of prevention or abatement.
Half memoir, half impassioned cry for change, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir has a powerful half: the memoir. If anyone ever wondered how bad racism really is when it comes to law-making, policing, and the justice system (not to mention everyday life), the first author’s story is a sad eye opener. But the systematic, searing assignation to racism of each and every problem she and other African Americans encounter weakens her argument and may make many avoid the book entirely. It’s too bad because the personal story is so strong.
Sea levels are rising and threatening buildings, infrastructure of all kinds, and the lifestyle of anyone who happens to live close to the water. The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World paints a horrific picture of what could happen if sea levels were to rise by many feet and nothing was done. And if you like doomsday ecology, you will love the book. In my mind it would be much better to avoid sensational claims and to focus on solutions and how to motivate people to invest in long-term solutions. After all, the average Miaman who refuses to leave because the water will rise is not that much different from the average Californian who does not like to think too much about earthquakes, right?
If you are tired of all the books telling you that the French do everything better, here’s one about how you should really look to the Swedes. The author is a Brit married to a Swede and in Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life she sets out to share the Swedish lifestyle and how we, too, can transform our lives by, basically, throwing away all our stuff, getting up early, and aiming for small, calm celebrations. Not exactly the American way, but certainly looks enticing and photogenic.
Want to feel superior (as a species) and happy about human progress? The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world is for you. It’s an entertainingly written catalog of all kinds of creative human achievements, nicely including visual arts and science (literature and other arts, not so much), singing the glory of our wonderful species. What could be wrong with that?
Nothing, I suppose, except that I keep trying to figure out the point of all this (which, by the way, is not entirely true, since animals do create, although the authors strongly deny it). The last chapters weakly suggest that we should encourage more creativity in schools. Point well taken, but I’m not sure we need 250 pages to demonstrate that.
Written by an archeologist who is not content to unearth artifacts, but wants to understand and learn how to make a basket, say, or maintain a proper hedgerow, Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts could be a fascinating exploration of the lost or almost-lost arts of making things. And indeed, there are some glimmers of that here and there. But the author spends a great deal of time trying to convince us that we should go back to traditional basketry, for instance (even as he explains it takes hours to make one basket — and only after having cultivated the branches required to make the basked for a couple of years!) instead of consuming cheap plastic things. Even if you like the idea of traditional baskets, the argument just does not make sense.
Also, the explanations of how stone walls are built, leather is tanned, or roofs thatched the old way are rather cryptic and would greatly benefit from some visuals. All that makes for a rather tedious book. Too bad! If you’ve ever admired a well-made pitchfork or a water-tight basked, it would be wonderful to understand better how they are made.