Tag Archives: non-fiction

“Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk

This book (another grab from the “new arrivals” shelf) overwhelmed me. I am woefully ignorant about business and finance, and my ignorance increases with scale. Most of what Funk discusses is global in scope.

Funk is a journalist, and it is harder for me to evaluate his work than, for example, that of a scientist like Richard Primack (author of Walden Warming, see this blog, June 23, 2014). I feel like I need to enlist my local cast of experts about this book, and worry that in some subject areas, I don’t know anyone.

If you decide not to read this book, you should at least look at the seven-page epilogue, entitled “MAGICAL THINKING”. Towards the end, Funk states, “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.” Good point.

Funk divides climate impacts into three categories – melting (problems of the Arctic), drought and sea level rise. Four chapters are devoted to each of these subjects.

The warming of the arctic puts Canada in a position of incredible strategic importance. Canada will “benefit” in many ways (longer growing season, open Northwest Passage, etc) but I put “benefit” into quotes because so many complications can be foreseen. One is sovereignty. Will Canada become the 51st state of the US? What will happen if our perceived interests diverge? Will the US “let” Canada chart an independent course?

And what about Greenland? I was barely aware of it as a country. I thought I was doing well to have some acquaintance with Iceland! Will Greenland become an agricultural state? A major source of strategic minerals? A tourist Mecca? We can safely assume it will emerge from obscurity.

On the subject of drought, I found Funk’s chapter on the Sahara most interesting, because he considers both desertification and human migration. Are the Africans currently trying to get to Europe “climate refugees”? Under what circumstances will the countries of Europe decide to admit “climate refugees”, and how will they be integrated? Will the richer Northern countries help their poorer, more southerly neighbors (like, say, Malta) that often receive the largest number of undocumented refugees? Can workers from Africa fill important needs in the US or northern Europe?

Many questions, few answers…

In his chapters on “the deluge”, aka sea level rise, Funk considers some technological fixes that might allow adaptation to climate change. One is genetic engineering of insects (starting with the mosquito) to inhibit malaria and dengue, and keep the tropics livable. Most surprising (to me) and actually, maybe somewhat feasible is the introduction of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling impact of volcanic eruptions. This is referred to as the “Mount Pinatubo” proposal, because of the cooling which followed Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

I recommend this book because most of us need to think and act “bigger” on climate change.

“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.

“Bird of Jove” by David Bruce

I found this book in an unlikely place, the gift shop of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which was about to close for the summer. There were the “real” books, the sale books, the donated books, and finally a shelf of books marked “no further reduction”. I can’t resist a bargain. I purchased “Bird of Jove” for one dollar.

“Bird of Jove” was published in 1971. It tells of the purchase of a rare Burkut eagle by an Englishman, Sam Barnes, who was traveling in a remote part of Kirgistan. Barnes was a naturalist and falconer. He was able to buy the rare eagle only because she suffered from a disease not curable in that isolated part of Asia. The eagle was cured quite simply with a common antibiotic, but getting Atalanta (as he eventually named her) to England was a monumental task in itself.

Living with (and training) a wild eagle in a small Welsh seaside resort town was challenging. Barnes and Atalanta had to cope with tourists (mostly harmless), aggressive motorcycles gangs and, to top it off, a fire bombing by Welsh ultranationalists. Time and again, Barnes had to nurse his terrified and sometimes injured eagle back to health and calmness.

Barnes says of falconry that a falconer must be “a practicing field naturalist first” and must also study folklore, history, botany and medicine.

This book raises SO many interesting questions! Is falconry an art and science that brings out good qualities in both human and animal, or is it a cynical exploitation of a wild creature? What is “intelligence” and what is “instinct”? When a trainer “dominates” a bird, does that behavior parallel anything seen in nature?

Barnes (and Bruce) anthropomorphize (make human) Atalanta a great deal. When they speak of her having a “temper”, what do they really mean? Might they be seeing something quite different, like fear or some other survival instinct? A bird may, to us, look “proud”, but I don’t believe it can feel “proud”. So what are we really seeing?

A part of the book I found especially endearing was Barnes’s efforts to deal with Atalanta’s natural cycle of mating, brooding and nurture of offspring. There was no eagle in England as a potential mate. Atalanta’s instincts led her to try to make a nest. She did it very badly – in the wild, the male would do most of the work. She laid two sterile eggs, and brooded them lovingly. Barnes was distressed for her. By chance, he found a nestling owl and decided to put it under Atalanta, taking away one of her eggs at the same time. Atalanta “adopted” the owlet, so Barnes got a second one, setting up a foster family. This seemingly logical step was complicated by the fact that owls and eagles don’t work the same shift! The owlets were active at night, when Atalanta’s daily rhythm led her to sleep. One owlet, which was driving Atalanta crazy, was soon returned to its original nest. The other was happy as an adopted eagle, until the age when baby eagles are normally driven away by their parents. Interestingly, the owl parents had never lost track of it and had continued to show up regularly with mice and other tidbits. So both baby owls returned to the wild, apparently unharmed by their temporary lives as eagle chicks.

This book is a wonderful read for anyone who loves animals and nature. David Bruce tells a great story. The book ends when Barnes leaves on an expedition seeking a mate for Atalanta.

“Bird of Jove” is dated, and I plan to go looking for “the rest of the story”, but I wanted to examine it first without “outside” input. Stay tuned!

“Walden Warming – Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” by Richard Primack

Henry David Thoreau has been part of my life for a long time. My mother quoted him. So did my minister. We read some of his writing in high school, more in college. And I am a New Englander. Walden Pond is located in woods just like those I played and camped in as a child. But until I read this book, I never thought about the impact of global warming on Walden Pond, and on “my” woods.

Dr. Richard Primack is an academic botanist with decades of research experience, but his work around Walden Pond began only about ten years ago. Looking for an “angle” from which to study the impact of climate change on plants, Primack learned that Thoreau, most commonly thought of as an author and philosopher, was a dedicated naturalist who kept detailed records about the plants and animals around him. The crucial pieces of data related to dates – when did the winter ice leave Walden Pont, when did plants leaf out, blossom and set fruit? Having an “old” data set allows for comparison with present conditions. Yes, it can be documented that climate change is having an impact on plants. (And so are many other actions, especially development.)

Primack moved on from plants to insects, using data from Thoreau and other early naturalists. When he ran out of records, he turned to the world’s great insect collections, reading the dates on specimens, from which emergence data can be construed.

Primack repeatedly referred to “analyzing” data, but didn’t really say how. I assume he looked for statistical correlations, but wonder if he also engaged in mathematical modeling, to me a mysterious but potentially useful “black box” endeavor. 

Primack also studied climate impact on birds, bees, butterflies, fish and frogs. Only a person with tremendous energy and a steady supply of graduate students could cover so much physical and intellectual territory.

I was totally taken by surprise when Primack discussed the impact of climate change on humans by analyzing data from the Boston Marathon! 

His last chapter, on solutions to global warming, wasn’t really needed. So many people are addressing that topic. But I would say Primack is entitled to hold forth, since he produced so much well written discussion in Walden Warming. His ideas about introducing southern wild plant species to New England are intriguing.

This book, which I highly recommend, is right on the line between “popular” and “scientific”. I hope Primack continues to write in both veins, since he has valuable information to impart.

“Simple Courage – A True Story of Peril on the Sea” by Frank Delaney

On April 16, 2014, the Korean ferry Sewol capsized with 459 passengers on board. Within a few hours, 174 people were rescued. Thereafter, no survivors have been found. The magnitude of this disaster is mind boggling.

The Captain of the Sewol left the ship. He survived, and has been arrested and charged with many counts of dereliction. The debate over whether a captain must stay with his ship rages on.

The contrasting tale of a Captain who stayed with his ship is told in Simple Courage – A True Story of Peril on the Sea by Frank Delaney. Simple Courage is the most gripping piece of non-fiction I ever read!

The SS Flying Enterprise carried both cargo and passengers when it ran into a vicious North Atlantic storm in December of 1951. The Enterprise suffered a cracked hull and its load shifted. Against the odds and at their own peril, other ships came to its aid. Captain Carlsen transferred his passengers and crew to one of these ships. In the wild surf, the ships could not draw close, so the passengers and crew had to plunge into the water and be hauled into life rafts. This operation is described in detail. Each passenger was paired with a crew member, and they jumped holding hands. The only death, from start to finish, was that of a passenger who apparently suffered a heart attack upon contact with the icy water. After assuring everyone else’s safety, the Captain asserted his intention to stay on board while a long-shot salvage was attempted.

Then came a “plot twist” which you would reject in fiction. With no warning and at great risk to his own life, a young sailor jumped from a tug boat to the Enterprise, which the rescuers already considered doomed. The Captain and his companion stayed on the ship through an extended attempt to tow it to port, and left it only shortly before it finally sank from view.

I would tell you to read this book, but in fact it is available in an audio version recorded by the author. Frank Delaney is Irish and is highly regarded as a story teller as well as a writer. I’ve heard that the recorded version is wonderful.

“Eternal Father…hear us as we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.” The Navy Hymn, 1861.


“The Vikings” by Robert Wernick

Sometimes i just want to read something different! This book, downloaded on impulse to my Kindle, served very well.

The Vikings were totally omitted from my long ago history classes. Maybe they were too scary? But now, with all the educational emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) we should study the Vikings as masters of science and technology. The science they developed was navigation, and the technology was ship building. With these advantages, they conquered vast areas and amassed great wealth. I didn’t know they were the ancestors of the Normans, who conquered Britain and thus created English, and to some extent the modern geopolitical map.

I especially enjoyed Chapter 5, Pioneers in the Land of Ice. Iceland, Greenland and the colonization of North America fascinate me. The Vikings who tried to colonize North America GAVE UP in the face of resistance by the native people. The Greenland colony failed when the Little Ice Age reduced Viking mobility. And Iceland struggled through, ceding its independence to Norway in the process.

I visited Iceland about 15 years ago, a three day stopover after a trip to Scotland. It was June, and barely got dark at night. I hope to go back one day and get out of the capital city to see farms and smaller towns. I’ll travel to Scandinavia when the price comes down, or I win the lottery.

“Generation Kill” by Evan Wright – America’s Wars #4

This book, published in 2004 and read by me in 2009, is subtitled “Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War”.

A narrative by an embedded journalist is very different from a journal like that of Richard Engel (see blog post of November 15, 2013). Wright was thoroughly embedded. I don’t know what news service he represented. There nothing about any communication with the outside world during his time with the troops. Most of what he says is very specific and detailed.

Then he annoyingly drops one big generalization, which I paraphrase here:

“This is America’s first generation of disposable children. Raised by absent single parents, their computer games etc. are more real to them than any human relationship.”

Wright does not further expand or explain.

How can I mesh this with the recent on-line assertions that the “millenials” are America’s most wanted children ever and were raised with annoying attitudes of entitlement and dangerous levels of narcissism? (OK, so I can’t. America is too multifaceted for either of these generalizations.)

Does Wright think no one MINDS the deaths of these soldiers? I beg to differ. Few parents are “absent” by choice. Even imperfect parents grieve for their children. I don’t think anyone is casual about the risks inherent in military service.

This book should be taken with some skepticism. There are many, many military memoirs available.

I consulted Amazon.com for more information and reviews of Generation Kill. The reviews are all over the map, with a slant towards being favorable. Some soldiers consider the book to be misinformed slander. One specifically commented that military officers are rarely as incompetent as Wright portrays them to be. 

That said, I recommend the book. I know little about military life and combat experience. Generation Kill gave me a look at the daily life of soldiers.