Stephen has always been a reader, even if sometimes the books are beyond his grasp.
When I Sing, Mountains Dance is a remarkable novel. Narrated by a cast of characters that includes humans, mushrooms, a lightning storm, the mountains themselves, and more, Irene Solà's debut (translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem) is an emotionally powerful and capacious tale of loss, love, and the ways in which a landscape holds and connects us.
Despite its attention-grabbing title, Emergency is a quiet novel that explores with remarkable subtlety the deep and fraying interconnectedness of life on earth. Hildyard writes with the precision and associative leaps of a poet (there are moments here that remind me of Alice Oswald, one of our great contemporary poets) about childhood in a small Yorkshire village, managing simultaneously to spin out from that specific place and time into something much more profound -- a reckoning with the climate emergency. It's something new that will linger long after you've finished reading.
Nuar Alsadir's Animal Joy is a dazzlingly intelligent and associative essay on the value of spontaneity and laughter. Alsadir, who is a practicing psychoanalyst and poet, writes with graceful exactitude, piling up breathtaking revelations throughout this marvelous book. I think of it as a sort of spiritual cousin to Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing, though it's as unique as they come. I love it, which I assure you is something I never thought I’d feel for a book that starts in clown school.
We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself: Entangling Art, Activism and Autonomous Zones (Vagabonds) (Paperback)
We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself tells the rare story of a community successfully standing against the forces of global capitalism. A chronicle of life in a 4,000 acre squat in Western France written by two activists who took part in blocking the construction of an airport, the book provides a blueprint for action against an increasingly rapacious extractivist corporate state and hope for those who value life above illusions of capitalist growth.
In the Eye of the Wild is an intense and vivid account of a bear attack in remote Siberia that transcends the genre to become something much more consequential than a recovery memoir. Martin, an anthropologist who studies human-animal interactions, takes this deeply traumatic incident and uses it as a lens through which to interrogate her own obsessions and assumptions about identity, nature, and what makes us tick. Written in feverishly lyrical prose, this is a book that will haunt you long after you've finished.
“In the whale, the world,” writes Rebecca Giggs early in this masterpiece of environmental writing. “In a book about whales, the world,” one could say after reading here about subjects as disparate as solar flares and mass strandings; the relationship between charisma and consumption; whale baths at health spas; and so many other interconnected pieces that not only the creatures at the heart of this book come alive on these pages, but a whole ecology. Fathoms immediately earns its place in the pantheon of classics of the new golden age of environmental writing.
A glorious and hypnotically capitvating unspooling of thought and concern from poet Cody-Rose Clevidence. Too tightly controlled to be considered stream-of-consciousness, this book-length monologue (?), prayer (?), love letter (?), pinned me to my seat. It's an utterly compelling, tender, and full of life.
Gallery of Clouds is an associatively linked collection of essays (or clouds, as she puts it) touching on any number of topics, including the pastoral tradition, the meaning of home, and the essay form itself. Erudite without ever being anything less than charming, the book is an absolute delight that rewards its readers with brilliant insights on nearly every page.
Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake's visionary work on fungi and mycorrhizal networks, is a masterpiece of science writing. In lucid and playful prose, Sheldrake brings to light the mysterious, long-overlooked symbiotic relationships at the heart of the natural world, relationships that have profound implications for what it means not only to be a tree or lichen, but a human being.
As much a book about how our attentions are being diverted to less-than-fulfilling digital compulsions as it as a call to arms to reconnect with the local, Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing is an inspiring and associative meditation on what it means to live in a place and to engage fully with the world around us. A surprising and delightful book.
The Unseen is a story of elemental force with the bearing of myth. It tells of love and loss and the struggle for existence on a rough-hewn island where simple joys flash in brief moments between endless travail. It is a masterpiece and may be just the book needed for these days of social distance and uncertainty.
Undrowned is a singular hybrid of hymn, field guide, and self-care manual that urges human beings to reassess our place among our fellow living beings. Gumbs is a writer of great compassion, tenderness, and humor whose capacious imagination is a balm in a world grown small.
This Radical Land is a thoughtful and tenderly written collection of essays about citizens who did what they could to withstand the generally unquestioned tide of westward expansion. Miller's history is eye-opening and hopeful, giving intimations of the ways that we can resist the urge to separate social justice from environmental care.
The Art of Failure is a counterintuitive meditation on the value of failure. Focusing on four exemplary individuals--Simone Weil, Gandhi, E.M. Cioran, and Yukio Mishima--philosopher Bradatan examines the paradoxes of failure: success breeds a dull sameness to existence, he argues; it is only through failure that we are confronted with the fullness of our humanity. In prose both playful and profound, Bradatan shines a light through the cracks to illuminate just how useful it can be to come up short.
Here's what I wrote for Lithub's 2020 wrap-up about this book:
Nothing I read in this year of strange and disjointed time resonated with me as profoundly as Hugh Raffles’s haunting meditation on grief and stone. The Book of Unconformities is not a straightforward study of geology or memoir of loss; it’s not even a straightforward entwining of the two. Raffles, an anthropologist, fashions a set of narratives that blur boundaries and disciplines through digression and exquisitely long sentences that render the world, as in W.G. Sebald’s novels, simultaneously clarified and enshrouded. I hope more people come to this book. It is a masterpiece.
Approaches to the natural world vary over time and geography, but one thing is certain in the early 21st century: our approach--in which nature is a resource to be exploited without thought to the consequences of depletion and destruction--is leading us toward disaster. And so, we need a new paradigm, and quickly. William Bryant Logan's history of the simple but lost art of coppicing and pollarding, which are pruning practices that enable trees to live, in some cases, for centuries even as they are harvested for wood, provides a small way to re-imagine our approach to a more sustainable and ethical relationship with the natural world. Beautifully written and full of anecdote, Sprout Lands belongs on the shelf with The Hidden Life of Trees and The Overstory.
Cartographer and artist Tim Robinson fled the London art world for the west coast of Ireland and, through decades of wandering on foot, charting the landscape, and collecting stories (as well as making intricate maps), wrote a trilogy of books about Connemara. Combining natural and social history with the perceptiveness of an artist and the lyrical sentences of a poet, Robinson's work offers an unparalleled example of what writing about place can be. 'Listening to the Wind,' the first of the Connemara trilogy, is a work of profound depth and light.
Heid Erdrich has put together one the most exciting collections of poems I have read in ages. Collecting 21 Native poets first published in the twenty-first century, New Poets of Native Nations offers a fresh and dynamic anthology of work that is destined to become a classic of American literature. As Linda Hogan says, this is a watershed moment.
I was a member of the poetry committee for the 2018 National Book Awards and no book stood out to me in quite the same way as Jenny Xie's debut collection. With clarity and insight, Xie stakes a claim as one of our exciting young poets.
A delirious yet finely tuned collection of droll stories from the renowned Surrealist-affiliated painter Leonora Carrington, The Complete Stories reads like fairy tales from a parallel world. If the so-called real world feels dull and uninspired, try this bracing tonic.
This lyrical and sweeping essay on race, memory, and the American landscape covers ground sadly neglected in much nature writing. Its ethical argument — that the way we treat the environment is inextricable from how we treat our fellow human beings (and vice versa) — is one we should all pay close attention to, now more than ever.
Joy Williams is an American treasure and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, a collection of sharp-eyed, occasionally heartbreaking, and often mordantly funny short fictions has become for me an instant desert island book. Williams is no stranger to the darker, inexplicable currents of life, which gives this book a weight far beyond its slimness.
An unforgettable and haunting collection of thematically linked stories tracing the black experience in the new world. Written in a virtuosic range of styles, Counternarratives announces John Keene as one of our great--and seriously underappreciated--talents.
Jean Giono, a 20th century French writer best known in the English-speaking world for his fable The Man Who Planted Trees, was starkly anti-modern in his outlook, prefering the shepherd to the industrialist, the village to the city, and the living world to the one paved over.
Hill, his first novel, is a story of primal conflict between the members of a small, dying village, and the natural world, which in Giono's fiction is as live as any human character. Though written a century ago, this stark and numinous tale (an animist, Giono's world brims with gods) of ecological imbalance feels more pertinent than ever. A marvelous creation.
Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Paperback)
Anarchism may bring to mind chaos and violence, but this poorly understood philosophy has much to recommend for it. James C. Scott, author of the classic 'Seeing Like a State,' lucidly explicates a rich history of anarchist thought in this primer for mutual aid, non-hierarchical political action, and vernacular knowledge. A breath of fresh air in a world where politics seems increasingly untethered from the daily world.
If the best books are those that make you itch for something new—or, in this case, something as ancient as walking—Robert Macfarlane’s poetic travel memoir is certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Tracing his ramblings across moors and seas, up mountains, and along meandering paths, Macfarlane describes in lush, precise prose a natural (and human) world that reveals itself leisurely, step by step. Full of remarkable scenes and a memorable cast of characters, The Old Ways brings to mind recent memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and classic nature writing a la Peter Matthiessen. I recommend it with only one caveat: read it with your hiking boots on; it’ll make you want to get up and go.
A beautiful collection of essays about the varieties of ways humans have made their way in this world and a plea for true multiculturalism in the face of an increasingly monolithic worldview. Full of rich insights from years spent in the field, Davis's book is full of insight and incident. A life-affirming book.
Eliot Weinberger, a college drop-out turned tanslator (of Paz, Borges, Bei Dao, and others) writes essays unlike anything you've read. These pieces -- erudite, wide-ranging, poetic -- are of universal scope, touching on topics as diverse (and cohesive) as the varieties of Chinese wind, a history of the rhinocerous in Europe, the Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert, and a reverie on the stars that is breathtakingly beautiful. Weinberger's vast learning is matched by an equally encompassing sense of wonder, and his ability to draw the "exotic" closer, while still permitting it an air of mystery, is a thing to marvel at.
To call J.A. Baker's book a book about birds is similar to saying Moby-Dick is a book about whales. This is so much more than ornithology. It's a marvelously textured, understated, and beautifully written account of a man's quest to learn certain aspects of the natural world--to become part of the corner of the universe he's come to inhabit. Baker's language is precise and poetic and his insights, on the behavior of birds and man, are remarkable. I love this book all out of proportion.
A seminal and highly influential book about the interplay between landscape and humanity.
CLR James' classic study of Toussaint l'Ouverture and the Haitian slave rebellion is a gripping and, in times like ours when tyranny seems on the rise, inspiring read. Full of intrigue and drama, this epoch-making event is rendered in vibrant colors and with a clear-eyed understanding of its impact in the Caribbean and beyond.