Book Review · Nonfiction

Intelligence in Nature

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After reading The Genius of Birds and loving it, I was on the hunt for another nonfiction book on animal intelligence, preferably something with a wider of array of animals to discuss. Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for. Spoiler: it was not, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

Intelligence in Nature is a bit of a travelogue with some research findings mixed in. There is a definite anthropological spin to the book, as Narby meets with and interviews several natives of the regions he travels to. He interviews healers, guides, and several shamans. He asks them about their views on intelligence in nature, and he collects a variety of beliefs and responses. Narby also includes recent research regarding intelligence in animals, plants, and microbes as well as meetings with experts in scientific fields. Narby presents a variety of views of intelligence in nature, but as a whole the book feels a little disjointed and slightly off topic.

While it was interesting to hear what the shamans and healers had to say about their world, I was hoping to read about more scientific, concrete discoveries. I liked when Narby introduced the shamans to some ideas of modern science, but ultimately, the content of the book did not quite match the title or synopsis, in my view. I was looking for some in depth explanation and analysis of intelligence in other organisms, but Narby glossed over some of the details in favor of an anthropological approach to the subject.

Intelligence in Nature was a slight disappointment because its content didn’t quite meet my expectations, but it was still an interesting and informative read. It would have benefited from a little more organization of the ideas presented in the text, but the journeys Narby took and the people he met along the way bring a unique perspective to the topic of intelligence in the natural world. I rated the book 2-2.5 out of 5 stars.

 

Book Review · Nonfiction

The Hidden Life of Trees

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A new post?! Yes! I am not dead, but I am still not really reading. As much as I love physical books, I cannot seem to find the time or energy to use my eyes to read anything except the infinitely depressing news in the U.S. right now. On the bright side, spring has sprung where I am, so I have been trying to go for walks/runs more often. In the spirit of spring and because I cannot seem to read a physical book, I have been listening to an audio book about trees on my walks. And it’s great! Now, hold on there, you might say. Trees? What is so interesting about trees? What hidden life could they possibly have? Well, my friend, let me tell you about a few tree-rific facts I have learned. Maybe I can get you as excited about trees as I am.

Author Peter Wohlleben is a forester with extensive experience with both commercial forestry and conservation. In this book Wohlleben details the life cycle of trees, their role in keeping forests (and the planet) healthy, how trees “care” for their young, and how trees communicate with each other. Yes, I said communicate. No, they do not speak as we do, of course, but they are actually able to communicate in a few different ways. Wohlleben describes how trees have a sense of smell, feeling, and taste. Again, it isn’t the same sort of senses that we have, but they are able to detect and react to scents, injuries, and, for example, pests’ saliva. It was also interesting to learn that the quiet forest you are walking around in is teeming with action below the surface. Trees are able to communicate via the “Wood Wide Web,” a network of connections between plant roots and fungi that can transfer warnings as well as nutrients to other connected members.

As I mentioned, I read this via an audio book. The narrator, Mike Grady, has a British accent that reminded me of the narration on something like a wildlife documentary: soothing, authoritative, and clear. The language of the book is not difficult. Most terms are defined, and easy to understand examples are given to explain more complex topics. So, do not be discouraged if you know nothing about trees!

I am completely biased, but I think the best way to enjoy this book is by being outside, taking a walk, or at least sitting by a sunny, tree-filled window. I loved being able to listen to the book while looking around at the trees outside. I consider myself an environmentally friendly person already, but I gained even more respect for trees, fungi, forests as a whole, and how they are all integral for a healthy and happy planet. I rated The Hidden Life of Trees four out of five stars.

Book Review · Nonfiction

Heart of Dankness

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Whether you like it or not, marijuana is becoming more and more mainstream for both medical and recreational use. According to many polls being thrown around in the news, most Americans have either smoked weed, support legalization, or both, so the odds are that a few of you reading this have smoked it and/or are cool with it. So, let’s be cool with it.¬†Heart of Dankness provides an inside look at the current culture of cannabis.

Heart of Dankness follows author Mark Haskell Smith’s quest to define the term “dank.” You’ve probably heard of the word dank in some context, but it can have several meanings in the world of weed. Some think of “dank” as an essential part of quality cannabis, while others see dankness as a way of life or a simple descriptor. The author begins and ends his book at the Cannabis Cup, an annual marijuana contest held in Amsterdam. In between his experiences at the Cup, he interviews many different people who work in the cannabis industry from seed companies and underground growers to medical professionals and legalization activists. The book is informative and fun. It is partially about a stoner on the hunt for the best stuff to smoke, but there is more to it than just that. The culture around this plant is so varied. The book gives a glimpse into the serious and scientific part of the industry, and the people involved aren’t always the stereotypical stoner.

When reviewing nonfiction, I think it is important to mention what kind of knowledge level you need of the subject matter to understand and enjoy the book. So, how much weed knowledge do you need to enjoy this? Not a whole lot. I am no expert, but I know some very basic things and terms like indica, sativa, THC, CBD. The author is pretty good about quickly defining terms, but it isn’t difficult to look something up if you want more information. The book gets into some technical terminology for genetics and botany, but it is explained well for a general audience.

Not only does the title make give me the literary giggles but this is actually a very funny book. The author is such a conversational writer, and the way he portrays himself is perfect. As I read, I pictured the author as a slightly awkward guy who is genuinely eager to learn all about this plant. He unapologetically asks the dumb questions for us and gets good answers from his interviewees. I don’t know how he was able to get close to all of these Cannabis Cup winners, underground legends, or professionals in the industry, but he makes good use of his experiences and describes them well. I was particularly impressed by how he described the eccentric characters he met during his journey. It was very easy to get a clear picture of the people he met. Smith also has some very poetic lines when he describes some of his experiences with the plant. The dude can write!

I had a lot of fun with this one. It’s a fairly short read (~230 pages) that is packed with facts and humorous moments. If you’re interested in either the recreational or medical side, or both, you’ll probably learn a lot and enjoy this book. Even if you’re an expert on the plant, the author’s unique experiences were worth reading about. I gave Heart of Dankness four out of five stars.

Book Review · Nonfiction

From Here to Eternity

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Last year I reviewed Caitlin Doughty’s previous book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was her memoir that discussed her experience in the death industry. From Here to Eternity is Doughty’s travel account of death rituals from around the world. She visits places in the U.S. where they have open air cremation, Japan where they combine technology and old practices, Indonesia where in some places they keep their dead at home for months to years, and Bolivia where an old skull can give you financial advice. These places (and more!) offer a different kind of send off for the body and the spirit of the deceased. Doughty interviews both those in the death industry and normal mourners to give an expansive look at death practices in different cultures.

Doughty gets a lot of flack from traditional funeral homes in the U.S. She has become a green burial boogeyman to them because she advocates for more eco-friendly and cheaper options for mourners instead of the pricey and unnecessary casket and embalming process that many funeral homes push hard. Some may call her a kind of “death hippie” because of these ideas, but I at least think that she makes a lot of good points. As I said in my review of her other book, I don’t think she comes off too preachy about her ideas because she is only advocating for more options, not saying we should all do things her way.

She also encourages Americans to take a look at how we avoid death in our culture. Many of the cultures she discusses in her book get up close and personal with death. They confront it by taking care of the deceased’s body, incorporating death into festivals and art, and making death a less somber and strained affair. I think the following quote sums up the book nicely:

“Many of the rituals in this book will be very different from your own, but I hope you will see the beauty in that difference. You may be someone who experiences real fear and anxiety around death, but you are here.”

Here you are. As I’ve mentioned before, I had actual panic attack when thinking in depth about death. Doughty’s wit, humor, and factual information has comforted my own death anxiety because I was finally able to confront my fear and mostly conquer it. From Here to Eternity does not have to be about death advocacy or avoidance; you can simply enjoy learning about the death rituals in other cultures, which is extremely interesting itself. But it would be a disservice to Doughty not to mention the underlying ideals she works so hard to bring to the forefront of American culture.

Book Review · Nonfiction

The Genius of Birds

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I find the study of psychology extremely interesting, especially animal psychology. In fact, it was my first major in college, and sometimes I imagine what it would have been like if I never made my switch to English. Since psychology and nature are two of my favorite non-fiction subjects, The Genius of Birds was a great fit. I would not say that I have ever been specifically interested in birds themselves, but the book bragged that some birds’ intelligence is on par or even surpasses other animals’– even primates– critical thinking skills. Thoroughly intrigued, I dove in head first.

Jennifer Ackerman definitely did her research. The book is packed with facts and interesting research results. Not everything is conclusive, but the information is presented in a way that makes you think without making too many bold claims. Since a lot of the research is recent, the book feels very up-to-date, but the author also compares what we thought we knew about birds to what we think we know now. Ackerman discusses various aspects of birds’ minds, including their critical thinking skills, their socialization practices, the importance of birdsong, how birds navigate their world, and how climate and human populations impact birds’ cognitive abilities. The information is fascinating and easy to read. As I said, I went in knowing only some bird basics. I knew that crows and parrots were considered intelligent, and I could name the commons birds native to my area. Beyond that, I was a blank slate in bird knowledge. The writing is almost conversational, with a welcoming and relaxed tone. Unlike some books of this nature, the author does not insert herself into the writing very often. She states the facts between some orienting information about her own experiences, but the actual facts fill the pages.

As a teaser, a few of the most interesting things I learned were that some birds make and use tools. Some keep their homemade tools and even modify them as time goes on. The book also makes a comparison between bird song and human language because birds learn their songs in a similar way to how humans learn languages. Some birds even pass down and modify their songs over generations. I found the book difficult to put down. Nonfiction usually takes me longer to read, but I flew (pun slightly intended) through this. Five out of five stars in my opinion, and I believe that this is the first time a nonfiction title has gotten this high of a rating from me!

Book Review · Nonfiction

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

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In addition to reading, I also enjoy creative writing. I’m nowhere near being able to publish anything I have written, but my favorite genre to write in would definitely be fantasy (surprised?). I have to admit that I am often skeptical of any sort of writing guide because many that I have read tend to not be very useful in practice or just plain dull. This book was written by Jeff VanderMeer, who is a pretty well-known author, so that made me pick it up and give it a shot. With any sort of book like this, I believe that it is important to review it with a range of experience levels in mind. So, without further ado, is this how-to-write-fantasy book any good?

To begin with, I would consider my own experience with creative writing to be moderate. I took a few creative writing courses during my undergraduate and graduate degrees, but creative writing was not my degree focus. I know some of the basic writing concepts, vocabulary, and have done a good bit of my own writing. If you have a similar amount of experience to me, or less than me, Wonderbook will definitely be useful to you.

Wonderbook introduces many basic writing concepts, so if you have very little writing experience, do not worry! In fact, if you know next to nothing about writing, I would still highly recommend this book. The chapter topics ease writers of any experience level into the writing process. The book begins with a chapter on inspiration and creative life, then there are chapters on stories as a whole, beginnings and endings, narrative design, characterization, worldbuilding, and revision. Throughout the book there are features with popular fantasy/sci-fi authors like Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Nnedi Okorafor to name a few. Scattered around the chapters are writing challenges, author essays, and inspiring artwork and illustrations. The back of the book includes some extra writing exercises as well as more interviews from authors. Jeff VanderMeer writes in a very personable and conversational way. He is much better at explaining concepts and being encouraging than many writing teachers I have had! There is also a website that accompanies the book. If you want to know more about the book, or get a feel for what is inside it, check out the website first.

I really enjoyed reading Wonderbook. Since I have some writing experience and am very familiar with the fantasy/sci-fi genre, I was not too surprised by anything in the book. However, I still think it is valuable to read because of the collection of interviews and essays by other authors. Hearing other great writers talk about their writing processes, sharing some of the things they’ve learned in their careers, and getting a “behind the scenes” look at some of my favorite books was enlightening as both a reader and writer. I loved that the focus of the book was fantasy/sci-fi writing. There was actually a lot of good information that was specific to writing in this genre. It is also helpful to have a bunch of writing tips all in one place that can be referred back to as needed. If nothing else, the book itself is gorgeously illustrated with a ton of fun and informative content. A book like this is hard to give a rating to, but because I learned a few things and had fun doing it, 5 out of 5 starts to Wonderbook!

Book Review · Nonfiction

A River in Darkness

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I am sure we’ve all heard how horrible North Korea is to its people. There are a few biographies and accounts out there written by people who have lived and worked in North Korea. I have been meaning to read one, but when I saw A River in Darkness offered for free on my Kindle, I had no excuse not to get it. It was definitely worth more than $0, but it was not an easy read by any means.

Author Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan from a Japanese mother and a Korean father. After WWII, North Korea claimed that it was on the verge of becoming a utopia. All it needed was some hard working people to live there. The North Korean government offered free housing, jobs, and plentiful food to Koreans stuck in Japan after the war. Masaji’s father, who had been discriminated against during his time in Japan, was excited to go back to his home country. Masaji’s father brought his family to North Korea with the hope of making their lives better, but when they arrived it was clear that North Korea’s advertising was all a lie.

This is such a heartbreaking read. After I finished the book it made me thankful for what I have. It made me also think about how much we take for granted every day. I learned a lot about Japan and North Korea’s histories, what it was like in North Korea over the past 40-50 years, and how North Koreans have struggled with basic needs for decades. This is not a happy book nor does it have a happy ending. It is raw and real. There are a lot of graphic descriptions, but the prose itself is without much beauty. It is fitting for the subject matter. You can feel the frustration, anger, and hopelessness in Ishikawa’s writing, but you can also feel his strength and determination. At the end of the book, Ishikawa says that he was discouraged by others to tell his tale. Somehow he was able to write a book though. After searching the internet, I cannot find any information about Masaji Ishikawa himself, how he is doing now, or if he resolved any of the problems he still had at the end of the book. This was a very short read (~160 pages), but it packed a punch. It was a real eye-opener, and I hope that the author is safe and happy wherever he may be.

 

Book Review · Nonfiction

The World Without Us

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If humans disappeared tomorrow, what would happen to the Earth? We’ve left our mark on the planet for thousands of years, so what would happen if we suddenly weren’t here any more? Picture the empty subway stations, car-less highways, empty high-rise apartment buildings. For a more sinister vision, imagine our industries and architecture without anyone to keep things going. Will everything fail over time? Will there be anything left of human civilization thousands of years from now if we disappeared tomorrow? Would nature reclaim the land from us? How long will this all take?

The World Without Us informs with facts and figures, but it also speculates a lot on what post-human Earth would be like. Weisman interviews many architectural experts and industry experts as well as biologists, paleontologists, and conservationists to figure out what could realistically happen without humans. There are a lot of surprises, actually. Bridges would fall, subways would flood, oil refineries would explode, domesticated animals would have to evolve or die out. Some of this would take many years, but much of the destruction could happen within a few seasons or even a few days of our disappearance. Nature can surprisingly heal many of the wounds we have inflicted upon it. It may take thousands of years, but plant and animals life could return and even flourish in the most polluted areas.

The book does a great job of clearly explaining every topic. If Weisman is talking about the oil refineries in Texas, he will explain briefly how they work, what kind of materials they are working with, and how much oil they refine. Then, he asks the experts what would happen if no humans showed up for work the next day and the day after that. Sometimes Weisman gets down to the chemical level with his explanations. Other times he talks in numbers almost too large to grasp. Despite all of this, it is all fairly easy to understand even if you have very little prior knowledge of the subjects. The biggest issue with the book is that it is slightly dated. I believe it was first published in 2007, so being over ten years old, you can guess that a few things have changed, gotten better or worse, or have been discovered since the book’s publication. Still, this is a very informative and eye-opening read.

It’s not all doom and gloom either, if that is something you might worry about. The book can certainly be depressing since we are talking about humans all being dead and the amount of pollution we have created over the years. But, I found it surprisingly uplifting to know how nature will recover nearly completely if given the chance. If we make small changes in our daily lives– recycling, using clean energy, cutting back on meat consumption– we can make small improvements while we are still here.

 

Book Review · Nonfiction

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

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We’re going to go back in time a little bit this week. I read this book last November, but it has stuck with me. I’m also surprised I never reviewed it here. I don’t usually like memoirs, but I discovered this author during a YouTube deep dive and have been hooked ever since. Caitlin Doughty’s channel talks about so many things, but all of them center around death. She talks a lot about death acceptance, death planning, eco-friendly burials, what happens behind the doors of funeral homes, macabre mysteries (probably my favorite videos), and iconic corpses. Her videos are extremely informative and her humor is awkwardly perfect for such tough subjects. Thinking about death used to send me into an instant panic attack. No joke, it was easily one of my biggest fears. After watching every video she has ever made, I am learning to accept death, and I can honestly say I am not very afraid of it any more.

This book is really an extension to everything I have already said. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes Caitlin talks about the funeral industry and her experience being a part of it. Many of the stories are sad and a few are pretty graphic, but she knows when to throw in her humor and when to take a serious and sincere tone. She gets very candid about her own struggles with mortality too. She may be a death-positivity advocate now, but she was not always so sure of herself. The book never feels preachy, disrespectful, or too morbid. She balances teaching about the industry, interesting stories from her career, and self-deprecating humor pretty perfectly.

If all of this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend checking out her YouTube channel first to see if you like her personality, humor, and content. If you are still on board, I recommend the audio book of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes which is read by the author. Caitlin’s second book, From Here to Eternity, would probably be the next step after that. I’m not saying that I’m completely drinking the Kool-Aid and making my own death plan to have a home funeral or that I am going to be buried naturally, but as a former thanatophobe, death acceptance is something I think the U.S. needs to work on a bit.

Book Review · Nonfiction

1491

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For some reason, I have been buying a lot of nonfiction books about the Americas. Specifically, books about the peoples and cultures that were here before Columbus and co. arrived on the shores. Being an American child, I was taught throughout school that the native people of the Americas helped the struggling Pilgrims out of the kindness of their hearts. Then, both Pilgrims and “Indians” sat down to a big feast to express their thankfulness. Everyone lived happily ever after. Except they didn’t.

This book dispels many myths about the Americas and the people who lived there before European settlers arrived. Not all Native Americans helped the settlers because they were kind. They had other motives, just like anyone else. The Americas were not sparsely settled. The environment was not as pristine and virgin as we might have heard. There were many people living in the Americas pre-1491, and they were actually quite advanced.

I wanted to start with this book because it appeared to be a sort of overview of different Native American cultures. I thought that this book would be a good place to start learning about the Americas. Well, it was, and it was not. It was a good starting point because it does cover a vast amount of areas and cultures. However, if you know as little as I do, it may not be the easiest first step to take in learning about this subject. I thought that the book was written in a more academic way than I was comfortable with. This, of course, is not the book’s fault, but it was a bit over my head. I learned a lot, but it was a challenging read.

I would have preferred if the book was structured a bit differently as well. It appeared to be ordered by topic instead of time period. Personally, I would have preferred to have timeline-like approach to the chapters so that I could order the events in my head. Maybe there was a kind of time organization, but it was not clear enough for me. But again, my knowledge of Native Americans is actually pretty sad. Beyond my limited elementary/high school knowledge (my high school textbook on American history had one single paragraph on the Trail of Tears for example), I have only taken one course that briefly dealt with Native American literature and one course on South American history that barely touched anything before European influence.

This review has strayed from discussing the book to discussing me, but I think that my own experience really plays into how I view this book and the subject matter within it. I was very surprised by some of the facts in here, but I admit it was written a little over my head. I would not recommend it as a starting point if your knowledge of the subject is terrible as mine, but I would recommend it in general if you are curious about the Americas pre-Columbus.