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Summer Reading, Worldchanging-Style
Emily Gertz, 16 Jun 07

The approach of summer invariably brings with it a staple of literary journalism: the summer reading list. The assumption is that many of us are looking forward to long, lazy, hot afternoons on the beach, porch or back deck, with nothing to do but lose ourselves in the pages of trashy novel deliciousness, or -- for the more mentally ambitious -- some or other non-fiction gem we've been meaning to get to.

I'm looking forward to long, hot summer afternoons oozing freelance sweat onto my keyboard punctuated with the occasional beach weekend on the eastern end of Long Island courtesy of the 'rents. But even I can't resist suggesting some summer reads -- and highlighting a few choices noted in other publications -- for those who are fortunate enough to have paid vacation days to take in the coming few months. (Share your suggestions in the comments!)

A couple entries into the summer reading list stakes noted in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review fit right into the worldchanging brief:

OmnivoresDilemma_full.jpgAuthor Nora Ephron suggested “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan, which takes on the problematic health and ecological impacts of how we eat in a modern society. "I have gone on endlessly about Pollan’s brilliance in finding a way to write about food," wrote Ephron, "but it’s not really about food, it’s about everything; in fact, it even has a theory of everything that makes perfect sense and explains absolutely everything, as theories of everything are supposed to do ... and, what’s more, it’s completely charming because he has the most amazing voice ... well the point is, I have tried and failed to explain it, so I just end up giving them a copy, and sooner or later they call to say, you were right, it’s fantastic."

themeadowlands.jpgElizabeth Gilbert chose one of my own favorite books, "The Meadowlands" by Robert Sullivan. Several years ago, Sullivan set out to explore this vast and not particularly pristine northeastern New Jersey swamp, better known as a putative mob burial ground than a biodiverse wetland. He recounts his adventures canoeing through the "garbage juice" in a style that -- especially by the earnest standards of much nature and enviro writing -- could be called gonzo environmental journalism. "The Meadowlands" is a perceptive look at the intersections of culture and nature, and an entertaining page-turner.

Over at Gristmill, the Grist Magazine blog (where, full disclosure, I make the very occasional post myself), Adam Browning picked up a classic, Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," only to find it more than a little relevant to the present: "Ever wonder what the world would look like should we reach the global warming tipping point? Or what peak oil in full effect might mean for you and yours? Wonder no longer. A grimmer, more terrifying dystopian tale I have never read...[A]nyone got a good pick-me-up book?"

Well my suggestion is Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change trilogy: "Forty Signs of Rain," "Fifty Degrees Below," and "Sixty Days and Counting," which I'm engrossed in right now. Taken as a single work, it's the best science fiction about climate disruption since Bruce (Worldchanging Ally #1) Sterling's "Heavy Weather." In Robinson's just beyond the present scenario, which takes place over a few years, the combo of a stalling Atlantic current and unexpectedly quick melting of Antarctic ice sheets brings on abrupt climate change, and the books characters in and around Washington DC alternately find themselves flooded out, baking in unprecendented heat (which, for DC, is saying a lot), and shivering through crazily cold winters.

In case none of this sounds speculative, here's the fantastical part: a disparate assortment of smart, angry, gutsy government scientists, spies and political aides decide to confront this impending disaster by leveraging and gaming the U.S. bureaucracy to take fast action that might stem the worst of the climactic changes. And a senator who acknowledges the fact of global warming runs for president.

anivegemin.jpgOver at National Public Radio, the staff have a huge assortment of summer reading suggestions, including "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," Barbara Kingsolver et al.'s record of their experience eating only foods produced within a hundred miles of where they live; "Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground," an anthology of writers who've used citizen media to gain literary traction; and two man-nature-landscape classics guaranteed to get you thinking about how humans fit on the planet: the non-fiction "In Patagonia" by Bruce Chatwin, and the novel "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville.

btvsS8N4cover.jpgIf you need something a bit breezier after all that serious reading, here's my top pick: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight," a new comics series from Dark Horse. The comic picks up where the eponymous television show (which went off the air in 2003 after seven seasons) left off, and it's penned by Buffy's creator Joss Whedon -- a top talent in feminism-soaked mass-media entertainments. I caught flack from Worldchanging readers a few years ago when I recommended Whedon's comic "Fray," another tale of the vampire slayers, as well as his fresh and fun Astonishing X-Men series for Marvel Comic, but I stand by my opinion that Whedon is a worldchanger: his tough, smart (both street and book), and funny heroines are some of the most upbeat and intelligent takes on empowered women in contemporary popcult. Some see the sexy garb and (yes, sometimes startling) violence, and the mass media context, as de facto sexist and irrelevant; others see them as feminism's new wave of mainstream impact. Hopefully both sides can unite over exchanges such as this pulp fiction dialogue in issue number four:

Black Ops General: "Twilight is coming. For you, for all your monstrous all ends very soon."

Buffy: "Are you talking about the girls who are protecting the world from --"

Black Ops General: "Evil? Demons? ...You've upset the balance, girl. Do you really think we were going to sit by and let you create a master race?"

Buffy: "This isn't about demons at all, is it? It's about women. It's about power and it's about women and you just hate those two words in the same sentence, don't you?"

Sounds like it's about demons to me, just not the paranormal kind.

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These aren't sustianability related but what the hell:

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
it's Richard Powers on neurology. it's great.

Pulse by Robert Frenay
gets a bit out there, but probably not to much for this crowd. the discussion of organic farming is amazing.

klezmer by Joann Sfar
algerian comic art based in france with l'association makes great little comic books about middevial europe.

citizen and subject by mahmood mamdani
it's about post-colonial Africa and the way that colonial powers created a "decentralized" despostism that lasts until this day and it also gets into African systems of governance some of which are rather inspiring and thought provoking (the zulu vote by feet system is really cool).

persepolis by marjane satarapi
iranian comic artist with L'Association (this was a great collective of arts in france awhile back) about growing up in post-revolution tehran. similar to speigelman's maus.

Posted by: andrew on 17 Jun 07

Well - this only has a small subplot devoted to sustainability and its an ancient (1975) book, but I re-read it recently and I'm feeling enthusiastic about it at the moment, so I'll recommend John Brunner's book "The Shockwave Rider" - as an exercise in futurism it was pretty accurate...

Posted by: Big Gav on 17 Jun 07

Whedonians thank you for the shout-out. Whedon's work is highly relevant, immanent to a lot of young peoples' experiences, and humanistic. Croakers of pop culture are doing the Worldchanging movement a disservice. If environmentalists drown in guilt and pessimism, like in the 70s, the movement will again stagnate. People need entertainment where the mindfullness is artfully concealed.

Posted by: rob on 17 Jun 07

I've been really enjoying "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" by Jonathon Safran Foer (author of "Everything is Illuminated") this summer. I also highly recommend William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition". Both authors make robust use of the English language and its many and varied words.

Posted by: Mark on 17 Jun 07

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho. It isn't sustainability related in the least, but it is about following your dreams. An extremely easy read with a great message I often cruise through it in a few hours when I need a pick me up. It reminds me that I have the power to follow my dreams and can keep working toward making the positive differences I strive to achieve.

Posted by: Dee on 17 Jun 07

Thanks for these suggestions. Sometimes we (the overall "we" who espouse progressive global transformation) don't give enough credence to the need to simply recharge our batteries with good books, or even good bad books. A great read can definitely top off the juice, even if it's not immediately "relevant" to the cause.

"Pattern Recognition" -- WC co-founder Jamais Cascio recommended it to me as the best novel about 9/11 yet written. I'd call it the first great post-millennium novel.

I really like "Persepolis" but hadn't heard of "Klezmer," so I'll be on the lookout for it.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 19 Jun 07

Marjane actually has a couple new comics out after Persepolis one called Embroderies and I think peach with plums or something? you might consider looking out for the entire L'Association stable of artists. They are all great'Association

Posted by: andrew on 20 Jun 07



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