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Two Science Books + One Econ Book = Three Five Star Reads!

August 27, 2009

Erm. Sorry about that title. But I’m feeling a bit sleep deprived, and that’s all I could come up with! I’m also panicking when I looked at all of the marvelous titles on my ‘Books Read’ page that I have yet to tell y’all about. So you’ll probably be seeing multiple-books-in-one-post reviews for a bit.

That being said, today I shall tell you about how incredible Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks, Tree by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady, and Deep Economy by Bill McKibben all are.

uncletungstenUncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks
I think I’ve said this before, but I adore Oliver Sacks. To the point that discovering he’s not married made me happy, even though he was born in the same year as my grandfather. I think we could make a spring-winter romance work. Can you even imagine being able to have lots of conversations with him whenever you wanted?! *sigh* But I suppose you want to hear about the book, not just about my author crush. As the title implies, this is a memoir of Sacks’ years growing up. It’s much more personal than his other books, and it was marvelous to see so many sides to his personality. That being said, while Sacks’ family was one of those super-cool genius style ones, he didn’t always have a happy childhood. Like many other parents, Sacks’ sent him away during the Blitz in an effort to keep him safe. Unfortunately, his boarding school was quite Dickensian (love that adjective) and inflicted major psychological trauma. Fortunately for us, that’s not what most of the book is about. Most of it is about how curious and precocious Sacks was as a child, and the wonderful zany family members who encouraged his scientific explorations. It was quite marvelous to read about the experiments he got up to with chemicals that nowadays no young boy could get a hold of. And Sacks brought chemistry to life in a way I’ve never seen done before; chemistry was my least-favourite class in high school, but while reading this book I became insanely excited over and enamoured with the periodic table. Sacks seems to effortlessly combine personal stories with mini-biographies of famous scientists (primarily chemists) and mini-histories of different inventions. Meanwhile, his own considerable intellect and perfect writing style are on full display. I’ve read five Sacks books now, and this is my favourite; I was so sad to put it back through the library’s book chute and plan to buy my own copy to savour. I highly recommend it to everyone.

treeTree: a Life Story by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady
Don’t worry: as much as I loved this book, I don’t wish to marry either of the authors. So you won’t have to hear any fangirliness. But there shall probably be gushing. I love trees. When I was younger, no matter where we moved I always had a special tree. In San Angelo, it was a mimosa. In High Wycombe, it was an oak tree. In San Antonio, it was a magnolia. They were trees I could climb with just a bit of effort, that welcomed me in to their nest of branches. I would curl up, and read or journal or just observe and think for hours. Trees are magical. Apparently, Suzuki and Grady agree with me. In Tree, they’ve written a biography of a Douglas Fir tree, following it from its birth to death and even afterwards. Of course, no man is an island, the tree is no different, so the book also discusses its habitat, the wonderful forest ecosystem it plays such a crucial role in. I loved the book for its wonderful mix of scientific information and pure reverence for nature. I loved it for showing how dignified, how important, how marvelous a tree is. The writing was wonderful-I felt like I was walking through the woods with these two and they were just chatting with me. And there are line sketches skattered throughout the book, which delighted me (don’t you just love little sketches?). And at just under 200 pages, the book didn’t wear out its welcome at all. I highly recommend this for anyone who loves nature, and it’s another one that I want to own for my shelves.

deepeconomyDeep Economy by Bill McKibben
Shifting gears a bit, I want to move from the natural sciences to the social ones. I read McKibben’s book for the economics category of the World Citizen Challenge; I enjoy books that challenge the neoliberal norm and offer intelligent, thought-provoking alternatives. Deep Economy certainly did that! McKibben essentially argues that we’d be better of with more localised communities. He doesn’t want to turn back the clock, and he doesn’t say that globalisation is the root of all evil. However, he does argue that by strengthening local community, we will end up with a healthier planet, healthier jobs, and healthier emotional and physical selves. In order to make that happen though, we’ll need to undergo a paradigm shift. Growth should stop being the focus of our economy, a synonym for progress. We need to realise that “for the first time in human history…’more’ is no longer synonymous with ‘better'”. I’m not going to lie; to a certain extent, McKibben was preaching to the choir. I am not a fan of neoliberalism, or the direction our economy and society has trended towards in the past few decades (towards more and more reliance on the individual instead of community, towards an ever widening gap between rich and poor, towards weaker and weaker government regulations). But even so, I flatter myself that I know how to evaluate an argument, and McKibben’s case is a strong one. He uses both logical arguments and a variety of examples to show how we’d be better off if we changed our goals and values. I highly recommend this one to anyone concerned about the current state of affairs, anyone looking for a different way to evaluate their life, anyone looking for a hopeful vision of the future. Don’t be scared off because it’s ‘economics,’ it’s not at all theoretical or academic. Just personable, engaging, and intelligent. In the end, I think I’ll let McKibben speak for himself:

Shifting our focus to local economies will not mean abandoning Adam Smith or doing away with markets. Markets, obviously, work. Building a local economy will mean, however, ceasing to worship markets as infallible and consciously setting limits on their scope. We will need to downplay efficiency and pay attention to other goals. We will have to make the biggest changes to our daily habits in generationsand the biggest change, as well, to our worldview, our sense of what constitutes progress.

Such a shift is neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” It borrows some elements from our reigning political philosophies, and is in some ways repugnant to each. Mostly, its different. The key questions will change from whether the economy produces an ever larger pile of stuff to whether it builds or undermines communityfor community, it turns out, is the key to physical survival in our environmental predicament and also to human satisfaction. Our exaltation of the individual, which was the key to More, has passed the point of diminishing returns. It now masks a deeper economy that we should no longer ignore.

In choosing the phrase “deep economy,” I have sought to echo the insistence, a generation ago, of some environmentalists that instead of simply one more set of smokestack filters or one more set of smokestack laws, we needed a “deep ecology” that asked more profound questions about the choices people make in their daily lives. Their point seems more valid by the month in our overheating world. We need a similar shift in our thinking about economicswe need it to take human satisfaction and societal durability more seriously; we need economics to mature as a discipline.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2009 5:22 am

    These books sound wonderful! Tree in particular really appeals to me. Great choices, Eva, you always read the best books!

  2. August 27, 2009 5:46 am

    All three of them sound awesome! I haven’t read my econ book for world citizen challenge so I may have to find that one. And I still haven’t read *any* science books this year. I had good intentions!!

  3. August 27, 2009 6:29 am

    The Uncle Tungsten cover is gorgeous and I want the book even if only for the cover. And then it’s about chemistry too? Double awesome. I have not heard of Oliver Sacks before, but you have sufficiently intrigued me to investigate. Thanks!

    (David Suzuki is fangirl worthy)

  4. August 27, 2009 6:43 am

    “Like many other parents, Sacks’ sent him away during the Blitz in an effort to keep him safe. Unfortunately, his boarding school was quite Dickensian (love that adjective) and inflicted major psychological trauma.”

    Hahaha, people are so different. I read this and I was thinking BRILLIANT MUST HAVE IMMEDIATELY, and then got sad when it turned out that wasn’t the point of the book. But I do need to read Oliver Sacks, and this sounds like a great one to start with!

  5. August 27, 2009 6:59 am

    Great review. I love Sacks and McKibben as well. I’ll have to check these out!

  6. August 27, 2009 7:13 am

    Uncle Tungsten sounds like a must-read, and the cover of Tree is also fantastic.

  7. August 27, 2009 9:53 am

    Oliver Sacks is so awesome. I can see myself getting a brain crush on him too once I’ve read more of his stuff. I’m with Jenny, though – I’d have loved a whole book about the evacuation and his boarding school. I blame Saplings :P

  8. August 27, 2009 10:24 am

    I would really love to read that Tree book. And I love Oliver Sacks, but hadn’t heard of this title yet. They’re both going on my TBR!

    I just gave you a blog award!

  9. August 27, 2009 12:18 pm

    More good stuff! Uncle Tungsten and Tree are both going on my TBR list of books to read. Our library just got in a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Sacks) and I will be taking a trip over there soon to check it out.

  10. Olduvai permalink
    August 27, 2009 1:57 pm

    Whoopee! I just checked my library’s catalogue and they have the Oliver Sacks book. :)

  11. August 27, 2009 2:05 pm

    Great reviews. And Sacks, his books really have the best titles, don’t you think? :)


  12. August 27, 2009 2:32 pm

    I really like non-text chemistry books. I especially enjoyed “The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus” by John Emsley. At the last book sale I attended, I picked up “Salt” by Mark Kurlansky. I’m looking forward to reading it!

  13. August 27, 2009 3:42 pm

    oh, Oliver Sacks…I love reading him, too. Have not gotten to “Uncle Tungsten” yet, although it’s been out for a while, hasn’t it?

    For the first time in a long time, we don’t really have any favorite trees here. We live in a new subdivision with no good climbing trees; they are all too spindly :-(. It’s one thing my kids really miss.

    The book you read for the Econ cagetory for the World Citizen Challenge seems to have an interesting point of view. The one I read (“Spin-Free Economics”) really leaned towards globalization. I think we can have both but in different ways. It makes sense that community based spending is good also–for example, shopping at our local farmer’s market :-).

  14. August 27, 2009 4:09 pm

    I love that you had special trees when you were younger. I thought I was the only one who latched onto trees like that. :)

  15. August 27, 2009 8:02 pm

    Oliver Sacks has been on the List for a long time (The Man Who Mistook His Wife… is even visible on the pile!). I wanted to read–well, everything–specifically Musicology. What did you think of that one?
    This is a great review & sounds wonderful also. Do I bless you or curse you ;)

  16. stacybuckeye permalink
    August 28, 2009 1:34 pm

    I love trees too, so I’ve added Tree to my wish list. It breaks my heart whenever we must have a tree taken out for any reason. Thanks for the recommendation!

  17. August 28, 2009 2:03 pm

    Meghan, thanks! :D

    Rebecca, your life is so much busier than mine. :) This way, I’ve been reading science books and picking out the dood ones for you! I’m like Your Royal Taste Tester for books. ;)

    RaiderGirl, isn’t it?! That’s not the cover I read, but when I saw it in Google Images I knew I would use it. It’s definitely about chemistry. If you haven’t heard of Sacks, usually he writes books about the brain, and the odd cases he encounters among his patients.

    Jenny, that’s funny! He does spend a chapter on it, but it’s really sad.

    Amy, yay for great nonfic authors! :)

    Hazra, they’re both marvelous.

    Nymeth, but would you really want to read a book about how awful it was for poor little Oliver?! I loved him first, so you can’t have him. :p hehe

    Jeane, I think you’d definitely love the Tree book! And thanks for the award!

    Terri, that was my first Sacks. :)

    Olduvai, awesome!

    Tiina, he definitely comes up with some great titles.

    Rhapsody, The 13th Element is on my list! I haven’t read Salt yet, I guess I assumed it was a food book, but if it’s a chem book I’ll haveto look into it. :)

    Valerie, I’m not sure when Uncle Tungsten was published, but I know it’s not his most recent. Deep Economy was interesting; the emphasis wasn’t so much anti-globalisation as anti-mindless consumerism. I’ll have to chec out the Spin-Free Economics!

    Memory, trees are so awesome. :D

    DS, Musicophilia wasn’t my very favourite of his, but it was still great. The case studies of his patients were my favourites!

    Stacy, one of our trees got hit with lightning while I was on vacation! Fortunately, it seems to be healing.

  18. August 30, 2009 4:04 pm

    Interesting that you gave Deep Economy five stars. I had a decidedly lukewarm reaction to it. Not because I disagreed with what he said – I agree wholeheartedly – but perhaps because he was preaching to the choir with me. Also I really did not care for his writing style; it was too casual and sloppy for my taste. In general I felt that his book was not quite as “deep” as the title led me to expect. However, I do think it is a good introduction for people who have not already thought endlessly on this subject, as I have.

    I am a little disappointed that I didn’t like it as much as I expected, because now I’m not all that excited to read McKibben’s other work, even though some of it sounds like it would be good. Have you (or any commentators) read anything else by him? Is his other work similar in tone and style?

    (Here’s my full review of Deep Economy).

  19. September 8, 2009 2:01 pm

    Our local NPR statin ran a program about the periodic table last week and Oliver Sacks was in it, waxing about the table and elements. In the book, does he describe his real periodic table? Its a wood box with a sample of (almost) all the elements where they go in the table. I thought it was cool and I hated chem in school

  20. September 30, 2009 10:29 am

    Eva, as a committee of one I decided that these would all be useful book notes for your science challenge, so now they are: Sacks, Suzuki, and McKibben.

    Sacks’ book, by the way, was the very first book note in our collection, the one I wrote first. It seemed fitting, it’s such a wonderful book.

    For Lorin, I’m pretty sure I remember reading about the real periodic table Sacks had. Much, much too dangerous for mere children these days.


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