Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us

By Diane Ackerman

human ageA perfect tonic to books like The Sixth Extinction, this is an intriguing and inspiring look at how some of the world’s brightest minds are working to mitigate the negative impacts we have had on the environment and improve human life through technology. As in David R. Boyd’s The Optimistic Environmentalist, Ackerman highlights some innovative programs that are working to improve the environment. Part 1 is the weakest – most of us are already all too aware of how we’ve trashed nature – but the book gets stronger as it goes on. My favorite chapters were the last five, about 3D printing, bionic body parts and human–animal hybrids created for medical use, and how epigenetics and the microbial life we all harbor might influence our personality and behavior more than we think.

My rating: 4 star rating


I Will Find You

By Joanna Connors

i will find youConnors was a young reporter running late for an assignment for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer when she was raped in an empty theatre on the Case Western campus. Using present-tense narration, she makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday. It wasn’t until 2005 that Connors, about to send her daughter off to college, felt the urge to go public about her experience. “I will find you,” her rapist had warned her as he released her from the theatre, but she turned the words back on him, locating his family and learning everything she could about what made him a repeat criminal. She never uses this to explain away what he did, but it gives her the necessary compassion to visit the man’s grave. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.

My rating: 4 star rating


One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath

By Åsne Seierstad

one of usAn utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). Over half of this hefty tome is prologue: Breivik’s life story, plus occasional chapters giving engaging portraits of his teenage victims. The massacre itself, along with initial interrogations and identification of the dead, takes up two long chapters totaling about 100 pages – best devoured in one big gulp when you’re feeling strong. It’s hard to read, but brilliantly rendered. Anyone with an interest in psychology or criminology will find the insights into Breivik’s personality fascinating. This is a book about love and empathy: what they can achieve; what happens when they are absent. It shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, but also how deep individual motivation goes. All wrapped up in a gripping true crime narrative. Doubtless one of the best books I will read this year.

My rating: 5 star rating


Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places

By Bill Streever

cold“Cold is a part of day-to-day life, but we often isolate ourselves from it, hiding in overheated houses and retreating to overheated climates, all without understanding what we so eagerly avoid.” In 12 chapters spanning one year, Streever covers every topic related to the cold that you could imagine: polar exploration, temperature scales, extreme weather events (especially the School Children’s Blizzard of 1888 and the “Year without Summer,” 1815), ice ages, cryogenics technology, and on and on. There’s also a travel element, with Streever regularly recording where he is and what the temperature is, starting in his home turf of Anchorage, Alaska.  My favorite chapters were February and March, about the development of refrigeration and air conditioning and cold-weather apparel, respectively.

My rating: 4 star rating


A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

series of catastrophes“SPOILER: I lived,” the Salon journalist begins her bittersweet memoir of having Stage 4 metastatic melanoma. In August 2010 she had a several-millimeter scab on her head surgically removed. When the cancer came back a year and a half later, this time in her lungs as well as on her back, she had the extreme good luck of qualifying for an immunotherapy trial that straight up cured her. It’s an encouraging story you don’t often hear in a cancer memoir. On the other hand, her father-in-law’s esophageal cancer and her best friend Debbie’s ovarian cancer simply went from bad to worse. As the title suggests, Williams’s tone vacillates between despair and hope, but her writing is always wry and conversational.

My rating: 4 star rating

(For each one, read my full Goodreads review by clicking on the title link.)

Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

16 responses

  1. I haven’t read any of those. Perhaps the one which catches my eye the most at the moment is ‘Cold’. ‘One of us’ sounds a worthwhile read too, but one I don’t feel up to just now. Both are on my ‘must read’ list now. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know about your part of the country, but it’s been quite cold here lately — so the book still seems relevant this year!

      I can entirely understand how One of Us wouldn’t be right for certain people or certain times.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s sleeting here now. Brrr!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. 1. The Plain Dealer is my hometown paper (though sadly diminished lately), and I remember reading Joanna Connors’s piece about her experience and her search for the rapist when it first appeared. It was riveting; I’ve never forgotten it (she was the film reviewer for the paper for a long time, so it was quite a shock to see her byline on the story).

    2. That book about the cold looks great! I fell into a Wiki-hole not too long ago about the year without a summer and ended up writing a (very) short story about it, which should be published in the next few months.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. Funnily enough, last year I’d contacted Connors about the possibility of doing freelance book reviews for the CPD. She replied very briefly to say she couldn’t hire freelancers. Then some months later I saw the name attached to this upcoming title and thought “Hey, I recognize her…”

      2. Oh wow! Can’t wait to read your story. It’s a very interesting historical oddity, especially given the effect it had on figures like Byron and the Shelleys. I imagine that was your way in?


      1. 1. Yes, it’s cut down in circulation significantly and I suspect their budget is quite low. 😦
        2. Nope, it’s a micro piece (about 100 words) that imagines a farmer waking up in June to find everything frozen.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Cool! I got into flash fiction last year when I reviewed The Best Small Fictions 2015, which was excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of Us has been ricocheting around in my headspace for some time; now Connors’s book is joining it. I’ve got a small mountain of non-fiction that I haven’t addressed yet, which absolutely must not be added to until it’s diminished slightly…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. All of these take my fancy! If I had to narrow it down, though, I’d choose ‘Cold’ and ‘I Will Find You’. One of Us sounds excellent – but for some reason I hesitate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cold reminded me of Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, which was on a previous one of these lists. I definitely think you’d enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I put Winter World on my list, too!


  5. Carolyn Anthony | Reply

    You rarely give 5* to anything, so I take special note. Did the author of One of Us experience either of those massacres? In “Cold,” should the word “is” be eliminated after Anchoridge, Alaska?

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Well, in the sense that the author is Norwegian, yes, she experienced it happening to her country. She also attended Breivik’s trial as a journalist and got most of her information from interviews with victims’ families.

      (Already fixed that little typo, but thank you!)


  6. I just added One of Us to my library list – you’re the second person I follow to rave about it and I just know it would be something I would enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us by Diane Ackerman […]


  8. […] A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles by Mary Elizabeth […]


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