#BookReview: The War Below by Ernest Scheyder

Do The Needs Of The Many Outweigh The Desires Of The Few? 20 years ago as I was wrapping up my Computer Science degree requirements at Kennesaw State University just outside of Atlanta, GA, there was a massive debate raging around campus. At the time, the school – new to the “University” title, having had it for less than a decade at this point – was trying to grow from the commuter college it had been since its inception 40 yrs prior into a full fledged research level University… complete with student housing. The problem was that where the University wanted to place some of its first dorms was on the hill directly behind the Science building… where an endangered plant of some form was found, which kicked off rounds and rounds of going back and forth with various Environmental Protection Agency types. To be quite honest, I was never directly involved in any of this, but being on the school’s Student Media Advisory Board for a couple of years, I was connected enough to at least the reporting that I heard about at least the high points.

In The War Below, Scheyder looks at just these types of examples, where larger, grander ideas butt up against some much more local concern. Where the larger, grander idea is always “The only way we can see to fight climate change and stop carbon emissions while maintaining the global economy as we currently know it is to produce advanced electronic machines that require certain minerals to function, therefore we must obtain these minerals wherever they may be found.” Which admittedly means that for those that are more adamant that human-caused climate change isn’t a real thing or is some level of alarmist bullshit… well, you’ve been warned about a central tenet of this book in this review now.

However, Scheyder doesn’t really stay on the climate change debate itself, instead focusing on the more micro battles. “We found a supply of this particular mineral – but as it turns out, this particular plant that only exists in this exact spot also is dependent on this mineral, and therefore some are acting on behalf of the plant to stop us from getting to the mineral.” Or “We found a supply of a different mineral – but it happens to be under a location that some Native Americans consider sacred, and they’re trying to stop us from destroying their sacred spot.” Or “We found a supply of another mineral – but it happens to be in the middle of a town, and nearby residents don’t want to sell their land to us.” Every chapter is built around these and other variations of the same types of battles, pitting humanity’s need for these particular minerals against some more local, more intimate desire.

Scheyder does a remarkably balanced job of talking to both sides and presenting both sides in a way that they will likely consider the reporting on themselves to be pretty close to fair – as he notes within the text a few times, his job isn’t really to make a decision for humanity so much as to present the competing interests and allow humanity the chance to choose for itself.

Is our survival – as we currently see it – worth forcing ourselves on someone who is more intimately connected to that spot on Earth than most of us will ever directly be?

This book isn’t the call to arms that Siddarth Kara’s Cobalt Red, released almost exactly one year earlier and describing the outright horrors and abuses rampant throughout much of the cobalt industry specifically, was. Instead, as noted, it is more of a balanced and even nuanced look at the competing interests surrounding how and even if certain materials can be obtained in certain locations, and how these small, individual battles can impact us all at a global level.

In the case of KSU’s Student Housing vs the plant, fwiw, apparently it was resolved in favor of KSU’s Student Housing at some point in the last 20 yrs, as now the entire hill that was once a battleground is now a few different student housing complexes. In the cases Scheyder details… well, read the book. Some of them were still ongoing at the time Scheyder had to hand his book off for final editing, but he gives up to that moment details on where they are in such instances.

Very much recommended.

This review of The War Below by Ernest Scheyder was originally written on January 9, 2024.

#BookReview: Ignition by M.R. O’Connor

Controversial Yet Mostly Solid – But Needs Better Documentation. I first became interested in fire management over a decade ago, when I read an article on wired.com on July 8, 2012, where it made the case that perhaps our modern American efforts to suppress wildfires… had actually led directly to fires becoming ever bigger and more destructive. Over the following 11 yrs, I would both watch the movie Only The Brave, about the Yarnell Hill fire that claimed so many firefighters’ lives less than a year after that Wired article came out (which I just realized when researching for this review) and read the book Granite Mountain/ My Lost Brothers (it has used both titles) by Brendan McDonough that the movie was based on. I had also already seen numerous controlled/ prescribed burns as a native of the Southern US, and distinctly remember several over the years in the woods directly behind Lee County (GA) High School – where country singer Luke Bryan, American Idol Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, and San Francisco Giants great Buster Posey had all attended.

All of that to say that here, O’Connor spends a year actively working with wildland firefighter crews roaming the western US (well, west of the Mississippi – she starts and ends in Nebraska), learning their ways, their thoughts, their struggles. And creating a compelling voice for her effort in this book. She gets the same certifications they do, goes through the same training and meetings, and does everything she is qualified to do per those trainings, and in turn we as readers get a first hand account of what it is really like on said crews. (Which McDonough’s book is also great at – just be prepared for some *very* dusty rooms near the end of that tale.)

Through this memoir portion of the book – interwoven with other interviews and research that I’ll get to momentarily – she is particularly strong and vivid. Truly, read the book for these passages if for no other reason, as it really brings home what a difficult, demanding, and yes, frustrating job this can be.

Even the research, both interviews and historical, is truly remarkably well done. It is this section in particular (along with, perhaps, some of the commentary from the fire teams she is on) that will likely prove most controversial, as it really drives home the exact point that at least parts of that 2012 Wired article were making – the “suppression only” firefighting tactics we’ve used against wildfires primarily over only the last century or so really do seem to be causing more harm than they are doing good. And, as it turns out… pretty well everyone knew this before we started doing it. From millennia before Europeans came to the Americas, Native Americans had already been using fire to shape and control their environment in numerous ways, and had already developed tactics that worked *with* nature for the good of all beings. O’Connor’s work here makes a particularly strong case that at minimum, these strategies need to be more actively considered. Indeed, much the same way that Gilbert Gaul’s 2019 book The Geography Of Risk made such a strong case for re-examining coastal development strategies in the face of hurricane damage.

The one weakness here is a quibble, perhaps, but it is consistent with my other non-fiction reviews (and I did already mention it in the title of this review, above), and that is that at just 14% bibliography, it falls a bit short in my own experience – where 20-30% documentation seems to be more standard. Extraordinary claims – and yes, challenging the prevailing “wisdom” of the last century qualifies as such – require extraordinary evidence, and while O’Connor’s case through her narrative is stellar, her documentation is sadly quite lacking.

Still, overall truly a fascinating read that deserves far more attention than it may ultimately wind up getting. Very much recommended.

This review of Ignition by M.R. O’Connor was originally written on October 11, 2023.

#BookReview: The Lost Supper by Taras Grescoe

Intriguing Romp Through The History Of Food That Fails The Sagan Standard. One of the core features of the scientific method, and indeed of rational thought more generally, is what is known in some circles as the “Sagan Standard” after he quoted it so much: Extreme Claims Require Extreme Evidence.

And this is where this otherwise truly intriguing tale utterly fails, coming in at just 10% documentation despite claims as extreme *even in the prologue* as claiming that 90% of US milk production comes from a particular breed of cows and ultimately is the product of just two bulls that ultimately created that particular breed.

Reading the text as less science and history – even though much science and history are discussed – and more as the “creative nonfiction” Grescoe writes of once describing his writing to a security officer as, the book flows quite a bit better and provides quite a bit of interesting and intriguing nuggets for people of various persuasions to track down on their own. For example, the global histories Grescoe explores, from the Aztec culture of eating certain bugs to the Phonecian/ Mediterranean culture of eating very fermented fish to the Canadian First Nations’ peoples’ culinary pursuits and several others as well all provide rich stories that *beg* for a more documented history. On the other hand, if one is more gastronomically inclined ala the author, perhaps one simply wants to try to track down these particular foods and techniques for him or herself to sample these items as the author did – including a particular breed of pig that “originates” from a small island not far from where this reviewer lives on Florida’s First Coast.

Ultimately, once one abandons any standard of documentation the way one would abandon any sense of “reality” upon entering a cinema to watch the latest MCU movie and appreciates the sheer spectacle of what is presented to you… this is a truly great book that foodies in particular will absolutely love. Given the literal hundreds of different shows about food and culinary pursuits, including several actively traveling around the world highlighting various dishes and techniques just as this book does… clearly there is a market for exactly this kind of tale, and this one does in fact appear to work perfectly within that market. Very much recommended.

This review of The Lost Supper by Taras Grescoe was originally written on September 3, 2023.

#BookReview: Kingdom Of Bones by James Rollins

The Most Fantastical Sigma Book Yet – Yet Also Much More Real Than Previous Attempts. You can almost see in this book where Rollins was working on his fantasy books by this point, or at least his mind was already going that direction, just by how truly implausible and into the outright fantastical the “science” of this book gets. As in, hello Fergully / Avatar, complete with vividly colored creatures and mystical tree with healing powers. And yet, this is still solidly a Sigma Force tale, complete with a divided team and links to both history and science, however tenuous. Still, it may truly be getting to the point of needing to end on as high a note as possible before becoming a laughingstock, because yes, admittedly, this one does truly get that bad at times in reflection, while still feeling like the taught action thriller it is while reading it.

For those that can’t possibly read about animals being in any degree of “harm” at all, know that war dog handler Tucker and his dog, Kane, play major roles here – and indeed, some of the more inventive while still realistic roles in this tale.

As for the “Much More Real Than Previous Attempts” bit, in The Last Oracle Rollins portrayed Autistics as damn near superhumans, with almost god-like abilities. Here, the Autistic character – a different one, and seemingly the first one mentioned at all in Sigma since Oracle – is a much more grounded and realistic Autistic, complete with hyperfocusing, rambling, self-recriminations, blowups, sensory issues… and no real meltdowns, which is perhaps the only “not-real” aspect of this particular character. In other words, at least in regard to Autism generally, Rollins shows tremendous growth over the last decade or so and is to be commended for showing how such a person could be a benefit even in such tense, potentially Apocalyptic, times.

Overall, this is going to be a particularly divisive book mostly because of just how fantastical it does get at times, but I thought while reading it that it worked perfectly well within the story – though even while reading it I was thinking it was a touch fantastical, and the Avatar notes in particular were unavoidable even while reading – and this was a solid several hours of pure escapist fun, no matter the exact bent of the genre of the story. Very much recommended.

This review of Kingdom of Bones by James Rollins was originally written on August 1, 2023.

#BookReview: Cask Strength by Mike Gerrard

Solid Look At History, Current Uses, and Future Of The Barrel. At just 240 pages or so – and just 14% or so of that bibliography, which is where the single star deduction comes in – this is far from a truly in-depth look at the topic. But as kind of a “Barrel 101”, this book really works. The majority of the text focuses on the various current uses of barrels, mostly dealing with the various forms of alcohol stored in them – everything from liquors to wines to even beers – but also delving into even, surprisingly, hot sauce. Shorter sections deal with the millenia-old history of the barrel and with its most modern incarnations and looking to what the future might hold for the technology.

Indeed, for what it is, the only truly glaring weakness here is in fact the dearth of a bibliography, clocking in at just about 14% of the overall text, when 20-30% is more typical in my extensive experience with nonfiction Advance Reviewer Copies.

Overall a quick, fun, and informative read that will give you yet more esoteric knowledge and trivia and thus expand your horizons just that much more. Very much recommended.

This review of Cask Strength by Mike Gerrard was originally written on June 18, 2023.

#BookReview: Chasing The Sun by Linda Geddes

Decent Exploration Of The Topic. A couple of caveats to this review up front: This book was released in 2019, and I’ve read at least a handful of books on the same general topic of human circadian rhythms both before and since. I also read it via Audible, so I have no way of knowing if its documentation is adequate or lacking. These caveats noted, to me this book was more a decent introduction to the general topic than a truly in depth or ground breaking look at it. Most of the things it covered were things I was already generally aware of and even knew a bit of the specifics of due to those other books. So to me, there truly wasn’t much “new science” here at all. And yet, the book was very much approachable and enjoyable, and indeed seemed great for someone less read in the subject at hand. Geddes herself reads the Audible version, and it is quite clear she both knows her subject well and is genuinely passionate about it, so those are definite bonuses in my take on the book. Overall a truly solid introduction to the topics at hand, told in a very approachable manner even for those less familiar with them. Very much recommended.

This review of Chasing The Sun by Linda Geddes was originally written on May 18, 2023.

#BookReview: The Story Of Sushi by Trevor Corson

Interesting Combination Of Case Study And Academic Disciplines. This was an interesting approach to the topic of sushi where rather than just look to how sushi is prepared at the time of the writing of this book (18 yrs ago as I write this review) or just the science and history of the various elements of sushi, Corson instead used the case study of a particular group of students learning how to make sushi at a particular school at a particular point to then springboard from there into the history and the science. He does both quite artfully, though the contemporary scenes he describes feel a touch dated nearly twenty years later, as Corson describes sushi in both Japan and America as on the cusp of either greatness or collapse here. While I can’t speak to how it plays today in Japan – I’ve barely crossed the Missisippi River in the US more than a handful of times, and I’ve never so much as seen the Pacific Ocean absent some picture or screen – in America, even in the Deep South I’ve called home nearly every day of my 40+ years on Earth, sushi has become quite common. Perhaps not prepared exactly the way Corson describes here and perhaps with a distinct lack of the traditions behind it that Corson so eloquently shows, but the food itself has exploded to be seemingly everywhere. Within just a mile or two of my home in Jacksonville, FL, I can name at least a half dozen different spots to get some form of it, from prepared overnight grocery store level sushi to actual sushi bars to even an all-you-can-eat sushi/ Asian fusion food place. And yet, the book, given its time and place, truly tells its story as it is known within that time and place quite well. While I can’t know how documented this was due to having listened to its Audible form, and *perhaps* a text based reading of the same material would have led to a star deduction for lack of bibliography… again, the way I consumed this tale I simply cannot know this, and the benefit of the doubt from not knowing goes to the book keeping the extra star. Overall a fascinating and informative book, one that compels the reader to keep reading and find out more both about the people being detailed and the food and culture they are working with. Very much recommended.

This review of The Story Of Sushi by Trevor Corson was originally written on May 16, 2023.

#BookReview: Cracked by Steven Hawley

Activist Polemic With Little Documentation – But The Pictures Are Stunning. Quite honestly, the description on this book as of the time I write this review roughly 10 days before publication (yes, meaning this is an advance reviewer copy with all that this entails) is quite misleading. The description makes it seem as though the reader is getting a well documented history of the history of water control and its current problems and potential solutions to those problems. Instead, this is an activist screed from the very beginning, with next to no documentation – just 7% of the text, when 20-30% is far more typical in my extensive experience.

Thus, as is very nearly always the case, one star was deducted for this lack of documentation. The second star is deducted because of the obvious slant and the strawman arguments so heavily used throughout the text. The third star is deducted for the inaccurate description provided by the publisher.

This is *a* history though, and from the activist, anti-dam perspective, a solid one in the mold of one preaching to the choir – as choirs never ask to see documentation, taking everything the preacher says on faith alone. Which is not science or journalism. 😉

And yet, the pictures provided throughout are truly stunning. Whoever took them did some truly excellent work in that space, and I can honestly recommend this book for the pictures alone. Which is why it doesn’t sink any further in the rating.

Overall a dense and blatantly biased yet still somewhat interesting read, and absolutely get this for the pictures alone. (Meaning you need a print or tablet version of this book. :D). Recommended.

This review of Cracked by Steven Hawley was originally written on April 21, 2023.

#BookReview: The Darkness Manifesto by Johan Eklof

Dark Spring. I read this book and write this review as someone who longs to see that which I’ve never seen in nearly 40 years of existence on this Earth – the Milky Way as the Ancients did. Here, Eklof makes a case as to why the light pollution that is so prevalent in so many areas of the world needs to be treated just as seriously as any other form of human-made pollution. Indeed, at least in his claims, this is as strong a book against light pollution as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was all those years ago.

HOWEVER, where Eklof fails a fair degree – and the reason for the star deduction here – is that while he makes a lot of strong claims, there is scant documentation of these claims – coming in at just 15% or so of the text here, when more fully documented books come in closer to 20% – 30%, and books that are particularly well documented can reach 50% or so of the overall text.

Still, as a sort of primer to these issues for those who may not be aware of them already, this is a strong book that will allow for further research after reading it. Very much recommended.

This review of The Darkness Manifesto by Johan Eklof was originally written on October 25, 2022.

#BookReview: The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker

Solid Look At A Topic Few Look At – Possibly Benefits From Me Reading It In Audible Form. I’ll be upfront- this was one of my Audible books. Thus, I really have no way of knowing how extensive the bibliography is here, as Audibles never include them. And admittedly, this book *needs* an extensive one, as it makes quite a few quite remarkable claims- and remarkable claims necessitate remarkable documentation. But because I read the Audible and thus have no record of any biliiography for good or ill, I can’t base my rating on something I did not see.

What I *did* see here was a solid look at concepts most – even myself – don’t actively consider, and here Schatzker takes us on a detailed yet intriguing look behind the scenes and gets quite technical indeed… while never losing his readability (at least when having the book read to you). That alone is quite the feat for many science writers, and that he was able to pull this off so well is a mark of a stronger science writer.

Schatzker was also remarkably *balanced*, decrying Big Food and Big Ag for their efforts that led to blandness and loss of flavor over the last several decades while acknowledging that these same efforts are what has enabled humanity to continue to feed itself – and applauding these same groups’ efforts to re-introduce flavor while maintaining as much modern yields as possible. Even here though, he does note – and *arguably* seem to take a touch of glee in – the idea that flavorful, more nutritious foods will always be a few multiples more expensive than more bland, less nutritious foods. Which yes, does allow at least a potential perception of classism, though I note here that I never really felt he was being classist so much as simply a gourmand passionate about truly great food. Indeed, the final pair of chapters, structured around his efforts at a “perfect meal” of sorts, brought the entire narrative together quite well while also being quite visceral in its love of both that meal and telling the tale of it.

Overall a truly intriguing book, and one that even 8 years after initial publication, as I write this review having read this book just this month, still needs to be widely read and… digested. Very much recommended.

This review of The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker was originally written on January 31, 2023.