Earth Day Reading List, 2020 edition

Happy Earth Day, everyone! Earlier today Stephanie posted her Earth Day reading list, and it inspired me to do the same. I love reading books spanning diverse topics, so I do end up reading some books with environmental themes every year. If you’re interested in adding some environmentally-themed books to your TBR, these are my recommendations:

Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita (1991). This wonderfully weird magical realism novel explores how corporate greed results in the destruction of the environment, and how even well-intentioned people may be complicit. My only caveat about this book is that I read it quite a while ago (in 2010 or 2011, maybe); although it stuck with me at the time, I’m not sure if it still holds up today.

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (2015). This book is a biography of the almost-forgotten Prussian scientist, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt laid out the groundwork for the branch of science that we now know as ecology, and he identified the negative effects of industrialization on the environment in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s. Although the book is a bit dense, it gives a fair and nuanced account of a fascinating scientist whose ideas were a century ahead of his time.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016). A crossover from Stephanie’s list, this is Dr. Hope Jahren’s memoir about trying to “make it” as a female science professor in academia. In addition to being a compelling memoir, this book is full of beautifully accessible science writing. One of my favorite passages in this book is the chapter about how seeds have staggeringly low odds of germinating in the wild, but grow easily under artificial conditions in a laboratory. Jahren writes about this: in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

Spineless by Juli Berwald (2017). Part science non-fiction and part memoir, Spineless follows Dr. Juli Berwald on her quest to answer the question: how will climate change impact jellyfish populations? The answer, it turns out, is so complex that Berwald wrote an entire book about it. But it is a really interesting and well-written book, and the science is explained in an accessible way.

Weather by Jenny Offill (2020). This literary fiction novel is more focused on coping with the anxiety of an uncertain world than on climate change or the environment – but it captures that uncertainty so well! It is also gorgeously written, and shows the narrator’s anxieties in a wonderfully intimate way. It’s also fresh in my mind, since it just advanced to the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist yesterday.


Some other Earth-Day-appropriate books on my TBR that I hope to get to soon are:

  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (2016) – science non-fiction exploring the benefits that microbes bring to the environment
  • The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (2019) – a historical fiction novel about a collective of female divers on Jeju Island, South Korea
  • The Story of More by Hope Jahren (2020) – a compassionate exploration of “how we got to climate change and where to go from here”

Nonfiction November 2019: week 1

This year, I’m participating in a blogging event called Nonfiction November! I’m excited to participate by posting, but even more excited to read others’ posts: I’m gaining a lot of great nonfiction recommendations this way!

Image result for nonfiction november 2019

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I read 11 nonfiction books this year. They spanned a range of topics, but the most common was probably memoir. Even books that were not strictly memoirs, had memoir-like components to them. For example: Spineless was part science nonfiction, part memoir; Hard to Love was a book of essays, but in making her essays so personal, author Briallen Hopper effectively also wrote a memoir.

My favorite nonfiction reads this year were Spineless by Juli Berwald, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, and Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. All three books contained memoir components, and all three taught me about science (psychology is a science) using compelling and accessible language. And I can’t ignore that all three were written by highly educated women whom I admired a lot after reading their books.

Spineless tells the story of Juli Berwald’s quest to figure out how climate change will impact jellyfish populations (and also the story of her career as an ocean scientist).

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone talks about the insights author Lori Gottlieb has gleaned about humanity through her career as a therapist, and also as a patient.

Lab Girl is Hope Jahren’s memoir, in which she talks about what it’s really like to try to “make it” as a female scientist in academia.

The book I recommend the most is Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, because I think it satisfies a wider audience than Spineless or Lab Girl, and has the potential to help people in a way that the other two books don’t. But all three of these books strike a beautiful balance between informative and personal, and are well-written without being pretentious. As a bonus, I think that all three of the authors are excellent role models, especially to young women interested in science.

Lab Girl (plus, how baking meringues is like doing laboratory work)

The book: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Earlier this month I read Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl. Dr. Jahren is a professor and researcher at the University of Oslo in Norway, but she has also held professor positions at Georgia State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Hawaii. Lab Girl tells the story of how Dr. Jahren fell in love with science, and her journey through her battlefield of a career in academia.

When I first started the book, I felt skeptical of the author’s motives (i.e. her “agenda”). I couldn’t shake the feeling that the memoir was a bit self-congratulatory, or perhaps validation-seeking. As the memoir progressed, though, it really grew on me. Dr. Jahren is refreshingly honest about her career in academia: she unflinchingly describes the countless times she’s been dismissed for being a woman in science, the poor living conditions she endured in order to “make it” as a starting professor, and her experiences living with bipolar disorder. These are aspects of academic research that are present for so many grad students, post-doctoral researchers, and professors – yet they are rarely discussed (in fact, my experience in academia was that students are expected to keep their struggles to themselves).

In addition to portraying academic life so honestly, Lab Girl also contains amazingly accessible science writing. My background is actually in plant sciences, but I think that Dr. Jahren’s science-writing could easily be digested by readers from a non-science background. I especially liked Dr. Jahren’s explanations of how seeds germinate, root, and ultimately develop into trees – oftentimes against staggeringly low odds.

Despite my initial skepticism, I loved this book and I have a lot of admiration for Dr. Jahren. I don’t know that her story is exceptionally unique for a female science professor, but I do know that she is incredibly brave to come forth and tell her full story. Her writing style is gorgeous and easy-to-follow, and the book contains a few of my new favorite quotes, including this one: “in the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.”

The bake: (attempted) lime-swirl meringues.

As a scientist myself, I often tell people that what I do in the laboratory is a lot like following a recipe. I have even been known to say that “if you can follow a recipe, you can do a DNA extraction!” Both baking and conducting good laboratory research involve following optimized protocols. As such, I decided that for Lab Girl, I would bake something that required me to follow a “highly optimized protocol” (i.e. a meticulous bake): meringues swirled with lime curd.

I chose meringue and lime curd, because both are tricky to make: just like doing lab-based research, both require that you follow your protocol (i.e. recipe) pretty closely if you want to be successful. I baked these meringues, but instead of using raspberry puree for the swirled topping, I used a homemade lime curd (following this recipe).

Although I have struggled with curd in the past, this one came out very well! I love the bright and zesty flavor of it. Unfortunately, my meringues were not as successful: they took on a weird caramel color in the oven, and they never got crunchy (most likely the result of two mistakes: putting them on too low an oven-rack and over-baking them). I almost didn’t post about this bake, but I decided that – in the spirit of sharing my full story and not just the shiny parts of it – I should write about my baking failures.

I was disappointed with the meringues at first, but like all failed experiments, this was an opportunity to learn and improve. I’m really glad that I also made the lime curd, because now at least one part of the bake was successful. Also, I have a lot of leftover lime curd; I can’t wait to put it to good use in my next bake!