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.

Spineless (a book about jellyfish and blog post about jelly cookies)

The book: Spineless by Juli Berwald.

After a crazy two weeks of holiday festivities (and then another week of recovery from post-holiday fatigue), I finally finished reading Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. This non-fiction book follows author Juli Berwald’s quest to answer the question: how will global warming impact jellyfish populations? The book is a neat compilation of jellyfish research, but it’s also “part memoir, part travelogue,” (to quote NPR journalist Brian Castner), and ultimately a brilliantly written call to action to do something about our warming planet.

Spineless essentially starts out as a comprehensive summary of jellyfish science. After the introduction, each of the first ten chapters focuses on a different aspect of jellyfish biology, including the jellyfish life cycle, genetics, and senses. If you get turned off by overcomplicated, jargon-filled science writing – fear not! – Juli Berwald’s writing style is concise and accessible. Each chapter on the biology of jellyfish is so clearly and gorgeously written that I constantly found myself gushing and awing over how fascinating jellyfish are.

In addition to being nicely written, Spineless is also easy to follow as a story (which is especially impressive given that it’s science non-fiction). The book is easy to follow because Juli Berwald frames the entire story from her perspective: an outsider to the world of jellyfish, on a journey to learn as much as she can about these mysterious animals. And she takes us (the readers) on that journey with her: we go on plane rides and road trips, take tours of aquaria and marine laboratories, learn how to prepare jellyfish as food, and even dive beneath the seas with her. It’s seriously compelling.

As a book about jellyfish, Spineless is fascinating. But the most impressive thing about the book is that it gradually shifts to tell a different story: that of our rapidly changing planet. It’s hard to write an interesting global warming book; many Americans are desensitized to the issue, even among those who agree that global warming is real and a major threat to our existence. But Berwald skillfully eases her readers into that big picture. By first getting us to care about jellyfish, Juli Berwald is able to slowly shift the story to one of how global warming is affecting jellyfish, and then – how it is affecting humanity.

To summarize, Spineless was amazing. It is intellectually stimulating (yet still accessible to readers of any background), narratively compelling, and it ultimately has an inspirational message. I was surprised at how much I loved this book.

The bake: jelly box cookies.

To celebrate reading Spineless, I wanted to bake something that incorporated jelly. When I was thinking about jelly desserts, hamantaschen (triangle shaped cookies with a sweet filling in the center) immediately came to mind.

Two of my modified hamantaschen (the two most visually pleasing of the batch)! I chose to shape the cookies into “boxes” and pinwheels instead of triangles.

For the hamantaschen dough, I followed this recipe by Tori Avey and added store-bought raspberry jelly. I found the dough incredibly sticky, and had to add at least a quarter cup of flour before it become workable. I also changed the shape of the cookies, because the triangle shaped hamantaschen are associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim (which will not occur until late March this year). Instead of triangles, I made pinwheels and squares. I thought the squares were an especially cute idea, because Berwald frequently references a type of jellyfish called “box jellies” in her book; my square shaped cookies were jelly boxes!

BUT a cute idea does not automatically translate into a good bake! From the sticky dough, to then rolling the dough evenly, to adding the right amount of jam to each cookie, to shaping the damn things – this bake was really tough. Many of the cookies ended up either: overbaked, irregularly shaped, oozing with jam, or more than one of the above. Maybe it’s because I haven’t baked in a while, or maybe this recipe is just tricky? I don’t know. Despite all of that, the cookies do taste very nice, so I’ll still count this as somewhat of a win.

More jelly cookies. As you can see, there is a lot of variation in their doneness and shape. All tasty, though!