In There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee uses chapters organized by theme and structured as sets of questions and answers (with some graphs and charts to accompany them) to explore issues related to climate change and the question of how humanity can survive/thrive/take care of our planet in our current era and beyond. The first chapter, on food, was especially interesting: I think I’d known but had forgotten how big the environmental impact of beef is compared to chicken or to vegetarian protein sources, and it was good to be reminded of that. I learned that agriculture is estimated to cause 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that 20% of food waste is caused by consumers, and that feeding animals on food (like soybeans) that could be eaten by people is a big problem because it’s hugely inefficient. In this chapter, and elsewhere in the book, Berners-Lee reminds readers that “everything we spend money on is an investment into one type of future or another,” so we should all be conscious of where our money is going and what kind of future we’re shaping (48).

Striking facts and figures I learned elsewhere in the book: humanity has produced 9 billion metric tons of plastic, 5.4 billion metric tons of which “has been chucked into landfill or scattered onto land and sea” (55). Also, “over a third of all our plastic is used for disposable packaging” (58).

On the subject of energy, Berners-Lee is optimistic about solar energy, but only if “we can succeed in deliberately limiting our energy growth,” which we haven’t managed to do thus far (68). Meanwhile, we need to cut fossil fuel use in a hurry, but the only way to do this is to have “an enforceable global deal to leave the fuel in the ground,” which we also haven’t managed yet (88). That need for global cooperation is a factor in the chapters on “growth, money and metrics” (if we’re just measuring things like GDP, we may be measuring/incentivizing the wrong things) and “thinking skills for today’s world” (in which Berners-Lee points out that we need to be cultivating and emphasizing things like “global empathy” if we’re going to get anywhere).

This was a quite different book from my usual diet of novels/kids’ books/narrative nonfiction, but I’m glad I picked it up. (Disclaimer: this book is published by my employer, and I decided to read it after a talk that Berners-Lee gave to staff members, but I got it from the library like anyone else, and kept reading because I was interested.) The Q&A format keeps it from being too dense, and it was interesting to read an evidence-heavy book on this topic.

This essay collection, whose subtitle is “On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books,” is from the 1960s, and while there are aspects of the content and style that feel a bit dated, I still found it to be an interesting and satisfying read now, and came away from it with a whole list of new-to-me kids’ books that I now want to read. I like Cameron’s evocations of her own childhood, as when she talks in the foreword about going to the library with her mother on Saturday mornings (library trips with my mom were a big part of my childhood too!) or when she talks in the book’s final essay about her friendship with her landlady’s father when he was in his eighties and she was a child. That final essay is one of my favorites, actually, though it’s largely about Eleanor Farjeon, whose work I’ve never read: I like the way that Cameron brings together a biographical sketch of Farjeon and really pleasing quotes from Farjeon’s writing about her childhood and Cameron’s own childhood memories.

My absolute favorite piece, though, is the title essay, which is about “time fantasy”, from books I’ve read and loved (like L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe books) to books I should have read by now (E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet) to books I’d never heard of before. I love bits of writing like this, where Cameron is talking about how she feels like maybe British time fantasy is the best time fantasy because of the sense of history one has across “the whole of the British Isles, as if layers of Time, or innumerable dimensions of Time cutting across one another, were crowded thick with all the centuries that have passed and none of them really lost” (74). Elsewhere, I like how Cameron describes the experience of being a child as including “delight in the simplest, most secret, sometimes the oddest things” and also “sadnesses and fears and terrors one could not or would not explain” and also “a continuing wonder about much that seems drab and familiar to adults” (14). And it’s interesting when Cameron (who wrote children’s books herself) talks about her own experiences as a writer, particularly in the essay “A Country of the Mind,” where she talks about a sense of place as having been central to the successful creation of one of her novels, which she rewrote after being unhappy with how it ended and realizing a lot of her unhappiness was related to the book’s setting. From that essay, I love this, when Cameron is talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books: “Place moves and breathes within the story; it is not simply background, not a backdrop, never static” (171).

I imagine this book would be extra-interesting to people who write for kids or teach kids or have kids, but even as someone who falls into exactly zero of those categories, I found this book thought-provoking and engaging.

The nineteen essays in this book are a bit of a time capsule, by which I mostly mean that it’s funny to look back on the US presidential election of 2000 from 2020. (That election, incidentally, was the first one in which I voted/was old enough to vote, and I, like Sarah Vowell, rode in a car from NYC to DC for the protests that accompanied George W. Bush’s inauguration in January 2001.) A lot of the essays are about US politics or US history in some way, which means this isn’t totally the book for me (I’m not a politics nerd, unlike some people I know) but I do like Vowell’s style, and even if the essays resonated with me less than essays on another topic might have, this was an enjoyable read. Vowell is good at the snappy first line, like this, from “The First Thanksgiving,” which is one of my favorite pieces in the book: “When I invited my mom and dad to come to New York City to have Thanksgiving at my house, I never expected them to say yes” (9).

My absolute favorite piece in the book is “God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass,” in which Vowell talks about historical walking tours and why her favorite parts of US history are “Puritan New England and the Civil War” and why she likes visiting/learning about places where terrible things happened in the past. I also really liked “California as an Island” (about how Vowell lived in San Francisco when she was in her twenties and worked at a gallery that sold old maps, and about California vs. elsewhere) and “Underground Lunchroom,” about the cafeteria in Carlsbad Caverns.

Though Walking is a short book made mostly of brief vignettes, there are several different kinds of things in it. It’s partly about the mental and physical benefits of walking, both anecdotally and backed by research. It’s partly about a certain kind of philosophy of walking as tied to a certain kind of way of being: walking and paying attention, walking and connection to the natural world, walking and the senses and the body. There’s a little about walking in literature and other art: Kagge talks to the theatre director Robert Wilson about walking, and also writes about how central walking is to Joyce’s Ulysses, and how Nabokov made maps of the paths that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom take through Dublin in that book. There are color artworks, some of which are photos of scenes from walks/treks Kagge has taken. And there are bits of narrative about some of Kagge’s walking experiences, which were probably my favorite parts of the book: he talks about walking in LA with two friends, and the experience of walking in an unfamiliar place that isn’t made for pedestrians, and about walking (or crawling) through sewer tunnels in New York with an urban explorer.

Some quotes:
“Walking, I become the centre of my own life, while completely forgetting myself shortly afterwards” (15).

“You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, weather and the atmosphere” (28)

“Everything moves more slowly when I walk, the world seems softer and for a short while I am not doing household chores, having meetings or reading manuscripts” (15)

I expected this book about food (which was published in 1825, and whose author was born in 1755) to be much drier and less funny than it actually was. In her introduction, Anne Drayton (who translated the book) describes it as “a unique combination of recipes and aphorisms, reflections and reminiscences, history and philosophy,” and that sums it up pretty well (12). I like this aphorism, which is seventh in a list of twenty at the start of the book: “the pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss” (13).

Early in the book, Brillat-Savarin talks about the senses in general, and then the sense of taste in particular: he talks about the relationship between smell and taste, and about taste as being the sense “which, on the whole, gives us the maximum of delight” (45). He then goes on to talk about various kinds of food, both in terms of where it comes from and how it’s prepared and what it’s like. He talks about how chickens are overfed and overfattened: I didn’t know that was a thing before modern factory farms. (He also notes that “It must be admitted that this unnatural rotundity is also delicious,” which cracked me up (74).) He talks about going hunting in Connecticut in 1794 and shooting a wild turkey; he talks about game and fish and truffles and sugar. He talks about coffee and ways of making it, and hot chocolate and ways of making it. There’s a whole chapter on “the theory of frying,” and another on thirst.

Later, Brillat-Savarin moves on to talk specifically about gourmandism, which he defines as “an impassioned and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste” (132). It’s an all-around good thing, he argues: it’s pleasurable, and good for the economy (he talks about the Napoleonic Wars as having given Brits, Germans, and others a taste for French food and wine), and good for social life, too (he talks about the pleasures of two married gourmands, who get to eat good food together and talk about good food together and therefore always have something to do and something to talk about). He also talks about the science of eating and living, as it was understood in his time: there are sections on digestion, rest, sleep, dreams, obesity, and thinness, and it was interesting to read his early arguments in favor of a low-carb diet for weight loss (though he doesn’t call it that: he just says to avoid potatoes, flour, and sugar to lose weight, or to eat those same things if you want to gain weight). He then moves on to a history of cooking, and also talks about restaurants as a “completely new and inadequately recognized institution” (266). The end of the book consists of a whole section of miscellaneous anecdotes and recipes, some of which felt too random, but some of which were fun. (At one point he describes being at an inn with some companions and seeing “a very handsome leg of mutton at which the ladies from sheer force of habit darted extremely coquettish glances” (303).)

I liked all the little bits of food history in this book, and I liked its humor, and it was fun to think of the similarities and differences between Brillat-Savarin’s time and now. At one point when talking about chocolate, he talks about how vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon are the only things good for flavoring it (as opposed to things like pepper, ginger, and aniseed, which he says were tried and abandoned): I’d love for him to be able to go to a fancy 21st-century chocolate shop and try all the different flavor combinations.

In her introduction to this book, whose subtitle is “A Journey into Cold,” Ehrlich describes it as “a book about winter and climate change” and also as “a six-month chronicle of living with cold” (xi). It’s a mix of personal narrative/travelogue and facts about melting glaciers and Arctic pollution and disturbed ecosystems, a mix of lyricism and starkness. Ehrlich writes about blizzards in Wyoming and glaciers in the southern Andes and a trip to Spitsbergen on a 150-foot sailboat; she writes about seeing mink and coyotes and swans and geese, about seeing polar bears and whales and dolphins and walruses and sea birds, and about a visit to the Norwegian Polar Institute, where she talks to scientists who study climate change.

In the Andes she sees glaciers and thinks about how they’ve shaped the landscape through which she and her friend/lover are hiking; in Wyoming she goes canoeing with friends in an icy river. She write about winter as when “we go behind the scenes of our own lives” and says this: “Winter is a white vagrancy. There are no days or nights. Just breathing and snow pushing space between thought” (4-5). I like how she writes about how winter means “seclusion, intimacy, ceremony, cabin fever”, and how she writes about reading all through the winter in Wyoming, decades ago, just after having lost her fiancé to cancer. (69). I like how she writes about the aftermath of blizzards: “What’s left is a swept-out room of stark beauty and clear light” (105).

At one point Ehrlich takes a bus to see the Perito Moreno glacier and writes about how glaciers, built up over time, tell us about the past:

A glacier is an archivist and historian. It saves everything no matter how small or big, including pollen, dust, heavy metals, bugs, bones, and minerals. A glacier is time incarnate, a moving image of time. (53)

I like how this book looks at time and space, globally and personally, though I sometimes wanted there to be less abstraction/philosophizing and more straight-up description. Still, this was a satisfying read, even (especially?) in the middle of summer, though of course it made me depressed about global warming.

In The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú writes about his experiences working as a US Border Patrol agent, and also about his life before and after that job. He writes about his mom’s Mexican-American family, and her former job as a park ranger, and how he studied international relations in college and wanted on-the-ground experience of the border, after learning so much about the history and theory and policy of it. He writes about walking from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez with his mom, before becoming an agent, and about not wanting to take that same walk afterwards: he writes about the ways the job changed him. He writes about stress-dreams, and about grinding his teeth; he writes about a classmate quitting before even becoming an agent; he writes about the migrants he encounters, on and off the job. He writes about his own ambivalence about what working as a US Border Patrol agent means: when he’s in school, one of his instructors talks about having killed one migrant and having saved the life of another, and Cantú’s thought is this: “I wondered if he thought of his body as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping. I wondered, too, about my body, about what sort of tool it was becoming” (19).

Cantú’s mother worries about that, too, about the effects of taking a job within an inhumane system, about what it does to a person, and it was interesting to me to read this book fairly soon after having read Ali Smith’s Spring, a novel in which one of the characters is a detainee custody officer at an immigrant removal centre in England, struggling (albeit fictionally), with similar issues. “You are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people,” Cantú’s mother says, when he’s starting the job “(25). “Stepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you,” he replies (ibid). But by the end of the book, when he’s acting as helper and translator for the family of someone who’s been detained after re-entering the country without papers, I’m not sure if he would agree. (Cantú helps that person’s family partly because that person is his friend, but it might not be as simple as just that.)

This is a book about place, too, not just a book about a job and about migration/border policy in general and about specific people’s stories, and I liked Cantú’s descriptions of the kinds of desert landscapes I’ve never seen, like this:

At night, finally allowed to patrol on my own, I sat watching storms roll across the moonlit desert. There were three of them: the first due south in Mexico, the second creeping down from the mountains in the east, and the third hovering just behind me—close enough for me to feel smatterings of rain and gusts of warm wind. In the distance lightning appeared like a line of hot neon, illuminating the desert in a shuddering white light. (38)

Or like this, at the book’s end, when Cantú is in Big Bend National Park, swimming in the Rio Grande:

I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines, crossing the river time and again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood. All around me the landscape tumbled and breathed as one. (247)

In her introduction to this book, Samin Nosrat talks about salt, fat, acid, and heat as “the four cardinal directions of cooking”; in his foreword, Michael Pollan (who learned to cook from Nosrat) talks about how this book will teach you to use those things in combination “to build striking new layers of flavor in whatever you cook” (4, 2). Nosrat writes well, and I like the way she combines food memories and stories (the Persian food her mom made when she was a kid, learning how much salt to use while working in the kitchen at Chez Panisse) with food science and instructions/recommendations for cooking (I realized, while reading this book, that I don’t think I could previously have explained exactly how baking soda and baking powder work, even though I like to bake). Nosrat’s prose is nicely complemented by Wendy MacNaughton’s beautiful and fun color illustrations of everything from pasta shapes to the colors of caramelized/caramelizing sugar to a tote bag overflowing with vegetables.

I learned a bunch of things from this book, like: you should salt eggs before scrambling them because the salt “helps their proteins come together at a lower temperature, which decreases cooking time”—meaning the eggs retain more water and are moister and softer (33). Or like: if you want a citrus-flavored olive oil, look for the ones with agrumato on the label, which “are made using a traditional technique of milling whole citrus fruit with the olives at the time of the first press” (66). I learned about layering salt (combining different salting methods and kinds of salt/salty ingredients for the effect you want) and about how we use fat when cooking or baking to create different textures (crispness, tenderness, flakiness, lightness). I learned that you should “let all meats—except for the thinnest cuts—come to room temperature before you cook them” (151). And I learned that “legumes, fruits, and vegetables will cook much more slowly in the presence of acid” and that you add vinegar to the water when poaching eggs because “acid encourages the proteins in an egg white to assemble, or coagulate, more quickly but less densely than they otherwise would” (112-113).

The second part of the book—the recipes and menus and variations—felt less useful to me, largely because a lot of it felt overly ambitious in one way or another. There are recipes with techniques I either don’t want to try at home (deep-frying) or can’t try at home because I live in a city apartment/don’t have outdoor space or a grill (smoking things). Anything involving a whole chicken, or chicken stock that I’m supposed to have made from scratch, seems too daunting to me. The likelihood of me cooking pasta with clam sauce, or four pounds of pork shoulder, feels low. Part of the problem is that I like one-pot meals, or at least, one pot plus one tray roasting in the oven, and most of the menu suggestions in this book are not that kind of cooking. Some of the yogurt sauces sound delicious (like: Persian Herb and Cucumber Yogurt, with mint and walnuts, garnished with dried crumbled rose petals, or Persian Beet Yogurt, with tarragon and red wine vinegar), but if I’m not roasting a whole chicken, I’m not sure what I’d eat them with. The things I felt like I might actually make were all sweet ones, like olive oil and sea salt granola, or meringues with cardamom, or flavored whipped cream (scented with rosewater, or made with cream steeped with Earl Grey tea or bay leaves). That said, I learned enough from the first half of the book that I’m still glad I read it, and if you’re a different kind of cook than I am, the recipes may be exactly what you’re looking for.

I like Italo Calvino’s fiction a lot, and I’m glad I read this book of essays, but I’m definitely not this book’s ideal reader: it’s a mix of big-picture literary/philosophical/political thought and close literary analysis of works/authors I’m (mostly) not that familiar with (e.g. Orlando Furioso or The Betrothed or anything by Charles Fourier). That said, I like Calvino’s style a lot, and I appreciate how, throughout the book, he talks about the subversive or expansive potential of literature, the way it can let us see other possibilities/other ways of being, the way it can show us that the way things are now is not the only way for things to be.

As far as specific essays go, the high point of the book for me is “Why Read the Classics?”, which is just such a delight. I like how Calvino says we all have to “invent our own ideal libraries of classics”, and how we should read them for pleasure rather than out of obligation—sticking with the ones with which we feel a “personal rapport” (133, 129). I also really liked “Levels of Reality in Literature,” which is a deconstruction of the sentence “I write that Homer tells that Ulysses says: I have listened to the song of the Sirens” (107) and an examination of the possibilities of metafiction and narrative twistiness and stories within stories. “The City as Protagonist in Balzac” makes me want to read Balzac, and “Guide to The Charterhouse of Parma for the Use of New Readers” makes me want to read Stendhal. “Man, the Sky, and the Elephant” doesn’t particularly make me want to read Pliny the Elder, but I do like how many bits of the Natural History this piece quotes, and how Calvino talks about Pliny’s “admiration for everything that exists” (316).

The Lonely City (whose subtitle is “Adventures in the Art of Being Alone”) is a blend of the personal and the art-historical, though a bit heavier on the latter. Laing writes about how she had been planning to move to New York City from England to be with a man who then changed his mind; she ended up living in the city on her own, moving from one sublet to another, finding comfort in visual art and music as she went through a period where she was “inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis” (5). The works of art in which she found solace “seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness” themselves, and the book is an exploration of that art/those artists/their lives and stories (ibid.).

Most of the book’s chapters focus on a particular artist: there’s one about Edward Hopper, another about Andy Warhol, one about David Wojnarowicz, another about Henry Darger, another about Klaus Nomi. (I liked all these chapters, especially the one about Wojnarowicz.) There’s also an introductory chapter, a concluding chapter that talks a bit about Zoe Leonard’s “Strange Fruit” and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, and a chapter about loneliness and the internet that discusses the work of Josh Harris, an internet entrepreneur who ran a live-streaming project called Quiet in which sixty people lived together for a month in a basement pod hotel. (I found the internet/Josh Harris chapter the weakest, though I liked the bits in it about Laing’s fondness for Craigslist and experiences placing ads on it.)

While I found Laing’s discussions of specific artworks and the lives of artists interesting, and while I also liked her discussions of the larger culture in which these artists were working, my favorite parts of the book were probably the pieces we see of Laing’s own story, whether she’s talking about living in a room on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue and waking to the lights of the city in the middle of the night, or about ordering coffee in the East Village and how when you’re lonely, social interactions with strangers or near-strangers are much more fraught. And I love how Laing writes about her experience of New York City, in sentences like this: “It was winter now, the sky bright blue, buckets of copper-colored chrysanthemums outside the bodegas” (110). Or this: “In the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself: the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the steam drifting up from beneath the streets” (12-13).