Today's Top Picks

Second PlaceClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Rachel Cusk


A woman invites a famed artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, in the belief that his vision will penetrate the mystery of her life and landscape. His provocative presence provides the frame for a study of female fate and male privilege, of the geometries of human relationships, and of the struggle to live morally in the intersecting spaces of our internal and external worlds.

With its examination of the possibility that art can both save and destroy us, Rachel Cusk's Second Place is deeply affirming of the human soul, while grappling with its darkest demons.

BookBrowse Review

Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy drew much of its substance from monologues and dialogues that swirled around a frequently near-invisible protagonist, a writer named Faye. Her first book since the conclusion of the trilogy, Second Place, is based on the heated interactions between author D.H. Lawrence and arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan that occurred during Lawrence's stay in Taos, New Mexico (see Beyond the Book). While this premise may sound highly specific, its influence is not obvious within the confines of the story, which generates a similar sense of everyday intrigue as Cusk's previous novels, despite some key differences.

The first-person narrator, a middle-aged woman known only as M, invites an artist, L, to stay in a second residence (the "second place") belonging to her and her husband, Tony, on the remote marshland where they live. L has had a significant influence on M through his painting; she feigns casualness in asking him to visit, when in reality she craves a deep connection with him. Caught up in her feelings towards L is her anxiety about being trapped in her existence as a woman — she glimpses in L's work a freedom that she thinks is specific to men and that she would never be able to attain for herself, and so she seeks some sort of validation from the artist instead. But L appears to be set against giving her this validation, and the strange, toxic dynamic that he and M become embroiled in eventually leads to tension between M and Tony. This situation is complicated by the presence of three other characters: a young, attractive woman named Brett whom L has brought along with him; Justine, M's adult daughter from a previous marriage; and Kurt, Justine's boyfriend.

Some aspects of Second Place's mood and structure are reminiscent of Gothic literature and horror fiction. It opens with a dramatic flourish as M recollects having met "the devil" to someone named Jeffers, a thread that leads the reader to her obsession with L and the central events of the book, which involve the characters stumbling through uneasy social relations in the wilderness. However, the story is less sprawling but more complex than these traits might suggest. In general, Cusk's novel has a chameleon quality: On one level, it can be read as a philosophical exploration of large, somewhat unwieldy themes like "men," "women" and "art." On another, it's about one woman's understanding — and misunderstanding — of how those subjects apply to her and her own life.

The root of M's existential distress may be summed up in something she notes that Tony has said to her: that she underestimates her own power. As she focuses on her limitations, she overlooks the effect she has on others, and this tendency plays into how the reader receives her words. Her inner monologues are fraught, but often with humorous results. At one point, while bemoaning her inability to live freely, she makes a comment on the nature of potatoes: "They throw out these white fleshy arms because they know it's spring, and sometimes I'll look at one and realise a potato knows more than most people do." At another point, she recalls meeting a psychoanalyst in the street months after he attempted, and failed, to help her, and admonishing him for having "a little air of reproach." She then describes his hasty retreat: "Partway through my speech the psychoanalyst raised his arms in a gesture of surrender: he had turned completely white, and looked suddenly frail and aged, and began stepping backwards away from me on the pavement with his arms still raised, until he was far enough to turn and run." Cusk's portrayal of M allows the reader to see her flaws while still feeling genuine sympathy for her, and respecting the journey she takes to gaining a fuller understanding of herself as she considers L's own limitations and the limitations of art.

While the connection to the story of Lawrence and Luhan is one readers may find interesting, Cusk's unnecessary adherence to certain details of her characters' real-life counterparts accounts for the most questionable and incongruous parts of the novel, particularly Tony's racial background. M describes him as dark-skinned and similar in his looks to Native Americans. She explains that he was adopted and raised by a white family and never looked into his origins. However, he is clearly based on Luhan's husband, a Pueblo Indian named Tony, which makes the halfhearted way in which the character's background is handled even more distracting: Tony is portrayed as strong, silent, more centered than the other characters and closer to the earth. With this set-up, there would have been room for Cusk to actively explore the discomfort created by these surface elements that brush against Native stereotypes — for example, by fleshing out more of a visible relationship between Tony and his background, regardless of his childhood circumstances, or by giving race as legitimate a place in the story as gender — but they unfortunately feel like more of a decorative acknowledgment of the author's inspiration than functional pieces of the story.

Regardless of how Second Place came to be, it's a taut and engaging novel full of personal and philosophical suspense that offers a complicated look at a woman struggling to understand herself and her place in the world. Like Cusk's previous work, it makes the otherwise banal endlessly intriguing. The type of book that benefits from multiple rereads, it provides a continually captivating — and often amusing — glimpse into how a person's self is defined by other people, and what it means to live for oneself.

Book reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Beyond the Book:
Mabel Dodge Luhan

sepia-tinted photo of Mabel Dodge LuhanRachel Cusk reveals through a note at the end of her novel Second Place that the book is based on Lorenzo in Taos, a 1932 memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan recounting the time the author D.H. Lawrence spent with her in Taos, New Mexico. Luhan, whose full name was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan (as the result of multiple marriages), was a famous patron known for her support of writers, artists and other influential people. She had a contentious relationship with Lawrence, which she detailed in her memoir.

Luhan was born Mabel Ganson to wealthy parents in Buffalo, New York in 1879. At a young age, she became disillusioned with the banalities and oppressive nature of upper-class life. Her first husband, Karl Evans, died in a hunting accident, leaving her widowed with a child. Shortly after, she traveled to Europe with her son John, where she met and married Edwin Dodge, an architect from Boston. Dodge offered her security and a life of luxury in Italy that enabled her to begin socializing with and hosting salons for artists, writers and other people she found interesting, including the art historian Bernard Berenson and Gertrude Stein. She eventually became bored with Italy, divorced Dodge and returned to the States, taking her penchant for salon hosting to New York. There, she cultivated relationships with people involved in the avant-garde scene and wrote for art and literary publications.

Luhan's third husband, the sculptor Maurice Sterne, encouraged her to visit Santa Fe, which led to her discovery of Taos, where she immediately felt drawn to the natural surroundings and the local people. She soon found the man who would become her fourth husband, a married Pueblo Indian named Tony Lujan (the "j" in Spanish is pronounced like "h" in English; Mabel changed the spelling of the name to avoid mispronunciation). She bought land in the area, and the couple constructed a home that eventually included 14 guest bedrooms. Luhan continued her arts patronage there, inviting guests such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence. She also developed a philosophy around the importance of bringing the ways of the Indians to white America, believing that she could transform Western civilization by doing so.

Luhan thought that Lawrence was uniquely equipped to write about Taos and make it known to the rest of the world. She told him about the area, as well as herself and Tony, when asking him to come visit. He eventually did, in 1922, bringing along his wife, Frieda. Lawrence and Luhan quickly developed a magnetic but tempestuous relationship. Lawrence was intrigued by Luhan, as she was by him, but he was also reported to have said that she was the only person who had ever made him think himself capable of murder. In order to encourage him to remain in Taos and work on his writing, Luhan gave him access to a nearby ranch. Lawrence never wrote the depiction of the area that Luhan envisioned, but he was influenced by it, later noting, "I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever."

Some have praised Luhan's involvement with Taos and the local people, arguing that she offered support for Pueblo artists and communities, but others have pointed out the flaws in her attempts to co-opt Native culture for her own vision. Writer Carmella Padilla has described Luhan as having "no qualms about making an authoritative assessment of a tradition she knew little about."

Luhan continued to live in Taos with Tony, and died there in 1962. Tony died the following year. Their home has been preserved as the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which now operates as an inn and conference center.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, courtesy of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House

The Funny Thing About Norman ForemanClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Julietta Henderson


Twelve-year-old Norman Foreman and his best friend, Jax, are a legendary comedic duo in waiting, with a plan to take their act all the way to the Edinburgh Fringe. But when Jax dies, Norman decides the only fitting tribute is to perform at the festival himself. The problem is, Norman's not the funny one. Jax was.

There's also another, far more colossal objective on Norman's new plan that his single mom, Sadie, wasn't ready for: he wants to find the father he's never known. Determined to put a smile back on her boy's face, Sadie resolves to face up to her own messy past, get Norman to the Fringe and help track down a man whose identity is a mystery, even to her.

Julietta Henderson's delightfully charming, tender and uplifting debut takes us on a road trip with a mother and son who will live in the reader's heart for a long time to come, and teaches us that—no matter the odds—we must always reach for the stars.

BookBrowse Review

The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is the comedic debut novel of writer Julietta Henderson. It averaged a strong rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars with our First Impressions reviewers.

What the book is about:

Twelve-year-old Norman and his single mom, Sadie, are narrators who take the reader along on a car trip through Scotland with their 80-year-old friend Leonard, a trip that has disaster written all over it from the outset. The twin goals of the trip are to find Norman's biological father...and to allow Norman, an aspiring but not funny comedian, to fulfill his dream of performing his comedy routine at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (see Beyond the Book) to honor his recently deceased best friend, Jax, who indeed had real comedic talent (Laura C).

Reviewers found the characters charming and intriguing from the start.

As the daughter of a former stand-up comedian, I was immediately drawn to the story of the young, sensitive, skin-peeling, heart-broken protagonist Norman Foreman (Jamie K). Sadie and Norman are a wonderfully human family that you can't help but root for as they carry on both their literal and figurative journeys (Cherryl V). I thought about these characters even when I wasn't reading this book. I had the same feelings when I read and loved The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood (Karen R).

Many mentioned that while the story focuses on grief, it fosters a positive mood and message.

The writer brings the reader along on Norman and his mother Sadie's journey—both of them are grappling with grief, Norman's from the present and Sadie's from the past. Over the course of the book, the two learn that grief need not define their lives; the message is that joy can always be found, even following the depths of sorrow (Hilary D). Although there is pathos and sadness surrounding the loss of Norman's best friend and comedy partner, Jax, there is love and growth and friendship and stamina and determination (Ginny H).

Some readers felt that the story, while well-told, was a bit predictable and one-dimensional.

I thought this book was well-written, although somewhat predictable. The cast of quirky supporting characters who come together to help/rescue Norman and Sadie as well as the misadventures along the way are just a bit too much (Becky). This novel begins in a promisingly refreshing style, which is easy, breezy, chatty and natural. However, I found that as it progressed, it wore thin. It is written on the same level throughout which grew tiresome (Cynthia V).

However, others felt it was thoughtful and touched on important life lessons.

Not sugar-coated or too good to be true, but a thoughtful book about family, friendship and loss told with humor, grace and quirkiness, which makes it irresistible in many ways (Barbara F). This is a thoughtful book about friendship, family, grief, illness, growing up and growing old. There's so much wisdom, kindness and hope buried in these pages (Beth M).

Overall, reviewers found The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman to be an uplifting read especially appropriate for current times.

During the pandemic, I have been making a conscious effort to read more positive, upbeat, "happier-ending" novels, and The Funny Thing hits the spot (Barbara F). This is a book with a wonderful message about life, dreams and love, making it a great read for these pandemic times (Cherryl V). This is an uplifting and optimistic read for the times we are in. Book clubs and everyone else should enjoy it (Laura C).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Street performer at Edinburgh Festival Fringe In Julietta Henderson's The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman, the title character is a 12-year-old boy who wants to perform his stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Also known as "the Edinburgh Fringe" or simply "the Fringe," this event started out as an unofficial offshoot of the Edinburgh International Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. It soon became a festival in its own right and is now the largest arts festival in the world.

When the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama began in 1947, it stirred up controversy due to its substantial spending on fine arts during a period of economic strife. Britain was still struggling after World War II, and many thought the festival was out of touch with the times. Furthermore, the organizers had barred Scottish drama from being featured on the program, as they considered it to not meet the high standards of the event. In response, eight theater groups decided to set up their own performance spaces and take advantage of the festival crowds, operating on the "fringe" of the official festival. The Fringe continued alongside the International Festival in subsequent years while growing in cultural relevance and popularity.

1958 saw the formation of the Festival Fringe Society, an organization intended to support and promote the Fringe. The Society centralized the event somewhat, establishing a main box office and program, and remains behind the festival today. The organization has maintained the original spirit of the Fringe by keeping it open-access and free of directorial authority, with a policy of giving anyone who can secure a venue the opportunity to perform. This provides up-and-coming artists and entertainers with the chance to gain a wider audience.

The Edinburgh Fringe takes place over three weeks during the month of August. Today it operates out of over 300 venues all over the city. Prices for shows vary. The Free Fringe, a model started in 1996 that gathers a program of free performances, allows festival-goers the choice of attending shows at no cost and making optional donations.

As the early Fringe was based in drama, it isn't surprising that the event has helped many playwrights find success, including Tom Stoppard, whose now-famous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gained a wide audience due in part to a positive review of a Fringe performance by Ronald Bryden in The Observer. The festival today welcomes a variety of performance types, including dance, opera, cabaret, street shows and exhibitions, and it has become known in recent years for its significance in the world of stand-up comedy. The Fringe has kickstarted or helped boost the careers of many actors and comedians who are now household names, including Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, duo Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, Graham Norton and Trevor Noah.

Since its origins with the Edinburgh Fringe, "fringe" has been adopted as a general term for alternative theater and open-access performance events. Cities all over the world have organized their own fringe festivals, with just a few examples being the Toronto Fringe Festival, the Chicago Fringe Festival and the Dublin Fringe Festival. The U.S. Association of Fringe Festivals provides resources for organizing and accessing fringe events across the United States.

High Street performance at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2010, courtesy of Festival Fringe Society (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Search of a KingdomClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Laurence Bergreen


Before he was secretly dispatched by Queen Elizabeth to circumnavigate the globe, or was called upon to save England from the Spanish Armada, Francis Drake was perhaps the most wanted-–and successful-–pirate ever to sail. Nicknamed "El Draque" by the Spaniards who placed a bounty on his head, the notorious red-haired, hot-tempered Drake pillaged galleons laden with New World gold and silver, stealing a vast fortune for his queen-–and himself. For Elizabeth, Drake made the impossible real, serving as a crucial and brilliantly adaptable instrument of her ambitions to transform England from a third-rate island kingdom into a global imperial power.

In 1580, sailing on Elizabeth's covert orders, Drake became the first captain to circumnavigate the earth successfully. (Ferdinand Magellan had died in his attempt.) Part exploring expedition, part raiding mission, Drake's audacious around-the-world journey in the Golden Hind reached Patagonia, the Pacific Coast of present-day California and Oregon, the Spice Islands, Java, and Africa. Almost a decade later, Elizabeth called upon Drake again. As the devil-may-care vice admiral of the English fleet, Drake dramatically defeated the once-invincible Spanish Armada, spurring the British Empire's ascent and permanently wounding its greatest rival.

The relationship between Drake and Elizabeth is the missing link in our understanding of the rise of the British Empire, and its importance has not been fully described or appreciated. Framed around Drake's key voyages as a window into this crucial moment in British history, In Search of a Kingdom is a rousing adventure narrative entwining epic historical themes with intimate passions.

BookBrowse Review

The Age of Exploration in the early modern period, lasting roughly from the 15th through 16th centuries, looms large in historical writing because it contains sources of continual fascination — swashbuckling explorers, "new" worlds discovered and the lure of the exotic. The traveler's tale is inherently an adventure, and few in the early modern world were more adventurous than Sir Francis Drake (circa 1540-1596), whose naval accomplishments paved the way for British colonialism — eventually leading to an empire upon which the sun never set.

Laurence Bergreen's In Search of a Kingdom ably captures the excitement of Drake's exploits, and also anchors them in the wider context of western history. This two-part story shows Drake's evolution from pirate to patriot while demonstrating that at the time, British supremacy seemed like an unlikely outcome of the Elizabethan Age.

The book opens by taking the reader through the drama of Henry VIII's reign and Elizabeth's convoluted path to the throne 11 years later. At times, Bergreen oversimplifies slightly, but his fast pace prevents the reader from getting bogged down in the succession battles, court intrigue and religious strife that defined Henry's marriages and the decades following his death in 1547.

The author also introduces Drake, a commoner, pirate and erstwhile slave trader, who experienced the brutality that defined colonialism in the Americas firsthand after he was captured by the Spanish during a piracy expedition. By the mid-1570s, Drake was an accomplished raider of Spanish wealth in the New World, and Elizabeth was nearly two decades into her reign — and in constant conflict with the mighty Spanish Empire. It's at this point that their stories connect.

The book then settles into the account of Drake's circumnavigation from 1577-1580, secretly planned by Elizabeth, who wanted the riches that Drake so adeptly stole from the Spanish as well as knowledge of how English mariners could reach far-flung places full of gold, silver and spices. Yet she had to tread carefully, since Spain under Phillip II was much more powerful than her unstable island kingdom — ruled as it was by a woman, and an unmarried one at that — and the Spanish were already angry about English piracy in the Atlantic.

The circumnavigation itself is reminiscent of Homer's Odyssey, complete with fantastical landscapes, dangerous shipwrecks, mutinous melodrama and years spent away from the known world. All along the coast of South America, Drake and his men plundered vast amounts of Spanish gold, silver and trading goods, escaping skillfully each time. Drake navigated his small fleet through the treacherous Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America and continued raiding and exploring all the way to the coast of what is now Oregon.

The execution of a mutinous sailor and adoration from the Miwok people on the western coast of North America are among the trip's many notable moments. But while Bergreen's extensive use of primary source accounts from those on the voyage provides eye-opening details, these sources also present a very lopsided view of the lands and peoples encountered along the way. The stories of Drake being treated as a god by Miwok people, who are portrayed as desperate and simple by the English sailors who wrote about them, could have used some analysis for inherent biases to at least get the reader thinking critically about them. Instead, this section truly reads like Homeric fantasy.

This in no way diminishes Drake's accomplishments, since unlike his predecessor, Ferdinand Magellan, he survived sailing across the entire Pacific Ocean and made it back to his home country. He also brought an incredible amount of treasure with him — enough to replenish English royal coffers to such an extent that Elizabeth decreed all accounts of the voyage to be state secrets so no one would know how much he stole. Drake was knighted and given a fine estate, becoming a national celebrity. His success meant that England was stronger and Spain weaker than when he embarked, and it changed the course of history.

At this point, the book pivots from an adventure tale to a war for empire — almost as if the Aeneid had followed the Odyssey instead of the other way around. Drake goes from pirate to patriot, leading the English Navy against the Spanish Armada and completely eviscerating it. Uncomfortable among courtiers and the aristocracy, the newly knighted Drake was only too happy to be back fighting at sea, destroying the Spanish fleet and announcing English naval supremacy.

The star of the book's second half, however, is the enigmatic Elizabeth I. In her many policy changes and shifting directions, Elizabeth often seemed mercurial — for example, when she roused her army with speeches only to disband them the very next day, as Bergreen recounts. But it was by keeping the factions around her off-balance that she prevented any one of them from gaining power over her and usurping the throne. With her navy triumphant over its greatest rival and her reign finally secure, Elizabeth set England on the course toward empire. This was due in large part to Drake's successes, but it was Elizabeth who saw how to evolve these victories beyond theft on the high seas. Drake "became a bystander in this new world he had helped to open," Bergreen explains.

Drake returned to piracy and ultimately died of dysentery off the coast of Panama, but his legacy was well secured. His seafaring knowledge opened up new possibilities for England and the treasure he brought back allowed Elizabeth to invest in the precursor to the East India Company, all of which fueled England's dreams of empire and reconfigured the standing of the players on the world stage. Bergreen rightly credits Drake and his relationship with the brilliant Elizabeth for the role he played in this drama. Sometimes the author is a little too effusive in his praise — for example, he dismisses every sailor who criticized Drake as a jealous malcontent rather than considering if a money-hungry pirate was perhaps difficult to work with. A more nuanced view of his sources would have improved his analysis overall.

But these are minor blemishes in an adventure for the ages that had repercussions well into modern times. The unlikely start of the British Empire, with its roots in daring piracy and loyalty to the throne, deserves the attention of today's readers, and In Search of a Kingdom is an excellent, accessible way to understand that history.

Book reviewed by Rose Rankin

Beyond the Book:
The Demographic Impact of Colonialism in the Americas

In the United States, the term "colonies" typically conjures images of pilgrims eking out homesteads and log cabins in the woods, or soldiers in tri-cornered hats fighting the mighty British at the birth of the American republic. Yet, the colonization of the "New World," as Europeans called it, began well before these early settlements in New England. Starting with Columbus's initial voyage, colonization of the Americas was driven by Spanish and Portuguese economic forces, eventually drawing in most European nations and West African polities, with cataclysmic consequences for people around the world.

The quest for gold was always a primary goal for the early European explorers, and with the conquest of the Aztecs in 1519, Hernán Cortés began the transfer of incredible amounts of wealth from the New World back to the Old. In the 1530s, Francisco Pizarro overran the Incas and shortly thereafter, the Spanish found Potosí, a mountain in modern-day Bolivia that was overflowing with veins of silver. It's estimated that from the 16th to the 17th centuries, 40,000 tons of silver made its way from Potosí to Europe.

But mining for silver and gold required labor, and it came at an unimaginable cost to the people involved. The Spanish colonial forces enslaved entire communities and civilizations to build their mining workforce across Mexico and South America. The hellish conditions led to massive casualties, decimating even further the Indigenous populations that had been slaughtered in conquest and annihilated by diseases for which they had no immunity. The repercussions for these populations were catastrophic, yet the wealth continued to fuel global trade and European political rivalries for centuries.

Painting depicting enslaved people harvesting sugar on an Antiguan plantationIn the 1570s, gold and silver from the Americas made Spain the preeminent powerhouse of Europe, and England under Queen Elizabeth I eyed their trade in Asia, funded by American bullion, with envy. Elizabeth supported the clandestine piracy of Francis Drake, resulting in truly a king's ransom in stolen wealth, and English interest in the American colonies continued to grow. But it wasn't direct conquest of the mines in Mexico or Potosí that they sought. Rather, British citizens began establishing plantations in the Caribbean, where another commodity — sugar — had been introduced by Spanish colonizers.

Initially, the British shipped captives of European wars to labor on sugar plantations on Barbados, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. The wholesale extermination of the Indigenous population by previous Spanish colonizers meant that labor had to come from somewhere else. But, as the European workers perished in large numbers in the punishing conditions, the British turned to importing African people as slaves instead. The Royal African Company was established in 1672 to supply slaves for the Caribbean plantations, but by the early 18th century, merchants were eager to end the company's monopoly on the slave trade and cash in themselves. "With alluring incentives spurring private enterprise, the volume of the slave trade increased dramatically," explains Vincent Brown, in his history of the Atlantic slave trade Tacky's Revolt. "For example, Jamaica alone received nearly four times the number of human cargoes in 1729 as it had in 1687."

It wasn't only sugar, of course, but also tobacco, rice and cotton grown in the North American colonies that drove the extensive slave trade into the 19nth century. This trade ensnared millions of African people and fueled cycles of violence among African states along the western coast of the continent, including Oyo, Dahomey and Asante. Trading captives for guns, these "predatory slaving states proliferated and gathered strength in the eighteenth century, and the privations and chaos attending their local wars made ever more refugees available for capture and sale abroad," according to Brown.

Taken together, the colonization of North and South America drove these demographic disasters, from the destruction of Indigenous populations to African slavery. And, while the western world is still struggling with how to address this part of its history and the legacy it left behind, the need to honestly reckon with the scale of the upheaval remains a central place to begin.

Painting from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823) by William Clark

Under a White SkyClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Elizabeth Kolbert


That man should have dominion "over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. So pervasive are human impacts on the planet that it's said we live in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

In Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new world we are creating. Along the way, she meets biologists who are trying to preserve the world's rarest fish, which lives in a single tiny pool in the middle of the Mojave; engineers who are turning carbon emissions to stone in Iceland; Australian researchers who are trying to develop a "super coral" that can survive on a hotter globe; and physicists who are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere to cool the earth.

One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. In The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Now she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic, Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the challenges we face.

BookBrowse Review

You can never go back the saying goes. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, that adage applies to the environment as well. She argues that Earth will never return to what it once was and to think any differently is potentially dangerous. The Earth is in a constant state of becoming; all we humans have to work with is the ecosystem of right now. We can try to manage future changes, but there's no going back.

This inconvenient truth is rejected by many environmentalists; it goes against their ideology of reducing waste. Contrary to the conventional environmental paradigm, which posits that the cessation of fossil fuel use and plastic pollution will help return our Earth to some type of "natural" equilibrium, Kolbert suggests there is no natural state to return to. The Earth is a dynamic, ever-evolving system. "Natural" and "idyllic" are both social constructions that have manifested in the public consciousness.

What is happening to the Earth today is natural, though unprecedented, in so much as humans are part of the natural environment and really making a mess of the place. The solution is not going to be found in striving for pre-industrial carbon levels and modes of consumption. Quite the opposite. To create and maintain an environment that we humans find optimal while sustaining more than nine billion people will require more technological innovation and risk taking. We've used technology to help the world sustain us. Now we need to use technology to help it continue to sustain us. There are few possible alternatives that wouldn't be calamitous for our species.

Kolbert deserves kudos for pointing out this new, likely unpopular reality. Her prize-winning book, The Sixth Great Extinction, largely focused on how humans may be dooming themselves by wantonly destroying the Earth's ecosystem. It was a frank and fair assessment. It would have been easy to follow it up with more of the same. She chose the path less traveled but definitely more enlightening. The current paradigm of rolling back carbon emissions and human consumption simply isn't working, and we are already past the point of no return. To prevent ecological collapse will require additional innovation in thinking — a near complete "paradigm shift" in how we imagine environmental management.

Each chapter in Under a White Sky presents a pertinent and unique example of using technology to combat environmental degradation. From the electrocution of fish in rural Illinois to slow their migration into the Great Lakes to digging up ice cores in tunnels deep beneath a Greenland glacier, Kolbert traverses the world to find scientists and entrepreneurs working to create a future ecosystem humans can be happy with. Perhaps the most memorable chapter, also available online in the  January 18, 2021, issue of the New Yorker, concerns using gene-editing technology ­– CRISPR – to eliminate invasive species and pests. Scientists can easily change the color of an entire species these days with a simple kit. Perhaps more usefully, they can exterminate it. Should they?

Under a White Sky may prove unpopular among the most diehard environmentalists, but the science behind it is undeniable. Kolbert's Pulitzer-earning writing style shines through. She weaves together contemporary case studies of humans developing new technologies to fight back against technology-induced environmental disasters. The people she interviews are diverse and entertaining — from myriad scientists to a businessman trying to convince Americans to eat more carp. The technologies are innovative. For example, researchers in Australia are experimenting with genetically modifying an invasive species of frog so it no longer emits poison when attacked. This would allow predators to cull the frogs without hurting themselves. She also discusses the proposition of modifying the atmosphere to reduce greenhouse gases (with the potential side effect of turning the sky white).

Kolbert's narrative is informed and informative, and she doesn't avoid questioning the potential ethical dilemmas posed by these new innovations. Admittedly, gene editing and turning the sky bright white with sulfates, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by two percent, could have unforeseen repercussions. However, as she presents ever-mounting evidence that current approaches for "saving the environment" simply don't work — in fact, have never worked — and other solutions exist, it's difficult not to be swayed. Maybe we should treat increasing carbon pollution more like big cities do sewage — inevitable but treatable.

Kolbert makes clear that we need to change our thinking about the environment. We can never go back home. With some technological updates, however, we can make our current home better than it is today.

Book reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

Beyond the Book:
Genetically Modified Organisms: Past, Present and Future

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have received a bad rap. They're banned from being grown or used in food throughout most of Europe. They're caustically labeled on groceries in the United States. And they are frequently despised by foodies, farmers, environmentalists and the devoutly religious alike — for reasons ranging from health, to corporate greed, to technophobia, to ethics.

While there are valid arguments to be made against the use of GMOs, it's important to look at this issue from a balanced perspective. For some, anti-GMO sentiment is based more on anxiety than fact. For example, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in Under a White Sky, GMO use may be the only way to save Australia from being overrun by toads!

A Brief History of Plant and Animal Modification

You wouldn't be here today if our species hadn't started artificially modifying crops over 10,000 years ago. Almost every food you eat is an artificial modification of an ancient food.

During the Neolithic revolution — 10,000 BCE — humans began to transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. How, where and why this slow process took place is laid out eloquently in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, but suffice to say, before that time, there weren't crops or domestic animals as we know them today; the reason we now have homes, neighborhoods and cities is because our ancestors selectively bred wild crops and animals to better suit their needs.

For example, the earliest settlers learned to collect and select the seeds of the heartiest plants during harvest to replant the next year, circumventing genetic natural selection for human-favored, "artificial" selection. Over time, crops and yields increased and normalized, allowing humans to predict yields — dependent, of course, on uncontrollable external factors like drought, locusts and floods. This in turn allowed humans to spend less time collecting food and more time making cognitive advances (e.g. math and engineering); coupled with cooking, the farming of crops and the domestication of animals allowed humans to become the Earth's apex species.

GMOs Could Make the World a Better Place

Scientists in the 21st century can do much better than those ancient farmers. Today, 91% of corn in the United States is drought resistant, not due to direct genetic modification but because of industrial seed selection. By looking into seeds' genomes, however, scientists can also use technology to edit genes. This allows them to artificially develop crops to be resistant to certain external factors; for example, locust-resistant wheat, super-yield corn, and more flood-resistant harvests are all now possible through genetic modification.

In general, the genetic modification of animals tends to raise the hair on the back of our mammalian necks more than the modification of crops. Though plants are living organisms too, messing with other animal species — including fellow humans — raises more existential questions such as what does it mean to be a human — or even a conscious — being?

In the West, animal genetic modification is largely controlled by governments and done in research labs. Though some pet fish that glow in the dark have been commercialized, and genetically modified salmon that breed year-round are now sold in stores, dominant Judeo-Christian ideologies on the sanctity of mammalian life largely prevent the wholesale commercialization of genetically modified animals.

Although ethically complex, genetic modification of lab animals is most commonly done to study and help prevent diseases in humans. Researchers can investigate the genes responsible for diseases, and test what impact any changes might have on the spread of various viruses and bacteria. Though a better understanding of which genes are responsible potential treatments can be developed for humans.

Scientists also experiment with genetic modification of animals for at-risk populations or to produce food more efficiently. In recent years, organism modification has been used to create adaptations in domestic animals that have real-world benefits for human populations, such as:

  • Pigs with better body temperature control to manufacture leaner bacon
  • Dairy cattle without horns to prevent injuries to other cattle and farmers
  • Cows yielding human breast milk so that children who can't be breast fed can still receive mother's milk… albeit from a Holstein
  • Allergy-free milk producing cows which lower the cost of dairy for the lactose intolerant

GMOs can also have ecological, environmental and humanitarian benefits. Genetically modified animals are being used to help eliminate invasive species like Asian carp, a type of ivy known as Creeping Charlie, buckthorn, killer bees, Floridian pythons, and the cane toad infestation in Australia mentioned at the start. Genetically modified mosquitoes are already being released to eliminate several of the world's most dangerous diseases, including malaria, dengue fever and Zika. GMO crops are able to increase yields, while drastically reducing carbon emissions and preserving natural habitats. When it comes to humanity, GMO crops can help feed growing populations.

Could GMO use cause new, unforeseen problems? Absolutely. However, this is not a GMO-specific issue. Every scientific achievement has given rise to new problems — from electricity (e.g. carbon emissions) to plumbing (e.g. lead poisoning). GMOs are a powerful tool at our disposal, and with care and ethical oversight, they can be used to benefit humankind — and the Earth in — significant ways.

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