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Summer reading for the climate crowd

Posted on 27 June 2014 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from The Daily Climate by Douglas Fischer

Drop the Thomas Piketty. Let's all admit right now you weren't going to read that 696-page economics tome anyway. 

And set aside Donna Tart's "Goldfinch," too. Yes, it's beautiful. Yes, it won the Pulitzer. Yes, it's 775 pages.

It's summer, people. Time for a little skin. A bit of fun. Something light and insouciant.

Time, in short, for The Daily Climate's annual summer reading list.

Real blockbusters


Before we get to books, let's detour through Hollywood.

The budding climate fiction genre – "cli fi" for short – isn't just for authors and publishers. Movie studios have hopped on this train, and nature bites back in several summer blockbusters set in a post-climate-changed world.

"Into the Storm" focuses on how small-town America copes with devastation caused by supertornadoes the likes of which have already flattened towns in Arkansas and Oklahoma.


"Noah" puts the topic back in time, a biblical epic not so much about the Bible as it is about how humanity copes with a wrathful environment. Shot in part on Long Island during Hurricane Sandy, Noah has grossed more than $340 million worldwide since opening in late March.

Can we throw "Godzilla" into this mix? Why not! Nuclear waste storage is central to the plot; director Gareth Edwards wanted the audience to feel aware "and almost guilty" that we're polluting the planet, actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson told Time magazine. Godzilla, he said, shows that "nature has a way of fighting back." 


"Memory of Water, by Emmi Itaranta

Blogger and environmentalist Dan Bloom has been tracking the cli fi genre for six years. He calls this futuristic novel, translated from the Finnish, "maybe the best cli fi book for the summer of 2014." 

Set in Scandinavia, in a time when wars are fought over water and China rules Europe, the story focuses on a 17-year-old's quest to become a "tea master," like her father, and to learn the secret sources of water.

"Instructions for a Heatwave," By Maggie O'Farrell

Weather isn't the only thing that's oppressing the family in Maggie O'Farrell's taut, compelling sixth novel.

The book is about a husband and devoted father who gets up from the breakfast table during a record-breaking heat wave to buy a newspaper, only to never return.

It's really about grief and family and sibling relations, of course; the heat wave is just background. But still: There's a climate impact that hits close to home.

"Climate Changed," by Philippe Squarzoni

This is no novel. It has an index. It's 470 pages and includes sentences like this: "Water vapor is one of the forms that water takes in its global cycle, in which it is transformed by the sun and circulates through the different stages of that cycle." 

But all can be forgiven, for this is a graphic novel, an innovative effort by French cartoonist and author Philippe Squarzoni to make climate science accessible.

Does he succeed? I tossed my copy to my 12-year-old daughter, who devours graphic novels, and she tried gamely for a half hour before handing it back to me with a shrug.

But maybe pre-teens are the wrong market. The book is unquestionably cool - all black and white and cross-hatched. If you've been meaning to get up to speed on the carbon cycle and all things climate science this summer, this is the book to be seen at the beach with.

"From Here," by Daniel Kramb

Feel the slow burn in this delicious novel from London writer Daniel Kramb. 

"My nose is almost close enough to come up against his now," he writes of his heroine, trying to settle down after 10 years of city-hopping. "If I wanted to, my lips could find out whether he tastes the way he looks." And that's just the first chapter, before the dinner dishes have been cleared. 

Kramb's 2012 novel hits all the checkboxes for a summer potboiler: Love, quest for place in this world, and, yes, environmental activism.

"Facing the Change," edited by Steven Pavlos Holmes

This nifty little book, an anthology of essays, poems and short stories written over the last 10 years, approaches climate change via literary angles. There's no science, only observations – about missing owls, unused ice skates, the last snow in Abilene. 

Writers are "our emotional and cultural first responders to climate change," Steven Pavlos Holmes writes in the introduction. They are "the ones who, with skill and insight, are showing up at this disaster, still in the making; who brave the fear and guilt and confusion to do what they can for people in need. And we are all in need."


"To a God Unknown," by John Steinbeck

100 percent of California is in one of the three worst stages of drought the United States' weather agency recognizes. Ski areas never opened for the season. The nation's beef herd is the same size it was in 1951. 

If ever there was a summer to revisit Steinbeck's slim, searing novel, written in 1933 and set in 1850s California, it is now.

The book, as we perhaps all learned in high school, traces the arc of Joseph Wayne, son of a farmer who leaves his Vermont homestead with his father's blessing to begin anew in unsettled, empty Monterey County. Wayne hears about the dry years. But that was in the past, he reasons: "I won't – I can't see how it can come again."

Sound familiar?

"The Sea and Summer," by George Turner

And since we're back in time, another suggestion from Dan Bloom, the cli fi blogger. This 1987 work by Australian author George Turner, shortlisted for the Nebula Award, takes us to a dark and dreary 2041. Government corruption, myopic leadership and a rising sea threaten to leave Francis Conway's hometown a watery tomb, dependent on the state's inadequate help.

Our hero's task? To escape this approaching tide of disaster as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider. Wait ... what year is this set in again?

Youth books

"Not a Drop to Drink," by Mindy McGinnis

Let's not forget the kids. They need to keep sharp over the summer, too. 

Mindy McGinnis' opening line is sure to snag your distracted, bored teen: "Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond...."

The dystopian drama depicts one girl's effort to defend her water source against drought, coyotes and, most of all, thirsty strangers looking for a drink. 

She's good at it, too – until those mysterious footprints show up in the mud.

"12 Kinds of Ice," by Ellen Bryan Obed, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock

We can't end a summer reading list on a down note, so I was glad when my daughter came home from the library with a slim little volume by Ellen Bryan Obed. 

Barbara McClintock's quiet sketches make this a delightful book for those quiet afternoons when you want to sit with a child and escape to places chilly and distant. Obed's prose – poetry, really – carries you aloft in a swirl of pirouettes, sharp cracks and ribboning, frozen streams.

"Black ice is water shocked still by the cold before the snow," she writes. "Black ice, black shadows, black shores, black islands. Silver blades, silver speeds, silver sun."

"But black ice did not stay."

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Comments 1 to 3:

  1. "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingslover is a terrific climate change novel; she is also a biologist, and very much in tune with the poor in Appalacia.  It's just a wonderful, important book with the disrupted migration of the Monarch butterflies as initiating events.  Another beautifully written novel is "All That Is Solid Melts into Air", a first novel by Irishman Darrough McKeon--about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And, if anyone is in New York, Oct. 2-Oct 26, check out the world premiere (finally) of my play "Extreme Whether" at Theater for the New City: it's about the attacks on climate scientists and several (including Jim Hansen, Radley Horton, Jennifer Francis) are speaking post-play. for details.

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  2. You might enjoy this early piece of cli-fi from the classic series The Twilight Zone, which first aired in 1961.

    The Midnight Sun

    "Respectfuly submitted by all the thermometer-watchers at The Twilight Zone".

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  3. Not a new book (published in 2010), but The Great Bay, by Dale Pendell, is a good cli fi "novel," really its more of a loose collection of stories, first-hand accounts, newspaper clippings, etc. which tells the future history of California. The author envisions a world of runaway global warming and a human population decimated by a new pandemic. As sea levels rise a Great Bay fills the interior of California. The survivors of the Collapse form loose affiliations and eke out a living, trying to salvage what they can from the industrial world. Over the centuries new customs and new religions (blending old religions) develop. Petty kings rise and fall from power. The flow of history seems to be running in reverse as we go from Collapse to Salvage to Farming to Pastoral to Hunting & Gathering.

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