Imagined Life by Trefil & Summers

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Among travel books, what makes a masterpiece? Sure, we love the writer who describes a location or culture in stunning, heart-flipping prose. But what debt of thanks and praise do we owe the yarner who completely transports us to places we will never ever get to visit in our lifetime? Take, for instance, outer space…

trefil-summers-ImaginedLife2Trefil, James and Michael Summers. Imagined Life: A Speculative Journey Among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures, and Supergravity Animals. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2019. Print.

Ice-tunneling merfolk. Flying dragons on Super Earths. These are only a couple of the wondrous life forms the authors speculate on in their sweeping exploration of the universe’s exoplanets. For decades, astronomers hypothesized these planets must exist. Other stars, besides our sun, must have other planets circling them.

And then a few years ago, we discovered a few.

Then a few more.

Then many more.

And more and more.

Astrophysicists now estimate hundreds of trillions of exoplanets whirl around the universe as we speak—more than the number of stars!

This book reviews what we know so far. It then shares where and how astrobiologists search for life out there. Trefil and Summers then use biology, chemistry, and physics fundamentals to speculate on what formations life could assume on water worlds, ice spheres, Super Earths, and tidally locked Red Dwarfs. And before you ask—no, Red Dwarfs aren’t sunburned garden gnomes obsessed with surfing.

My favorite feature in the text has to be NASA’s retro-styled travel posters from their Exoplanet Travel Bureau. Each poster highlights an actual exoplanet plus its must-see sights and must-do activities available to human life forms. Posters also share fascinating scientific facts about the planet and how its discovery influences the trajectory of ongoing space research. (Ehem. My birthday is coming up in October if anyone is wondering what to get…)

Rarely has my travel bug been so buzzed. Viewing each poster is like downing a shot of rocket fuel! Reading this book only doubled the effect. As a relatively new and increasingly rugged Coloradan, I mentally packed my bags and readied gear. I was (and am) ready to hike, mountain bike, and camp on any of the Kepler 186 planets or the TRAPPIST-1 system.

As travel books go, this one is a standout gem. The authors present complex data and concepts clearly. Their tone is enthusiastic and engaging. They adhere to speculation without veering off into sensationalism. And throughout, they make one vital point tantalizingly clear: when we consider how life persists nearly everywhere on Earth, it’s hard to banish the possibility of life’s existence elsewhere out there.

The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben

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Wohlleben_secretnatureHe who writes about nature’s intricate webs needs a quick tutorial from he who writes about Charlotte’s web.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things; Stories from Science and Observation. Trans. Jane Billinghurst. Vancouver, CAN: Greystone Books, 2017. Print.

 

Genre: nonfiction (nature)

 

Summary: Wolves impact river levels. Beavers influences where trees grow. Earthworms control wild boar populations. Forest trees eat salmon, which helps the trees grow faster and healthier. Wohlleben illuminates and explains all of these curious, unexpected, seemingly impossible connections scientists are discovering between organisms and nature.

More than merely fascinating, these organic bonds and interactions are crucial. Once disrupted, the broken relationships lead to ever more cataclysmic ruptures. When any one population disappears or booms beyond the balance, all other organisms across a natural system are threatened. As one example, Wohlleben looks at how a proliferating elk population mows down soft, sweet riparian trees that beavers eat and build with. If beavers can’t dam rivers, then other water-dependent plants go thirsty and die. The animals relying on those plans for food must relocate or else also die.

The consequences intensify when we stop to consider the mass extinctions of entire animal species over the last several hundred years. Human activities have largely divested the planet of some 8,000 plant and animal species, according to the Smithsonian Institute. Add to that another 15,000 species under threat.

Our booming cities and suburban sprawls erase entire habitats. Our lifestyles chew through fossil fuels which rapidly alter the planet’s temperatures, further disrupting ancient cycles and the mysterious relationships Wohlleben chronicles.

Spoiler alert: Wohlleben proffers slender hope. He advises readers to join a local forestry class or outdoors survival group. Perhaps get more time outdoors in order to cultivate a passion for the spaces we need to preserve.

 

Critique: I am not certain this text adopts the most effective structure for an international translation. In nearly every chapter, Wohlleben’s examples begin with a global context, then narrow down to a specific instance isolated to his native Germany. No doubt, this structure appealed to German readers who could conceptualize a world problem through a familiar lens. But an American readership can’t really relate to Berlin’s wild boar dilemmas. And wouldn’t all readers everywhere feel more compelled if a chapter’s scenario began with an isolated, local predicament that mirrors or micro-illustrates a broader, global crisis?

Besides structural setbacks, the text also suffers from translation hiccups.

Wohlleben is a natural storyteller. His tone feels as cozy as A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and as animal-loving as E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Goshawk). Unfortunately, the translation to English corrodes this intrinsic style. As I read the opening chapters, I found my attention continually sliding off the page. Paragraphs bogged down with the clause-y, conditional verbs that I continually tell my students to beware.

For example:

“Forest agencies are offering to step in and help…”

“Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.”

“In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…”

This passage goes on to describe how the elk “were retreating…”or else “were constantly scanning” and so on.

For writers, the poor writing red flags are not just rising, they’re blasting out of bazookas in these examples. Anytime a sentence involves a “to be” verb phrase (there is/was/were/are…), that sentence has veered into passive voice territory. Passive voice describes when the typical order of operations in a sentence inverts. Usually, a sentence lines up the subject and verb. A someone or something does something. The cat sleeps. The boulder fell. A change occurred.

 Passive voice use a “to be” phrase and puts the doing before the thing. There was a change.

What’s the big deal? As E.B. White (same as above and of the classic Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style) notes, that inverted structure creates a wordier sentence which bogs down the reading experience. Thus why my attention slid off the page.

Another tell-tale sign of passive voice are diluted, weak, clause-y verbs. Were retreating. Began avoiding. Are offering. Was being used. “To be” verb clauses barnacle themselves to perfectly good verbs. Why waste ink on were retreating when you could say the elk retreated?

I have my students find and fix these problems in the news articles and ad brochures I bring to class or tutoring sessions. Below are the problematic passive sentences and a quick, concise fix:

Forest agencies are offering to step in and help.
Forest agencies help.

Timber was becoming increasingly scarce because it was being used so heavily as fuel and building material, and people were not giving trees time to grow old.
Timber became scarce…

(That’s ok, but if I choose better verbs, the whole sentence improves by leaps and bounds.)

Timber dwindled as people relied on it for fuel and building material; trees lacked essential time to grow old.

In Yellowstone, however, in addition to declining elk numbers, there was something else going on. Thanks to the presence of wolves, the elk’s behavior was changing, and what was triggering this change was fear. Elk began avoiding open areas…
In Yellowstone, other anomalies unfolded. Elk behavior changed. Fear triggered new habits as the elk avoided open areas…
They retreated…
They scanned…

I’d love to recommend this book to all the world’s would-be Greta Thunbergs and passionate climate change fighters; however, I’ll most likely recommend it to writing coaches who are passionate about fighting writing change.

The Abundance by Annie Dillard

Growing up, did you have that slick and sneaky friend who lured you through the slit chain-link fences or the windows left unlocked, into restricted zones, behind the STAY OUT signs, into the smoky dim rooms packed with music so loud it turned your senses sideways? Annie Dillard is that friend.

Dillard, Annie. The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (essay collection)

Summary: The collection mixes and mingles Dillard’s classics, such as “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” with newer narrative sojourns. Every essay delivers on abundance. Profuse ideas. Overflowing sensory experiences. So much world and so much life to experience and notice and not always fully understand.

Critique: Reading Dillard is a lot like trailing that trickster friend. The bad boy or girl who—with nothing more than a casual c’mon shoulder flick—convinced you to abandon your good sense and go on a reckless adventure. Back then, you would have kept this friend around to piss off your parents. These days, you likely need someone like Dillard to free you from reality’s constraints. Her prose white rabbits you down a dark tunnel where space and air run out. Suddenly, you’re twisted into impossible positions and too disoriented to find your way out. Here, and only here, can you begin to reconstruct your life, reconfiguring your self’s shape to suit the alternate universes floating around you at all times.

For example, in the opening essay, “Total Eclipse,” Dillard escorts the reader up a hillside to watch the sun disappear from the sky. The next thing you know, she’s oiled you into a sideways experience of the eclipse. The sky doesn’t go dark, it saturates. The surface colors of all things go platinum or bronze plate about to peel. Then Dillard peels time. She scrapes off the present moment because the world is now a patina’d photograph, evidence of a civilization long gone. The whole framework of the essay shifts and the reader is no longer in a familiar contemporary setting—the typical and common reality—but some prehistoric time warp.

To be fair, Dillard warned the readers about the tilt when she explained, “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him….” One event may precede the other, but it doesn’t prepare you for the second.

Some critics like to tout how Dillard is a nut. She’s crazy and thus her prose go crazy (see the “Forward” to The Abundance…er, don’t actually. It is academic treacle and will give your brain a tummy ache.) I agree that Dillard’s perspective is skewed. All her dials her cranked to “bizarre.” But, I also think Dillard gives voice to the mad-hatter moments we all encounter but then keep pocketed, far far away from our social media status updates. She is willing to admit that reality bears side doors—all of them unlocked.

“The Weasel” illustrates this common, momentary madness. Dillard and a weasel startle each other in the woods. Both freeze. They examine each other, assessing the threat level. In that instance of scrutiny, their brains merge…or more accurately, trade places. But then a blink severs them. The weasel darts into a burrow. Anyone who has had an encounter with a wild animal (not in a zoo, but actually out in the wild) knows this exchange, but only Dillard is willing to admit it happens. She even wishes she’d had the instincts to lock her jaws around the weasel’s throat because one can learn from the wild animals “something of the purity of living in the physical senses.” And from the encounter, she formulates a glorious maxim for how to be truly alive:

The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.

She goes on, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”

Oh boy, if that isn’t fine advice for anyone running down a dream!

Dillard returns to this notion of the fearless, dauntless lifestyle in “A Writer in the World.” She coaches all writers to “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Why?

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

True to her word, Dillard delivers. Like any good, slick, trickster friend, she gives countless opportunities to shirk the norm. The Abundance is replete with fresh ways to see and experience the world. Every essay is an invitation from Dillard to slip past the caution tape and delight the senses. Not only that, but to develop entirely new senses streamlined for stalking, sneaking, and fully soul’ing your existence to life’s varied realities.

Journey by Starlight by Ian Flitcroft

With the holidays fast approaching, I’ll spend several posts sharing my top gift picks, fics, nonfics, and everything in between to titillate the book lovers, knowledge hunters, and idea crafters in your life.

Flitcroft, Ian. Journey by Starlight: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Illus. Britt Spencer. Long Island City, NY: One Piece Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: nonfiction graphic novel

Summary: Super-genius extraordinaire, Albert Einstein ushers the curious and the confused on a revelatory journey through the universe. Along the way he clears up those oft-pesky matters such as relativity, quantum mechanics, gravity, black holes, dark matter and anything else you likely forgot (or never learned) in school.

Critique: When I was in high school and college, I roamed feral with the artsy crowds. Creative types who could not tell an ion from an isotope. After a brutal public shaming in an algebra class, I avoided the deepest halls of science. Now, because the universe is a strange, through-the-looking-glass place, I work as a children’s writer focused mostly on…science.

Consequently, I am always on the watch for good resources. I falcon anything that illuminates, explains, and entertains. Swoop! Snatch! Mine!

I came across this book while researching the nuclear arms race. I intended to read only the parts related to my own project, but eagerly devoured the whole text, cover-to-cover. The graphic novel format welcomed me into the very halls I had previously skirted.

Technically, this book should be classified as nonfiction-ish. Of course Albert Einstein did not really serve as a science tour guide á la Neil deGrasse Tyson (but wouldn’t it have been nifty if he had?). Nonetheless, readers will allow the narrative conceit not only because the Einstein character Britt Spencer illustrates is so charming and funny, but also because the information presented is so engaging and clear. Credit for this feature goes to Dr. Ian Flitcroft who developed much of the books’ content on a popular blog by the same name.

By day, Flitcroft operated as a surgeon at a children’s hospital in Ireland. By night, he wrote. His knack for addressing young people shines in a style that is witty, trustworthy, and disarming. The terminology never meanders into jargon. He erodes complexities down to digestible fundamentals. He pokes fun, snarks, and teases.

I learned volumes from this book and have repeatedly returned to it as a quick and easy reference.  If you know a young person who is either an avid or a timid science fan, gift them this book. It will open doors that ought not ever close.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Traveling at speeds upwards of 80 mph, across one and a quarter states over 400 miles in a day, I was on a mission and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York was coming with me!

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017. MP3.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acting in part as a poet and as a five-star chef, Neil deGrasse Tyson serves up a condensed yet comprehensive portion of the incredibly dense and complex world of astrophysics.

Critique: I am no chef and, therefore, feel no obligation to serve my readers any kind of compliment sandwich. I must kick off this critique with my most salient complaint: this book was too short! I nabbed the CD version from the library, fed a disc to my car, then hit the road. It was only after the first disc concluded and I scavenged the passenger seat for the next that I realized I was already 1/3 of the way through the book.

Three discs. That’s it. Maybe 45 tracks in total. With over 300 miles to travel — to say nothing of the long drive back home!

But in those three discs, Mr. Tyson…er eh…Mr. deGrasse…urm…The-One-And-Only-Neil serves up an entire smorgasbord of rich and enticing information. His overview of the origins and ongoing goals of astrophysics is devastatingly concise. Get me talking about the field I love (writing/literature) and I’ll ramble on for days. Sheesh!

He also runs through all the startling, innovative ways scientists have learned/are still learning to do more than simply “see” the universe. How they managed to touch it, taste it, hear it, and yes, smell it without ever physically leaving the confines of Earth.

Most importantly, with his characteristic passion, Neil maps out the elements composing every human body and discloses their origins: straight from the blazing hearts of stars. That’s right. We all come from the intrepid fires that illuminate a mysterious, possibly limitless and multiversed cosmos — an ideal torch to light our way through the tragic shadows cast by Charlottesville’s recent banner headlines.