Editors Hannah Fries and Andrew Blechman discuss 2013’s best books on nature, culture, and place.
Of the thousands of books published each year, a few hundred bring some element of the natural world into focus—and a handful of those manage to stir us into a deeper, more complex relationship with the animals, plants, and landscapes that make our lives both possible and rich.
Since 2007, Orion has given an annual award to a book that does this most profoundly, with four additional books named as finalists. Sifting through the hundreds of worthy contenders is a thrill, and this year, we’ll share the process with you in a new series called Dog-ear. What follows are short reports from Orion staff on some of their favorite Orion Book Award contenders—scroll through to read the first three, and stay tuned for more. In April, five books published in 2013 will be chosen as finalists for the 2014 Orion Book Award; one will win.
When you sweat and the sweat does not dry, it does not cool your body—that’s why we’re hotter in humid weather. After exploding several hundred nukes above ground, the U.S. government shifted to testing bombs underground, detonating 828 nukes in deep shafts. (We exploded well over a thousand nukes?!) For the earth’s first four billion years, there was no fire because there weren’t enough oxygen molecules or plants to burn. These are the sorts of fascinating facts that emerge while reading Bill Streever’s Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places. It’s a fun, easy read—you’ll burn through the pages (sorry!)—and it represents a 180-degree turn from his last book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places. (Presumably his next book will not be Lukewarm: Adventures in the World’s Not Too Hot or Cold but “Just Right” Places.) If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that the narrative spine culminates in his fire-walking experience (and starts with him purposely burning his palm over a candle). While burning your palm on a candle does in fact hurt, few people aside from masochists and G. Gordon Liddy actually brag about it. Fire-walking, though, is no big deal. I’ve done it and it was so easy I went back for seconds and thirds. —Andrew Blechman
Technobiophilia, by Sue Thomas, reminds me of several other books to come out recently that, instead of bemoaning our increasingly cyborgian, augmented reality, seeks to reconcile our love of screens with our love of—and need for—nature. The title comes from biologist E.O. Wilson’s word “biophilia,” or the tendency of living things to seek out other living things. This desire to connect drives our use of online social networks, as well as the rise of nature-themed words in our tech vocabulary (are you, by chance, reading this on an Apple product?). Drawing on the research of Orion contributor Richard Louv and other familiar names, Technobiophilia reminds readers that we control how we use our technology—and even smartphones and screensavers can help us connect to the natural world. —Emily Glaser
Just in case you doubted Orion contributor Rick Bass’s way with a sentence, drink up this one from his rich and layered new novel, All the Land to Hold Us:
Even then, and about a thing so meaningless as a mild hobby, he always kept maps, and they found fossils no one had ever seen or described before, and after a while he was able to predict where they might be able to find a certain kind of fossil; and after a while longer—beginning to follow the journey of his dream as if riding on a small raft, feeling the water take it and lift it, feeling the current’s center—he was able to predict where they would find certain types of fossils that they had not even seen yet, did not even know existed for sure—hypotheses, musings, based on how a certain sea current, and a certain temperature and water chemistry, might sculpt them: the world shaping them like a potter spinning clay, or a woodworker tending a lathe.
Okay, okay, the man can write. —Hannah Fries