Book Reviews
Books New to the Shelves of the CLUI Library
Great Walls and Linear Barriers, by Peter Spring, 2015
Written before the current onslaught of wall talk, this book discusses large scale walls throughout history, all over the globe. Attempts to keep the heathens out have left their marks all over Asia and old Europe, though few of those walls have stood the test of time. Their ruins encourage us to consider Progress as occurring at a greater historical scale.
 
The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald, 2008
Most of Florida is a surficial crust of land barely above water. Central to its transformation into a semi-habitable place is the restructuring of its pre-human drainage (AKA swamp) into a manageable, infrastructured hydrology. This is the story, mostly, of the Everglades, and it is compellingly told in this book. 
 
The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, by Jack E. Davis, 2017
Though initially a bit too heavy on the natural history side for us “land users,” this epic about the Gulf of Mexico region gets going by its second half, back on the land, with the transformative regional developments of the twentieth century.
 
Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean, by Les Standiford, 2002
Henry Flagler, Rockefeller’s partner at Standard Oil, spent his fortune building the railway and hotel empire that created modern Florida, from north to south. But the last bit of it – from Miami to Key West, was over the top. This book is a riveting quixotic, all-true and tragic tale of the building of one of the last, most ambitious, and unnecessary rail lines in the nation.
 
Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, by Vaclav Smil, 2001
On July 2, 1909, Fritz Haber, a chemistry professor in Karslruhe, Germany, demonstrated his newly discovered process for creating synthetic nitrogen to chemists at the BASF company. Shortly afterwards, aided by Carl Bosch, the process was industrialized at BASF, allowing a nearly limitless supply of nitrate fertilizer to be manufactured and spread all over the land (as well as explosives and a host of other chemical compounds). This technical but accessible book maps out the process of synthesizing nitrogen, and its effects – including, the author claims, enabling the population of the world to grow from 1.6 billion to six billion in the twentieth century. 
 
Autophoto, by the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art, 2017
This is the catalogue from a nearly impossibly ambitious exhibition of international photography about people and cars. Big and heavy like a school textbook, the catalogue ends up hitting most of the marks, and is a massive, thoughtful, and even, somehow, modest encyclopedia of the genre.
 
Observation Points: The Visual Poetics of National Parks, edited by Thomas Patin, 2012
An at times fun collection of scholarly essays regarding the visual rhetoric at National Parks. Though it includes discussions about things like display technologies and orientation films, the essays are mostly about the contexts and modes of “seeing” nature, more generally, in the USA. Full of interesting tidbits though.
 
Energy: A Human History, by Richard Rhodes, 2018
In 1986, Richard Rhodes published the book on the Big Bang of the modern era, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, followed, ten years later, by Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. If he did nothing else, this would have been more than enough. Everything after that, no matter how decent, is whistling in the ruins and shadows.
 
A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare, by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, 1982
Published back in 1982, then republished with a new last chapter in 2002, this book remains one of the best histories of modern chemical and biological weapons, from their origins in the pre-WWI industrial conglomerates in Germany, through their use in WWII, and further postwar development in the USA, and elsewhere. The development of these weapons involved some surprisingly familiar companies and people, and remains one of the most latent tales of our times. 
 
Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang, 2018
It should not be a surprise that the populist scientist/educator Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, would make such a light meal out of such a heavy topic (which begins with the telling quote from Abraham Lincoln, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”). Nonetheless, there is some meat to be found among the fluffy banter, but hopefully someone will revisit the recipe, and boil this soup down to a more potent broth. 
 
Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and our Minds, by Greg Milner, 2016
GPS, by itself, is as earth-shattering a development as the invention of longitude, but comprehension about its effects will forever trail behind its continuously forming and transforming applications. This book is a good history of the technology, and a valiant attempt to understand what’s going on with our increasingly located and disoriented selves at sea in a culture of technology. 
 
China Lake: A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe, by Barret Baumgart, 2017
At times a uniquely evocative portrait of a compelling marginal space – the southern end of the Owens Valley and the fringes of the China Lake Naval Weapons station, and at other times literarily running amok, gonzo/Vice-style, through current events. It may add up to an important hill of beans if you are into writing, and/or writers, but there is enough going on in this book to amount to something more.
 
A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America’s Secret Desert, by Karen Piper, 2018
A lighthearted memoir of a childhood at China Lake, the primary naval weapons development and test station in the Southern California desert, in the 1970s. In some ways China Lake is the purest form of suburb, where surreal extremes of collective behavior are normalized into banality. 
 
Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox, 2018
Though its title suggests some degree of linear thoroughness, this book is about the author’s experiences and reflections on visits to five sampled sections of the border. It’s more about the traveling, including canoe trips and a ride on a freighter in the Great Lakes, than the place, and it often strays from the line, talking about pipeline protests, Indian battles, and things not directly related to the border itself. It’s about the author’s trips, as these things most often tend to be. 
 
Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, by Jennet Conant, 2017
This is a biography of an important character in the development of modern America. Conant was a chemist who worked on chemical weapons in WWI, and became the president of Harvard for two decades, starting in 1933. In this role he was a central player in the development of the atomic bomb, connecting resources, politics, and research, and was one of the crew on site for the Trinity test in New Mexico. The author, Jennet Conant, is his granddaughter, and the author of Tuxedo Park and other interesting books about the academic scientists behind WWII technologies that set the nation on its current trajectory.