summer reading list

Our annual summer reading list, 2021 edition

Happy 4th of July! Here are some staff book picks for your summer reading.

We are proud to present EHN's 2021 summer reading list.


With life returning to some normalcy this summer, hopefully you're all taking some time for reflection, self-care, and .... reading! Our staff suggestions are not necessarily environmental (we get enough of that during our day jobs) and are sure to keep you glued to your hammock, beach chair, or couch.

Enjoy the list and feel free to send us some of your suggestions.

Brian Bienkowski’s pick: Major Taylor, by Conrad Kerber and Terry Kerber

I pride myself on knowing a bit of cycling history—both about the bike itself and those who've elevated cycling as an activity, transportation tool, or sport. But one name kept coming up that I didn't know — Major Taylor. After hearing the name on multiple podcasts, and seeing the various Major Taylor cycling clubs across the U.S., I picked up Major Taylor, The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame. I'm glad I did.

Taylor was one of the first Black superstars in sports—and did it all during a time in the U.S. when he was often not able to find places that would let him eat a meal or book a room after a bike race because of his skin color. From a humble farm in Indiana, Taylor grew up at the same time the bicycle did. The authors paint a picture of late-1800s America where the bicycle swept the nation—often pitting "horsemen" versus "wheelmen" on rutted roads. This is pre-car and the bicycle was a liberating machine, especially for a poor boy like Taylor. But he took it beyond independence, Taylor was fast.

Related: Our annual summer reading list, 2020 edition

He became world-famous in track racing, a dangerous sport where cyclists race around an oval velodrome track. The Kerbers outline how Taylor broke track records in front of raucous, record crowds (track racing was one of the most popular sports in America in the early 1900s) all while suffering from consistent, ugly, and life-threatening racism. He was beaten on tracks, denied entrance to races, and nearly killed on the track. His response? Continue to embarrass the other racers on the track, and maintain his unwavering religious faith. It's not all a downer—Taylor became a worldwide sensation, travelling overseas and being treated like royalty when he was at the height of his talents.

It's a solid read for cycling and non-cycling fans alike. Taylor is an American sporting hero and should be mentioned in the same breath as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. The Kerbers do an admirable job of keeping a narrative thread throughout the biography. They did an incredible amount of research but admittedly fill in gaps where appropriate with some conjecture. One small gripe—they shoehorn in some praise on the handful of white men who helped Taylor, and it occasionally feels forced. But it's a small gripe—this book is a gripping read of a lost time and of a man who used a revolutionary two-wheeled invention to epitomize physical and emotional grace.

Kristina Marusic’s pick: The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah

I'm consistently drawn to novels that render landscapes as central characters. One of my all-time favorites is Joy Williams' The Quick and the Dead (no relation to the film of the same name), which explores the relationship between three motherless teenage girls and the American desert they inhabit. The desert is described in such vivid, striking prose that I find myself rereading this book every time I plan a visit to Phoenix or Tucson or Palm Springs, and sometimes in the depths of an east coast winter when I'm desperately craving images of sunlight and warmth.

The Great Alone does the same thing for the Alaskan wilderness.

The novel is about a young girl, Leni, whose father returns from the Vietnam War a paranoid, violent man. Wanting to flee the constraints of modern American life in the 1960s, he moves his wife and daughter from their suburban home in Seattle to a remote homestead in Alaska.

Summer in Alaska comes alive as a sun-soaked, wild, shimmering thing, which Leni spends almost entirely outdoors preparing for winter, picking wild berries and fishing for trout in the company of bears, moose, and eagles. Winter is portrayed equally vividly as harsh, dark, and hauntingly beautiful: "In the few daylight hours, the sky stretched gray overhead; some days there was merely the memory of light rather than any real glow. Wind scoured the landscape, cried out as if in pain. The fireweed froze, turned into intricate ice sculptures that stuck up from the snow… Shore ice seized the coastline, glazed the shells and stones until the beach looked like a silver-sequined collar."

The novel spans several decades and sees the protagonist endure tragedy after tragedy as her father becomes increasingly delusional and abusive. In addition to being replete with poetic prose, it's also a page-turner that makes you want to stay up all night reading to find out what happens next. Ultimately, The Great Alone is as much about the deep love and reverence Leni develops for the Alaskan wilderness as it is about her troubled relationship with her parents and the boy she falls in love with—it's a landscape that connects her to her own wildness and facilitates her transformation from a scared little girl into a resilient survivor.

It just might make you want to move off the grid to a homestead in Alaska—or at least plan a visit.

Douglas Fischer's pick: Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry

I cannot find a single environmental theme to justify this book's inclusion on an environmental news site's summer reading list. But weeks after finishing this novel, I cannot shake Kevin Barry's tight, dark masterpiece from my mind.

The book centers around two Irishmen, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond – tired friends in their 50s, waiting at a dingy, weary port in Spain for Maurice's estranged 23-year-old daughter. "The years have turned and left Maurice and Charlie behind. The men are elegiacal, woeful, heavy in the bones. Also they are broke and grieving."

Few writers have Barry's knack for such vivid, sparking dialogue. Fewer still can grab you so thoroughly with a story where so little happens (Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" comes to mind).

What grips you is the humanity Barry captures amidst the grimness: Flaws and despair, regret, passion and compassion. There's no redemption in this book. No forgiveness. But Barry makes you care. And we all could use more of that.

Elizabeth Gribkoff’s pick: The Art of Perpetuation, by Alison Powell

I first encountered the lyric essay accidentally — a feature of many great first encounters. I was home for the holidays years ago, and my sister gifted me a copy of Maggie Nelson's Bluets. That evening, my sister headed back into the city, and I settled into my favorite reading spot—the kitchen floor, back against a heating vent. Nelson's elegant, yet intimate, opener—"Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color" pulled me in. I finished the book late that night.

I've always been drawn to authors who blurred genres—Gabriel García Márquez and Elizabeth Bishop, for example. But I had never before encountered an author who moved so fluidly between memoir, poetry, literary critique and essay. I was almost disappointed to learn that this amalgam had a name: the lyric essay. I've since sampled a few other lyric essay collections, but didn't feel as drawn in.

Alison Powell's chapbook The Art of Perpetuation made me glad I gave the genre another go. Powell is, frankly, who you'd picture writing a lyric essay collection: an English professor at a small college with an MFA in poetry. In both her poems and essays, Powell draws on her Indiana upbringing and graduate research on Romantic poets to weave sparse yet intimate portraits of people who retain a sense of wildness in the asphalt-laden modern world.

Each essay in her new collection, Powell said an interview with the literary magazine Proximity, was originally going to focus on the extinction of one animal, like the Barbary lion. But then she broadened her collection to touch on climate change, consumerism, and "how humans grapple with their own animality," among other themes. "It sounds broad, but the connections make sense to me," she told Proximity. The connections made sense for me, too. That Powell can vividly write about Elon Musk, the ritualistic eating of ortolan buntings, cryogenics and a 19th century archaeological dig in under 50 pages, adding in references to Aristotle and Wordsworth's lesser-known poems, is a testament to her prowess as a writer.

Most of the essay titles in The Art of Perpetuation start with "Missing File #...," as though Powell is showing the readers the insides of a drawer tucked in a dark recess of a museum collection. In each essay, Powell uses an extinct or endangered animal, or a historical event, as the launching point for a meditation on how animals, women, and even outer space resist categorization by the white men who "discover" and name them. "Sometimes I think of naming as a paternal act: Adam sits, petting his little zoo," she writes in an essay on an extinct lion and her misogynistic high school civics teacher. "Other times I think it is a statement of disbelief, a lack of faith; a worry that if we don't have a word for something, it won't let us hold it anymore."

In an era marked by a reexamination of what authors do or don't publish, and whose stories we tell, Powell's decision to focus on classically "great men" seems, at first, a bit out of touch. In an essay on the British theologian and geologist William Buckland, for example, she paints a rich scene of the geologist finding a Roman era woman whose bones "had been soaked in red ochre" wearing a "necklace made of perforated seashells." She exhibits a sense of curiosity about her subjects that, in an essay on Elon Musk's 2018 launch of a Tesla roadster and Spaceman the dummy, bleeds into her inhabiting the inventor's consciousness. "Elon is a noiseless and patient spider…. That night Elon falls asleep imagining his bed is an inflatable rescue pod."

But the great men ultimately come off as petulant children, with Powell complicating their discoveries — the so-called "Red Lady of Paviland" unearthed by Buckland turns out to have been at least anatomically a male. The essays build on each other, culminating in her piece on Buckland and the "rhetoric of sustained identity"— aptly named "Nomen Nudum" (meaning a "false taxonomic name" in Latin).

After finishing The Art of Perpetuation, I looked to see what lyric essay collections my favorite bookstore has in stock— and whether they carry Powell's poetry book. If a good piece of writing provides the reader with a window into the author's mind, Powell's new collection was a lancet window, the narrow, arched opening found in a Medieval church, into her world. Hers is a deeply-hued world that holds space for both wonder and criticism on the same subject—something I found to be a refreshing change of pace.

Peter Dykstra’s pick:  Planet Palm:  How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything and Endangered the World, by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman

First, a confession: I haven't read Planet Palm yet. But the sum of the topic and the author promise a great and important read.

Zuckerman's past work tempts one to slap a label on her: Globetrotting writer, foodie, and more. In tackling the ubiquity of palm oil she's tackling an issue underserved by Western journalists and a product voraciously consumed in Western households.

Palm oil is an effective additive to everything from margarine to ice cream; soaps to cosmetics to laundry detergent. Its presence in consumer goods is often masked in ingredient labels listing "vegetable oil."

And clearing tropical forests to create monoculture palm plantations is devastating. Orangutan populations in Indonesia; bird and mammal populations in Africa and Latin America; and tropical forests and habitats in general are jeopardized by a voracious industry that's already swallowed up land equal in size to the nation of New Zealand.

I promise to read Zuckerman's book. And maybe a second book on palm oil out this summer: Oil Palm, by Jonathan E. Robins.

Gwen Ranniger’s pick: Red Island House, by Andrea Lee

I often challenge myself at the library to pick up a book about a place I know very little about. Given, I'm a fiction reader - the books I choose to check out don't have much or any factual credence - but often times still convey the culture or atmosphere of the place in which they're set.

Last month, I picked up Red Island House by Andrea Lee - a contemporary fiction novel set in Naratrany, a small (fictional) island off the coast of Madagascar. The storytelling emerges from Shay Senna's perspective, a Black American woman who falls in love with and marries an Italian businessman. Shay and her husband split their time between Naratrany and Milan, where she teaches courses on Black literature at the university.

Shay and her husband have an imperfect marriage, and their personal marital complications emerge as a realistic theme appearing throughout the book - written less as a novel and more as a collection of short stories, vignettes of experiences Shay has over a twenty-year period in Naratrany that explore race, class, othering, death, and the collision of culture and identity.

Lee's novel is descriptively vibrant: we see the changes in the Naratrany coastline from largely rural land used only by the native people and a handful of European families such as the Sennas to an exploited tourist destination. We see the beauty of the island, shared in evocative, lush descriptions of the landscapes and people. We see Shay grapple with race as she becomes mistress of the Red House, a sprawling mansion her husband builds in which all of the staff is also Black. We see themes of environmental injustice as the natives are exploited in a world of Neo-colonialism and sex work is seen as the only way for locals to climb out of poverty.

The novel is slow-paced yet captivating. Written in the perspective of an outsider, one gets a sense of the culture through conflicted eyes, as Shay sees and tries to feebly amend, as many do, the impoverishment of the local population that her husband and other foreigners happily exploit.

Beautifully written and able to be read in bits and pieces, Red Island House is an excellent novel to remind one of the troubled behind-the-scenes of exotic tourist destinations.

Do you have summer reading suggestions for us? We'd love to hear from you, email us at feedback@ehn.org.

Banner photo credit: Radek Grzybowski/Unsplash

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