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BEING A HUMAN

ADVENTURES IN FORTY THOUSAND YEARS OF CONSCIOUSNESS

A splendid assessment of the many ways there are to be a person, for good and ill.

British scholar and writer Foster delivers a spirited romp through human history and finds our time wanting in many ways.

Building on Being a Beast (2016), in which he looked at the world through the viewpoints of badgers, a fox, and other critters, Foster imagines a humdrum deep past in which not much happened until around the Stone Age, when some mysterious spark fired our imaginations. As he writes, “God is good and favours the Upper Palaeolithic,” and its inhabitants responded to that goodness by painting glorious works of art in hard-to-get-to places, placing their dead in carefully constructed graves, and building cultures. That age of metaphor and creation, of “self-creation and self-knowing,” came crashing down in the Neolithic, which brought us agriculture and urbanization. “In the Neolithic,” Foster laments, “we started to get boring and miserable,” controlled in all sorts of ways. Instead of moving through the land, knowing what to hunt and what to gather and paying close attention to our surroundings, we became machines of labor. The author offers a provocative, pleasing meditation on the different ways in which the two stages of human evolution made use of fire—one to create, one to destroy—and he cleverly links the Neolithic world of overcrowding, forced labor, taxation, epidemic disease, and other woes to our time: “Continue synergistically for 12,000 years or so, and you have us.” This is a magpie book full of intriguing anthropological sketches. On one page, Foster notes that a circular house “is an intrinsically democratic space,” and on another, that the Romans were more interested in nature than were the Greeks. Throughout, the author makes connections between minds past and present with the “more-than-human world.” It’s a book that fits neatly into the growing library of modern British natural history writing, alongside the best of Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, and Roger Deakin.

A splendid assessment of the many ways there are to be a person, for good and ill.

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-250-78371-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

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SILENT SPRING

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Usand its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorkerare being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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