An ingenious lesson in geopolitics.



A tour de force world history focused on water and how we use it.

Climate scientist Boccaletti, chief strategy office of the Nature Conservancy, begins with an emphatic denial that “water is an inert backdrop on the stage of human events.” To prove his thesis, he delivers an expert water-centered history of human progress from the time we became sedentary 10,000 years ago. “The story of water,” writes the author, “is not technological, but political.” Agriculture produces far more food than hunting and gathering but requires massive amounts of water. Depending on rain is unreliable, so centuries ago, farmers began to harness the power of wells, local rivers, canals, and irrigation projects, which preoccupied early governments as much as warfare. Ambitious cultures paid attention to transportation by water, which is 10 times more efficient than by land. In Boccaletti’s view, an essential feature of the rise of the nation-state in the 17th century was increased security of property, which produced an explosion of investment in water infrastructure. By the end of the 19th century, he writes, the “great American rivers…would become the basis for the rise of the American republic as the dominant economy of the twentieth,” the “hydraulic century.” Hydropower, not hydrocarbons, powered the electrification of America. Opening with the spectacular Panama Canal in 1904, the U.S. spent much of the 20th-century attempting to repeat the success of the Tennessee Valley Authority and Hoover Dam around the world, with spotty success. These efforts peaked during the 1970s, after which water-led development seemed to fall out of fashion—until, out of the blue, China appeared on the scene, built the Three Gorges Dam (“the largest single piece of infrastructure in the world”), and took the lead in spreading its technology around the world. “It may still be that if the twentieth was the American Century,” writes Boccaletti in this astute global study, “the twenty-first will be the Chinese one.”

An ingenious lesson in geopolitics.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4823-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2021

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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