Less a polemic than a moving, melancholy, environment-focused memoir.



The author returns to his ancestral home in western Kansas to discover that the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is returning.

Bessire, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, reminds readers that the High Plains supported only marginal dry farming until after World War II, when the newly discovered Ogallala Aquifer, which extends from South Dakota to Texas, produced an irrigation bonanza that now supports one-sixth of the world’s grain production. Like fish, forests, and buffalo, it seemed inexhaustible—until it wasn’t. Massive withdrawal is shrinking the Ogallala, and many wells are running dry. Because it might hamper economic growth, conservation is often dismissed as unfeasible. Farmers and ranchers receive strict water quotas, but the amount guarantees withdrawals vastly exceed what is needed to replenish. Polls show that the majority of farmers want to save the aquifer and hope the government will take necessary action. One barrier is the “midlevel bureaucracy.” Only landowners vote on water policy, so wealthy, anti-conservation “water miners” dominate local boards. As a result, “regional water governance is a form of pay-to-play democracy reserved for the already privileged.” Traveling the country with his father, Bessire relearned the land’s unedifying distant history (Native genocide) and recent history: takeover by large agribusinesses with towns dominated by slaughterhouses, hog barns, feedlots, and dairies employing low-paid migrant labor. The author vividly describes dry riverbeds, abandoned fields, and, most poignantly, working farmers and ranchers, few of whom are prospering. Most work under contract to industrial agribusinesses. Bessire chronicles his interviews with a few villains and a few idealists but mostly with hardworking, good-humored, often cynical men (and a few women) doing their best in an environment often beyond their control. The author eschews the traditional how-to-fix-it conclusion. Readers may perk up when he describes impressive technical advances in saving water only to learn that they’re mostly devoted to extending the life of depleted wells.

Less a polemic than a moving, melancholy, environment-focused memoir.

Pub Date: May 18, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-691-21264-7

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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