A view of our planet and our place on it in terms of the four classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water.
It’s not a very strong conceit—showing strain almost immediately as the “Earth” section begins with the observation that 30 percent of our “rocky” home is actually oxygen—but for each of the four elements the author offers 29 double-page–spread introductions to a wide array of at least indirectly related topics. These range from surveys of the Earth’s hot interior and changing surface to the origins of life and of such technological wonders as cast-iron stoves as well as the golden ages both of exploration and of piracy, types of waterfalls, major historical fires, and what it might be like to live underwater. The authors add crunchy bits to this browser’s banquet by giving Gustav Whitehead pride of place over the Wright brothers as the first to fly, including the recently discovered Hamza (which flows more than two miles beneath the Amazon) in their tally of big rivers, and other surprises. Still, along with underseasoned elements including a reference to “the freezing part of the outer solar system” and a timeline point quaintly labeled “Man evolves,” Brake’s claim that in the wake of Columbus “people who’d never met due to being separated by the seas could now interact just as we all do today!” introduces, to say the least, a historically disingenuous sour note. Likewise less-than-palatable are Kearney’s cartoon renditions of pirates, ancient and prehistoric people, and modern figures as, with only rare exceptions (and those mostly in the occasional photos), white—one notable exception is a group of Navajo fire dancers portrayed as identical brown lads in loincloths.
An almost savory assemblage that’s spoiled by too many stale ingredients. (index, annotated bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10-13)