Monday, February 18, 2019

Empty Planet (Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson)

The United Nations estimates that the world could have around 11 billion inhabitants by the year 2100, an increase of over three billion from our current tally. In Empty Planet, authors Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson argue a much lower peak in population and predict a decline in the world’s population occurring sooner rather than later.

In a globetrotting book that takes readers from Africa to America to Asia to Atlantic Canada, the authors argue that those who reside in greater numbers in cities often yield fewer children compared to those who live in rural areas. Add to our increasing urbanization a better educated and more affluent world (two other factors that often yield fewer children per family), and the authors theorize that our world will likely not reach the aggressive population predictions that the UN has pegged for the coming decades.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, such a scenario offers several distinct positives and risks for various parts of the world. The book breezily brushes through some potential impacts without delivering any distinct predictions, simply listing a few scenarios that could come to pass over the next hundred or so years in areas ranging from the climate to military to food.

The theory the authors put forth is certainly interesting and has factual backing. However, adding “what may happen if” scenarios without any substantive discussion or simply breezing through a few scenarios hurt what is a relatively interesting demographic book.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Writer's Map (Huw Lewis-Jones)

The power of maps and places has captivated us for centuries. From Ptolemy’s ancient work Geographia to the realm of fantasy and science fiction, we not only need to see where we are in the real world but also see where an author takes us in a fantasy domain. Huw Lewis-Jones edited a collection of short essays into The Writer’s Map, a large book that takes readers on a journey through Narnia, Medieval Europe, and everywhere in between.

Lewis-Jones collects short essays from over a dozen authors and illustrators to discuss the magic of maps, the importance they play in shaping a story, and how they themselves were captivated by the role maps played in literature as they grew up. Each essay tackles the connection differently, but all center around the common theme that maps are critical, necessary tools in storytelling.

Full of wonderful illustrations and reproductions of maps through history, The Writer’s Map is well worth the time of anyone who enjoys geography and literature.


Friday, February 8, 2019

Circe (Madeline Miller)

Before I read Madeline Miller, I had about as much interest in mythology as I did in sweet potatoes -- that is, none. Last year, a friend of mine told me that I simply "must" read Miller's Orange Prize-winning The Song of Achilles, so reluctantly, I did. I have to say I was shocked by how much I liked it, and most of that is because of Miller's writing style. You can obviously tell she is passionate about this field (and her impressive credentials show this), and she makes what could be a jarring topic totally accessible to her readers. While I did not like Circe quite as much as The Song of Achilles, I still appreciate what this author does very much.

Circe is the goddess daughter of Helios, and let's just say, she is completely misunderstood by her family. She uses her witch powers in a way that is not allowed by Zeus, and so is banished to a deserted island. Everyone thinks this is a punishment, but they don't quite know Circe. Legends and monsters of mythology come in and out of her immortal life: Athena, Odysseus, Hermes, Scylla, the Minotaur, and the like. Miller provides a thorough glossary at the end for those of us who are less than knowledgable on this topic.

Circe is unputdownable until she gets to her island, and then for me, it gets quite dry. But that should certainly not take away from Miller's prowess in making mythology something that everyone can relate to. For who among us hasn't felt like an outsider at some point in our lives?


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Presidents of War (Michael Beschloss)

In case you forgot your Constitutional history, the power to officially declare war resides within Congress. In Presidents of War, author Michael Beschloss has chronicled the history of war and the US Presidency. This book focuses on the increasing source of power within the Presidency to execute war (or actions of war) while Congress has steadily become less and less engaged over the course of American history.

Beschloss starts with the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, which occurred in 1807, and featured Thomas Jefferson’s reaction as a precursor to the first declared war since independence in the War of 1812. The two events set the stage for a gradual evolution in the power of the Presidency from merely executing war upon approval of Congress to actively engaging in it as we did in Vietnam, even without the official declaration. All throughout the book, the reader will see the evolution of power...and the conniving, scheming and occasional dishonesty and civil liberties infringements that went along for the ride. Beschloss relates that one can appreciate the thought that if the Founding Fathers were to appear today they’d be surprised at how far the Presidency has come in its scope of power.

This is a very sound, well-researched book that shows the story of leadership and human nature through the eyes of several Presidents and their supporting cast. It is essential reading, regardless of which party or whoever is in the office.