“The Boiling River: Adventure and Discovery in the Amazon” by Andres Ruzo (TED Books, 2016)


There is a Peruvian legend that Andres Ruzo once heard his father tell him, of a mysterious river deep within the Amazon jungle that consists of rushing boiling water so hot that anything living that falls into it is immediately boiled alive. It seems like little more than an entertaining folk tale that can’t possibly be true, but now a geoscientist, Andres Ruzo intends to find out whether there is any truth to this “boiling river” story.

Ruzo starts with the research, uncovering what stories he can about this unique river and reading what evidence there is. Through special grants and research trips each summer he travels to his native Peru in search of this river. He eventually is able to track the location within a sacred spaced watched over by local shamans and must gain permission before he can take his team there. When he finally sees the boiling river, through a cloud of steam, he cannot believe it. As he continues his research, he must consider what it means to preserve this sacred site from misuse and neglect.

The Boiling River is a fascinating story about one man’s discovery of this phenomenon that blends science with the Peruvian culture, as Ruzo provides plenty of photographic evidence to back up what he is documenting.

Originally written on March 3, 2016 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Future Arctic: Field Notes From a World on the Edge” by Edward Struzik (Island Press, 2015)

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“Just the tip of the iceberg” is a painfully apropos metaphor for the state of climate change and how the Arctic and Antarctic zones of the planet serve as a sort of scrying stone for what the future may hold. While some evidence may be hard to come by for the current state of the world, what is happening in the Arctic is undeniable fact melting before our very eyes.

Edward Struzik is a hardcore explorer and journalist who has traveled across the limits of the Arctic and in Future Arctic paints a very moving picture about where it is headed. Along with plenty of research about the state of things, Struzik also provides lots of anecdotal evidence from the native peoples of the region recounting how their world has changed. The author even travels far into the past to a time when the region was warmer and how its flora and fauna fared.

Future Arctic is certainly bleak at points, but also enlightening as Struzik analyzes various possibilities about how the Arctic will appear transformed by climate change and what it means for the rest of the growingly fragile planet.

Originally written on March 18, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt & Co., 2014)

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Anyone who is in their right mind with a decent amount of common sense knows we’re doing a great job of messing up this planet, to the point where it may already be too far gone to turn things back to the way they were. One area we know we’ve made perhaps the most devastating impact, with overpopulation and pollution to name a couple causes, is with species extinction. This is the crux of The Sixth Extinction from Elizabeth Kolbert, bestselling author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe.

There have been a number of mass extinctions during the five billion year history of this planet The extinction of the dinosaurs is perhaps the most well known; another mass extinction before the dinosaurs almost ended all life on the planet. The reasons for these five previous mass extinctions run the full expected range from extreme conditions to natural disasters to meteors hitting the planet. But now Kolbert suggests, and has been corroborated by a number of scientists, that we are in the age of the sixth extinction where many unique species are being lost every year and it’s all our fault.

The Sixth Extinction is divided up into strong chapters that feel like entire books in themselves, each providing insight into a specific previous mass extinction, as well as some well known species that went extinct, such as the great auk and the American mastodon, and how. Kolbert also travels the world, meeting with scientists and discussing the current climate and where things lie with threats against coral along the Great Barrier Reef, bat populations in the United States that have recently been devastated due to a merciless fungus, as well as the declining honeybee populations to name a few..

The book never has a chance to slow down or get boring, because Kolbert keeps giving the reader facts and stories and perspectives that are both illuminating and shocking. It is a book that can be greedily read cover to cover in one night, or each chapter savored over a longer period of time. The one failing is perhaps there is little lesson or hope necessarily at the end for what can be done. Could this be because it is already a foregone conclusion that what happened to the dodo will happen to many more species if we don’t change our ways? Or perhaps simply learning and knowing what is discussed in the book and spreading the word about them will help change the mindset, for it is not until we as a planet work together to make a change that we will start making any great strides.

Originally written on June 27, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Sixth Extinction from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Field Notes From a Catastrophe  Welcome to the Greenhouse

“Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Infections” by David Quammen (Norton, 2012)

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Spillover is one of those books that everyone should really read, even if it’s really scary and after completing it, you’d have problems doing anything without wondering what viruses might be waiting to attach themselves to your skin. Bestselling author David Quammen looks to perhaps scare you with Spillover, but ultimately educate on both the history of these viruses and what the current status is of them today.

The book is divided into parts and features a thorough coverage of viruses like Ebola, SARS, Hendra and AIDS to name a few, as well as infections like hepatitis and malaria. Each part features an interesting history of the particular virus or disease, how it was first discovered and the devastation it has caused throughout the world, and then a look into its current situation and what it might bode for the future. Quammen is quick to point out in the Ebola chapter of how one being infected by the virus is more likely to show symptoms and the less bloody stages one goes through to death, as opposed to the sensationalist portrayal of someone dying of Ebola in Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. The AIDS chapter is perhaps the most fascinating in covering the detailed history of the virus and how it is one that is still killing many and while there are medications that help, it is still one that shouldn’t be easily forgotten about.

After finishing Spillover, in addition to being somewhat terrified, readers will also feel as if they’ve ingested an important volume of knowledge and will feel educated now on most of the world’s known diseases and ready to face the next pandemic when it comes . . . or at the least be a little more hygienic in their daily lives and wash their hands more often.

Originally written on February 17, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Spillover from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Gulp” by Mary Roach (Norton, 2013)

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Mary Roach, bestselling author of Stiff and Bonk, brings her host of avid non-fiction readers to a whole new arena with Gulp.  Welcome to the alimentary canal, a politely titled journey from a single bite passing through our bodies into the toilet bowl.  Just as with her other books, Roach employs her patented humor and obsession for the detailed and at times gross.

Unsurprisingly, Roach begins with the mouth and taste and the importance of the sense of smell with taste.  She recounts her meeting with a person whose job is to taste wines and beers that are “off” in some way.  This person has such a developed and trained palate, she knows what has been done wrong in the fermenting of the beer, or the preparation of the wine.  Roach then continues on down the gullet with succinct chapters on each part, providing lots of details of how it all works, what the process is, and plenty of facts you might have never wanted to know about your throat, or stomach, or intestine.  But the book is also bursting with lots of information to increase one’s general knowledge, such as why stomach acid doesn’t burn through your stomach lining.  The shocking answer is that it actually does, but the stomach lining is constantly being replaced with fresh, new stomach lining cells.  And this is why a dead person’s stomach acid will burn through their stomach.

Perhaps Gulp’s only failing is that the reader is left wanting to know and learn more, but the book has to end somewhere.  In addition to biological and science details, Roach also provides lots of stories and histories of past experiments of what was done in learning about these body parts and how they worked.  And for those really curious, yes, there are multiple chapters on flatulence.  Readers will not be disappointed, but they never are with Mary Roach.

Originally written on April 27, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Gulp from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Gold Rush in the Jungle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s ‘Lost World'” by Dan Drolette Jr. (Crown, 2013)

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There is a secret in this world, a very important one that may disappear before we even know it was there.  Vietnam is a nation filled with history and culture, but it is also a unique haven to some of the rarest animals on the planet; it is also one of the few places in this world where new species of fauna continue to be discovered.  Gold Rush in the Jungle is the story of this most unique place.

Dan Drolette Jr. has been a quasi-naturalist; a nature and animal lover since he was a child, discovering a fascination and continuing with it throughout his life.  He has written for publications such as Scientific American, Cosmos, Science, Boston Globe, and Natural History.  His travels have taken him exploring and writing about flora and fauna as far and wide as Hawaii, Sweden, South Korea and Australia.  Drolette Jr. first went to Vietnam in the late nineties and knew he had to return to study and write about his special place, which he did.  Gold Rush in the Jungle is the culmination of all this work.

Vietnam’s jungles have remained relatively untouched, going through a turbulent history and a devastating war; ironically this has led to a somewhat protected habitat for its many species and plans. It has held back development and the advancement of civilization into the jungles, allowing the many animals to live in peace and multiply.  But since the nineties, things have gone quickly downhill.  With the rapid growth in animal trophies, and the use of animal parts as widely disproven medicines in china, poaching has become a very big business.

Fortunately, there are those who are fighting against this, starting up conservation groups and protected places in Vietnam, as well as national parks, one created as long ago as the 1960s with Ho Chi Minh.  It is a very moving story, to see how animals like certain bears are barely kept alive to have their bile surgically removed, or the rhinoceros that used to inhabit these jungles and can no longer be found.  Drolette Jr. goes into the history of this country, talking about certain rare animals that have since gone extinct, but there is still hope that one day they may resurface from these dense ecosystems.

Fans of Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth will love Gold Rush in the Jungle, with Drolette Jr.’s easy to read style that sucks you in, opens your eyes, and educates you with ideas and thoughts you have likely never had.  It is a powerful story of a very real place that is like no other, and will stay with you long after you have read the last page.

Originally written on February 26, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Gold Rush in the Jungle from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Viking, 2012)

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Rabies.  Rabid.  The words automatically conger up images and ideas; ravenous animals, primarily dogs.  Slavering at the mouth; demented and violent.  You’re probably also thinking about Cujo, whether it is the movie or the book by Stephen King.  All these ideas are correct, in a way, but few people know the whys and hows.  Few know that when someone is suffering from rabies, they have an innate aversion to water; just seeing a glass of it will make them turn violent as they try to get away from it.  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is the story of the hows and whys of rabies.

Authors Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy take the reader on a combined history, sociological and science lesson.  They go way back into the past looking at where the virus likely first originated, where it first appears in the written word, and how it has been used throughout history in writing.  How the word has changed and become part of our vocabulary.  Rabid is also a look at how society has dealt with the disease through time and across the globe.  And finally, the authors give you the science behind the virus, how it infects, how it affects, and what exactly makes it work.  It is a fascinating read on a disease that many know little about.

Originally written on October 23, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Rabid from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman (Thomas Dunne, 2007)

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Alan Weisman’s introspective book, The World Without Us, which became a bestseller, seems clear when one sees and reads what’s on the front cover.  Yes, it’s a book about the concept of what the world would be like if humanity suddenly disappeared, and how long it would take to recover from the severe imprint we’ve made upon it.  But the book is also much more, as Weisman analyzes why we have had this effect on the planet, and to what extent it has reached.

After a prelude to why Weisman wanted to write this book, the first chapter discusses Weisman’s journey to the Puszcza Białowieska, a primeval forest located deep within Poland, where life has remained the same for millennia.  It is a powerful example of the way the world once was, when humanity hadn’t exacted its harsh footprint upon it.  It serves as an introductory signal to the message Weisman is broadcasting in The World Without Us.

The various TV documentaries that were made after the success of this book reveal the “world without us” in chronological order, advancing through years, decades and centuries to show the changes, and in this way the subject matter is dramatic and simplified.  But the truth is far more complicated, which explains why this book is over three hundred pages long, and not less than fifty.  Weisman tells his story, travelling to many places around the world, where he starts with its history and the toll people have had upon it, why it has happened that way, and how this imprint is getting worse.  Then humanity miraculously disappears, and Weisman begins the other part of this tale after this unique event, and how it will eventually return back to its once pristine form.

Weisman also travels to other locations around that world that have seen little human impression, such as Kingman Reef and the Palmyra Atoll, as well as looking in depth at the Chernobyl site and how nature and wildlife have claimed it back,as well as some of its former inhabitants returning to their former homes.  He discusses the Mayan civilization, going into detail with its history and dispelling the common misconceptions as to why it collapsed, explaining the more likely reasons.  He performs a detailed study on New York City, revealing everything the city government has to do keep nature at bay from sinking its biological claws into this artificial settlement.  Then humanity disappears again and Weisman waxes on nature’s reclamation of this place, as it once was in the early days of the Dutch colony.

Towards the end, Weisman comes back to his message, being more overt about it as he wonders on where the future might be headed, as humanity continues to cut away at this planet, widening and worsening a wound that may one day be unable to heal.  He talks of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, and what effect population limitation would have, if say families would limit themselves to just one child.  With the hard fact that a million people are born every four days, it’s a sobering contemplation, as readers now know what the world would do without us, but more important readers get to comprehend what is happening to the world right now with us on it.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The World Without Us from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True” by Richard Dawkins, illustrated by Dave McKean (Free Press, 2011)

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Richard Dawkins, bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, needs little introduction; and neither does illustrator Dave McKean, who has worked with a number of well-known authors, including Neil Gaiman, and was the creator behind the movie MirrorMask.  Now the two have joined together to bring you a unique book of science and evolution called The Magic of Reality.

In the first chapter of The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins sets the stage with an important explanation of the differences between reality and how incredible it can be, and the impressiveness of magic and miracles and how they are just illusions and not real.  The book explores a number of astonishing things about our world and universe, and how we have come to know it, such as: who the first person was, what things are made of, what is the sun, what is a rainbow, and what is an earthquake, to name a few.  The last two chapters are perhaps the most important, as Dawkins talks about why bad things happen to people, and what exactly a miracle is.

The Magic of Reality is an important read for anyone who is uncertain about the world we live and how it came to be the way it is.  Dawkins puts thoughts and sayings, extreme coincidences, good and bad luck in perspective, saying you may think it an incredible series of incidents to lead to a specific point that it may seem like there is some power or force behind it, but when you study each of those incidents on a scientific level, it all makes perfect sense to be just that: an incredible coincidence.  Coupled with Dave McKean’s captivating and mind-blowing illustrations to help illustrate points and reveal the complexity of seemingly ordinary things, The Magic of Reality is an important book to have, whether you’re looking to help an adult make up their minds about something, or constructively and efficiently educating a youngster who is learning about science and the way of life.

Originally written on November 20, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Magic of Reality from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100” by Michio Kaku (Doubleday, 2011)

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Michio Kaku, a professor of physics at the CUNY Graduate Center, sure knows how to make science both gripping and interesting.  After the great bestseller, Physics of the Impossible, which tackled all those great science fiction inventions we’ve heard so much about in books, going in detail about when these said inventions would plausibly be invented; he brings things closer to home in Physics of the Future, focusing on inventions developments over the next century.

In his new book, Kaku goes into detail where the next hundred years will take us on a number of different subjects, and what possible great things humanity will come up with next.  The chapters run the gamut from the future of the computer, AI, nanotechnology and medicine, to where the future of wealthy, energy, and humanity will take us.  Each chapter is divided into three parts: the near future, covering the present until 2030; midcentury from 2030-2070; and the far future from 2070-2100.  In each of these parts, Kaku covers important discoveries and inventions that will be developed, working off of the technology and knowledge of the current period.

Kaku fans and science readers will love Physics of the Future because, while Physics of the Impossible was pretty disheartening to learn that a lot of the cool inventions like transporters and time travel would not be invented until many thousands of years in the future, Physics of the Future covers a lot of fascinating technology that will be developed in many of our lifetimes.

Originally written on September 21, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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