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8 Hopeful and Eye-Opening Reads on a Disappearing World

April 22 2022
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On days I want my reading life to feel connected to what I often think about in my everyday life, I gravitate toward fiction and nonfiction that tell stories of environmental impact and the passionate people who craft ideas for and support change. Full of dynamic narratives with strong connections to nature, these books are sure to begin important conversations or inspire self-reflection while also delivering intricate plots and an array of complex characters.

The High House
by Jessie Greengrass

Caro hasn’t always understood the need for retreat, for rebuilding, for preservation. But when her father and stepmother are away reporting on the climate emergency and everything falls apart, she and her half-brother, Pauly, must honor their family’s wishes and make the journey to High House. There they find a quiet piece of land that offers supplies, sustenance, and teachings, yet outside threats hover: water is rising, and cities have already been lost. Until Caro’s and Pauly’s arrival, High House was left in the hands of Grandy, the village caretaker, and his granddaughter, Sally. The four must try to survive together in an unpredictable world, one where important knowledge must be uncovered and relearned, and where every week brings new challenges. I felt so connected to these characters, especially Caro as she transitions from sister to mother, and to Sally as she sees their disappearing village through her grandfather’s caretaker eyes.

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The High House
Jessie Greengrass

Shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Novel Award

In this powerful, highly anticipated novel from an award-winning author, four people attempt to make a home in the midst of environmental disaster.

Perched on a sloping hill, set away from a small town by the sea, the High House has a tide pool and a mill, a vegetable garden, and, most importantly, a barn full of supplies. Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy are safe, so far, from the rising water that threatens to destroy the town and that has, perhaps, already destroyed everything else. But for how long?

Caro and her younger half-brother, Pauly, arrive at the High House after her father and stepmother fall victim to a faraway climate disaster—but not before they call and urge Caro to leave London. In their new home, a converted summer house cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sally, the two pairs learn to live together. Yet there are limits to their safety, limits to the supplies, limits to what Grandy—the former village caretaker, a man who knows how to do everything—can teach them as his health fails.

A searing novel that takes on parenthood, sacrifice, love, and survival under the threat of extinction, The High House is a stunning, emotionally precise novel about what can be salvaged at the end of the world.

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Damnation Spring
by Ash Davidson

It’s summer 1977 in the redwood belt, and Rich has agreed to accompany Lark, a friend of his late tree-topper father, to the town’s only tavern. Here he learns of plans for 24/7 Ridge, which holds the largest redwood in the area—land Rich’s family has always dreamed of owning. With new roads being constructed in nearby Damnation Grove, these old-growth trees will finally be accessible for loggers and 24/7 Ridge’s current owner is looking to sell. As Rich contemplates whether he can afford the purchase, we hear from his wife, Colleen, as she cares for their son, Chub, while mourning her recent miscarriage, which she begins to suspect could be pinned on a logging company’s use of chemicals. Whether related to family or forest, Rich’s and Colleen’s voices capture the complex sides of progress and human intervention in nature.

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Damnation Spring
Ash Davidson

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

Named a Best Book of 2021 by Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times

“A glorious book—an assured novel that’s gorgeously told.” —The New York Times Book Review
“An incredibly moving epic about an unforgettable family.”CBS Sunday Morning
“[An] absorbing novel…I felt both grateful to have known these people and bereft at the prospect of leaving them behind.” —The Washington Post

A stunning novel about love, work, and marriage that asks how far one family and one community will go to protect their future.

Colleen and Rich Gundersen are raising their young son, Chub, on the rugged California coast. It’s 1977, and life in this Pacific Northwest logging town isn’t what it used to be. For generations, the community has lived and breathed timber; now that way of life is threatened.

Colleen is an amateur midwife. Rich is a tree-topper. It’s a dangerous job that requires him to scale trees hundreds of feet tall—a job that both his father and grandfather died doing. Colleen and Rich want a better life for their son—and they take steps to assure their future. Rich secretly spends their savings on a swath of ancient redwoods. But when Colleen, grieving the loss of a recent pregnancy and desperate to have a second child, challenges the logging company’s use of the herbicides she believes are responsible for the many miscarriages in the community, Colleen and Rich find themselves on opposite sides of a budding conflict. As tensions in the town rise, they threaten the very thing the Gundersens are trying to protect: their family.

Told in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, Damnation Spring is an intimate, compassionate portrait of a family whose bonds are tested and a community clinging to a vanishing way of life. An extraordinary story of the transcendent, enduring power of love—between husband and wife, mother and child, and longtime neighbors. An essential novel for our times.

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Migrations
by Charlotte McConaghy

I picked up this novel in a Woodstock bookstore based solely on the pastel cover illustration and the emotional impact of the one-word title. In this world, were migrations plentiful and appreciated, or were they scarce and telling? I soon found it was the latter, specifically relating to the world’s Arctic tern population. Franny, a fearless and outspoken woman outrunning some serious baggage, finds herself on a mission to track and follow the last tern migration. Lucky for her, the captain of a boat full of eager fishermen is searching for any remaining waters full of fish. Convincing him that her birds are chasing the fish he needs, she makes her way alongside the complicated crew—first as an outsider, and later as a part of something bigger than herself. As bits of Franny’s past and the necessity of her current goal were revealed, I quickly found myself even more invested in her vital expedition and the understandings to come.

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Migrations
Charlotte McConaghy

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The Swan Book
by Alexis Wright

If this beautiful cover doesn’t grip you, it’s the promise of ancient stories that should. Officially named Oblivion Ethyl(ene) by the woman who finds her in a eucalyptus tree, Oblivia earns a comparison to Rip Van Winkle for her love of telling vivid tales and her unrecognizable origin. Surrounded by tree roots and Mother Nature (or the “Mother Catastrophe of flood, fire, drought, and blizzard”), she’s more in tune with the old languages of the forest than to the people around her, and she’s sensitive to the events that led Armed Forces Men to intrude on Aboriginal people’s lands and lakes. As the woman tells her a history of swans, she struggles to reconcile the virus in her brain and her desire for connection.

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The Swan Book
Alexis Wright

A hypnotic and “astonishingly inventive” (O, The Oprah Magazine) novel about an Aboriginal girl living in a future world turned upside down—where ancient myths exist side-by-side with present-day realities.

Oblivia Ethelyne was given her name by an old woman who found her deep in the bowels of a gum tree, tattered and fragile, the victim of a brutal assault by wayward local youths. These are the years leading up to Australia’s third centenary, and the woman who finds her, Bella Donna of the Champions, is a refugee from climate change wars that devastated her country in the northern hemisphere.

Bella Donna takes Oblivia to live with her on an old warship in a polluted dry swamp and there she fills Oblivia’s head with story upon story of swans. Fenced off from the rest of Australia by the Army, its traditional custodians left destitute, the swamp has become “the world’s most unknown detention camp” for Indigenous Australians. When Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia invades the swamp with his charismatic persona and the promise of salvation, Oblivia agrees to marry him, becoming First Lady, a role that has her confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.

In this multilayered novel, winner of the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal, Wright toys with the edges of the world we live in and “deftly highlights the racial and cultural politics facing Australia's indigenous people in a story that defies genre. It is a challenging and heartbreaking story that illuminates the culture and struggles of an often overlooked people” (Publishers Weekly).

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The 2084 Report
by James Lawrence Powell

We may not see much of the narrator as he skillfully hands over the reins to a variety of experts, including a Brazilian anthropologist and the last director of the National Indian Foundation, a hydraulic engineer, and a global-warming correspondent for Le Monde, but his honest introduction about his responsibilities and intentions as an oral historian is thoughtful and compelling. The book puts today’s climate facts in the context of a worrisome imagined future, giving us gut-wrenching motivations and, hopefully, a fresh sense of urgency to examine what we can still save. 

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The 2084 Report
James Lawrence Powell

For fans of The Drowned World and World War Z, this “sobering and scary (and fascinating) novel—a look at where we’re going if we don’t quickly get our act together” (Bill McKibben, New York Times bestselling author) regarding climate change—unveils our potential terrifying future.

2084: Global warming has proven worse than even the most dire predictions scientists had made at the turn of the century. No country—and no one—has remained unscathed. Through interviews with scientists, political leaders, and citizens around the globe, this riveting fictional oral history describes in graphic detail the irreversible effects the Great Warming has had on humankind and the planet.

In short chapters about topics like sea level rise, drought, migration, war, and more, The 2084 Report brings global warming to life, revealing a new reality in which Rotterdam doesn’t exist, Phoenix has no electricity, and Canada is part of the United States. From wars over limited resources to the en masse migrations of entire countries and the rising suicide rate, the characters describe other issues they are confronting in the world they share with the next two generations.

“If the existential threat of climate change keeps you up at night, James Lawrence Powell’s The 2084 Report will make you want to do everything in your power to elect leaders who will combat global warming and save our planet” (Marie Claire).

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All We Can Save
by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson

Recommended to me by one of my coworkers at our environmental nonprofit, this book is creative, informative, inspiring, and unique. I knew my coworker was onto something when I faced a long wait time for my local library’s audiobook, which is read by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jane Fonda, America Ferrera, Ilana Glazer, and others. Broken into sections of essays bordered by art pieces and poetry, All We Can Save highlights successes and analyses from women in all walks of life combating the climate crisis while also outlining very real possibilities for our futures without intervention. I related most to the essay on eco-anxiety and the worrisome focus on treating symptoms and not the underlying cause. With a variety of perspectives and ideas, this book is perfect for those both beginning to think about the earth and those who have been sitting with the severity of the climate crisis for quite some time.

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All We Can Save
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson

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1,001 Voices on Climate Change
by Devi Lockwood

This book struck me deep, a movement through people, places, and events that capture the very essence and concerns motivating climate conversations. These are the voices of deepest impact, those at the front lines of risk. Lockwood allows them to show us the reality of their situations with urgency and heart, from the fourth smallest country of Tuvalu to the continent of Australia and around the world. Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, Lockwood became inspired to seek out stories, eventually carrying a cardboard sign reading “Tell me a story about water” on one side and “Tell me a story about climate change” on the other; it was then that her journey to humanize a vital movement was born. “Walking through Farmacia is like swimming in plants,” one woman says when Lockwood visits her in the Amazon rainforest of Peru as she works on the Farmacia Viva Ingenia, or the Living Indigenous Pharmacy. I loved getting to hear about these efforts taking place around the world, as well as sharing in peoples’ hopes and frustrations.

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1,001 Voices on Climate Change
Devi Lockwood

Join journalist Devi Lockwood as she bikes around the world collecting personal stories about how flood, fire, drought, and rising seas are changing communities.

It’s official: 2020 will be remembered as the year when apocalyptic climate predictions finally came true. Catastrophic wildfires, relentless hurricanes, melting permafrost, and coastal flooding have given us a taste of what some communities have already been living with for far too long. Yet we don’t often hear the voices of the people most affected. Journalist Devi Lockwood set out to change that.

In 1,001 Voices on Climate Change, Lockwood travels the world, often by bicycle, collecting first-person accounts of climate change. She frequently carried with her a simple cardboard sign reading, “Tell me a story about climate change.”

Over five years, covering twenty countries across six continents, Lockwood hears from indigenous elders and youth in Fiji and Tuvalu about drought and disappearing coastlines, attends the UN climate conference in Morocco, and bikes the length of New Zealand and Australia, interviewing the people she meets about retreating glaciers, contaminated rivers, and wildfires. She rides through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to listen to marionette puppeteers and novice Buddhist monks.

From Denmark and Sweden to China, Turkey, the Canadian Arctic, and the Peruvian Amazon, she finds that ordinary people sharing their stories does far more to advance understanding and empathy than even the most alarming statistics and studies. This book is a hopeful global listening tour for climate change, channeling the urgency of those who have already glimpsed the future to help us avoid the worst.

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Barkskins
by Annie Proulx

Generational stories are important, an opportunity to both invest in characters and understand the impact of our actions over time. BARKSKINS begins in 1693 with René, a man entering a new French land dressed in the clothes of his dead beloved brother, his new master leading him through the forest. It soon becomes clear that René has been promised land after three years of work in a ploy to entice inhabitants and transform the wilderness into a city. Flanked briefly by fellow worker Duquet and Mari, a Mi’kmaq woman living nearby in her bark house whom he must eventually marry, René learns about plants and chopping trees. Moving along from 1724 through 2013, each time period offers a different narrator, allowing readers to witness the gradual destruction of land and our relationships to it, culminating in a powerful, immersive epic.

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Barkskins
Annie Proulx

Now a television mini-series airing on National Geographic May 2020!
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year & a New York Times Notable Book

From the Pulitzer Prize–­­winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes the New York Times bestselling epic about the demise of the world’s forests: “Barkskins is grand entertainment in the tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy…the crowning achievement of Annie Proulx’s distinguished career, but also perhaps the greatest environmental novel ever written” (San Francisco Chronicle).

In the late seventeenth century two young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures. But Duquet runs away, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Annie Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

“A stunning, bracing, full-tilt ride through three hundred years of US and Canadian history…with the type of full-immersion plot that keeps you curled in your chair, reluctant to stop reading” (Elle), Barkskins showcases Proulx’s inimitable genius of creating characters who are so vivid that we follow them with fierce attention. “This is Proulx at the height of her powers as an irreplaceable American voice” (Entertainment Weekly, Grade A), and Barkskins “is an awesome monument of a book” (The Washington Post)—“the masterpiece she was meant to write” (The Boston Globe). As Anthony Doerr says, “This magnificent novel possesses the dark humor of The Shipping News and the social awareness of ‘Brokeback Mountain.’”

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Photo credit: iStock / fcscafeine

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