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It took seven years and interviews with over a hundred people for Joshua Horwitz to write War of the Whales. However his dedication to the story is apparent as the book covers the political, historical, environmental, and legal struggles that developed as the connection between mass whale strandings and Navy sonar was uncovered. war of the whales

The book opens on March 15, 2000, when a mass stranding occurred in the Bahamas. Marine Biologist Ken Balcomb was on hand to help the whales as much as possible (most of them didn't make it) and to document the situation. What follows is an extensive look at how researchers figure out the cause of the stranding and how such incidents can be prevented. Horwitz employs a non-linear approach which gives the book a bit of suspense as do a few twists that unfold. He goes back in time to look at Balcomb’s upbringing and early career, the evolution of whales and their elaborate communication and hearing systems, and the domestication of whales for entertainment and research. 

Throughout the chapters we’re introduced to a slew of Naval officers, marine scientists, and lawyers, which gets a bit overwhelming. However the story’s trajectory eventually turns to Joel Reynolds, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who takes on the Navy in multiple lawsuits all the way up the Supreme Court. What’s most apparent in Balcomb’s research quests and Reynolds’ legal work is the ineffectiveness of the Navy to self-police its actions in regards to the welfare of marine wildlife. The Navy encompasses combat divisions as well as research programs (which grant civilian researchers with funding depending on their relationship with the Navy). With one arm of the Navy responsible for drafting Environmental Impact reports, it’s often to another naval department’s direct advantage (and made easier by fallout from 9/11 when invoking national security for ocean exercises became more common). 

What makes the 448-page book accessible is that it explains complicated systems like biosonar and the bureaucracy of the Navy but it doesn’t get bogged down. Readers are introduced to the personal tribulations of many of the people and the pages are dotted with illustrations of whales and photographs. What results is an engrossing, and relatively neutral, tale of the scientific and legal expeditions that have unfolded to save the whales.


Rebecca Solnit's Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is filled with insights that are both acute and meaningful.

The 30 essays that span Rebecca Solnit's Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness range from an Arctic expedition off the Norwegian coast to the Zapatista communities in southern Mexico. In between, everything from the contradictions internet connectivity has brought us to Henry David Thoreau's laundry to urban gardening is explored with insights that are both acute and meaningful. RS

Though readers may connect with some parts more than others (perhaps based on where they've been or what they've been involved in), the stories become relevant because of the broader symbolism that is brought to light. In “The Google Bus,” Solnit critiques the affects of private transportation in San Francisco. Not only does such an enterprise undermine public transportation services, she argues, but it also contributes to carbon emissions, longer working hours (the commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley is 3.5 hours), and higher rental and property prices. These have all changed the face of the city and Solnit likens it to the Gold Rush which brought to California great wealth along with displacement of indigenous communities, disease, child labor, and inflation. 

In “The Visibility Wars” she looks at “warscapes” and here, a myriad of topics are broached from nuclear testing in Nevada to government spying to the importance of photography, all of which are linked together in an examination of secrecy and transparency. 

Also included are two letters (one to a dead man and one to an entire country) as well as the commencement address Solnit gave to Berkeley’s graduating English majors in which she tells the audience, "The universe is made out of stories—go change them, tell them, bury them, and give birth to them." Storytelling along with darkness, hope, and exploration are common themes from her previous works that appear throughout these essays. What unites them are the various interpretations of trouble and spaciousness that are thread throughout. Trouble, we learn, can be anything from ghosts to rebellion to language. Spaciousness is not just place— Detroit, Haiti or New Orleans—but reaches from the alternative worlds that are being built if only we would notice the labyrinths we travel through in order to find home. 

This read will lead to a different, more layered understanding of the world around and in us. Though Solnit’s ideas dig deep and her writing is often poetic, the essays still come across as accessible, forming an encyclopedia that is ready to be thoughtfully absorbed, questioned, and reflected upon.


bookexpo 2014

Over 50 other bestselling authors will video chat with readers across the world through an Utne-sponsored Shindig event at BookExpo America 2014

If you’d love to check out the impressive variety of authors present at BookExpo America (BEA) later this week, but just can’t get there in person, an online program co-sponsored by Utne Reader called “Live Author Chats from the Floor at BEA” is your virtual ticket.

Powered by Shindig, an online video chat platform, the BEA program will feature more than 50 live video chat author talks from Thursday, May 29 to Saturday, May 31. RSVP for the author talks and keep tabs on which authors will be participating through Shindig’s BEA event page


The Natural Order of ThingsKevin P. Keating's debut novel, is set in a decaying Midwestern neighborhood where the only semblance of its former glory resides in the all-boys Jesuit school. While Keating is from Ohio, the 15 interweaving stories could take place in any Midwestern town that has been witness to its own decline. Through parents, teachers, students, and priests Keating reveals some of the darker elements of the human condition and how they, inevitably, affect the whole.

The Natural Order of Things by Kevin P. KeatingKeating's work has been compared to a lot of writers, and even his name hearkens back to such greats as John Keats, which certainly can't hurt his credibility. I honestly couldn't tell you if his writing resembles anything of Keats', because Keats isn't a writer I fangirl over. However, I will gladly share that from the first few pages there is a resounding Joycean quality to Keating's language and the world I had been invited to enter.

If you've ever read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the image of prostitutes scurrying about in front of the school, followed by that of the boys kneeling to pray to the school's saintly namesake will bring back fond memories. At the time, I had no idea if Keating himself was Catholic. Though I eventually discovered he, too, attended a Jesuit school, it was almost irrelevant because, regardless of his personal background, he creates scenes that are so alive on the page that they are real.

Considering the many praises and literary comparisons, I probably shouldn't have been so surprised that I found myself thinking about his prose, characters, and scenes even when I wasn't engrossed in the book itself. Like Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Keating's novel follows a multitude of "main" characters. At times confusing, the chapters and individual stories progress in a way that connects any missing links—and, in all honesty, I'm not sure it's even necessary to keep it all in a proper line with novels such as these.

The Natural Order of Things isn't anything I'd recommended for: the perpetual optimist, faint of heart, easily offended, or anyone else that sees the world through rose-colored glasses. But for a realist, or anyone intrigued by the darker aspects of humanity, Keating offers sex, sin, violence, and misdeeds all underpinned with the hint of salvation. The Natural Order of Things was my first taste of Kevin P. Keating, but I find myself wanting more.

Ashley Houk is an Online Editorial Assistant for Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. When she’s not reviewing books and producing online content for Ogden, she’s probably still reading and vigorously scribbling poems, or blog posts of her own. Find her on , , and .


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl StrayedWith talk of a film adaptation coming soon, I knew I was running out of time to read Cheryl Strayed's Wild. As someone who believes that the book is always better than the movie, I knew it was time to break the self-imposed book-buying ban.

After several life-changing events Strayed saves every cent earned at her waitressing job to buy everything she'll need to spend three months, alone, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from southern California to the Oregon-Washington border. She's not an experienced hiker, but the trail calls to her from her trusty guidebook The Pacific Crest Trail Volume 1: California. The journey doesn't start without a hitch. Instead, Strayed struggles with her pack in the hotel room and once on the trail through the Mojave Desert she realizes that hiking is not just like walking.

Faced with blistered and battered feet, raw shoulders and hips, and relentless weather variations, Strayed's journey is anything but easy. The PCT doesn't just come with the dangers of bears, mountains, snow, and relentless heat. It's a lonely place that forces Strayed to look closely at herself, her emotions and regardless of the despair she may feel, forces her to keeping moving forward.

Easy to read, engaging and emotional in a way that wasn't expected, Cheryl Strayed gave more than I asked for. The movie trailer, which you can watch below,  made it clear that Strayed's honesty will translate beautifully to the silver screen. A physical and spiritual journey, Wild is heartbreaking, harrowing, and inspirational.

Ashley Houk is an Online Editorial Assistant for Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. When she’s not reviewing books and producing online content for Ogden, she’s probably still reading and vigorously scribbling poems, or blog posts of her own. Find her on , , and .


Slip of the Tongue is an exploration of linguistics, but not the linguistics you’re probably thinking of with gutturals and palatization. Katie Haegele’s version is presented through her life experiences and surroundings, along with some serious linguistics education. The book is short, broken into two sections: Essays (the longer of the two) and Journalism. In both sections, however, we see how Haegele uses language to make sense of the world and her place in it.

Slip of the Tongue

What Haegele does well is being herself. She writes with honesty and fondness for her family, memories, and relationship with language. If language is what makes us human, Katie Haegele is one human I wouldn’t hate to know.

Her essays revolve around varied and relatable personal experiences that bring a smile to the face—even when they’re a bit sad. In one essay, Haegele acknowledges that we all probably hate our handwriting, yet assures us that she loves it, for what it says about who we are. As someone who doesn’t hate her handwriting, I still find it odd when others rave about it. But what really struck me, as a writer and bit of a word-nerd, is the research and science behind how handwriting affects language. After thinking about it, I can attest that I do create differently and find a wider array of words when writing by hand than, say, pounding it out on a keyboard. These themes of word use and changes in language culture carry into her journalism as well.

While I wasn’t as struck and “in love” with the journalism section, Haegele still manages to present her subjects with a tenderness and warmth that I would assume is not often associated with graffiti, Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, or the word “ye.” Yet, she manages to spread the same clever wit and jovial spirit through all of her observations.

Haegele’s voice is fresh and distinctive, and she covers everything from how a single word can encompass an entire being, to obsolete words and regionalisms, to how different languages offer us things that English simply cannot. Haegele’s presence and language subtly invites the reader into her life and to become a part of it. Part memoir and part intellectual ruminations on language, how we use it, and how it has changed, Slip of the Tongue will please anyone who fancies themselves a logophile or linguistics genius, or even just someone looking for a good, fun book.

Still not sure? Read an excerpt from Slip of the Tongue.

Ashley Houk is an Online Editorial Assistant for Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. When she’s not reviewing books and producing online content for Ogden, she’s probably still reading and vigorously scribbling poems, or blog posts of her own. Find her on , , and .


The idea is familiar: Success is sexy. I’ve often blithely declared it myself, most often when paging through gossip magazines in the supermarket check-out lane, positing how odd couples came to be. But as for the nature of that particular brand of attraction, how it functions, how it feels—that’s a rarely told story. Writing for Oregon Humanities, Alexis Nelson takes readers for a frank spin through an attraction rekindled in the heat of accomplishment. “That night, I understood for the first time how closely success and money are bound with attraction and sex,” she writes. “This was a truth I experienced intuitively, on a physical level I couldn’t deny.”

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