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Jake Vail

Coal and Thoreau: The Essays of Practice Resurrection

Not long ago I took a trip across the High Plains, and in addition to seeing more pronghorn and prairie dogs than I’ve ever seen, I also witnessed the landscape of Wyoming’s Thunder Basin for the first time. While much of it is drop-dead beautiful, one gets the feeling that something ominous is brewing there – roads are being repaved, railroads are new or well-maintained, and, of course, trucks are many, big, and well-used.

One soon finds out why. Thunder Basin is where about 40% of America’s coal is mined, though a traveler gets only an occasional glimpse of the massive dark pits uprooting acre after acre of prairie. It’s kind of the opposite of the mountain top removal mining tearing down places like Kentucky.

Serendipitously, upon my return to Lawrence I discovered Kentucky author Erik Reece, who recently published a wonderful new book, Practice Resurrection.  It turns out his previous work, entitled Lost Mountain, is what poet and fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry calls “by far the best accounting of mountain top removal and its effects.” In it Reece describes a year on a particular promontory, “thinking like a mountain,” in ecologist Aldo Leopold’s words, before said mountain’s head is blown off for the coal beneath. Read More..

There Can Only be One: A Biography of Everyone’s Favorite Device

“Today we’re introducing THREE revolutionary products… The first is a wide-screen iPod with touch control. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.”

It’s 2007, only ten years ago. On stage, Steve Jobs continues: “Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device.” And so the smartphone revolution started. Read More..

Reading Water, Hearing Trees

It’s Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! In honor of the man who’s mostly famous for sitting by a pond, here’s a look at a few recent books that might be of interest – whether or not you choose to go to the woods, build a cabin, and live deliberately. Read More..

Infinite, Unfathomable, Nonstop

Once upon a time, I stumbled across a quiz that asked, “Where You At?” Despite, or perhaps because of, its sloppy grammar, the question has stayed with me. My interest in natural and cultural history, and even my fascination with infrastructure, surely dates to this time, as evidenced by the real estate that writers like Henry Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, and Barry Lopez occupy on my bookshelves. Read More..

Stories of Our Life: The Great Derangement and Splinterlands

Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, a short science fiction piece which I reviewed a few months ago, keeps infiltrating itself into my reading. Oddly, it reverberates most when I read nonfiction.

Story of Your Life is so fascinating due to its subtle manipulation of time. You may know it as the basis of the movie Arrival, where, for one character, the future is part of the present. Nonfiction, though, often looks backwards (cultural history, natural history), using “time’s arrow” to explore the present.

But one of the most powerful non-fiction books I’ve read lately is Amitav Ghosh’s non-linear look into the future to question the present, called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The question Ghosh asks boils down to, “Why doesn’t the greatest issue of our time – climate change – show itself in more contemporary fiction?” Read More..

Two New Books Reveal The Hidden Life of Trees

When you visit the library, do you have something of an agenda and head for a particular section, or are you more of a browser, embracing serendipity and wandering from one area to another?

When you go for a walk, do you aim for a certain place, or do you saunter until something piques your curiosity?

A fuller appreciation of most anything surely benefits from both approaches, and the authors of two wonderful new books about trees prove this to be true. Read More..

The Best Books from the Worst Year

Let’s be honest, 2016 has been kind of a hot mess. Between so many celebrity deaths (David Bowie, Sharon Jones, Prince, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel… holy cow, SO MANY) and some, uh, general upheaval, most people are ready to write this one off as a loss.

But! As much as we’d like to say goodbye and good riddance to the year as a whole, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the very good things that came from 2016; this year has offered readers a wealth of fabulous new books. Debut authors and big-hitters alike have released incredible works in 2016, and the staff of LPL would like to share a few of our favorites. If you’re looking for great gifts for bibliophiles in your life, try one of these librarian-approved reads: Read More..

Story of Your Life Makes the Alien Accessible

Has this ever happened to you? You’re at work, thinking about, say, Fermat’s theories, and an idea is sparked for an intriguing short story. But then you realize you really know nothing about the foundation of such a story, and it would take a long time to learn it. Read More..

The Hour of Land Explores Shared Stories and Shared Space

They look pretty good for one hundred years old, don’t they? Happy Birthday to our National Parks! Well, this doesn’t date the ageless glory contained within the parks, but rather the National Park Service, established on August 25, 1916.

Even now, there are parks who have not had their stories fully told; how did I not know about a parade of massive earthen bears lining a section of the Mississippi River? Hundreds of these centuries-old earthworks quietly reside at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, one of the 412 units of the Park Service, and I have writer Terry Tempest Williams to thank for introducing me to them. Read More..

Heart of a Lion is A True Story of Fear, Cats, and Ecology

I bet when William Stolzenburg wrote his previous book, Where the Wild Things Were, he didn’t figure he would later find one of the wildest things in the Americas on a walkabout that stretched from the Black Hills of South Dakota, through Midwestern farms and cities, across major rivers, and all the way to the urban megalopolis of the East Coast. But Stolzenburg latched on to this true story of mystery and hope, and the result is a gripping and wise travelogue for our time. Read More..