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Jake Vail

On The Water Knife and the American West

“You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh?” asks the original water knife in the movie Chinatown. Roman Polanski’s California thug is pretty sharply-dressed compared to the flak-jacketed New Mexico henchman and title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s new book about water wars in the American West; thug life has changed with the times.

It’s still Big Business and government, but it’s more militarized. And in Bacigalupi’s thriller, it’s moved into gritty speculative fiction noir.

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Wild Brits? I say! Exploring the Global Wilderness

Feeling less cranky than usual, Ed Abbey, prickly prophet of the desert Southwest, once looked around and suggested this:

“Beyond the wall of the unreal city… there is another world waiting for you. It is the old true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it.”

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Six Degrees of Victor Frankenstein, or, How a Volcano Launched Science Fiction

You’ve probably heard that an Italian doctor is predicting the imminent re-attachment of severed heads to bodies. With the steady improvements in medical science and prosthetics technology, it’s not too surprising. Nor is it too surprising that there’s another Hollywood remake of Frankenstein in the works, this one told from the perspective of Igor — who didn’t even appear in Mary Shelley’s famous book. It is a little surprising that Igor will be played by the man forever to be known as a young wizard with a lightning bolt on his forehead.

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The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

Rebecca Solnit, though not widely known, is one of the country’s finest writers of non-fiction, in all its many guises. Twenty-nine essays, articles, and letters are included in her wonderful new book, plus book prefaces and text written to accompany art exhibits. The resulting constellation of stellar pieces connects the dots, in typical Solnit fashion, from Wall Street to the arid West, tsunamis to Thoreau, gold mining to oil drilling, gardening to Google, climate change to country music, landscapes to limits, and Haiti to hope. Read More..



True story: last fall I looked out my window and saw a coyote lounging in the shade of an apple tree, contentedly eating apples off the ground—the proverbial free lunch, a literal windfall.

Two years previously, at The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival in Salina, writer Naomi Klein gave a talk called “The Message”—meaning, the message of climate change. Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine, a powerful and important book with an ominous subtitle: “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” My notes from her talk emphasize her point that, contrary to appearances, the right wing completely understands climate change, and, especially, its effects. Read More..

To make the gods laugh, tell them your plans

Well, I had planned on continuing my new series on environmental classics with Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a favorite book by a favorite author in a favorite place. But only nine pages into a rereading of it and I got sidetracked by Kevin Fedarko, who just wrote a thoroughly enjoyable book called The Emerald Mile. As I was drawn into this compelling tale of running the Colorado River, I thought, “No problem. I’ll do a joint Abbey-Fedarko review. It’s a perfect fit.” Read More..


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard showed up on Facebook one day. Not the real deal, merely a notice that it was her birthday. But that was enough to send me down memory lane, recalling how much I enjoyed reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek all those years ago. It was time to visit Tinker Creek again. Read More..


Reinventing Bach

While you may have spent the holidays listening to, or even playing or singing, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, I spent a rather enjoyable chunk of time reading about it. And, eventually, surfing YouTube to watch and listen to a few unique performances. But more on that later. Read More..


Dusty Books and Hard Times

It’s getting to be the time of year when you can’t avoid images of smiling people bobbing in the waves at their favorite vacation spot—including tourists swimming above Venice’s Piazza San Marco, where the acqua alta was molto alta. I’m lucky enough to have sauntered around San Marco, as well as the shores of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, and I can’t imagine the high waters of the past weeks in any of those places. I’m having a hard enough time with the low waters of Lawrence; a foot less precipitation than usual last year, and this year we’re at only half of “normal.” Read More..


It Takes Guts To Grow a Brain.

About a year ago I was deep into deep time on the Plains, studying the charismatic megamammals that made a home where the bison now roam. Fascinating stuff, the Pleistocene on the prairie, and one beast that intrigued me was the pronghorn. A true native of North America, pronghorn thrived and survived. How? Well, you don’t get far into the pronghorn literature before you come upon the name of biologist John Byers. His explanation of pronghorn survival: they were fast. Read More..