Author: Shay Shortt

Barren

by Peter V. Brett

ISBN 978-0-06-274056-4

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher.

The rush of magic was addictive, as many folk were discovering. Even Selia was caught in its grip. It did more than strengthen the body; it heighted passion as well.”

Selia Square has been the Speaker for the small community of Tibbet’s Brook on and off for decades. She is a respected leader despite the mean-spirited nickname that has followed her into her seventh decade: Barren. Using warding spells and militia, Selia has helped lead the forces that protect the Brook from the hordes of demons that appear without fail at nightfall. But lately its seems as if the demons have become more powerful and cunning, and Selia worries about what the dark of the moon will bring, when the demons are at the height of their powers. But Selia has more than demons to worry about. The puritanical Jeorje Watch has slowly been gaining followers, and working to undermine her authority as Speaker. She knows it is only a matter of time before he challenges her for the Speaker’s gavel.

This novella landed on my doorstep courtesy of the publisher, and I decided to give it a try despite the fact that I hadn’t read any of the other Demon Cycle books. Clocking in at 135 pages, it seemed like an easy way to get a taste of a fantasy world that I have heard a lot about from other speculative fiction fans. One caution I had previously been given about Brett’s books is that they contain rape. Barren does not require that content warning, but it does depict other forms of domestic violence, as well as homophobia. A female character is also killed in order to provide a tragic backstory for her lover.

Brett no doubt did a lot of world building and explained his magic system more thoroughly in the main volumes of his series, and probably most readers of this novella will be existing fans. I had to pick things up as I went along, and I suspect I missed plenty of references and foreshadowing that will have resonance for Demon Cycle fans. One interesting thing about his magic system is that it appears to be reversing the aging of the characters who spill demon blood. This includes Selia, who should be entering old age, but is instead experiencing a renewed vigour for life. However, her long-time enemy Jeorje Watch, the oldest man in the Brook, has also benefitted from the magic. Jeorje should have been dead decades ago, along with the secrets he carries about Selia’s past. Jeorje has a long memory, and his isn’t about to forget what was once between Selia and his granddaughter.

Structurally, the novella moves back and forth between Selia’s past, where she lives with her parents, and helps her mother run the local school, and the present where she serves as Speaker, and lives alone, but risks exposure to the community by taking up with a woman five decades her junior. Given the short length of the book, Selia is the only character who feels significantly developed, though by the end I felt I had somewhat of a sense of Jeorje as well. Based on reading synopses for other books in the main series, it does not seem that Selia is a significant character there, so I am not sure if I will continue reading. I am a bit curious to learn more about the magic system based on the small taste I got in Barren.

Have you read the main Demon Cycle novels? Weigh in below in the comments section and let me know if you think it is worth continuing!

A River of Stars

Cover image for A River of Stars by Vanessa Huaby Vanessa Hua

ISBN 9780399178788

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

He’d waited to book her stay until he knew she was having a boy, but objecting to such a preference would have been like objecting to gravity.”

When Scarlett Chen finds herself pregnant with her boss’s son—a married man decades her senior with three grown daughters—he ships her off to Perfume Bay, an underground American maternity hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles, run by the shrewd and enterprising Mama Fang. A lifelong factory worker from the poor countryside, Scarlett is surrounded by rich, cliquey urban women who hope to ensure the best possible lives for their children by giving birth on American soil. The only other outsider is a Daisy, a pregnant Taiwanese teenager whose parents plan to pass off her baby as a younger sibling. When a new ultrasound upends the assumptions that landed Scarlett at Perfume Bay in the first place, she runs away with Daisy, who is desperate to find the missing boyfriend who fathered her child. Alone together in San Francisco’s Chinatown, they must figure out what their new lives will look like, even as they are pursued by Boss Yeung’s investigators.

While focused mainly on Scarlett, A River of Stars incorporates three narrative points of view, also including Mama Fang, the proprietor of the maternity hotel, and Boss Yeung, the father of Scarlett’s child. The additional perspectives are introduced after Scarlett runs away from Perfume Bay, adding the tension of pursuit to the story. Meanwhile, the main arc follows Scarlett and Daisy, and their newborns, into San Francisco’s Chinatown, showing that while an American birth certificate is supposedly a golden ticket to a better life, starting a new existence in a new country is far from easy. While Daisy has citizenship because she was born in the United States when her parents were grad students, Scarlett desperately searches for a way to fix her papers before her visa runs out. If she goes back to China, she knows that Boss Yeung will be able to take her baby, and that she may even be punished for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. The novel is rich in the complexity of the many and various situations that bring Chinese immigrants to America, along with their own class backgrounds, cultural assumptions, and ideas about family.

Although A River of Stars incorporates three perspectives, there were some interesting characters that we do not get to hear from. Daisy is a character we see largely from Scarlett’s point of view, and her characterization is not always deep. Scarlett can muster little sympathy for Daisy’s hopefulness and romantic ideas, and so she often comes across as an entitled child when seen through Scarlett’s eyes. Daisy features rarely, if at all, in Mama Fang’s sections, and is largely unknown to Boss Yeung, except as a potential accomplice to Scarlett’s escape. While I found Mama Fang interesting, particularly as we learn about her background, I didn’t care much about Boss Yeung’s reflections on his behaviour, or his potential regrets as he simultaneously faces fatherhood and his own mortality. I was more interested in his eldest daughter, Viann, who risks being displaced by the birth of an illegitimate brother. I would have liked to see inside her perspective, particularly as her father begins to entertain suspicions about her paternity.

Point of view contributed significantly to my feeling at a remove from certain key characters, like Daisy. However, Hua’s writing style also played a role. It was not uncommon for her to choose to have Scarlett recounting or think about events after the fact, rather than portraying them in the moment. Often I would anticipate a significant event or upcoming confrontation, only to find that I was not going to get to see it actually play out, but would instead get to read about the aftermath.  We see this when Hua sums up what Daisy said or did during an argument with Scarlett, rather than actually writing the dialogue, for example. These choices left me feeling slightly disconnected from a story which I otherwise found thematically interesting and full of great potential.

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Temper

Cover image for Temper by Nicky Drayden Nicky Drayden

ISBN 978-0-06249305-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

As soon as the soles of my worn loafers hit pavement outside the school, my proximity with Kasim breaks and the queasiness is back. The emotions that Kasim’s closeness had tempered come raging forth so quickly, I pitch over from their impact in my gut.”

With six vices to his brother’s six virtues, and only one virtue of his own, Auben Mtuze is what society calls a lesser twin, just like his mother. While his aunt and cousins live in luxury on the other side of the wall, Auben’s family ekes out a living inside the confines of the slums. One day his brother Kasim, a greater twin, might hope to rise up, but will he, like so many before him, leave his lesser twin behind when he goes? Growing up often means growing apart, even for bonded twins who can temper one another by their presence. Auben and Kasim have always been close, but when Auben begins hearing voices that goad him to indulge his vices, and he develops an inexplicable craving for blood, their fragile bond may be stretched to the breaking point, and beyond.

Nicky Drayden sets her sophomore novel in an alternate South Africa with its own unique mythology and history. Through the process of Discernment, twins are branded early with the distribution of their vices and virtues. Lesser twins, and singletons—those born without a twin—are both looked down upon. Religion teaches that the first twins were the gods Grace and Icy Blue, one all virtue, the other all vice, and that all twins are their creations. Secular science teaches than twins and kigen—male/female fraternal twin pairs that have shared DNA in the womb and thus created additional genders—are the result of genetics, but science is secretive and supressed in this world. These distinctions and classes set up a world that is rife with tension, both within and between families.

In both Temper and her first novel, The Prey of the Gods, Drayden is interested in examining what separates gods from people. In her worlds, these boundaries are decidedly imperfect, and even permeable, particularly when science and religion meet. Kasim and Auben are deliberately raised secular, but their six-and-one tempering places them at the extreme, and sends them searching for answers in all directions, including to Gabadamosi, the elite religious private school their cousins attend. Though this world is supposedly ruled by Grace and his virtues, it proves to be a no less complicated place than the slums, albeit with different dangers, because even the virtuous are human, with myriad talents for screwing things up.

On her website, Drayden lists her favourite authors as Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler, and Christopher Moore, a blend which accurately evokes the atmosphere of her two books to date, combining Stephenson and Butler’s grimmer sci-fi talents with Moore’s weirdness and humour. Drayden describes Temper as “a story caught somewhere between dark fantasy and horror.” Certainly there is an element of the surreal about her work, as well an ambitious, genre-spanning scope. I quickly learned to stop trying to predict what was going to happen, and simply go along for the ride as Drayden raced through a plot that could easily have been stretched over multiple volumes in the hands of a different writer. Unlike The Prey of the Gods’ multiple narrators, Temper is told only from Auben’s perspective, but it still covers a lot of ground. Every plot twist left me pleasantly stunned by Drayden’s weirdly fresh imagination.

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Fall 2018 Non-Fiction Preview

Last month, I spent an extended weekend in New Orleans, attending the American Library Association’s annual conference. In addition to meeting up with colleagues, and attending workshops, I also hit up several book buzz sessions, and visited the various publishers in the exhibit hall. Disclaimer: the publishers were giving out ARCs of many of these titles, and I picked up copies where I could, but I haven’t had a chance to get down to reading yet, so these are just a few of the titles I’m particularly excited to read in the coming months.

Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly

Cover image for Rage Becomes Her by Soraya ChemalyWomen are often derided for being emotional, but if there is one emotion that is taboo for women, it is anger, which is regarded as the domain of men. Yet anger in the face of injustice is a perfectly normal reaction, and, Chemaly argues, can even be a source of power, as well as energy for resistance. In Rage Becomes Her, Chemaly seeks to normalize an emotion that, when expressed constructively, has the power to change the world for the better.  Available September 11, 2018 from Simon and Schuster.

The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman

For true crime fans who enjoy a literary connection, The Real Lolita investigates the story of Sally Horner, whose 1948 kidnapping is referenced in, and likely partly inspired, Vladimir Nobokov’s infamous work, which was originally published in 1955.  Although Horner survived her kidnapping, and eventually escaped her captor, she died young, and her story, as well as its connection to Lolita, has largely been forgotten. The book expands on an essay Weinman originally wrote for Hazlitt in 2014. Look for this HarperCollins title in stores on September 11, 2018.

Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas

Cover image for Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas

Dubbed America’s most famous undocumented immigrant, Dear America is Vargas’ memoir about emotional homelessness, the state that arises from living in the United States without truly being able to call it home. Vargas was at ALA, but sadly our schedules never aligned, though I heard a lot of buzz from other attendees about his program alongside poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. However, I was able to snag a copy of his memoir and I’m looking forward to reading more about his experiences as an undocumented American. Coming September 18, 2018 from HarperCollins.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung This forthcoming memoir is about a Korean adoptee who was raised by a white family in small town Oregon. At ALA, Chung spoke movingly about finding her way to writing about her adoption after skirting the topic for many years. Eventually, the prospect of starting her own family prompted her to finally seek answers about where she came from, and All You Can Ever Know chronicles that journey. She is quick to note that her adoptive family was wonderful, but that they were not able to see some of the struggles she faced, and that it was important for her to reckon with the prejudice and disconnection from identity that her circumstances engendered. This Catapult title is scheduled to hit the shelves October 2, 2018.

Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Cover image for Astounding by Alec Nevala-LeeThis is a big, ambitious book that includes four biographies of major and sometimes controversial figures from the early days of science fiction, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Joseph W. Campbell, and L. Ron Hubbard. I had a chance to meet Nevala-Lee at ALA, and we had a good time chatting about the work of Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin while he signed an ARC for me. This is the first biography that takes Campbell as a subject, and Hubbard is of course a famed and controversial figure for his journey from pulp fiction writer to founder of a religion, so I expect that this will be an interesting and informative read! Look for it October 23, 2018 from HarperCollins.

Fall 2018 Fiction Preview

Last month, I spent an extended weekend in New Orleans, attending the American Library Association’s annual conference. In addition to meeting up with colleagues, and attending workshops, I also hit up several book buzz sessions, and visited the various publishers in the exhibit hall. Disclaimer: the publishers were giving out ARCs of many of these titles, and I picked up copies where I could, but I haven’t had a chance to get down to reading most of them yet, so these are just a few of the titles I’m particularly excited to read in the coming months.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

Cover image for A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua When Scarlett Chen falls in love with, and is impregnated by, her boss at a Chinese factory, the father of her child is elated to learn that he will finally have a son. Eager to secure every advantage for his long-awaited heir, he ships Scarlett off to a secret maternity hotel in Los Angeles, so that their son will be born with American citizenship. Scarlett doesn’t fit in with the upper-class women who can afford such a measure, and when a new sonogram leads to a startling revelation, she decides to steal a van, and disappear into Los Angeles’ bustling Chinatown. What she doesn’t expect is a stowaway, and an angry lover hot on her heels. River of Stars will be available from Penguin Random House August 14, 2018.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Cover image for Pride by Ibi ZoboiIf you love a good Pride and Prejudice remix, get ready for Pride, a  young adult  African-American retelling set in gentrifying Brooklyn. Zuri Benitez is proud of her Afro-Latina roots, but the Bushwick she once knew seems to be disappearing before her eyes. Her newest neighbours are the wealthy Darcy family, and while her sister Janae seems enamoured of their son Ainsley, Zuri wants nothing to do with his brother Darius. In the midst of family drama, and looming college applications, will Zuri and Darius be able to find common ground? Look for it from HarperCollins September 18, 2018.

Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosen

Cover image for Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosen Out and proud, it isn’t hard to convince Jack to write a sex advice column for his best friend Jenny’s website. But then the gossip mill starts churning, and soon Jack is receiving threatening notes from a mysterious stalker, who doesn’t like the fact that Jack is proud and comfortable in his skin. Jack of Hearts is already getting buzz for being own voices, queer, and sex positive, and billed as a potential game changer for discussions about sex  and sex ed in Young Adult literature. If it’s half as good as the early buzz, you’ll be eagerly awaiting its October 30, 2018 release from Little Brown. (Also, check out that cover!)

Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Cover image for Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn BarnesFans of The Naturals and The Fixer, take note! Jennifer Lynn Barnes has a new YA mystery headed your way this fall. Sawyer Taft is a talented mechanic, so the last thing she ever expected was to find her estranged grandmother on her doorstep, offering her a six-figure contract to be a debutante. But Sawyer quickly realizes that this unusual offer may be her only chance to discover the answer to a question that has haunted her for her whole life–who is her father? But as she begins mixing in high society, Sawyer quickly realizes that her family’s secrets are tied up with those of other powerful families, and investigating the past may unearth a lot of skeletons that those movers and shakers would rather stay buried. Coming your way November 6, 2018 from Freeform.

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Cover image for In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireNow technically this one isn’t due out until January 2019, so you can imagine my pleasure and surprise at landing an ARC! Katherine Victoria Lundy is a steadfast and serious young girl, and perhaps the last person you would expect to stumble upon a door to another world. But some worlds are founded on logic an reason, fair value and honest bargains. And so it is that Lundy opens a door to the Goblin Market, and finds her true home. But it wouldn’t be fair value to keep a child who is too young to decide, and so Lundy must periodically return to her own world, and the strings that tie her back there grow stronger with each visit. Spoiler alert: I read this one cover to cover on the plane ride home, and it might just be the best Wayward Children book yet! Set your countdown for January 8, 2019, and curse Tor if you don’t want to wait that long.

Pachinko

Cover image for Pachinko by Min Jin LeeMin Jin Lee

ISBN 978-1-4555-6392-0

All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this?

When teenage Sunja meets Koh Hansu in the market of her small Korean village of Busan, she has no idea that their love affair will irrevocably alter the fates of all the generations of her family that will follow after her. Pregnant and unwed, she makes a marriage of convenience with a kindly Korean Christian pastor, who is on his way to Japan to minister to the downtrodden Korean community there. Soon the separation from Korea becomes permanent, as World War II destroys fortunes, and then the Korean War rends their homeland in two. Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in Japan, will live their lives and likely die there, but they will never be Japanese. Brothers Noa and Mozasu follow this fate down different paths, grappling with what it means to be a “good Japanese” or a “good Korean,” and who you are when you have no place to call home.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Pachinko fictionalizes the Koreans who arrived in Japan during the colonial period, and the succeeding generations who found themselves stateless after Korea was divided, and Japan refused to recognize them as citizens. Many generations of Korean Japanese would never see Korea, and yet would be unable to claim the land where they were born as their home. It is a narrative that is at once sweeping and minute, capturing three wars and four generations, and yet also sinking down into the day to day lives of the Baek family as they struggle to make their way in Japan.

Min Jin Lee relies on third person omniscient narration, which can comfortably encompass the many successive generations of characters born into the Baek family. This allows for deep insight into each subsequent character as they take their place at the heart of the story for a time, before passing the torch to the next generation. Interestingly, however, I found that I related more to the older characters who we get to spend more time with. While I had more in common with the younger generations, like Mozasu’s son Solomon, and his girlfriend, Phoebe, I was less interested in their stories. Nevertheless, Lee’s characters and the history that propels them are what gives Pachinko its depth. I was particularly compelled by the friendship that develops between Sunja, and her sister-in-law, Kyung-hee. Kyung-hee knows the truth about Sunja’s marriage to Isak, but she never shuns or judges her. Rather, the two women become allies, and it is through the strength of this bond that they carry the family through its many trials.

Thematically, Pachinko is about the experience of otherness in various forms. For the first generation of Koreans, it is being away from home in a strange land where they are considered less-than. For their children, it is being born in Japan but never accepted as Japanese. And later in the novel, Lee begins to introduce alienated Japanese, like Haruki, Etsuko, and Hana, who struggle with the strictures that are supposed to define their Japanese identities. Haruki is gay, and has a disabled brother, both shameful facts in a conformist society. He keeps his sexuality a secret, even marrying a woman of his mother’s choice. After his mother’s death, he is faced with social pressure to put his brother in an institution. Etsuko is rejected by mainstream society after her affair and divorce, and is left feeling unable to marry the Korean Japanese man she loves, because it would further disgrace her family. Her daughter Hana already lives in the shadow of Etsuko’s divorce, and finds her options limited by the taint of her mother’s fallen reputation. Their fates wend together with the Baek family, exploring how the strictures impact Japanese and Koreans alike.

Pachinko is a striking portrait of both struggle and family, and how the one shapes the other. As the author herself put it an interview with The Atlantic, “even in darkness, there are still weddings. There are still children. There’s laughter. You can’t just look at the dark and you can’t just look at the light: Real human lives are a constant interplay of light and dark.”

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30 Before 30

Cover image for 30 Before 30 by Marina Shifrin by Marina V. Shifrin

ISBN 978-1-250-31130-6

Disclaimer: I received an early review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2018.

Shadow careers are easy to get trapped in because they bring you as close as possible to your dream job without the risk of failure. Failing at a job you don’t care about does not carry the breath-stealing pain of failing at your dream job.”

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Marina Shifrin reached her twenties feeling like she had somehow failed to live up to the “American Dream” her parents had worked so hard to provide her. Weighed down with student loan debt, and a “real” job that she hated, it took a drunken night with a likewise encumbered friend for her to realize that something had to give. She woke up the next morning with a hangover, and a list of thirty things she wanted to accomplish before her thirtieth birthday. First and foremost: “Quit My Shitty Job.” Shifrin would end up doing this in spectacular fashion, propelling her to a brief moment of viral YouTube fame when she danced around her empty office, and posted it to the company’s YouTube account to tell her boss she was quitting. 30 Before 30 recounts the messy path through her twenties, to feeling like she is starting off her thirties on the right foot.

Readers who have followed my blog for a while know that I am always down to read about a year-long blog-turned-book experiment. So I was doubly intrigued to read about what a similar premise would look like, stretched out over a decade-long timeline. 30 Before 30 is structured as a list-turned-memoir, taking each item on the list and using it to recount not just the accomplishment, but the life circumstances that contextualize it. Some of the chapters are tongue in cheek. Chapter Sixteen, “Take a City Bus Tour” simply reads “I went on a sightseeing bus tour in Chicago. That’s it. Holy cow, not everything has a lesson.” Chapter Thirty, “Write a Book,” says only “Please go to page one.” However most of the chapters are more serious and heartfelt, though as a former stand-up comedian and current comedy writer, Shifrin has no problem poking fun at herself. The most harrowing chapter was Shifrin’s account of the unhealthy, codependent pseudo-friendship she got into with her older boss at the digital content company she worked for in Taiwan, and how she ended up publicly nuking that job in order to get out. “Watch All Three Godfather Movies” turned out to be a touching story of trying to relate to her conservative, Russian immigrant father in the aftermath the 2016 presidential election.

Despite fairly different life circumstances, I related to this book pretty hard for a couple of reasons. Shifrin and I are the same age, and neither of us are quite where we thought we would be by thirty, because life is funny like that. But Shifrin embraces the messy direction changes of her twenties, and has polished them into interesting and relatable essays about stumbling your way into adulthood. Her viral media fame was no accident; Shifrin worked for a digital media content company, living and dying by clicks and views, and her memoir freely admits that she designed her Quit My Shitty Job video to be the perfect clickbait. She’s equally candid about what she did and didn’t enjoy about the “sixteen minutes of fame” that followed. Like getting an essay published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, neither feat quite launched her career in the way she initially imagined, because it turns out “there’s no such thing as a big break—just little pushes forward in the endless pursuit of success.”

Some of the strongest stories in the collection relate to Shifrin’s Russian immigrant family. They are both funny and touching. But while Shifrin was very comfortable poking fun at herself, she almost seemed a little protective of her parents, revealing some parts, but reluctant to expose them too much in others. Being an immigrant—albeit one who arrived as a toddler—has clearly strongly shaped Shifrin’s ideas about herself and what she owes to society and her parents. Although plenty of the stories were cringe-worthy, and I suffer mightily from vicarious embarrassment, I still genuinely enjoyed reading about a contemporary stumbling along the same messy path to adulting.

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The Nature Fix

Cover image for The Nature Fix by Florence WIlliams by Florence Williams

ISBN 978-0-393-35557-4

Science is now bearing out what the Romantics knew to be true.”

After a move from mountainous Colorado to the intense urbanity of Washington, DC, journalist Florence Williams found herself stressed and even depressed by the change of scene. DC was grey and full of concrete, traffic, and the constant sound of airplanes arriving and departing the nearby Regan National Airport. The idea of the evils of the city, and the virtues of the countryside is age old, and was particularly popular during the Romantic period, which was a backlash to the Industrial Revolution. But Williams interests herself in the much newer science of the benefits of exposure to nature on human health, both physical and mental. From the wilds of America’s national parks, to the mountains of Japan, and the urban greenery of Singapore and Glasgow, she talks with the various scientists who have been investigating the effects of nature since E.O. Wilson proposed the biophilia hypothesis.

Because this is a newer area of investigation, the exact mechanism by which nature benefits people is still under debate and investigation, making it a particularly interesting area of exploration. Much outdoor activity involves exercise, for example, which has its own well-documented beneficial effects. Williams engages with the different scientists and their various hypotheses about why these interventions are effective, but she is understandably more interested in knowing what works and can be put into practice. But despite her own experiences, she still approaches the subject with a journalist’s skepticism, asking rigorous questions about potentially cofounding variables.

Williams structures her book to look at nature exposure in terms of dosing. What is the effect of mere urban vegetation, for example, a tree outside a hospital window, or a small city park? She then progresses through relatively larger doses, considering what happens when we go for a day hike, or a weekend camping trip, or a long nature retreat. She finishes with a group of female veterans on a weeks-long rafting trip. The women are suffering from PTSD, either from their time in combat zones, or from experiencing sexual assault while in the service, but many experience significant improvement from a multi-week outdoor adventure.

Traveling widely in pursuit of her subject, Williams investigates interesting practices such as shinrin-yoku, or Japanese forest bathing. This a sort of mindful hiking popular in Japan and, increasingly, Korea. It emphasizes a multisensory experience, and researchers there have deeply studied the effects of the scent of the hinoki cypress tree. However, it also has a business aspect, encouraging tourism to Japan’s natural areas, and helping to justify their preservation. The term shinrin-yoku itself was officially created by the Japanese government, Williams finds, although the practice has older roots in Shinto practices.

For those looking for the brief download, Williams provides it in the form of a quote from Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, who advises, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.” These practices can lower the stress hormone cortisol, and even measurably reduce your blood pressure. Anxiety can only be subjectively measured, but researchers have also found reductions in this form of mental distress.

In addition to the benefits of nature, Williams also explores some of the aspects of urban living that can be less than good for the body and mind, such as soundscapes. Traffic and other urban noise can be a surprisingly significant stressor, especially for sensitive people. Even if you aren’t aware of urban noises actively waking you up in the night, they can disturb the quality of your sleep and leave you feeling less rejuvenated come morning. Other studies have shown the deleterious effects of living too close to a freeway, which is a major source of both noise and air pollution for urbanites. Taken together, these studies make a compelling argument for urban design that preserves or enhances natural features, rather than paving over them.

The Nature Fix is a well-rounded exploration of the budding investigation into the benefits of nature on human health written in the style of readable science journalism with a touch of the travelogue.

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