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The Witch of Hebron

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James Howard Kunstler revisits Union Grove and Washington County in upstate New York in The Witch of Hebron, his sequel to a World Made by Hand. Set in an America of the future, after Washington, D.C., has been destroyed in a terrorist nuclear explosion because of this country’s protracted involvement in a Holy Land War, and after the economic collapse has ended all oil imports, the novel spans a period of two weeks in late October. The townspeople inhabit a world without electricity, rely on their own feet or horsepower for transportation, and subsist by exchanging their expertise in a field like carpentry or medicine for food and other necessities. Kunstler provides enough exposition early in the novel to reacquaint readers with his America and to make it possible for a new reader to enjoy this book without having read the previous one. Having that acquaintance with a World Made by Hand makes it possible to fully appreciate his characters and their interactions. Often violent, this novel reveals a time when order, particularly outside of Union Grove, no longer exists. Bandits like Billy Bones roam the county, looking for food, sex, something of value that can be exchanged later, or the material that will provide another stanza to their ballad of misdeeds.Religious faith is often cast in doubt. Characters sometimes turn to the comfort of medicinal herbs and attach magical significance to the associations that we Euro-Americans have carried with us regarding the end of October. Kunstler doesn’t ignore the sexual lives of his characters, proving particular adept when describing the intimate relations of married couples. To his credit, Kunstler has created two strong female characters, Jane Ann Holder and Barbara Maglie. Young women, however, often have to give freely of their bodies.In addition to the occasional sexism, one other drawback to the novel is the medical knowledge of an eleven-year-old, who is able to perform a sophisticated medical procedure after only having watched and assisted his father. Kunstler, at first, splits the narrative by pursuing the actions of several different characters. At the climax of the novel, these characters are brought together in ways not expected. This control of Kunstler’s over his characters and his plot causes the reader to move through the novel quickly and to desire more of what happens in Union Grove, New York after the America we know has changed so drastically.
Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism

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Richard C. Longworth in Caught in the Middle examines the decline of the Midwest and what the region can do to counteract the effects of globalism. Beginning in the 19th century, the Midwest served as the country’s industrial heartland. Since the 1970’s, however, many of the factories in this region have either reduced their workforce or have closed down entirely and moved their production lines overseas. These closings have devastated the region, causing many towns to lose their only major employer. Some of these towns, Longworth says, won’t survive much longer except as bedroom communities for those people willing to commute long distances. Only a few cities and towns have managed to thrive. Kalamazoo, for example, has seen new growth since the city, thanks to private donations, has financed a college education for its local high school graduates. Warsaw, Indiana, has survived by becoming the home for orthopedic manufacturers, something Longworth refers to as “clustering.” These success stories are exceptions. In some cases, a city or town looking to replace its industrial base attracts a meatpacking plant, which, instead of hiring the local population for a living wage, brings in immigrants from Mexico who are willing to work long hours for very little money. This influx of immigrants creates a whole series of financial problems for communities forced to provide essential services. Longworth believes that certain changes will allow the states that make up this region to survive. He foresees a great deal of potential in biotech, particularly the production of ethanol, and biosciences, both of which involve “turning plants and animals into products that go far beyond food.” “Already,” he says, “about one quarter of the Midwest’s corn crop goes for ethanol production.” More than likely, at least half of the corn crop will be turned into ethanol, he adds. Longworth also believes that the biosciences, which has lead to major centers of research in cities like Chicago, Ann Arbor, and St. Louis, will continue to grow and will lead to new lines of production by major corporations like Cargill, Monsanto, and Eli Lilly. For the region to renew itself, Longworth believes that the region needs an educated workforce. The research and manufacturing he foresees will require advanced degrees and if the young people in this region don’t pursue a higher education, the workforce will be imported into the region. Longworth also foresees major growth in the region’s cities if they can attract what Longworth refers to as the “creative class,” the highly educated people who can create the new ideas needed by the region. These cities will need to lose their provincialism and embrace diversity and open-mindedness, things that the region has not previously promoted. This shift to an educated workforce will create large pockets of poverty in the region, causing those who formally held minimum wage jobs to flounder. Ultimately, Longworth advocates more cooperation among the states, including the elimination of individual states in favor of smaller regions that cross existing state lines. Longworth also exhibits a strong bias toward the Big Ten schools, believing that those institutions hold more hope for the region. He also advocates the elimination of duplicate college programs, believing that specialization is the only hope for the major educational institutions. Longworth’s examination of this region would have been more complete if he had considered the ecological problems that the region will face. Increasing the amount of corn harvested to fuel the demand for ethanol will be accompanied with a greater reliance on pesticides. What consequences will occur when the soil will no longer sustain the yields that corporations like Cargill require? What will happen when the water becomes more heavily polluted? Longworth’s attitude toward water as something to be sold is revealed when he says that “water is the resource of the future, and the Great Lakes states need to be ready to exploit it.” This attitude will only result in another period of bust and one of more serious consequences when the land will not sustain the population and when the water has been polluted beyond hope or sold to cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.Ultimately, Longworth’s book is an important one because of its relatively thorough examination of one particular region. The Great Plains states need a similar study because they offer less hope and will experience more widespread devastation in the coming years.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

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Bill McKibben in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet argues that the world we once knew no longer exists because of global warming, which currently includes a one-degree Celsius rise in temperature and an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Although the atmosphere currently contains 390 ppm of carbon dioxide, McKibben believes that the amount of carbon can brought down to 350 ppm, an amount that scientists see as the upper limits of that safe range. McKibben devotes the first chapter to accounts of how global warming has affected climate by examining not only extreme weather events, particularly stronger and more devastating rainfall, but also disappearing glaciers, losses in sea ice, and permanent shifts in climate patterns. These manifestations of global warming will only become more widespread and more destructive. Countries located in the northern hemisphere can reduce the amount of carbon used, he says, by increasing the cost of both gasoline and coal. Those developing nations will ultimately use fewer amounts of fossil fuels if those nations in the northern hemisphere offer alternatives by providing green energy—e.g., wind turbines. Unfortunately, America is too saddled with debt to make significant changes nationally. McKibben also believes that the American government has grown too large because of large nationwide projects like the construction of the interstate system. Now the federal government needs to shrink in size while individual states learn to create their own energy and their own food. This call for simplicity, while also requiring the end of consumerism and complexity on many levels, can allow people to make changes not only locally but also nationally and globally by communicating via the Internet and by working together to make the new world that we inhabit a somewhat more welcoming kind of place. McKibben has created an important book that makes radical statements and that calls for drastic actions. As Americans, the world’s largest consumers and largest users of fossil fuels, we have no choice but to change how we live on this planet.At times, particularly in the later chapters, it seems as if McKibben wrote the book in haste, perhaps because of the urgency to get the book into print and to make others aware of the topic. It was difficult at times to discern the direction of his third chapter, which is one of four chapters. Personally, I would have preferred more attribution for some of the quotes because some of them are simply dropped into the prose and accompanied with a footnote when the quote, if it deserves to be used, should be identified within the prose. Despite these criticisms, the book needs to find a wide audience so that others can learn of the severity of global warming and what we can do as a nation, as a community, and as individuals.
Yonni Hale and the Cosmic Wind

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Yonni Hale and the Cosmic Wind, written by Rajah Hill, focuses on the growth and perceptions of a young girl as she comes to learn of her personal power and her connectedness with women of all ages and with nature. One of a series of projected books containing the character Yonni Hale, and set in Kansas, this novel captures elements of small-town life, where the division between those with money and those without money is readily apparent. Those who run the town seek yet more influence and make an effort to destroy the lives of others. While her large family allows Yonni to grow up assured of love and support, she is not willing to let any of her friends suffer because of the power exhibited by those businessmen with money. Yonni, as she gains strength and control over her personal power, harnesses nature to protect those she cares about. The novel develops Yonni’s transformation and her control over this power. At the same time, the novel lingers over such things as the strength of Yonni’s mother, her parents’ relationship, Yonni’s relationship with her sisters, and her introduction to the professors and the knowledge available at the local college. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and although there are things worth savoring, there is enough suspense to cause one to stay up reading into the night.
Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future

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Greg Melville’s Greasy Rider describes the author’s effort at converting a 1985 Mercedes wagon to run on used fry grease from restaurants and driving it from Vermont to California. Encouraged by the prospect of locating free energy, Melville opts to operate his car exclusively on fry grease instead of biodiesel, which still contains a percentage of petroleum. As a test of the feasibility of this alternative fuel, Melville decides to emulate the cross-country trip of H. Nelson Jackson, who, as Melville says, was the first person to cross the country in a car running on petroleum. Relatively challenged by auto mechanics, however, Melville enlists the help of Iggy, his former college roommate, to help maintain the engine and to help fill the container in the trunk with waste restaurant grease. Prompted by Iggy, who gives Melville various challenges or errands to discover more about green energy, the narrative is broken up by six of these errands, most of which occur after the initial trip and are included as addendums or side-trips, so to speak. These errands include research into Al Gore’s own 10,000 foot mansion to determine whether his house is heated and cooled with green energy; how a few Minnesota farmers are in the midst of making wind power profitable; how cellulosic ethanol, the conversion of plants into energy without using corn and without using the expensive distillation process currently employed to create ethanol, could, according to Lee Lynd, a professor at Dartmouth, significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels; a visit to Google’s headquarters where solar energy is generated and could, conceivably, power a portion of the buildings on the Google campus if the energy weren’t sold to the energy grid in that area; the creation of geothermal energy at Fort Knox; and a visit to a green Wal-Mart in Texas. These explorations reveal not only the hypocrisy of Al Gore but also the individual and corporate efforts at adopting green alternatives. Often humorous because of Melville’s initial attempts at locating restaurant grease at fast food restaurants, the narrative describes the system that Melville and Iggy adopt to fill their fuel container. By the time that these two guys reach California, it is possible as a reader to smell the grease stored and emitted by this Mercedes, a smell which is so strong, Melville says, that every article of clothing he brought along for the trip became permeated with the smell. Coupled with this problem, the narrator finds it difficult to remain in such close quarters with his former college roommate, eventually exploding at what he considers as his friend’s irritating mannerisms. While this narrative proves that it is possible to make a cross country trip on the grease gathered from restaurants, it also calls into question the viability of such an alternative to gasoline because of the potential run on restaurant grease if enough people converted their own cars to operate on the same alternative fuel. It may be possible to subsist on this fuel when driving locally if the car owner reserves a constant supply of this fuel supply. Should the restaurant close down, or once enough other people start clamoring for the same fuel, the possibility of relying exclusively on this free fuel becomes remote. Ultimately, I would have liked seeing more exploration into alternative fuels and green energy. If the narrative were widened to include what’s being done elsewhere in the world and how the oil corporations have resisted pumping their billions into green energy, the book would have been more than a trip across the country, one containing the adventure of pumping restaurant grease, the difficulty of maintaining a lengthy car trip with another male, and side trips to consult other mavericks and other sites of green energy.
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