The best novels that are stealth environmental histories

Who am I?

My childhood was marked by weekly trips to the library, afternoons on the couch with snacks and novels, and imaginary play with friends. I became a professional historian later in life and found my home in the study of energy, environment, and technology as key factors in the story of human change. My workday is consumed with tracking down the facts of how and why things took place in the past. It's a delight to pick up a novel for the writing and narrative, and to put it down thinking about the environmental history hidden within. I selected these five books because they're renowned for their authorship, yet they convey tales of environmental change interwoven with the drama of human lives.


I wrote...

The Grid: Biography of an American Technology

By Julie Cohn,

Book cover of The Grid: Biography of an American Technology

What is my book about?

The North American power grid has been called the world's largest machine. Power lines connect nearly every living soul on the continent and Americans rely utterly on the miracle of electrification. This book traces the history of the grid, from early linkages in the 1890s through the grid's maturity as a networked infrastructure in the 1980s. It focuses on the strategies and technologies used to control power on the grid—in fact, made up of four major networks of interconnected power systems—paying particular attention to the work of engineers and system operators who handled the everyday operations.

The Grid investigates major challenges and major breakthroughs but also the hidden aspects of our electricity infrastructure, both technical and human. In a world looking for paths to a net-zero energy future, this book provides a look back at the choices, gambles, and innovations that brought our electric power system to this moment.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Death Comes for the Archbishop

Julie Cohn Why did I love this book?

Every book by Willa Cather is worth a read for her beautiful evocation of places, times, and people. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a fictionalized biography of two Roman Catholic priests dispatched to New Mexico in the 1850s to serve the newly established diocese in this newly annexed region of the United States. The heart of the story is the way in which each of the men evolve and adapt to a world utterly unlike the European urban centers they have left behind. In Cather’s hands, the landscape quickly becomes a third principal character. I was struck by how effectively she portrayed change in the natural world, as generations of humans made their livings across the region; and how the deserts and mesas persisted, despite the encroachments of a modernizing America.

By Willa Cather,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Death Comes for the Archbishop as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of the most highly acclaimed novelists of the twentieth century—"a truly remarkable book" (The New York Times),an epic—almost mythic—story of a single human life lived simply in the silence of the southwestern desert.

In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes to serve as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. In the almost forty years that follow, Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows—gently, all the while contending with an unforgiving landscape,…


Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Julie Cohn Why did I love this book?

Hurston’s riveting book explores the extraordinary experiences of a Black woman living in the 1930s rural south. With vernacular language, compelling characters, and lively dialogue, Hurston’s protagonist, Janie, tells her story of love and tragedy. Every episode is embroidered with the vegetation, humidity, waterways, and soil of central and northern Florida. The land-based work of former slaves forms the spine of the story, and a hurricane triggers the culminating crisis of Janie’s life. Through this work of fiction, one grasps essential themes of environmental history: human labor intertwined with the land, altered ecosystems, gendered experiences of nature, and the tight link between natural disasters and social inequities. 

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cover design by Harlem renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds ...

'For me, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece…


Book cover of Angle of Repose

Julie Cohn Why did I love this book?

An “angle of repose” is the steepest angle at which loose material, such as sand, can be piled without slumping. Stegner chose an explicit term of geology and soils science as the metaphor for this love story. His protagonists, a restless miner and his Yankee wife, dwell in the mountains of California, Colorado, and Mexico as they build, betray, and somehow sustain their marriage. Stegner evokes the voracious appetite of the mining companies, the destruction caused by mining operations, the challenges of living on mountain edges, and the sharp beauty of western North America, all central themes of environmental history.

By Wallace Stegner,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Angle of Repose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The novel tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease, Ward embarks nonetheless on a search to rediscover his grandmother, no long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier.


Book cover of The Lady in the Lake

Julie Cohn Why did I love this book?

What is more fun than reading a gritty noir detective story set in Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century? Chandler’s book takes the reader in and around the City of Angels in 1942, as the film industry booms, the suburbs expand, the air grows polluted, and nearby mountains beckon. Yet the titular lake sits behind a federal dam, protected by US Army patrols, as World War II encroaches. While following Chandler’s characters as they enacted their tale of murders, sordid affairs, and dirty money, I was struck by the environmental story unfolding. Urban sprawl, networked infrastructure, reconstructed waterways, and diminishing opportunities to commune with nature – these are core issues of the 20th-century transformation of the US landscape.

By Raymond Chandler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Lady in the Lake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pearson English Readers bring language learning to life through the joy of reading.



Well-written stories entertain us, make us think, and keep our interest page after page. Pearson English Readers offer teenage and adult learners a huge range of titles, all featuring carefully graded language to make them accessible to learners of all abilities.



Through the imagination of some of the world's greatest authors, the English language comes to life in pages of our Readers. Students have the pleasure and satisfaction of reading these stories in English, and at the same time develop a broader vocabulary, greater comprehension and reading…


Book cover of Lot: Stories

Julie Cohn Why did I love this book?

As a longtime resident of Houston, of course, I must include a book about this unusual place! Washington’s characters lead difficult lives, his narrative is tough, and sometimes his geographical references are misleading. Nonetheless, each episode (which unfolds on a particular lot or spot in Houston) captures the experience of living in the Bayou City – the traffic, the summer weather, the slow-moving waterways, the unruly weed patches, the architecture, the neatly maintained neighborhoods, and the mix of cultures from around the world. Houston was transformed from prairie, swamp, and piney woods to a landscaped metropolis by wildcatters, entrepreneurs, scientists, workers, creatives, and others. Washington’s stories evoke this dynamic human/environment connection throughout. 

By Bryan Washington,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* Winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize 2020 *

* One of Barack Obama's "Favourite Books of the Year" *

* A New York Times Critics' Top Books of 2019 *

'A superb book' Max Porter, author of Lanny
____________________________________

Stories of a young man finding his place among family and community in Houston, from a powerful, emerging American voice.

In an apartment block, the son of a black mother and a Latino father is coming of age. He's working at his family's restaurant, trying to dodge his brother's fists and resenting his older sister's absence. He's also discovering he…


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Bessie

By Linda Kass,

Book cover of Bessie

Linda Kass Author Of Bessie

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Bookstore owner Learner Reader Historical novelist Long distance cyclist

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In the bigoted milieu of 1945, six days after the official end of World War II, Bess Myerson, the daughter of poor Russian immigrants living in the Bronx, remarkably rises to become Miss America, the first —and to date only— Jewish woman to do so. At stake is a $5,000 scholarship for the winner.

An intimate fictional portrait of Bess Myerson’s early life, Bessie reveals the transformation of the nearly six-foot-tall, self-deprecating yet talented preteen into an exemplar of beauty, a peripheral quality in her world. It is the unfamiliar secular society of pageantry she must choose to escape her roots as she searches for love and acceptance, eager to make her mark on the world.

Bessie

By Linda Kass,

What is this book about?

Just days after the close of World War II, Bess Myerson, the college-educated daughter of poor Russian Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, is competing in the Miss America pageant. At stake: a $5,000 scholarship. The tension and excitement in Atlantic City's Warner Theatre is palpable, especially for traumatized Jews rooting for one of their own. So begins Bessie.


Drawing on biographical and historical sources, Bessie reimagines the early life of Bess Myerson, who, in 1945 at age twenty-one, remarkably rises to become one of the most famous women in America. This intimate fictional portrait reveals the transformation of the…


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