Reading astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter’s latest book, How to Die in Space, will surely help any adult erase regrets they may have about their failed childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. As the SUNY Stony Brook professor observes, outer space—populated by such threats as black holes, acid rain, asteroids, planetary nebulae and magnetic fields—is, to put it frankly, “nasty.”
The latest installment in our “Books of the Week” series, which launched in late March to support authors whose works have been overshadowed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, details the many ways one might meet their demise in space, six notorious military rivalries, the Italian Renaissance’s dark undertones, the history of swimming and the culinary implications of so-called “wild foods.” Past coverage has highlighted books including Karen Gray Houston's exploration of her family's civil right's legacy, St. Louis' racist history, James Madison's black family, and modern conservatism's roots in the antebellum South and post-Civil War westward expansion.
Representing the fields of history, science, arts and culture, innovation, and travel, selections represent texts that piqued our curiosity with their new approaches to oft-discussed topics, elevation of overlooked stories and artful prose. We’ve linked to Amazon for your convenience, but be sure to check with your local bookstore to see if it supports social distancing-appropriate delivery or pickup measures, too.
How to Die in Space: A Journey Through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena by Paul M. Sutter
Despite its macabre title, How to Die in Space is a surprisingly lighthearted read. Adopting what Kirkus describes as an “informal, humorous persona,” Sutter—host of popular podcast “Ask a Spaceman!”—guides his audience through the cosmos’ deadliest phenomena, from Jupiter’s dense atmosphere to radiation, solar flares and exploding stars, which he deems “slumbering dragon[s], just waiting for the chance to awaken and begin breathing flame.”
The book also dedicates ample space to speculative threats, including dark matter, extraterrestrial life, wormholes and “other relics of the ancient universe.”
How to Die in Space’s description emphasizes that while “the universe may be beautiful, ... it’s [also] treacherous.” Still, Sutter’s musings cover more than simply doom and gloom: As the scientist writes in the text’s closing chapters, “It’s really an excuse to talk about all the wonderful physics happening in the cosmos. … There is so much to learn, and we need to study it as closely and intimately as possible.”
Gods of War: History’s Greatest Military Rivals by James Lacey and Williamson Murray
Following the release of their 2013 bestseller, Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World, journalist James Lacey and historian Williamson Murray started brainstorming topics to explore in future books. Eventually, the pair landed on the premise of rivals, defined in Gods of War’s introduction as “military geniuses who … fought a general of equal caliber”—or, in the cases of World War II commanders Erwin Rommel, Bernard Law Montgomery and George Patton, multiple generals.
Bookended by essays on war’s “changing character” and the role of military genius in modern warfare, the six case studies read like a Who’s Who of global history. Representing the ancient world are Hannibal and Scipio (the latter of whom the authors describe as “the better strategic thinker”) and Caesar and Pompey. Crusader kings Richard I and Saladin; Napoleon Bonaparte and Battle of Waterloo victor Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington; Union Army commander Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate officer Robert E. Lee round out the list of 13 featured men.
Lacey and Murray liken their approach to chess strategy. “There is only so much you can learn by playing someone inferior to you or by revisiting the games of neophytes,” the duo writes. “There is, however, much to absorb, think about, and learn from studying games that [pit] one grandmaster against another.”
The Beauty and the Terror: The Italian Renaissance and the Rise of the West by Catherine Fletcher
As alluded to by its title, Catherine Fletcher’s latest book juxtaposes seemingly discordant aspects of the Italian Renaissance: its aesthetic brilliance and, in the words of fellow historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, the “filth and thuggery, slavery, sex, slaughter and skullduggery behind [this] exquisite art.” Framed as an alternative history of the much-explored period of creative rebirth, The Beauty and the Terror contextualizes the Italian Renaissance within the framework of European colonialism, widespread warfare and religious reform. Rather than focusing solely on such artistic geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli, Fletcher lends a voice to the women writers, Jewish merchants, mercenaries, prostitutes, farmers and array of average citizens who also called the Italian peninsula’s competing city-states home.
The “lived reality” of 15th- and 16th-century Italy involved far more violence, uncertainty and devastation than widely believed, argues Fletcher. Forces beyond its residents’ control—a series of wars, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the advent of the Protestant Reformation—shaped their lives yet have been largely overshadowed by what their greatest minds left behind.
“We revere Leonardo da Vinci for his art but few now appreciate his ingenious designs for weaponry,” notes the book’s description. “We know the Mona Lisa for her smile but not that she was married to a slave-trader. We visit Florence to see Michelangelo's David but hear nothing of the massacre that forced the republic’s surrender.”
Splash!: 10,000 Years of Swimming by Howard Means
In lieu of visiting a swimming pool this summer, consider diving into Howard Means’ absorbing exploration of aquatic recreation and exercise. As the journalist writes in Splash!’s prologue, paddling, floating or wading through water can be a transformative experience: “The near weightlessness of swimming is the closest most of us will ever get to zero-gravity space travel. The terror of being submerged is the nearest some of us ever come to sheer hell.”
The earliest evidence of swimming dates to some 10,000 years ago, when Neolithic people living in what is now southwest Egypt painted individuals performing the breaststroke or doggy paddle on the walls of the Cave of Swimmers. Swimming endured throughout the classical period, with ancient texts including the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Chinese Book of Odes all containing references to the practice.
The advent of the medieval era—with its rising “prudery” and insularity, as well as its lack of sanitation and efficient infrastructure—quickly brought this “golden age” of swimming to an end; in Europe, at least, “swimming slipped into the dark for a full millennium,” writes Means.
During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, swimming was more closely associated with witchcraft than leisure. The practice only regained popularity during the Enlightenment period, when such prominent figures as Benjamin Franklin and Lord Byron reminded the public of its merits. By 1896, swimming had regained enough popularity to warrant its inclusion in the first modern Olympic Games.
Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food by Gina Rae La Cerva
Part memoir, part travelogue and part culinary adventure, Feasting Wild examines “humans’ relationship to wild food and the disappearing places and animals that provide it,” according to Publishers Weekly. Broadly defined as fare foraged, hunted or caught in the wild, the “untamed” foods detailed in geographer and anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva’s debut book hail from such diverse locales as Scandinavia, Poland, Borneo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, New Mexico and Maine. Once “associated with poverty and subsistence,” writes La Cerva, wild foods including broad-leaved garlic, bushmeat, sea buckthorn flowers and moose meat are now viewed as luxuries, reserved for five-star restaurants that cater to an elite clientele.
La Cerva argues that this shift in perception stems from the onslaught of “settler-colonialism,” which used the dichotomy of wild versus tame to “justify violent appetites and the domination of unfamiliar cultures and places.” Within a few centuries, she adds, “the world [had] traded wild edibles at home for exotic domesticates from abroad.”
The flipside of this “fetishization of need” is the standardization of humans’ diets. As wild places across the world vanish, so, too, do undomesticated or uncultivated plant and animal species. Preserving wild foods—and the knowledge imparted by the women who have historically collected and cooked them—is therefore “fundamentally about recovering our common heritage,” writes La Cerva. “The urgency of the environmental crisis is precisely why we must slow down, take time, [and] become complicated in our actions.”