Category Archives: Interviews

Book Review: Material Value by Julia Goldstein

Material Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning ProductsMaterial Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products by Julia L.F. Goldstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book could be titled “Another Inconvenient Truth,” because it takes as a starting point what most polemical environmentalist literature does not: that we humans need fossil fuels, factories, manufacturing, and chemicals–even toxic ones. We also need corporations and jobs. The author accepts that these aspects of our lives are not going away, at least not in the absence of the environmental crash/catastrophe we are desperately trying to avoid. Once that foundation has been laid, the rest of the book can be built on it. The result is a largely even-handed discussion of what the built environment is made of, how it got that way, and a clear-eyed look at what steps might be taken to make the whole enterprise more sustainable, allowing humans to tread more lightly on the earth.

The author, Julia LF Goldstein, has a PhD in materials science and is a trained engineer and award-winning technical writer. This background molds her prose for better and worse. Her explanation of why and how the air has gotten cleaner since the 1970s is well-written, clear, and easy for the educated lay person to follow, as are her explanations of why and how it can be difficult to remove toxins from the environment. I hadn’t known the scope of the e-waste recycling problem until reading this book either, and I’m now giving myself two cheers for keeping my old cell phone a while longer.

This book also provides an interesting early-2019 snapshot of new companies and new technologies at work. Some of these new technologies are fascinating, and seem to be right out of science fiction. There is the sonic generator technology used by Ronin8, that uses underwater sound waves to sort materials by density. There is EcoSheep, a company selling a sheep oil lubricant that works better than petroleum-based competitors. And there is Mighty-O donuts, an almost zero-waste vegan donut shop. Reading about these companies gives me hope that entrepreneurship will indeed be a large part of the sustainability solution.

The writing is still quite technical, however, and is somewhat lacking in the areas of storytelling and reader engagement. To address this, Goldstein occasionally throws in an anecdote or two from her own experience. For example, she spends a few pages comparing the different kinds of tennis racquets she has owned, some made of carbon fiber. She also describes the milk she has purchased in glass bottles from a Seattle-area delivery service as delicious. Anecdotes like these can help to humanize her for the reader, as it did me, but they may backfire if the reader doesn’t share her biases or demographic. Millennials reading it might end up feeling lectured by their mother or teacher. People who can’t afford carbon fiber tennis racquets or milk delivery may feel condescended to. Environmental activists may be impatient with the incremental and halfway progress that these measures will bring about. And as someone who has studied molecular biology and genetic engineering, even I thought that her willingness to imply that the controversial agricultural weed killer Roundup is a public health menace on a par with Radium or Tobacco was unnecessarily hyperbolic. But that there is something there to annoy people on multiple sides of the political landscape probably only means that she has gotten the tone about right.

Goldstein makes extensive use of interviews of CEOs and founders of companies who are implementing green policies. This is an inspired idea, and these interviews are promising for reader engagement. But here too, more vivid language would be helpful. Instead of being written in a standard book or magazine interview format, with an introduction, questions from the author, and answers from the interviewee in his or her own voice interleaved, the interviews are summarized in their entirety in several paragraphs of the author’s workmanlike technical prose. I found this format confusing enough that I didn’t even realize that I was reading the first “interview” before I was halfway through it.

The exception is the interview with Smokey Peck, of Interwest Paper in Salt Lake City UT. His interview comes the closest to the type of interview I would expect to continue reading in a magazine. Although it is not written in his voice, the interview provides several stories of Smokey overcoming obstacles or making prescient decisions; for example he has been ahead of the curve on inventory control for years, and he convinced a resistant Utah state representative to support curbside recycling. Smokey also provides the author with some well-chosen quotes and his is the only name I remembered while writing this review without having to look it up.

The other interview subjects are similarly well-chosen to illustrate the author’s points; I only wish she had fleshed the subjects out a bit more and given them more of their own authentic voices. I believe this would help further humanize these business leaders and give a face to the corporations that remain anonymous and all-too-easy to scapegoat.

I will end this review by saying that I think every American adult should read this book, and that more authors should write even-handed, non-hyperbolic books like this one. Material Value is occasionally slow going, but overall it is a refreshing and practical antidote to the polarized sound bites that dominate so much of our political discourse about climate and sustainability.

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A Tale of Two Editors: the makings of The Little Women Legacy

A fun interview with Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelly, the editors of Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes. As someone who moved to New York and married a German guy in real life, I am naturally Team Friedrich!

Much ado about Little Women

I had to ask: Team Laurence or Team Bhaer? Editors Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelly talk Jo March’s ending, how they’d put the March sisters to work at Pink Umbrella Books (not just work of course – they’d go on holiday too), and surprises for fans in the to-be-released anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy.

Jo March’s ending – Jo with Friedrich Bhaer, Jo with Theodore Laurence, Jo single, or something else?

MERRY: I’m Team Friedrich. Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but Laurie is such a puppy.

MARNAE: I’m a big Bhaer fan because of the equality of minds in that relationship and the opportunities for growth in both characters.

Who of all the March sisters would you go on holiday with, where would you go, and why?

MERRY: I’d take an English holiday with Jo – specifically to hit up the literary landmarks, as we are kindred spirits that way.

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Near-future SF Author Spotlight: Aaron Hodges

Last year I decided I needed to read more indie science fiction and ecofiction. I didn’t want to write in isolation, and in keeping with my desire to focus on the writing journey as much as the finished product, I wanted to be part of a larger conversation. I added Book Reviews to my blog and hoped to publish a review a week. Well, that’s not happening, but I have been able to get out 1-2 per month. And along the way I have met some very interesting authors and read stories that I never would have encountered by sticking only to what gets traditionally published. Indie fiction is not usually as polished, or as formulaic, as what hits the mainstream press. It takes more risks, and fails more often. It is a wild ride that brings you right up against the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths of the writers’ condition. But that rawness–that raw courage–is a big part of why I still read and write books at all in this age of increasingly sophisticated electronic media.

Author Aaron Hodges
Author Aaron Hodges

One of these authors is Aaron Hodges, a kiwi writer of dystopian science fiction and fantasy. He hails from New Zealand, but his Praegressus Project series takes place in the mountains of central California, not too far from where I live now in Silicon Valley. It is set in the year 2052, after the fall of the USA and subsequent rise of the totalitarian Western Allied States.

I have been intrigued by stories of the USA de-uniting for years, with that interest accelerating and getting more personal after our 2016 elections and the social, political, and class divisions they laid bare. The novel American War by Omar El Akkad, about a second American Civil War, was published earlier this year to broad acclaim (read my review here). I talked with Aaron Hodges via email about his world-building, the de-United States, and his vision for the Praegressus Project series.

KLA: You are from New Zealand. What made you interested in setting your book in a future North America with a defunct United States?

AH: This was actually more of a pragmatic choice than anything. The majority of my readers are from the States, so I decided that would be the best place to set the story. Unfortunately, I have only ever visited the west coast, so I decided to base the majority of the story around that region. Which meant the west coast obviously had to end up being the victors in the civil war!

KLA: I have also been working on a novel that is set in the former USA, which has federalized into different regions. I live here, so I have been inspired by things I’ve read around the Presidential elections. Red state/blue state maps are very popular, for example. What made you divide the USA into the regions you chose?

AH: There was definitely a bit of red/blue state stuff going on! It’s never explicitly stated, but something in 2020 led to California ceding from the union – after which Washington, Oregon and a few other states out west promptly followed. However, as that sort of split was more historical than anything by the time the series begins. I wanted to highlight another division that takes place all over the world even today – the divide between rural and urban populations. I wanted to show a world where the population- and wealth- drain from the countryside into cities had reached a breaking point, and explore the sort of characters that come out of that.

KLA: How is climate change working in your future world? As the century progresses I would have expected Sacramento to get warmer and drier, not colder as depicted in your first chapters. What weather patterns could account for this?

AH: It’s actually a common misconception that climate change means warming all year round. While internationally temperatures may be increasing, on a local scale the effects are far less predictable. Climate patterns such as El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) have a much greater impact on local climate than climate change, and exactly how climate change affects these patterns is very much a black box (i.e. we have no idea how it will end up impacting them!)

Sorry that got a little technical😆! Climate was a big part of my science degree back in the day. Basically, the effects of climate change depend on location, and can have seemingly opposite results. For instance, California is likely to see an increase in droughts AND heavy rainfall events such as tropical cyclones over the next century. Likewise, summers may get hotter, but inversely winters may also get colder. Then you throw in something like a La Niña year, which means less rain and colder temperatures and…things get complicated😆!

KLA: I have degrees in biological science, and often I think the biology in science fiction is pretty unbelievable. But I thought your explanations of how the Chead are formed were quite good and plausible. Even though they are speculative, they make sense and didn’t throw me out of the story. Did your background in biology inspire this part of the plot? How does it inform your writing generally?

AH: Haha–well it’s good to hear my memory from genetics hasn’t completely failed me yet! I actually first started thinking about this project during my Genetics 202 class, when we were discussing homeotic genes and how a virus could be used for genetic modification. I found it all fascinating, and thought it would be interesting to write a scifi novel with genetically modified humans that were still grounded in some science.

For the rest of my work, such as my fantasy series, my studies in geography and environmental science were more important for the world building. Having a bit of knowledge about how mountains/forests/oceans affect local climate was very useful in developing a new world that might almost work in reality!

The final book in the Praegressus Project series, Retribution, is scheduled to be published next week, and this post is part of a blog tour in celebration of the series’ completion. During the blog tour, the first three novels in the series – RebirthRenegades, and Retaliation -are free. There will also be a Goodreads giveaway for three paperback copies of Rebirth, ending December 25th. Look for my blog review of Rebirth in the coming days!–KLA

It’s All about Presence: A Conversation with Val Vigoda

I published this interview with rock violinist and singer/songwriter Val Vigoda 1 year ago. This past weekend her show, “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” opened Off-Broadway at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit ernestshackletonlovesme.com. In the interview, Val talks in detail about how the show was conceived and created. Read it on violinist.com, below.

A Thousand Finds

Valerie_Brendan_0136Val Vigoda is an electric violinist, singer/songwriter, and founder of the musical trio GrooveLily. She has toured the world with Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Val has also co-written, with Brendan Milburn, songs for Disney’s Tinker Bell movies as well as the score for the stage musicals Striking 12, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, Toy Story: The Musical, and many others, including Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, starring Val as Kat, a contemporary composer and single mom who meets and falls in love with the time-traveling explorer.

Val and I went to Princeton University together. We traveled in different circles then: I played the violin for two years in the University Orchestra, she was exploring the potential of the instrument when combined with singing in a rock band. After graduation I followed Val’s career over the years, reconnecting through her kickstarter campaign for her one-woman show, “Just…

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It’s All about Presence: A Conversation with Val Vigoda

Valerie_Brendan_0136

Val Vigoda is an electric violinist, singer/songwriter, and founder of the musical trio GrooveLily. She has toured the world with Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Val has also co-written, with Brendan Milburn, songs for Disney’s Tinker Bell movies as well as the score for the stage musicals Striking 12, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, Toy Story: The Musical, and many others, including Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, starring Val as Kat, a contemporary composer and single mom who meets and falls in love with the time-traveling explorer.

Val and I went to Princeton University together. We traveled in different circles then: I played the violin for two years in the University Orchestra, she was exploring the potential of the instrument when combined with singing in a rock band. After graduation I followed Val’s career over the years, reconnecting through her kickstarter campaign for her one-woman show, “Just Getting Good.”

–>Continue Reading on violinist.com