The Chair has been around for decades, but it was in the post-recession period, around 2010, that it became ubiquitous: its arching metal back wrapping just barely forward enough to intrude on your hips, the nearly flat seat inviting you to join it, coldly and bracingly, like Ursula inviting you into her underwater lair. The naked metal paired well with the Edison bulbs and exposed rafters of the era. As raw wood and vintage-style painting on brick took over décor, everything had to look perfectly minimalist. And the chair, usually in unpainted metal, completed that look.
Unfortunately, it didn’t complete the experience. Because I don’t have to touch the bare lightbulbs and there’s no danger of a splinter from a ceiling beam, those were of little consequence. But those chairs, they caused me plenty of pain. As a woman of ample size, I thought, as they first started spreading like the wildfire of mild annoyance into restaurants around the country, that I must just be too fat for these chairs. But as I silently suffered through another dinner in one of these low-level torture devices, my rail-thin friend Bill could no longer keep quiet on the horrors of The Chair. From his rant, I realized that everyone found these chairs to be fundamentally terrible: they’re cold, they’re hard, and they just don’t seem to be designed to fit a human body (and certainly not a large one).
Nothing in my life before or since has humbled me quite like lining up for powdered milk, bread past its sell-by date and a small box of canned provisions.
There are many reasons your income can disappear overnight. You might get sick, as I did; your factory might close; your employer might implement mass layoffs. We live in a society where precarious seasonal and contract work without benefit plans is the norm, and genuine poverty is something that can happen to anyone.
Part autobiography, part cri de coeur, Horizon finds the longtime travel and science writer recounting trips he’s taken to six regions of the world: the Canadian High Arctic, the Eastern Equatorial Pacific, Eastern Equatorial Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and the coast of Oregon, his home state. Now in his 70s, Lopez writes with fervid wonder and fascination about all he’s seen and experienced. This includes coming “face to face” with a 600-pound Weddell seal while diving beneath sea ice in Antarctica, searching for hominin fossils with the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in Kenya, and, in one particularly lovely scene, waking late one night on Oregon’s Cape Foulweather to find five Roosevelt elk grazing just beyond his tent.
Most of all, though, Lopez is gripped by an urgency to tell “a coherent and meaningful story” about the threat of humanity’s extinction as a result of climate change and societal declension, and the ways he believes it can be avoided. “I want everyone here to survive what is coming,” he writes. By bringing his past experiences and observations into the present, Lopez underscores how travel writing has changed as planetary conditions have worsened.
In a speech in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded a San Francisco audience of what had always distinguished the United States from other nations since its earliest days. “At the very worst,” Roosevelt declared, “there was always the possibility of climbing into a covered wagon and moving west where the untilled prairies afforded a haven for men to whom the East did not provide a place.”
Well, yes and no. It is the mission of this fine, elegantly written history to explore the ever-shifting role of the frontier in the American story. Just who was welcome in that west-facing “haven,” Greg Grandin explains, was never as simple as Americans liked to proclaim. But “The End of the Myth” has a shadow theme. How is it, Grandin wants to know, that the symbol of America was once a boundless, beckoning frontier and today is a dark and forbidding wall?