9 October 2019

Book report

Posted by Callan Bentley

I’m way behind in writing about writing, but I’ve read a decent number of books (or listened to them) over the past few months. I apologize to each of these authors for lumping all these reviews into a single blog post, but this has collectively been on the back burner for months, and I’ve decided to finally push them all out there at once. I’m going to wipe the slate clean, or else I’ll never catch up!

Here are the highlights of my past half a year of reading:

Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

A masterpiece of passionate writing about the world’s deeper spaces. Macfarlane is a gifted, assiduous writer who savors choice words and descriptions that walk the line perfectly between spare/economical and luxuriant. In this substantial collection, he explores caves, sinkholes, mines, laboratories, abandoned subway tunnels, graves, root/mycelium networks, moulins, and other “underland” spaces, seeking insights that come from the depths of the planet. The locations visited vary tremendously – some are natural, some anthropogenic, and some are an eerie amalgam of both. The people Macfarlane meets along the way, his guides and friends, plus new random acquaintances are a curious mix of calm, zany, driven, and adventurous. There are many, many wonderful moments in Underland, but my favorite is the chapter wherein Macfarlane spends a week traversing Paris underground, through abandoned spaces. At one point, he’s surrounded by a particularly tight passage, hemmed in as if in a coffin, when suddenly he’s very uncomfortably massaged by a train passing over his skull, inches away, violently vibrating the stone just above his tightly constrained body. It’s an extraordinary moment, described with such detail that I get a sensation of claustrophobia just recounting it. Truly a wonderful book.

Spirals in Time, by Helen Scales

Mollusks. Shells. More than you knew. The author is a marine biologist with a passion for malacology. She uses Spirals in Time to recount all sorts of fascinating aspects to seashells, from their chemistry to their architecture, their evolution, and the edible animals inside. She covers marine conservation and ocean acidification, but more so celebrates the beauty and intrigue exemplified by mollusk shells of every conceivable variety. This leads some interesting places: to a female-driven oyster economy blooming in the Gambia, the very-nearly-lost art of spinning fabric art from the anchoring fibers of certain shells (called byssus) in Italy, biomimicry studies for human needs, and an examination of the wholly odd argonauts, which I feel everyone needs to know more about. This book feels like a good companion for Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire. Every chapter is a tidy, thoughtful essay, and the whole book that results is quite a delight.

The Moon, by Oliver Morton

On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings, Morton has taken the time and attention to draw together everything lunar into one book. It’s at once a history of the Moon, thinking about the Moon, the exploration of the Moon, the naming of its features, and its depiction in popular media like books and comics and film. There are parts of this book that I didn’t find personally compelling, but I could see how they would appeal to certain segments of the population – the popular culture stuff seem irrelevant to my purview. But other parts are astoundingly great, deliciously written. There’s a four page section on the formation of the Moon, the collision of proto-Moon Theia with proto-Earth Tellus, told in the context of the geological timescale: the one-moment transition between the Chaotian Eon (the condensation of the pre-solar nebula and accretion of the planets) and the Hadean, when “Earth” history proper begins. This is so good, with its descriptions of mountains hanging down from the sky, of oceans reaching out and merging, of the tremendous massive violence of it all, that I actually indulged in reading it out loud verbatim to my NOVA students the other day. It is astonishingly vital science writing.

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubant

This is an odd collection – a series of essays and speeches and articles about a very wide variety of topics, all supposedly united under the idea of a changing world, an altered biosphere, what we’re going to do about it, and what our cultural response is to these changes. The editors have grouped these contributions into two broad themes: “ghosts” and “monsters,” and I reckon one could claim that the book is cleverly designed with two front covers and no back cover. It ends in the middle. There are some very strong pieces in the book(s), and some that I found very weak and turgid. One of the best was an essay by the developmental biologist Scott Gilbert about how every biological idea we have of individualism is a mistake – on every level of scale, he demonstrates examples the show “individualism” to be a lie, and instead give support to the idea of the cooperative entity dubbed a “holobiont.” That’s an exceptional piece, and one I’ll set aside for future Historical Geology classes to read. The worst read like parodies of academic treatises in the humanities – full of highfalutin jargon that uses lots of syllables to convey very little meaning or insight. I won’t name names, but some of the essays were painful to read. A couple of famous contributors include Ursula K. Le Guin and Dorion Sagan (whose mother and frequent collaborator Lynn Margulis is celebrated in the “monsters” half-book).

Hot Carbon, by John Marra

This is an account of the discovery of different isotopes of carbon, and how they can be used as tools to track different Earth system processes. In particular, the author is keen on exploring 14C, and specifically its utility in understanding nutrient cycling in ocean plankton. I appreciated the historical story that dominates the first part of the book (the discovery and isolation of 14C) more than the latter part of the story (about the author’s own research on oceanic productivity), but it was all useful and informative.

This America: the Case for the Nation, by Jill Lepore

An examination of nationalism, and how it’s distinct from ‘the nation.’ What is a nation? How does a nation gain its identity? What is America’s history of nation-identity, and of nationalism? What’s the essential story of America, and where do we go from here, the rather wretched situation we find ourselves in now, with nationalism on the rise, particularly white-supermacist nationalism? Lepore, a historian at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written a taut little history here, one that illuminates our current situation with a fresh look at its historical underpinnings. She argues that America’s best story is our constant work towards increased justice and increased equality, prevailing again and again against forces that seek to minimize and oppress. Our national identity should be progress, not perfection, as Jameela Jamil recently put it. The arc of moral history bending toward justice is the national identity we should embrace, owning our flaws and faults, and working to ameliorate them, to fix our failings and work toward a national identity that is fully inclusive and inherently fair. Thought-provoking and inspiring.

The Mueller Report

Yep, I listened to the whole thing. It’s a free download on Audible, and a tour de force of meticulous evidence gathering and organization. There are two volumes, one about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and a second about whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice. I’ll briefly comment on the latter, though there is much important and worthy detail documented in the former. Mueller and his team chose not to issue a formal prosecution decision on the obstruction question, apparently in accordance with a long-standing rule at the Justice Department that you don’t prosecute sitting Presidents or even formally declare their criminal activity (if any) to be criminal, since such a declaration could interfere with their Constitutionally mandated duties. So there’s neither an official denunciation nor an exoneration. But there are hours and a hours of documenting and interpreting actions that in any other citizen would be seen as obstruction of justice. It’s utterly damning, even if Mueller doesn’t ultimately officially seal the deal by saying “Therefore, I conclude we should prosecute the President for obstruction.” When considered in the context of the past week’s news, it’s more relevant than ever.

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

A novel set in the future with global warming, sentient robots, mind-altering drugs, and well-meaning individuals vs. nefarious government agents. Enjoyable, imaginative, and a bit uncomfortable, as one of the characters develops a sexual relationship with one of the robots. The most interesting part to me what how Newitz describes the robots communicating with one another, nonverbally, exchanging packets of information. That was something truly new and different for me, creative and insightful for understanding the inherent otherness of a non-human intelligence. Newitz is a founding editor of the futurism-focused io9, and the author of another novel of high acclaim, The Future of Another Timeline, which I just bought and look forward to reading. I like the way she thinks, and I anticipate reading everything she writes!

The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells

Holy cow. What a book. A pull-no-punches account of global warming’s negative impacts. The first line is “It’s worse than you think,” and it just gets grimmer and grimmer from there. An astoundingly bleak, alarming account of the climate crisis. Many authors who write about global warming are fearful of being branded “alarmist” by the forces of denialism, and more to the point, are concerned that they not push their point so far that their readers/listeners become fatalistic or resigned to a diminished, hollowed-out future world. After all, we write about the negative side of unchecked climate change precisely because we want to motivate people to act so we can avoid it. But most writers are intentional in emphasizing hope for the future. But this book is different, because it eschews that approach and strives to face the worst news head-on. Wallace-Wells actually got labeled “alarmist” by climate scientists for a 2017 article he wrote of the same name that appeared in New York magazine (his ‘day job’). I’m not sure how many of the errors they cited made it into the book version, but I know that he has been justifiably taken to task over recent misleading tweets, wherein he sloppily extrapolates looming dire predictions from what appears to be a weak understanding of the science. That said, I found The Uninhabitable Earth a compelling read, and appreciated several key points that it drove home: (1) that warming is happening fast, it’s happening now, and it’s hurting people today, (2) that heat alone is a major problem, irrespective of its influence on rising seas or melting ice: heat is an exacerbating variable with an amplifying influence on conflict, misery, and crime, and (3) that the governmental/economic/social system we have in place now is really not all equipped to cope with a problem like global warming. It’s a very sobering read.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, by Eliza Griswold

A dark, fascinating accounting of being poisoned by industrialization in southwestern Pennsylvania. Amity and Prosperity are towns, but as the story unfolds, the names become double entendres, as cash flows in to this rural area, but unequally, creating newly rich residents, and others who suffer horribly as conniving companies suppress information flow while permitting the flow of ethylene glycol, arsenic, benzene, and other contaminants into the local water supply. Prosperity pits those with money against interests that threaten their prosperity, and amicable relations between neighbors suffer as a result. This is a classic American story: the corporate interests, the patriotism-infused extraction of natural resources, the individuals whose personal harm is enabled by a hidden partnership between private industry and the government agencies responsible for regulating that industry. By a careful portrait of the Haney family and their interconnections with other residents of Washington County, Pennsylvania, Griswold personalizes the story of ‘fracking gone wrong,’ and methodically chronicles the history of their afflictions, corporate stonewalling, medical insights, legal sleuthing, and moments of personal serendipity that collectively comprise a saga for our times. The husband and wife legal team representing the plaintiffs are amazingly dedicated, and accomplish great good with no financial rewards at all. It’s meticulously reported, and Griswold deserves the Pulitzer Prize she won for nonfiction for her work here. In the final pages of the afterward, the court case (Haney v. Range) is settled out of court, not very satisfactorily from the sound of it. In some ways, that lack of a final legal decision works, since (a) it’s nonfiction, and that’s really where things ended up, frustrating though it is for the reader who wants justice to be served, and (b) also because there is no legal precedent established, philosophically it leaves open the question of what we as Americans will do with information like this, wherein we discover that the cheap, low-carbon, homegrown natural gas from tracking carries with it a cost in human health for people who don’t deserve to bear it. Recommended.

Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig

An epic novel by a talented author. Wendig is someone I discovered via Twitter, where he posts pithy, inspiring admonitions each day, and frequently slings humor at our dark national political situation. (As I recall, it was his progressive politics that drew me to follow him.) His interests are comfortably similar to my own: nature, Star Wars, food (he loves apples!), equality under the law, and sanity in federal governance. I read the first of his Miriam Black novels last year, and found it engaging, but Wanderers got a lot more buzz, and now that I’ve read it, justifiably so. This is a story about the end of the world, artificial intelligence, climate change, epidemic disease, and the current moment in American culture and politics. It is a story of humans caught in a circumstance where white nationalism meets a deadly white fungus, with spooky and deadly consequences. In terms of the human population being obliterated, it resembles Stephen King’s The Stand, but one thing that always stuck in my craw about King’s disease-that-ends-the-world novel is the heavy religious aspects to it. Wendig has a couple of devout characters in Wanderers, which I think is utterly appropriate considering ‘who America is,’ but the resolution to the plot isn’t a glowing hand of God coming down to squish the bad guy. Instead, there are twists and turns aplenty, and a surprising conclusion. I really enjoyed reading Wanderers, as it was simultaneously an escape from the dismaying current political situation in the United States and a reminder of how bad it could get with racist militias and conservative religious media if a life-threatening phenomenon were to unfold. I found it sobering, scary, and gleeful in equal measure.


What have you all been reading lately? Any recommendations to share? Let us know in the comments…