This Week, I Read… (2019 #37)

123 - IT.jpg

#123 – IT, by Stephen King

  • Read: 9/5/19 – 9/8/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s “Back to School” Readathon
  • Task: A book with the good vs. evil trope
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF @ page 270 or so. I wanted to like this, but I simply wasn’t enjoying it and could face the other 700 pages. I’m no stranger to gargantuan King novels, but this wasn’t keeping me interested.

I feel like there’s a good story buried in here, under the weight of the constant misery every character faces. Dozens of named characters show up in the first three hundred pages, and nearly all of them are either victims or perpetrators of abuse–those that aren’t are generally helpless adult bystanders (teachers, the librarian, etc.) The kids are abused by their parents, or bullied by their classmates, or both. The lone female major character (and I’m assuming she’s major, because she’s the only girl who was present for whatever went down, and she’s introduced as an adult in the opening like the rest of them) is physically and emotionally abused by her husband.

It’s a slog, wading through all this trauma, and the constant abuse is so casual, so just-part-of-the-way-things-are, that it’s clearly not the point of the story. I lost my patience when a side story is interjected about Eddie Corcoran, told entirely though newspaper clippings, about how his disappearance (that is, murder by It) caused authorities to look into the death of his younger brother and determine it was actually murder by their stepfather. First, a side note, why is his name “Eddie” when there’s already an Eddie in the main gang? In the real world, Edward’s a common enough name and that happens, but in fiction, why have them have the same name when you have the power to give him any other name? But second and more importantly, yay, another kid was killed by It and that’s terrible and relevant, but it spins out an entire tangent about (surprise!) yet more child abuse.

Why is this book about child abuse? Is that the point? And if it is, why isn’t it taken more seriously?

Look, I get that this was published in the 1980s and I can’t be holding it to modern standards in terms of “staying in your lane,” but King came across as out of his lane constantly and whether or not it’s fair to judge him for it thirty years later, it’s horrible to read and I couldn’t take any more of it. Is he the right author to casually slap a homophobic hate crime in the beginning of his horror novel and do it justice? No, he throws out slurs constantly and even the most tolerant of the police involved are still clearly bigots, and even if that’s accurate to the time and culture of Small Town America, I don’t need to read about it like that to know it’s true, just like I didn’t need to read almost three hundred pages of bullying and child abuse. And was he the right author to do a mini chapter from the point of view of a Jewish woman reminiscing about the prejudice she faced in the past, while we the reader have figured out her husband has obviously committed suicide upstairs but she doesn’t know it yet, so we have to listen to her remembering all the slurs she was called? (Like, seriously, do we have to read slurs for everything in this book? If there were any black characters yet I’m sure there would have been n-words dropped, too. I’m not saying no slurs can ever be used by anyone ever, but the sheer volume here was ridiculous, and they were coming from a straight, white, male author, who is none of the things the slurs were applied to.)

I have a lot of complaints, yet I’m also saddened, because when the narrative wasn’t stuffed with wordy and unnecessary junk, the sense of dread pervading it was palpable–there were moments when I could see this was a good horror story suffocating under the weight of 500 extra pages of homophobia and child abuse and slurs and surprisingly extensive description of every single street in the entire fictional town of Derry.

I want to read a slimmed-down version of this story and find out what happened. Not sure I’d get that from the movie adaptations, I’d rather have a book that wasn’t so bloated, but I’m sure not finishing this one.

124 - The Westing Game

#124 – The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

  • Read: 9/9/19 – 9/11/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (79/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book revolving around a puzzle or game
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Since I read this as a child and loved it, when I was new to Goodreads and cataloging everything I could remember reading, I gave it five stars from a combination of loose memory and nostalgia. When this year’s PopSugar Challenge prompted me to read a book about a game, this was my first thought, because I still have my copy (purchased from the Scholastic Book Fair, one of my favorite things about elementary school) and I hadn’t read it for so long.

The question was, would I still give it five stars as an adult? Would it hold up?

Well, yes and no. My rating still stands, though with the caveat that it’s a five-star kid’s book. If I had read it for the first time as an adult, just now, I’d likely be less impressed, but there’s still a lot to recommend it if you remember the recommended reading level. So many things I would criticize in books targeted at adult readers–telling instead of showing, extremely short scenes, some head-hopping–actually work very well in literature aimed at children, because they’re more apt to understand and accept things at face value. I’m not saying children’s lit can’t have depth, but on the surface it needs to be reasonably straightforward. And despite the complex turns of the game and the numerous red herrings meant to lead a reader down false paths, in essence this plot is actually incredibly straightforward: it’s a game, and someone is going to win it.

I usually don’t take much care to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but in this case, I will, because though I remembered the thrust of the plot and a few key “twists,” I actually had forgotten most of the details, after so long, and got to be surprised by most things along the way. I was also impressed, as an adult, with how much personality is infused in each member of the large cast of characters, especially in so short a book–that’s where the telling comes in, and very well. Though the exposition about and description of characters is minimal at their introduction, only enough to make them distinct from each other at the most basic levels, we learn an awful lot about them through how they interact with each other, how they respond to the rules of the game, and what measures they take to win–all of those things speak volumes about them as people, and that’s quite honestly an amazing feat.

As for the game itself, I thought it was remarkably clever as a kid, but now it’s just… weird? But I totally buy that that sort of elaborate setup is the sort of thing bored rich people might do with their time and energy, with the right personal motivations in place. I realize that’s vague, but no spoilers, so I’ll just say the setup is weird and obviously contrived but also believable because it’s supposed to be both!

The PopSugar 2018 Reading Challenge: Complete!

In the order I read them this year–

  1. A book mentioned in another book: Moby Dick
  2. A book given to me as a gift: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
  3. A book with a weather element in the title: The Ice Queen
  4. A book where the author has the same first or last name as me: His to Protect
  5. The next book in a series I’ve already started: Magic Bleeds
  6. A female author using a male pseudonym: Tapping the Billionaire
  7. A book with my favorite color in the title: Deep Blue
  8. A book set in the decade I was born: The Bean Trees
  9. A book with an LGBTQIA+ protagonist: The Cartographer
  10. A prompt from a past PSRC — one word title: Fingersmith
  11. A book by an author of a different ethnicity from me: Three Strong Women
  12. Nordic noir: Let the Right One In
  13. A book with an ugly cover: Oryx and Crake
  14. A book with an animal in the title: Your Inner Fish
  15. A book about mental health: Wintergirls
  16. A book about feminism: A Room of One’s Own
  17. A book by two authors: Save the Date
  18. A book about or involving a sport: In Her Court
  19. A book set on another planet: The Dispossessed
  20. A book that is a stage play or musical: The Color Purple
  21. A book by a local author: How Stella Got Her Groove Back
  22. A book made into a movie I’ve already seen: The Children of Men
  23. A past Goodreads Choice Award winner: The Hate U Give
  24. A book I meant to read in 2017: The Little Paris Bookshop
  25. A book about a problem facing society today: Fire and Fury
  26. A childhood classic I haven’t read: The Giver
  27. A book with alliteration in the title: The Word for World is Forest
  28. A book set in a country that fascinates me: The Housekeeper and the Professor
  29. A book involving time travel: Come Home to Me
  30. A book involving a heist: Faking It
  31. A book with a fruit or vegetable in the title: The House on Mango Street
  32. A book with twin characters: The Thirteenth Tale
  33. A book about a villain or antihero: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  34. A book about feminism: We Should All Be Feminists
  35. A microhistory: The Island at the Center of the World
  36. A book about death or grief: The Book Thief
  37. A book related to my ancestry: Medieval Lives
  38. A book with song lyrics in the title: Falling Down
  39. A book I saw being read by a stranger in public: The Sixth Extinction
  40. True crime: News of a Kidnapping
  41. A book published in 2018: Our Bloody Pearl
  42. A novel based on a real person: Quicksilver
  43. A bestseller from the year I graduated high school: The Professor and the Madman
  44. An allegory: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
  45. A book set on or near Halloween: The Halloween Tree
  46. A book set at sea: The Voyage of the Narwhal
  47. A book involving a bookstore or library: The Bookseller of Kabul
  48. A book with a time of day in the title: African Nights
  49. A celebrity book club selection: One Hundred Years of Solitude
  50. A cyberpunk book: Saga, Vol. 1


This Week, I Read… (2018 #40)

139 - Dracula

#139 – Dracula, by Bram Stoker

This was a slog, and I didn’t really enjoy it. While I recognize some admirable things about the writing, the pacing is so slow that it goes beyond “creeping dread” straight into “I should be scared but I’m actually falling asleep.”

What I liked best was the strong distinction between character voices. In an epistolary novel, it’s even more critical that your various characters’ writing/speaking styles don’t sound too homogeneous, otherwise it would be easy to forget just who was the central character of any given passage.

But I lacked the revelation of story that I got from reading the other huge horror classic, Frankenstein. I don’t really feel that reading this has given me anything I hadn’t already absorbed from popular culture, especially since I’ve seen the 1992 movie adaptation twice, which is the most faithful to the original work of any version I’ve watched.

140 - The Voyage of the Narwhal

#140 – The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett

I’ve always been interested both in science and in the history of science, so a book following the voyage of an arctic expedition in the 1850’s, even if it’s fictional? Yes, please.

And while I was captivated by the details of survival in the arctic, by the forming friendships and rivalries of the crew, and the constant troubles that assaulted them on the journey, then the journey was over–halfway through the book.

The entire middle section was a directionless morass of personal misery for the (arguably) main character Erasmus, and only when the assumed-dead Zeke returned home with two of the natives who saved him (a mother and her son) to tell a fantastic story of his survival, did the story pick up any speed again.

Then it’s a parable of racism, when the only way Zeke has to make any money from the badly botched journey is to put on a traveling show exhibiting the natives, and everyone else in his family is basically horrified by it (though his wife is more jealous of the time they take up than horrified by his treatment of them.) Erasmus, with a little help from the few friends he still has, rescues the boy after his mother dies of fever, and returns him home, because while they may be white Americans in the 1850’s and casually racist about a lot of stuff (and they are!) even they know what Zeke is doing is cruel and wrong.

And then it’s over.

I enjoyed the writing style, I enjoyed the science, I enjoyed the characters for the most part. I’m a little mystified by the plotting and pacing, because everything really does fall apart in the middle. Even if Erasmus is depressed and directionless, it didn’t mean the arc of the narrative had to be.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #39)

136 - The Unconsoled

#136 – The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro

DNF @ page 210 from sheer repetitive fatigue.

There was enough to like at the start that I kept going–surrealism fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the way Ryder often narrated sections of the story that contained information he couldn’t possibly know. For example, early on he remains in a parked car while his companion drops in on an acquaintance, and he not only describes what he can see going on at the doorway but follows the pair inside to tell the reader about their meeting. Which he obviously couldn’t, from inside the car.

This led me to my first loose theory, that Ryder was dead, and this was his hell, a never-ending stream of obligations he couldn’t meet, appointments he would always miss, and people he would always disappoint. I even drew a symbolic meaning from his name to fit this theory–his soul could “ride” along with others, to see what he shouldn’t be able to.

(Also how he goes along with every interruption, every random demand on his time. When I stopped reading, he had left Boris, his maybe-stepson, alone in a cafe to do an interview and photo shoot, only to then be nearly abducted from that to go to a luncheon with someone else, and only hours later realizing he’d left Boris behind completely.)

My weird theory, even though I knew it was probably wrong, kept me reading.

But for all that things happened, events occurred, the story never changed. It didn’t get better, and it didn’t get worse. I read more than 200 pages of weird, semi-impossible happenings that left everyone involved in a constant state of misery, no matter how much they fawned over Ryder for his fame and talent.

I think that’s what truly wore me down–everyone is the same. Nearly everyone treats Ryder with the same enthusiastic regard, the same demonstrative deference. Which could certainly be commentary on how many people treat celebrities, but no matter how insightful it is, that doesn’t make it pleasant to read endlessly.

Pride made me want to keep slogging through, but sense told me it wouldn’t be worth it. I ran out of patience and looked up how the book ends, only to find out there’s no resolution–so many reviewers wanted it to be a dream, for Ryder to wake up, but I guess nothing happens? So I didn’t waste my time with the last 300 pages, because I’ve got way too many other books to read.

137 - P.S. I Still Love You

#137 – P.S. I Still Love You, by Jenny Han

  • Read: 9/29/18 – 10/1/18
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Still enjoyable for a lot of cute character moments, but not nearly as tightly plotted as the first book.

My major complaint is Genevieve. She’s a terrible person, and both Peter and Lara Jean are a) obsessed with her, and b) constantly making excuses for her.

1. Peter and Gen broke up prior to the first book’s beginning, thus leading to his and LJ’s fake-dating-turned-real, because Gen cheated on him. Gen is a cheater. Not everyone takes as hard a line on cheating as I do personally, but I consider it a deal-breaker. So why am I supposed to feel any sympathy for her when her “family issues” are that she’s devastated by her dad’s cheating? I mean, it’s gross that his side piece is barely older than she is, no question, but if she thinks cheating is okay (she did it, after all) then why should I be convinced she’s all torn up about it? And if she really is, shouldn’t she be examining her own actions re: cheating and having a little personal growth about it?

2. LJ is right that Peter (mostly) puts Gen first, which leads to their breakup. Loyalty is generally a virtue, but DUDE, SHE CHEATED ON YOU. Hiding his knowledge from LJ that Gen was the one to get the “sex” tape posted, when that incident was so horrible for LJ, is low; and even after that, Peter is still Gen’s friend? Why? How was that not hurtful to Peter too? Even if he’s not as affected by the double standards for guys and girls surrounding sex, how is posting the video not a deliberate attempt to sabotage Peter and LJ’s relationship? Is that something a friend does?

3. Peter says Gen is hurt by LJ because she took Peter away from him. NO SHE DID NOT. That bullshit about the kiss in seventh grade is just that, bullshit. Peter kissed her first; LJ didn’t tell Gen because she knew it didn’t mean anything and because she knew Gen would be needlessly hurt by it. Gen and Peter started dating anyway, so seriously, the kiss meant nothing, yet Gen holds on to LJ’s little white lie of omission like it was a pivotal moment in her life. Then, in the present story, Gen’s breakup with Peter had LITERALLY NOTHING to do with LJ. She wasn’t even a part of the picture until much later, when the letters got sent and the fake relationship happened–WHICH WAS PETER’S IDEA. Gen is just being a possessive bitch who can’t let go; that’s not LJ’s fault. The worst thing LJ does is go along with Peter’s desire to make Gen jealous during the “fake” phase of their relationship–but LJ’s motives are about Josh, not Gen.

4. Peter’s grand sweeping declaration of love at the end rang entirely false for me. He “doesn’t even remember why they broke up?” Bullshit again. That’s something you can say to a person after years of estrangement, not days. I had a serious falling-out with a college friend that became years of silent animosity; when we briefly reunited EIGHT YEARS LATER he admitted he couldn’t even remember what started it, and at that point, neither could I–I only remembered the sudden feeling of betrayal that he and I weren’t friends anymore, and the anger that came after, but not the spark that set the whole thing off. PETER, LJ BROKE UP WITH YOU BECAUSE YOU CONSTANTLY SUPPORT AND DEFEND A PERSON WHO HAS DONE NOTHING BUT TRY TO HARM HER. LJ’s immediate internal revelation that *she* needed to get over Gen and stopped obsessing about her is correct, BUT DOES NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF PETER’S BEHAVIOR. Yet she just takes him back because he does something romantic.

5. Why, after all that, does LJ still want to be friends with Gen? Sure, be sadly nostalgic about when you were best friends before, that’s fair. But now? When she’s terrible and determined to do nothing but hurt you? Why? WHY?

138 - The Halloween Tree

#138 – The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury

Loved the style of the illustrations in this edition, didn’t care at all for the story.

If someone had read this to me as a kid, I probably would have loved it, so I won’t say it’s terrible all around. But as an adult I couldn’t stand it. It’s incredibly repetitive both in word usage and story structure; it’s filled with choppy, untagged dialogue; and oh, and, by the way, super sexist.

There is not a single named female character. Would I have noticed as a kid? Probably not.

But in the early chapter devoted to extolling the virtues of Pipkin, the “greatest boy who ever lived,” it says:

Pipkin, sweet Pipkin. Who yodeled and played the kazoo and hated girls more than all the other boys in the gang combined.

Okay, this was written more than forty years ago, and Bradbury seemingly wants to romanticize the life of preteen boys, as so many odes to childhood do. Fine. We have a million of those which also don’t include girls, because apparently girls don’t know how to have any fun, but fine. HOWEVER. The very best boy of all of them has hating girls the most counted as a virtue? It’s presented simply as fact.

Even if that was normal then, why should it be normal now? Why don’t we know better?

So I’m going to file this in the “We Should Stop Holding This Up As Good” folder. Don’t recommend this to people. Don’t read it to your kids, boy or girl. Find other children’s lit that doesn’t show boys having adventures in a world entirely without women. Find something that doesn’t glorify hating girls.

Because would the plot really have lost anything if the gang of eight boys had had even one token girl instead, or more than one? No reason they couldn’t still have been boisterous rapscallions who go on a magical journey with Death to find the meaning of Halloween.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #34)

119 - The Nightingale

#119 – The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

I kept putting off reading this because I’ve read so many books set during WWII, and I wasn’t sure I wanted more war.

But this stands above so many other war novels I’ve read, because it’s about how the women fought. Not on the front lines, but in secret, or in their everyday lives.

Two sisters in occupied France handle the war in remarkably different ways, one by becoming increasingly involved in the Resistance, eventually forming an escape route for downed airmen; the other doing her best to keep her head down and her nose out of trouble, in order to protect her family, until a series of difficult events and choices lead to her hiding Jewish children from the Nazis.

This book is a masterful exploration of so many things–how women’s roles in wartime are often overlooked or forgotten; how deep and binding the ties of family can be; how love and friendship can be found in unexpected and sometimes unwelcome places; how difficult it is to move on.

I’m not ashamed to admit the last few chapters had me in constant tears.

120 - Quicksilver

#120 – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

[About the task: this qualifies with dozens of characters, as it’s historical fiction dressed up with three fictional main characters. Arguably, however, the entire trilogy is about Isaac Newton; but the entire Royal Society is part of the cast, as well as most of the monarchs and many of the high nobility of Europe at the time.]

I like the books of the Baroque Cycle for the same reason I loved Les Miz, back when I first read it–they’re works of immense scope that still never fail to feel personal, to care deeply about the inner lives of their characters.

Since it’s been many years since I read this, I was wondering if, on this re-read, I would finish by upgrading it to five stars. I dashed off this rating from memory, when I discovered Goodreads and attempted to catalogue everything I’d read previously.

But in the end, I can’t. I found myself skimming from time to time, when huge chunks of setting description loomed, or the few scenes that were styled as plays. I didn’t like them the first time, and in a work this complex, I don’t mind skipping the punchy political witticism occasionally, to get to the part where it’s explained. There’s a lot to be said for an author letting the reader put 2 and 2 together themselves, and sometimes I could; but sometimes I wondered if Stephenson was asking me to do calculus with this dribs and drabs of information instead.

I did take calculus back in high school, and I passed, then promptly forgot it all when I never used it again.

This story is both massive and massively impressive, with its fine twining of historical fact and modern fiction, the contrast between scientific impulse and human foibles, the occasional salaciousness set against some truly Puritanical attitudes. I enjoyed it before, and I did again this time around; I recommend it, especially if you’re interested in the history of science; but it’s not perfect, and maybe could have been a hundred pages shorter without really losing anything but ambience.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #32)

111 - News of a Kidnapping

#111 – News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

DNF @ page 117, and for the first time, I’m not going to rate it. Usually there’s a serious flaw when I don’t finish a book, and I feel justified using that flaw to give a rating, but this time, that doesn’t apply.

The worst thing I can say about this is that I’m not politically saavy enough to understand it. Half the text was detailing the actual kidnapping of the various hostages and the conditions they were held under, and I found those passages interesting and usually horrifying. But the rest was a condensed explanation of the complicated political maneuvering that went into attempting to get them freed. Márquez, a native of Colombia, writes clearly and concisely about it, but with the assumption of familiarity that I, as an American who was ten years old when this was happening and never once heard about it on the news, simply can’t match. I couldn’t follow the leaps of logic behind the letters, meetings, and policy decisions, and without that understanding, the book was a trial to read.

That, and politics usually confuses the hell out of me, anyway, even in current times in my own damn country.

I tried, but this is a case of a book that is probably pretty great for its intended audience, and I am definitely not one of them.

112 - Our Bloody Pearl

#112 – Our Bloody Pearl, by D.N. Bryn

I was provided a free copy by the author in exchange for an honest review.

A queer pirate + siren love story that manages to cover a lot of ground for disabled representation, too. I loved the steampunk vibe, the determined iteration of Murielle in making aids for Perle, Perle’s own struggles to adapt to their new situation, and Dejean’s quiet affection and understanding. Hell, I’m a little in love with Dejean myself at this point, which is one mark of a good romance.

What I’m not as in love with is the pace. In terms of speed, this has clearly been ruthlessly edited, right down to the bone, to ensure the story never stalls; but writing even the quiet moments with the same style, one of high intensity focused on and around Perle as the narrator, means I felt like I never got to take a moment to breathe, to rest.

At times, I also found the action sequences choppy and hard to follow.

My last (minor) complaint is that Kian didn’t mean much as a villain to me, because we start the story with Perle’s rescue and only hear about her cruelty secondhand. I think the pace of the story might be to blame here too, because Perle seems to feel overwhelming dread at every thought of her, yet there’s never any time to explore that before another action sequence steals the focus away.

Still, it’s an impressive debut novel with a lot of great things going for it.

This Week, I Read… (2018 #27)

98 - My Antonia

#98 – My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

The blurb on the back cover gave me a vastly different idea of the focus of the book than was actually the truth–part of me kept waiting for the time in the story named, when Antonia returned to Black Hawk and disrupted life there with her “lush sensuality.”

I’m not entirely sure the person responsible for that blurb has actually read the book, because that never happened. Ántonia’s elopement and return didn’t happen until page 250ish of a book of almost three hundred pages.

So in that respect, I was disappointed. I didn’t know anything about the book beforehand, so the blurb was all I had to go by.

Yet, I think I like this better than I would have if I’d gotten the story I expected.

It’s a story about love, and somehow it’s still not a love story. When Jim tells one of Antonia’s children, at the end, that he once loved their mother very much, it’s romantic and wistful, an expression of gentle regret that Ántonia had not been a larger part of his life as an adult. But he remembers fondly all the times they had together growing up, how in some ways she <i>was</i> his childhood.

And it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful how honest their friendship is, even when it’s complicated, even when they don’t see each other for years. In fact, this novel might be the best depiction of friendship between a boy and a girl that I’ve ever seen. Especially as we know right from the start that Jim doesn’t marry Ántonia, or Lena, or any of the other girls from Black Hawk, we can follow his narration of life viewing it as a long string of might-have-beens (it did seem for a while like he would have married Lena, if she would have had him) and a far-traveling circle leading him back to the many types of love that sustained him as he grew up.

Outcasts and orphans have a place, there on the prairie, where hard work and a little luck can carry someone far.

I can’t do the descriptions of Nebraska justice. The countryside is held up as the epitome of a place to live, with cities being shabby, impersonal, ill-omened. Modern city-dwellers might not agree, but the lyrical beauty of Cather’s prairie paradise transports you there, among the crickets and rivers and waving grasses, under the broiling sun.

This story also embodies the dual pioneer and immigrant spirit of the West, and indeed of America itself at the time. There’s racism against blacks (of course, product of the time it was written) but compared to other works of its era that I’ve read, it was downright mild; and there was only a touch of prejudice here and there, not so much between “Americans” and the various immigrant groups that populate the cast, but between the groups themselves, holdovers of the “old country.” While this isn’t a utopian ideal in any sense, it embraces what America should be, and given the current political climate, reading this was simultaneously nostalgic and a breath of fresh air. Which, granted, is a weird juxtaposition, but I’ve just gotten so tired of “classics” that are nothing but racism and misogyny from start to finish.

Apparently I should be reading more “classics” written by women. And also, more Willa Cather, because I loved this.

99 - The Sixth Extinction

#99 – The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

I come out of this saddened, shaken, and perhaps not as hopeful as the last chapter wanted me to be–but still impressed.

Kolbert has taken a tale of Earth’s biohistory spanning billions of years and married it, structurally speaking, to a sort of travelogue of the years of her life spent researching it. We are treated to glimpses of the unusual and sometimes dangerous conditions scientists submit to in order to gain knowledge, as well as the importance of what they find.

When I was in college, thinking I might want to go into ecology, I never imagined it might entail traversing the passages of an abandoned mine, in the dark, where an uncareful step might mean falling to my death down an open shaft, for the purpose of censusing bats.

So the personal anecdotes balanced the heavier, and arguably more important, aspects of the book: that human interference is the likeliest culprit behind many of the current wave of extinctions, and that despite some truly heroic conservation efforts on the species level, the overall problem still remains–human-driven climate change may doom much of the planet, and possibly ourselves as well.

Kolbert herself never states a prediction outright, either that we’re too late to save Earth from irreparable harm, or that reversal is still possible, though with a heavy toll already taken. And that prevents this from being a guilt-trip read, where I walked away feeling responsibility for our predicament. I was reminded of articles I’ve read in the past decrying how environmental-issues marketing in my era was almost solely directed at children; we were taught, growing up, about “reduce, reuse, recycle” and inundated with alarming facts about animal extinction, as if we were the problem, the little kids of the American lower middle class, not the large corporations lobbying against laws preventing them from dumping toxins into the water and carbon into the air.

It taught me to do my part in keeping the world clean and healthy, but not that there were larger forces at work, and certainly not how to fight them.

I appreciate that while the message and tone of the book are certainly dire, I’m left at the end to draw my own conclusion about what to do with this information. I know that my carbon footprint is smaller than those of many other Americans my age–I walk to work every day, I don’t have kids to support, I don’t have pets, I keep my electricity usage as low as possible, I buy whatever I reasonably can second-hand, I recycle, and so on. However, I also know that simply by being born where I was and living even the “simpler” lifestyle that I do, I am still more of a polluter than most of the rest of the world.

Kolbert does specifically mention donation to various conversation efforts, and while it’s not a specific call to action, it’s an obvious suggestion. The call to action my own reaction to the book has created is to involve myself more in politics. I already vote regularly in major elections, but over the past few years I’ve started voted in off-years and primaries as well; the candidates I support have not been climate-change deniers. What I have not been doing is calling my congresspeople to let them know how important legislation about environmental regulation and conservation is to me.

It’s almost strange to me how a tale of extinctions spanning billions of years can inspire a reaction so deeply personal, because I can’t truly step back from this book and judge it objectively. Even if I had issues with the writing style or narrative quirks, does that even matter compared to the weight of what I learned from it? Can I even be a separate and outside observer with my background and education in the sciences? I’m not sure that I can, when I remembered myself out there in the forest censusing wildflowers for my ecology lab, or writing a term paper on the diminishing biodiversity in the Colorado River, or listening to a lecture on zebra mussel invasion into the Great Lakes. The sixth extinction may range worldwide over centuries, but I can’t grapple with something that big, so perhaps I have to make it personal, viewed through the lens of my learning experiences, in order to feel like I can do something about it. If I can’t make it personal, then the scale is so large that it’s tempting to give up hope.