Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011

best sci and nature 2011

Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011, edited by Mary Roach

The Best American… series are some of my favorite to pick up at the library book sale. They’re often there, usually only a couple of books, and they’re reliably interesting. I tend to go for the Science and Nature ones in particular. And this one was edited by Mary Roach, which seemed as good a reason as any to pick it over others.

This one was excellent, as always, with several essays that have stood out and had me thinking about them long after. Burkhard Bilger’s “Natures Spoils”, about the strange underground world of trading in raw milk and extolling the virtue of eating ‘high meat’ was bizarre and fascinating. “The Chemist’s War”, by Deborah Blum, taught me a piece of history I hadn’t previously known about, wherein the federal government systematically tried to poison people during prohibition to stop them from drinking alcohol. And Atul Gawande, common in many essay collections, has an amazing essay, “Letting Go,” that had me crying in the corner of a diner while I was reading it.

Many of the essays here, though, are about the destruction we have wrought and are continuing to wreak on the Earth. As is to be expected—there’s almost nothing else to talk about if you’re on the topic of nature. This one isn’t quite as full of such topics as the collection edited by Elizabeth Kolbert, but it still includes an essay on the tradition of eating migrating song birds in the Mediterranean that has all but wiped out several bird populations, the jumping Asian carp overwhelming midwestern lakes, and the destructive nature of fracking. And an essay on space debris that, while not as directly related to ecology, is still a symptom of the same problem as the others—a belief that one well, one person shooting song birds, one dumping of space debris, can’t have that much of an impact, ignoring that this decision is being made over and over and over again by a huge number of people.

I have never wholly subscribed to Kant’s categorical imperative, that one can only act according to the maxim that that action would become a universal law to be done by all, it seems increasingly clear that, in environmental issues this does need to be the rule. It’s the only way to govern the tragedy of the commons problem. Because whatever negative actions one takes, or actions done thinking it can be allowed because it is only one person, will be done so often that they may as well be universal laws.

The recent special report by the International Panel on Climate Change has highlighted again that we are in the midst of the most dangerous crisis humanity as a whole has yet faced, with unknown consequences if we cannot rapidly decrease or emissions starting immediately. And this can only be done by everyone taking action, and everyone recognizing that the universality of our actions is killing us.

This is obvious by perusing the news, but reading several environmental essays in a row drives it home. The common thread in all of them is each of us ignoring that our actions have consequences and that we are never just one. Hopefully we’ll realize that before it’s too late.

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Library Book Sale!

library book sale 2018.JPG

 

♫♪It’s the hap-happiest time, of the year!♫♪ That’s right, it’s the weekend of the fall library book sale in my county. It’s one of the most magical places. They have rows and rows and stacks and boxes of books. Mass market paperbacks are fifty cents. Fifty cents!!!!! And the most expensive book I’ve ever seen there was $4, although I would never pay that for a book sale book. I usually go there with a $20 budget, and for the first time ever I managed to stay under it. Below, a preview of my haul:

Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong might be my favorite religion/theology writer. Her History of God is amazing. I’m very much looking forward to digging into this one.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey. A narrative history of evolution and the creatures that have outlasted all of the others of their time. And even it were just about horseshoe crabs and velvet worms I probably would have gotten it. Those things are cool.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi. In 2007 Kabul, on streets still controlled by the Taliban, a young girl is supporting her family through an ancient custom that allows a young girl to be treated as a son until she’s of marriageable age, a custom her great-great-grandmother had used as well, and the way their stories weave together.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert. My husband just read Dune  (although he should have ages ago), and neither one of us has read further on in the series, so it seemed a good choice for us to read together.

The Green Brain, Frank Herbert. And I wanted to see if Frank Herbert was any good at writing books about forests, or if he could really just do the one ecosystem.

J, Howard Jacobson. This is a book that has been on my to-be-read list forever. J is a dystopia where there has been a calamity that no one mentions and collective memory has vanished. And it’s described as a darkly humorous tale. This very much appeals to my interests.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory. A short story collection that looked intriguing (It’s the one up there with a tentacle and a UFO – I totally judged the book by its cover). But one of the blurbs on the back also described Loory as a combination of Mother Goose, Philip K. Dick and Richard Brautigan. I pretty much had to buy it.

Upon the Sleeping Flood and Other Stories, Joyce Carol Oates. I know I had to read something by Oates in school, but I honestly don’t remember it at all. And I’ve only read one short story since. She seems essential reading for anyone who likes American literature (which I do) so I wanted to give her a better shot.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel.  A bit of an impulse buy, as I knew nothing about this, but it caught my attention. Another dystopian future, this time when a devastating flu pandemic has completely disrupted civilization, and a small troupe of artists trying to keep the humanities and humanity alive.

The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman. This is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best books, on how World War I got started. World War I was such a ridiculous war that should never have happened, and it could use more discussion. Especially these days, when we regularly see people abdicating responsibility, making decisions everyone knows and agrees are wrong, and letting stubbornness and foolish allegiances make decisions rather than any sort of thought or sense. I increasingly think we don’t need the tales of pure evil to warn us for today so much as the tales of history’s great blunders.

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder. Basically, a humorous history of Central Europe and the Habsburg Empire, who ruled over the region for centuries (pretty much until World War I, so it’s sort of a companion piece to Tuchman’s book.)

Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit. I’m fascinated by physics and the search for a theory of everything, as I’ve written about before. And, having just read some critiques of string theory and how it doesn’t work with our current universe, I’m excited to read this book critiquing it in depth.

Shades of Grey

Shades of GreyShades of Grey, Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is best known for his Thursday Next series, the incredibly fun and delightful tales of a Jurisfiction agent protecting Book World, fighting the corporate giant Goliath, and occasionally running an underground cheese smuggling ring. Shades of Grey marks a departure from this, in tone, location, and time, but is still indisputably Fforde.

Leaving behind Swindon, Shades of Grey takes us hundreds or thousands of years into the future in what is likely Wales. It’s unclear when exactly it takes place, only that it is long past the vague “Something That Happened.” Some change in humans has now limited the amount of colors we can see, with people only being able to detect marginal amounts of 1-2 colors, except the pitiable Grays, the bottom of the social hierarchy. Political assignments are handed out in large part based on how much color one can detect, and marriages are arranged to increase color detection in children. Natural color is also on the decrease, with much work being down to scavenge artifacts from before the Something That Happened to bring colors into communities. Certain synthetic colors, which can be seen, are used as medicines or drugs—one color of green is regularly smuggled around, and called “Chasing the Frog.” And the political system has changed into a confusing dystopia, with undebatable rules passed down regularly. Some seem decent enough—each person must conduct one hour of Useful Work each day—while the ban on spoon production that has made them practically an item of currency seems more confusing.

The book takes us through the story of ?, a young Red whose mother has passed away years ago and who is being moved with his father, a doctor, to a smaller town for a year or two of work, before taking his color test and facing some sort of partially arranged marriage. He meets Jane, a similarly aged Grey, who is also unsatisfied and asking questions that Are Not Asked about the way things are. And, as is the case in these sorts of dystopias, as terrible as it seems there are even more terrible secrets hidden. A familiar enough tale, but with some surprising points at the end and an incredibly intriguing world.

Shades of Grey is a much darker, pardon the pun, book than any of the Thursday Next books, or the sister series, Nursery Crimes. It has a much slower pacing, without the almost manic energy of the Thursday Next books. The absurdity is still there in high quantities, but with a far more oppressive nature in this book. While some of the board outlines of the plot can be seen in this book, there were some very surprising, to me, twists at the end in the amount of world building that Fforde puts into his novels is astonishing. It takes about half the book to nail down exactly what all the rules are and what is happening, and still, there is more to gain. Fforde is also a master of plotting, with clues placed throughout the book for the bits that we do learn.

Shades of Grey has a resolution that is not fully satisfying, unfortunately, with mysteries solved that only raise more questions, and a still somewhat uncertain future for our protagonists. I was alright with this at first but, sadly, while Fforde promises additional tales, it looks as if the next one is not coming until 2020 yet! I will have to console myself and wait. But don’t let that dissuade you from reading it, as you’ll have a much shorter time to wait. It may be only because it was a surprising departure, but Shades of Grey may be my favorite of Fforde’s novels so far. I only have to hope he hurries up with his writing and finishes it.

Legend of Sleepy Hollow

legend of sleepy hollowLegend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Washington Irving

There is a part in the Sketch Book, at the end of a short story, “A Christmas Dinner”, where Irving reflects that these small reflections may not have enough to offer, and may not be serious enough.  They are not, after all, full of deep philosophy or new knowledge or serious thoughts and prescriptions for the way we live. He answers his imagined critics, “[I]n writing to amuse, if I fail the only evil can be in my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humor with his fellow beings and himself sure, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.” And, all I could think was, “God bless you, Washington Irving.” Friends, after reading Gulliver’s Travels and reports on climate change, after listening to current event podcasts and attending lobby events for immigrants and refugees, this book was exactly what I needed.

Despite the titular story, probably the most famous of Irving’s, this is much more Sketch Book than Sleepy Hollow. There are a handful of tall tales, including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Specter Bridegroom”, but the others portions of the book are almost entirely Irving’s thoughts on regular events, slices of life he’s seen, personal stories he heard in the country, thoughts on the tourist sites of England, and other sketches as they’ve come to him. They are, by and large, enjoyable, and it would be difficult to find an author with an outlook more opposed to that of Swift. Irving relays syrupy tales of filial piety and parental love he hears in the country with barely a question of veracity. In his report of touring Stratford on Avon, as well as other parts of London, he responds to a difficult-to-believe tale by saying, “I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing. I am therefore a ready believer in relics, legends and local anecdotes…and would advise all travelers who travel for their gratification to be the same.” It is obvious that Irving did not have even a whiff of cynicism about him, and would not have known what to do with such a feeling if he encountered it. Probably feel only pity for the person and then go on his merry way.

While much of Sketch Book is only tall tales Irving has written, or his enjoyable thoughts as he travels, there are a few points of seriousness, despite Irving’s protestations to the contrary. He has two essays on Native Americans, one talking about some of the heroes among the Native tribes, another reflecting on the plight of the Native Americans and the wrongs that have been done them. In discussing some of the heroes, heroes who fought the white colonists, Irving specifically mentions that many would prefer to think that these heroics, that bravery, family, and other such characteristics don’t exist among the tribe to better justify our mistreatment, but can any of us really say that this is the truth? Or that any of the settlers wouldn’t react the same say if someone came to their home? These, too, are not cynical, but rather lovingly written essays and entreaties to one’s better nature. And they serve as a reminder that in times of social sin, those who can accept the status quo—or even engage in the evil around us—would have everyone believe that ‘everyone’ feels the same, that respecting the rights of others or the existence of other races was never even an option, never discussed. But that is not the case. There are always those calling for the right thing to be done, in any age, and here is a record that even in the 1800s there were people, people who were hardly radicals, calling for respect for the Native American tribes.

Naturally, given my other reading materials, this is the sort of essay I tended to zero in on and meditate on, that most stuck with me for later. But while these essays were welcome and moving additions, by far the greater part of the book are the simpler sketches, the celebrations of ordinary life, of small acts of kindness and generosity, of the minor joys one can receive. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, and even in its more serious sections radiated a benevolent view of human nature, a hope to appeal to our better natures, and a desire to “penetrate through the gathering film of nature.” I think we could all do with reading this book right now.

Beatrice and Virgil

 

Beatrice andbeatrice and virgil Virgil, Yann Martel

I was among the millions of people who were enthralled by Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I’ve read it a few times. I’ve shared it with others. The writing was so engaging and pulled me in, the story so fascinating. I loved the book, the story it told, the examination of fantasy and fable. Sadly, I am also among the many who, after falling so deeply in love with Life of Pi, found myself disappointed in the follow up, Beatrice and Virgil.

Beatrice and Virgil opens on an author, Henry L’Hote, who bears a striking resemblance to Martel himself. L’Hote is a Canadian author. He wrote a book that was surprisingly well received and continues to sell for years, with many adoring fans. The book told a story through animals, and is described as approaching a serious story using animals to give it a fantastical bent. He then suffers severely from writers block, waiting five years before writing another book—an essay and fable about the Holocaust, which he foresees being sold together. His essay proclaims that there is not enough true art about the Holocaust, which gets to the truth outside of facts, and we should allow greater exploration of it through art. The fable will present this artistical description of the Holocaust, and the stories shall be packaged together as a flip-book and sold as one.

The publishers tear down Henry’s idea, to the point that he decides his first book was enough and he will give up writing for the time being. He and his wife decide to move, settling in “one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin.” While there, his wife finds employment as a nurse, and he putters around, playing clarinet, being in an amateur theatre troupe, working in a chocolate café. (A café that sells chocolate, I mean. Not made of it.)  However, people continue to send him fan mail, and eventually he receives a letter from someone who is coincidentally living nearby, in the same city. A letter that includes the short story “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller” by Gustave Flaubert, a piece of a play with the two characters Beatrice and Virgil, and a short note saying that the author needs his help.

Through this note we are entered into the rest of the story. Henry finds an elderly taxidermist, also Henry, working on a play—a play very similar to the style of Waiting for Godot, as Martel himself points out in a common theme of self-awareness—based on two of the animals in his shop, Beatrice, a stuffed donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. They have been through unspeakably terrible experiences they refer to as “the Horrors.” They wander around on a striped shirt. Their list of how they shall remember their experiences includes a word that sounds like “Auschwitz” and an address tied to a trove of documents from the Warsaw Ghetto. Though Henry the Taxidermist denies it throughout, the play seems very much like a tale of animals that is about the Holocaust. Henry the author is intrigued.

I do think that Martel is a talented writer, speaking strictly in terms of writing. I was pulled into the book and read through it quickly (it is under 200 pages.) Some of the passages, such as the first part of the play where Beatrice and Virgil discuss a pear, are quite beautifully written. And I agree with his meditations on fiction being almost more important than fact in tapping into deep truths, although I wouldn’t say he is the first to have this insight.

That being said, the problems of this book far outweigh one well-written passage. For one thing, it’s far too self-referential, while also remaining distanced from itself at the same time. In one review I read it was referred to as a lesson in post-modern pastiche and I can’t say I entirely disagree. And this is coming from someone who generally enjoys post-modern pastiche!

As already mentioned, the main character, Henry L’Hote, is clearly meant to resemble Yann Martel. The first part of the book, outlining why author Henry would want to write such a book of an essay and a story in the first place, clearly serves as the essay within this book, with the play acting as the story. And yet at the same time, it remains distant. Even Henry is kept at arms length, as we are told this is a pen name, and never given his real identity. The story itself, this fable for the holocaust, is written as a play in the style of Godot, that is written by a character that the main character then meets. We are at least 5 layers removed from this fable that Martel wants to tell, which seems a rather coy, and almost fearful, way to present his tale.

Then there is this. While I agree that horrific events should be told through a variety of art, that is not, in fact, what this is. While the book focused quite a bit on our own ways of looking at history and art, and the trials of someone who wants to write about it, for a book about the Holocaust it actually focused very little on the horrific events and how we were supposed to examine and feel about themselves ourselves. It did not talk about why they happened or how we prevent them or how we live with them or how those who went through them can continue. It was using the Holocaust as a way to address how we tell stories, rather than stories as a way to tell the Holocaust. Which is, in my opinion, not at all the way to address such a horrific occasion, and a rather disrespectful treatment of it. Far from the arguments presented by the concerns of Martel in this book, it’s not disrespectful because there were animals or a fable, but because he was far more concerned than the author struggling to write this story than any participant in the story. It was the Holocaust as background.

This last is, by far, the biggest concern of the book. The Holocaust was the attempted extermination of a people; it was neighbors turning against neighbors; it was ‘good people’ engaging in, going along with, or turning a blind to the most horrific acts, it was an example of the worst of society and the reason we must constantly be vigilant against the rise of evil, exclusion and inertia. It’s not a way for an author with no connection to it to work out his feelings on art and himself. Let us not cheapen it in such a way.

Death Comes to Pemberley

death comes to pemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

Can I make a confession here? I would like to think that this blog is a safe space, where I can open up and be honest with you. So here it goes:

I have never really loved Jane Austen.

It feels good to get that off my chest. I know that she’s a wonderful author. I know that I should love her. As a well read, well-educated feminist woman of a certain race and socioeconomic status, it’s practically required. And it’s not that I dislike her. She’s fine. And of the Austen books, Pride and Prejudice is definitely my favorite, and one I’ve grown to appreciate more. It’s just, well, British Victorian books and comedies of manners and all that aren’t exactly my thing. I tend to get frustrated and want to yell at everyone to just say what they’re thinking. And the excruciating politeness of it all just seems exhausting;^ I do not think I would enjoy living in that particular place and time.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that Jane Austen is a beloved author and her books are classics. For some reason, a bunch of culture, especially high-brow women’s culture, in recent years is now centered around Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Finding Mr. Darcy. The song “Oh Mr. Darcy.” This entire Etsy page. The book is everywhere. (Oddly enough focused far too often on how wonderful Mr. Darcy is, whose main qualification is that he realized he was being a jerk and liked Elizabeth. There should really be more feminist self-help on how to be Elizabeth than how to find Mr. Darcy.) Enter Death Comes to Pemberley, by acclaimed mystery novelist P.D. James.

Death Comes to Pemberley follows the Darcies a few years out from their marriage and the end of Pride and Prejudice. They are established and happily married, although Darcy’s relations still do not entirely approve. A ball is in the works, two suitors are vying for the hand of Darcy’s sister, Georgina, and they have two young boys. Their life is thrown into disarray, however, when Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, shows up in a state, screaming that her husband, Darcy’s former friend George Wickham, has been killed in the woods. Instead, after a search party is mounted, they find Wickham covered in blood, dragging his friend, Captain Martin Denny, and saying that he killed his only friend. From there the mystery proceeds.

I thought the book was fun enough, and I do enjoy a good old fashioned British mystery. James captured the style of Austen quite well, and clearly did a great deal of research, or was already familiar with, the legal systems of Victorian Britain. I don’t remember Pride and Prejudice well enough to say how accurate it was in terms of all the relationships, but James has enough attention to detail that I assume all of that is correct. I will say that whether or not it was accurate or true to the original, I very much enjoyed all of the character work in Death Comes to Pemberly. Not just Elizabeth and Darcy, who have the sort of amicable and respectful marriage that I imagine most of the fans dream of for them, but the household staff, other magistrates, and even the most incidental characters seem to have clear personalities, motivations and a thought-out purpose. I do enjoy that sort of attention in a book.

I am sure that a hardcore Pride and Prejudice fan would get far more out of this book than I did. As I mentioned, I didn’t get all of the allusions to the actual story, and I am still frustrated by everyone in Victorian England who won’t just say what they mean. I still greatly enjoyed this book, though, even being only vaguely familiar with the story. James is a talented writer, and an excellent story teller. I definitely recommend, for Austen fans and mystery fans alike.

*As long as I’m confessing all the ways I’m betraying my race, socioeconomic status and womanhood, you know what else I don’t love? La La Land. It was fine, better than not doing anything, I suppose. But that’s it. It was kind of boring!°

°I don’t want to give the impression I’m some brave countercultural independent thinker, though. I still enjoy British crime dramas, drinking white wine during the day, brunch, mommy bloggers, and all the other things you’d expect.

^And yes, I know I was just full of praise for a different Victorian novel. Honestly, part of the reason I was so gushing there is because it is rare that I would so thoroughly enjoy one.

The Woman in White

woman in whiteThe Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

How did I not know about this book?! That is the thought that was through my head the entire time I was reading. This book was a gift from a friend who thought the same thing while she was reading, and now we have become evangelists. We are going to begin carrying copies of the book around and handing them to passerby, and lobbying schools to include it in their curriculum, and leaving them strewn around English departments until it has been given its due. The fact that none of us know about this book is an outrage and a scandal, I say!

But, wait. I must slow my pen. I get ahead of myself. Let me explain more about this remarkable book.

Wilkie Collins, the author, was a Victorian author, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. And for a time, apparently was even outselling him. Woman in White was written as a serial in a magazine in London, and was one of the earliest suspense novels (or ‘sensation novels’ as it was described at the time.) We are introduced to one of the narrators, Mr. Walter Hartright, a drawing-master in London, as he is learning about and deciding to take a position as a drawing master in the country for two young women. The night he is about to leave he encounters a woman dressed all in white who is in distress, and speaking cryptically the entire time.

From there, we have many of the tropes of literature at this time. Crazy coincidences! Unscrupulous men! Pure, put upon women who do quite a bit of fainting! Terrible secrets! Romance! Secret societies! So many twists! But my goodness it was fun, and so engagingly written.

The most amazing, the most delightfully surprising, thing about this book are the characters. Apparently in his initial publishing of this book, Collins begged the reviewers not to give away the story or share too much about the suspense of the book, and so I won’t dive too deeply into the story. But the characters! His introduction states that he believes the source of all interest in a story starts with its characters, and so that is where he puts his efforts. This shows in the book as each character, even those we encounter for a few pages, is a thought out person. For his limited appearance, we all know Mr. Fairlie, a self-described and self-involved invalid, and the guardian of the Miss Fairlie the story revolves around. Ms. Michelson, the housekeeper, is a clear picture of a competent woman. Count Fosco, the larger than life character in the book, is a fascinating creation.

And what is truly wonderful, however is that the women are fleshed out as well! Marian Holcombe, sister of Laura Fairlie, is one of the most amazing, fully realized, intelligent women I have ever encountered in a work of fiction, in any century. The fact that she was written in the 1800s is truly astounding. I won’t pretend that this book is a feminist rallying cry or anything. The other characters in the book approvingly describe Marian as being as smart as a man. And her sister, Laura Fairlie, is a well-liked plot device in need of protecting, as befits a woman in a Victorian novel. But let us recognize the times. Marian is amazing.

Again, I am very surprised and disappointed that Collins is not more well-known and often-read in these times. Especially given that he is one of the creators of the suspense genre—this was written decades before the Sherlock Holmes stories, and that he was about as popular as Dickens in his time, he should be getting more respect in these days. And the book holds up! Collins was an excellent writer. He wrote this as a serial, as Dickens wrote many of his books, but it never feels like he was being paid by word or stretching it out. It feels like a full book on its own. Personally, I can think of a few other Victorians I would have set to the side to be able to read this book when I was in school.

So if you are a lover of the classics, a lover of good characters and strong women, or a lover of the suspense or mystery novel, I strongly encourage you to pick this one up. And tell your friends, because this book needs to be more well known. Personally, I’m going to start my Wilkie Collins booster campaign with the county school board today. By the time my kids are in high school, I hope this is part of the cannon.