Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass

Book Review: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

Poetry: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

“You think you’ve grown up in various ways

and then the elevator door opens and you’re standing inside

reaming out your nose”

 

I do not know whether any other US Poet Laureate has ever written a poem about being caught in an elevator with a booger on his finger. One may actually be enough, especially when the poem is as good as “Shame: An Aria,” the poet is as good as Robert Hass, and the collection is as good as Sun Under Wood.

 

Sun Under Wood is a deeply personal and intimate look into the poet’s life. Many of the poems examine what we must assume to be aspects of the writer’s own family and life. Several refer to his alcoholic mother, hospitalized against her will in hopes that treatment could help her overcome her addiction. Later poems seem to indicate that the treatment was never fully successful. Another poem refers to his brother in rehab for a drug addiction. Family secrets are bared, both boldly and timidly. His parents’ marriage in autumn, just before his brother’s birth in the same winter, discovered by the poet getting a copy of their marriage certificate and realizing his parents had lied about the year they were married. His own divorce and the pain of separation. Finding new love. Each of these personal journeys and tragedies finds their way into his poetry.

 

Reading Robert Hass is like getting to know a new friend. His poems open doors into his own thoughts and fears and discoveries and heartaches and joys. We walk together on the beach or in the mountains or sit in a hospital and he quietly shares his life. Sometimes we cry, seeing his mother taken away. Sometimes we shudder, hearing his lover (wife? ex-wife?) threaten to stab him if he leaves her for a younger woman. Sometimes we laugh, while he wipes the snot from his finger in his pocket, using the pocket lint to hide his embarrassing unhygienic faux pas. Sometimes we blush, listening to him tell of nights with his new love.

 

Through his words we see a life unveiled, no longer wrapped in the shrouds of dignity and mystery which we normally wear to cloak ourselves. He stands before us, naked and unashamed, and invites us to spend time looking through his eyes and listening through his ears and walking in his steps. And when we accept that invitation, we realize that our shared humanity allows us to share burdens and joys alike. Most of us, though, are not that brave.

 

Sun Under Wood was published in 1996, while Hass was Poet Laureate. It is his fourth collection of poems. Twenty years may have passed, but these poems remain fresh and dynamic and do not seem to have aged a day. I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass

Book Review: Praise, Robert Hass

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Poetry: PraiseRobert Hass

If you’ll join me in the “wayback” machine, we can travel way back to 1979. Bell bottoms and wide collars. Disco was not yet dead, but was clearly dying. The UN declared it to be the International Year of the Child. Phnom Penh fell and the Pol Pot regime was deposed. So was the Shah of Iran and the President of Nicaragua. The Camp David Accords were signed, and the Iran hostage crisis began. And Robert Hass published a short book of poetry: Praise.

 

I will freely admit my ignorance when it comes to poetry. Robert Hass is hardly an unknown. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-1997. He has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He remains one of the preeminent voices in American literature, yet I was completely unfamiliar with him until hearing him speak with current Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, in September, 2018.

 

I was absolutely entranced. I went because of Dr. Smith. She was amazing. Her stories, her poetry, her passion…she was everything I had hoped for. I am so glad I got to hear her speak, and I hope I will get to hear her again someday. But on the stage with her was Robert Hass. Tall, white-haired, a smile constantly playing on his lips, his eyes kind. And his poetry. I knew nothing about him, had never read a thing of his, and I was blown away. He was completely unexpected (admittedly because of my own shortcomings). I determined that I needed to read more from both of these wonderful voices. I am glad I did.

 

Praise is earthy and ethereal. Hass sees the real world, warts and snot and sex and dirt and all. He weaves that real world into his poems. He plays with his words, wanting to show the world as it is. Lusty and sweaty and passionate and somehow very California and entirely universal in a magical way that is hard to explain unless you’ve lived both in California and not in California. Then, in the next breath, the next stanza, the next word, he is quoting obscure literary characters or referencing books you know you should have read or dropping in words and phrases from other languages that make me just nod and say, “Obviously,” when I have no idea what he just did to me. Earthy and ethereal. Profane and divine. Hass dances back and forth with grace and delight and brings us along to enjoy the music which he allows us to hear.

 

In 1979, I thought poetry was stuffy and had to rhyme. I later came to love and appreciate Frost and Wordsworth and Dickinson and Donne and many others, but I did not know about Hass back then. Nor did I encounter him in my later academic years. I wonder whether my view of poetry might have been different had I read him 40 years ago. Who can say–maybe I was not ready for poetry to be something that didn’t rhyme and had no predictable metre and was about life and sex and being. I am certainly glad to have it now.

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

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Nonfiction Science: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

 

Unnatural Selection is a beautiful book. Oversized, coffee-table style, Unnatural Selection’s first impression grabs you. Katrina van Grouw has illustrated the text with her own line drawings, and she is an impressive artist. Her degree is in art, she has experience as a curator in the ornithology department of the Royal Museum in London, and she is married to an expert in (among other things) breeding pigeons. (She jokes that sharing information like that on a first date may not be the most romantic gesture a man might use…but since it worked, perhaps breeding fancy pigeons is an underappreciated way to a person’s heart.) Therefore her text is sound and scientific, and her art is informed by both passion and expertise.

 

Unnatural Selection is almost a book about evolution. Almost. It is a book about selective breeding, human guided breeding of animals to obtain desired characteristics and to minimize unwanted traits. Natural selection, part of the process that shapes evolution, does not “care” whether an animal is pretty or friendly or any one of a number of other traits that human breeders might look for. Therefore, although the results are the same in terms of animals being changed over generations, the changes among domesticated animals tend to happen more quickly and do not necessarily carry any survival advantage to the animal, at least not one outside of captivity.

 

In fact, many of the changes would certainly lead to death in the wild. White plumage may be appreciated by bird fanciers, but it would also be appreciated by predators outside of snow country. When I kneel down and tell my little smush-faced dog, “You used to be a wolf,” she does not actually appear very wolf-like. (She does try to lick my face, though, maybe in a vicious carnivorous attempt to soften it prior to eating?) Pigeons that can’t fly, cattle with double-muscled bodies (great for meat, poor for mobility), and many other domesticated species show the results of being bred to our desires and not to the demands of “survival of the fittest.”

 

Selective breeding, though, relies on the same genetic basis that governs evolution in the wild. Dominant and recessive genes show themselves according to the same laws whether an animal is born in the jungle or in the barn. The difference is instead of a predator looking for a weak animal to eat, a breeder or farmer is looking for specific traits to perpetuate. Although we may not like to think about this aspect of animal husbandry in our era where meat comes from supermarkets, the culling of animals that do not show those desired traits is just as efficient as predation in guiding the direction of a species.

 

Van Grouw is a terrific writer with great passion and insight into her subject. Her drawings add beauty to the text and show the reader actual examples of the structures she is writing about. Whether the drawing is of a rare pigeon, a series of dog skulls, a detailed comparison of feathers, or a transitional drawing of a single animal showing hindquarters covered with skin, midsection with musculature, and the skeletal shoulders and skull, van Grouw’s drawings are exquisite and tell the story as eloquently as do her words. Her text is factual and informative, but also delightful and affectionate. I love how she simply refers to her spouse as “Husband.” She does not shy away from the realities of animal breeding: successful breeders cull. But she also fairly points out that the results are not inherently cruel or unfair, any more than disease or predation are cruel or unfair. The “goal” of life is to continue, and domestication is a form of symbiosis that has allowed dogs and chickens and cows and many other species to thrive around the world as they accompany humans.

 

Unnatural Selection is a book that delights on multiple levels. It is well written, expertly researched, and beautifully illustrated. Any student of science, including younger readers, will appreciate it.

 

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Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

 

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Chris Stringer

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

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Nonfiction Science: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

 

Chris Stringer’s book Lone Survivors (outside the USA this book is titled The Origin of Our Species) takes a long look at the theories behind human origins. One thing I learned from this book is how unusual a species humans are. Despite the obvious differences in skin color, hair texture and color, facial shape and contours, etc., human DNA is shockingly consistent. There are more differences between groups of chimpanzees in Africa than there are between any two humans. Another difference is that there are no other living human species. Neanderthals and Denisovans and other members of genus homo have been extinct for millennia. There are multiple species of gorilla, chimpanzee, and virtually any other type of organism you could name, but only one species of human. Speaking scientifically, this is highly unusual, and well worth evaluation.

 

Stringer was one of the first scientists to strongly espouse the ROA theory of human origins. ROA stands for Recently Out of Africa, and alludes to homo sapiens having their beginnings in Africa then spreading around the world from there. Other homo species appear to have developed from a common ancestor in other parts of the world. Neanderthals may have been the most successful other types of humans, both in terms of population size and area, but the fossil record is a challenge for definitive conclusions in this regard. Nor is it certain why the Neanderthals and other human species died out. It is possible they were killed by advancing bands of homo sapiens. Fossil evidence does suggest some died through violence, possibly even cannibalism, and that violence may have come from contemporary modern humans. But it is also possible they were victims of climate change, dietary challenges, or disease. What is now almost indisputable is that sometimes the two groups of humans were not fighters but instead were lovers. Enough Neanderthal (and Denisovan) DNA has been recovered from fossils to determine that modern humans are partially descended from hybrid ancestors. We are not Neanderthal or Denisovan, but some of our genes definitely are.

 

Lone Survivors often raises more questions than it answers. How did modern humans become so smart? There are proposed possible answers: social living, genetic mutation, dietary changes among them. No one really knows the answer, though. Why did homo sapiens survive when other human species did not? Varied diet, warlike behavior, social cooperation, adaptability, high intelligence? Perhaps, but again, no single answer or group of answers seems to be persuasive. This is not a weakness of the book, though. Stringer is willing to hear out opinions that contradict his own. He gives them fair treatment in the book, and is willing to point out the weaknesses in his own opinions on these and other questions. The reader is left wanting more answers, just as Stringer and other paleoanthropologists are left wanting those same answers. We will all have to wait together while more evidence is compiled and more discoveries are made.

 

Like many newer science books, Lone Survivors also tells us about some of the scientists involved in this research. Stringer talks about his days as a graduate student traveling through Europe and studying skulls firsthand. He lived out of his vehicle for many months, and later ruefully confesses that modern DNA techniques proved that he left his own DNA on many of these fossils. Another scientist is a member of a band. These personal anecdotes may or may not enhance the research being done, but they help humanize the researchers and add interest to topics that can occasionally challenge with dry jargon and statistical data overload.

 

Lone Survivors is a thorough, deep book. Written for a general audience, it is not written down to its readers. The author assumes a willingness to challenge assumptions and a desire to learn new information, so he doesn’t shy away from technical data. This means the book is not for every reader, but it definitely is for anyone interested in the scientific questions surrounding human origins and the disappearance of our closest biological relatives.

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Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

 

 

Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

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Urban Fantasy: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

October Daye is part human and part fae. A “changeling,” she constantly lives with one foot in the mortal world and one foot in the fae kingdoms. After years of trying to balance between these worlds, she finally sees hope. Her love, Tybalt, King of the Cats, plans to marry her. Her friends are near and safe. She even gets to attend her own bachelorette party. Everything looks amazing, until her oldest and possibly deadliest enemy resurfaces: her mother.

 

The request itself is not unusual for a private detective: find a missing daughter. But August has been missing for more than 100 years. And Amandine does not simply ask. She demands. And to make sure October follows through, Amandine kidnaps Tybalt and Jazz, another friend of October. What follows is a dangerous journey through fae and mortal lands looking for someone who may not be alive, relying on an old enemy to provide assistance, and facing challenges that force October to confront questions about who and what she is, and just where she belongs.

 

Seanan McGuire is one of the hottest writers in science fiction and fantasy. She is a 2018 Hugo finalist for another series she writes, Incryptid. She also writes under the name of Mira Grant, and has had multiple works nominated for the major awards in science fiction and fantasy under that name as well. She won the John W. Campbell award for best new author in 2010, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2013 for her novella Every Heart a Doorway, and also in 2013 became the first person ever to appear 5 times on the same Hugo ballot. Despite her amazing output–or maybe because of it–her writing is crisp, exciting, and full of characters that are deep and surprising.

 

McGuire’s characters leap fully-formed off the page. They are passionate, infuriating, terrifying, tender, brave and cowardly. They are gay and lesbian and straight. They are human and inhuman. They are like anyone you might meet and unlike anyone you will ever know. October Daye is probably her best known character at this point, and in every book she grows and matures and becomes something new and something more. Some writers might lose their edge after 11 books. If possible, McGuire seems to be just hitting her stride.

 

McGuire’s plots also challenge. No one escapes a Seanan McGuire novel unharmed–especially her protagonists. She demands a lot from her characters, and she is not afraid to kill even major characters to tell the story.  (Fortunately, she usually doesn’t kill all of them. Well, except in Rolling in the Deep. Spoiler alert: it gets ugly.) The Brightest Fell has sacrifice and redemption, and in a major twist on an ageless theme, in this case one precludes the other. Normally sacrifice consecrates redemption. Seanan McGuire just doesn’t do normal.

 

You might be able to jump into the series with The Brightest Fell. McGuire is able to backfill the story without getting pedantic. But you will be rewarded by going back to the beginning and catching up. October Daye grows as a character throughout the series. And it is fair to say that Seanan McGuire grows as a writer through the series. Reading as a character matures and as a writer hones her craft can be a very rewarding experience, and the October Daye series is a delightful way to watch both happen.

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Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and Findings, Mary Anna Evans

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Artifacts is a solid debut novel from Mary Anna Evans. Originally published in 2003, this introduction of the character Faye Longchamp won some awards and began a series that continues still.

 

Faye Longchamp is a mixed race woman trying to make ends meet. She works part time at an archaeological dig near her Florida home, not so much for the money as for the hope that she will find a way to continue her collegiate studies in the field. Her former professor is leading the dig, and this is her way of trying to help. Longchamp, though, needs much more money than a low wage part-time job would provide. She has inherited a large home on a barrier island, one that is in poor repair and is far behind in tax payments. Needing money to refurbish and keep her home, she engages in a legally questionable side job–selling artifacts she finds near her house on the gray market. She knows enough and cares enough to avoid contaminating significant sites, but some of her finds are on public lands and therefore legally cannot be sold for personal gain. Her desperation, though, makes her willing to break the law.

 

During one of those illegal digs, she unearths a body. Clearly not recent, but not from the far distant past either, she realizes that she has stumbled across a murder victim whose murderer may still be alive. The next day, two of the other assistants at the dig are murdered. Though a relationship between the two crimes is not obvious (since they are in different locations), the timing can hardly be coincidental, and Faye finds herself swept into the middle of finding justice for her two colleagues and for a teenager killed forty years earlier.

 

Mary Anna Evans has written many more books in this series. So far, I have only gotten to read one other. Findings is a few years later than Artifacts. Longchamp has secured some funding streams to restore her beloved home, Joyeuse, and to pursue doctoral studies in archaeology. She is in a relationship with a lawyer from Atlanta who would like to see things progress further. Faith is now pursuing more academic and legitimate archaeological work. Many of her findings go to the Museum of American Slavery, run by her friend and mentor, Douglass Everett. On the night when she discovers an exquisite emerald hidden in a box of otherwise worthless junk covered by dirt, Douglass is murdered in the basement of his own museum. The emerald is not taken, having been hidden by Douglass in his last act before his brutal murder. Later, an old associate of Faye’s from her free-lance archeology days is also murdered, dying in her arms. This leads Faye on a search for buried treasure: the rest of the emerald necklace, rumored Civil War gold, and the buried secrets within her own heart.

 

I liked Artifacts, but I loved Findings. Seeing a writer grow from a first novel is a joy I am beginning to appreciate, and Mary Anna Evans’s skills have grown appreciably. The story is deeper, the characters more evolved, and the descriptions of the Florida coast are more evocative. This is a series worth coming back to, and now there are 11 books to explore and enjoy. Faye Longchamp is a strong woman of mixed race, a characteristic which makes her unusual in genre-fiction. She is also a woman who grows and matures through the series. When we first meet her, she is skirting the law by selling artifacts to make ends meet. Through the series we see her get her academic degrees, become a strong ally of the law, fall in love and get married, and mature as a character. We see her positively change the lives of her friends and loved ones. In short, we see her “grow up.” Often in series a character remains much the same, never aging, never maturing, never learning. This makes for a timelessness which is useful to the author. Having your protagonist change makes life harder for the writer, but is very rewarding to the reader. There is value in reading the books in order (although I admit that is not what I have done). We see the growth in the characters. We also see the growth in the writer. Both of these make for compelling reasons to come back to this series again and again.

 

Artifacts and Findings are both terrific books, and both make me eager to continue with this series. If you are into mysteries, strong female characters, archaeology, and even historical fiction, this is a series worth your attention. It is also one which, although it features adult characters, could be enjoyed by teens who want something a little more mature but who don’t want one with excessive violence or “adult” themes.

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Book Review: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

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Fiction Thriller: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Third book in the Orphan X series, following Orphan X and The Nowhere Man

A couple of years ago a fascinating book caught my attention. A thriller about a former government wet-ops agent who now worked secretly helping people who were in desperate situations, Orphan X was well written, had an interesting protagonist and strong secondary characters, and told a compelling story. Its sequel, The Nowhere Man, continued the story in riveting fashion, filling in backstory and introducing new characters to the series.

 

The third in the series came out earlier this year, and it is a thriller reader’s dream come true. Hellbent is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. I finished it in a five-hour straight shot. I made the mistake of starting it after traveling all weekend, and could not put it down. From beginning to end, Gregg Hurwitz takes the reader on a ride that had me gripping the edge of the book with white knuckles. The first two books in this series were excellent, but this takes the series to a new level.

 

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, part of a top secret program that recruited orphans who showed certain useful characteristics into a black ops training program. He was possibly the best of the “orphans,” brilliant, resourceful, and ruthless. His trainer, though, had become like a father to him, and as a father he taught Evan not only how to be a killer, but also how to be a human. Evan was raised with a code, commandments that his trainer instilled within him. “Do not kill innocents” was part of that code, a part that eventually led to Evan leaving the program and disappearing off the grid–which in his case was Los Angeles.

 

When Evan’s arch-enemy Orphan Y, the new head of the Orphan program, finds Evan’s trainer and kills him, Evan has a new mission: kill Orphan Y. First, though, he must decipher his trainer’s final message to him. That message leads to a most unexpected package: a teenage girl who was also trying to escape from the Orphan program. Suddenly, the Nowhere Man has responsibilities that go beyond a mere mission. Orphan Y wants to kill her, too. How can Evan keep her alive, go after Orphan Y and his group of killers, and deal with the trauma and drama of a teenager? The result is a fast paced and action filled novel with twists and turns that go beyond the core “how does our hero survive and complete his mission” of all thrillers. It includes the shock and awe of a shopping trip to Target to purchase “female products.” It includes learning how to listen, how to open up, how to become vulnerable without losing his edge. It includes asking a mother for advice on talking to a young girl. And before you know it, you realize you’ve read a complete novel with the requisite body count of a high octane thriller, but with an unexpected and delightful emotional depth that is rare in this genre.

 

Hellbent checks the boxes for a thriller. But what makes it next level is the emotional growth of the characters. We see new sides to some familiar characters. We see Evan needing help and reaching out for it, and we see others stepping up for him. We see a young girl, traumatized and alone, make informed choices that define who she is and who she will become. Throughout we see that characters define themselves by their own choices, who make emotionally difficult decisions that can cost them everything, who confront themselves and challenge themselves to become more than they have been. Hurwitz spins a great story, but more delightfully he draws great characters. Orphan X books will stay on my reading list because of those characters, and I cannot wait to find out what Evan Smoak faces in the next novel of the series.

 

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Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

 

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Nonfiction Science: The Ends of the World:Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

 

Peter Brannen is a science writer. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines. He writes about discoveries and professors and interesting and fun things.

 

So why has his book given me nightmares?

 

The Ends of the World is not a futuristic “aliens attack” novel. Nor is it an apocalyptic war/genocide vision. This is not about a prospective “how the world will end” scenario–at least, not entirely. This is a well written, thoughtful, clear look at how the world has ended. How life has been scrubbed from our planet. How the tenuous hold of biology has been torn away from Earth before. And this has happened not once, not twice, but five previous times in our planet’s history.

 

And some argue we are in the midst of the sixth.

 

Brannen’s The Ends of the World covers the history of life–focusing specifically on the history of death. Not just any ordinary deaths, either. Five times our planet has faced mass extinction events that have had worldwide effect. Once, the result was a rounding error away from 100% fatality of every species of animal AND plant alive. The most well-known of these events resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs, but the four previous events were just as cataclysmic and possibly even more comprehensive in their life-ending totality.

 

The Ends of the World goes around the world in search of clues to these abrupt breaks in the story of life on Earth. Six chapters are specifically named after these interruptions: “The End-Ordovician Mass Extinction,” “The End-Devonian Mass Extinction,” and following the same titular pattern he looks at the Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous extinctions. Each of these ancient eras had an abundance of life, though much of it would be strange to us. Trilobites and ammonites and giant fish and salamanders the size of cars and, of course, dinosaurs. In their time, they walked or swam the world as its masters. Many times the world they inhabited was very different from our own: warmer, more carbon dioxide, a single massive continent instead of the global distribution of land we currently have. And the length of time they had on the planet was also significantly longer than we appreciate. Humans have been around for only 2 million years or so. Global distribution of our species goes back maybe 30,000 years, and civilization less than 10,000 years. Some of the earth’s previous masters were dominant for tens or even hundreds of millions of years. Yet all of them eventually faced a crisis which ended their course. Only hubris would say we are immune to the same fate.

 

As a species we have trouble agreeing on what to have for dinner any given night, so it should come as no shock that scientists differ on the causes and reasons for previous mass extinctions that happened long before humanity was a twinkle in evolution’s eye. Even the one which has the most hard evidence to support it, the impact of a six-mile wide asteroid in what is now Mexico, is not universally believed to be the cause of the End-Cretaceous extinction; although most agree that an asteroid hit at the same general time as the mass extinction with catastrophic effect, there were other roughly contemporaneous events that might have been as much or more responsible for the end of most life. Two things consistently appear in the geologic record at the same time that fossils disappear from it. Those two things have different indicators, but similar causes. One cause is massive activity from volcanoes. The other cause is dramatic climate change.

 

Although earthquakes and volcanoes make frequent headlines today, we live in a fairly quiet time compared to others. The Permian era seems to have ended when Siberia erupted. Not one or two or ten volcanoes in Russia. Siberia. Virtually the entire region began spewing lava and gases, enough lava to deeply bury the entire United States under many feet of flaming molten rock! At the end of the Cretaceous period, around the same time as the asteroid hit, volcanoes in India began erupting and spewing enough lava to bury the United States under 60 feet of the stuff! (Some argue that the volcanoes were already impacting life before the asteroid hit, while others suggest that the impact of the asteroid in Mexico actually supercharged the volcanoes across the world in a sort of ripple-effect, one-two punch to the biosphere.)

 

Living in an era where climate change is an existential threat, reading that massive climate change contributed to several (if not all) of the previous mass extinctions is disturbing. The good news, such as it is, is that the climate change shown in the fossil record is often greater than the climate change we see today. The bad news is that it is not always greater, nor is it always dramatically greater. Anthropogenic climate change may not usher in the next great extinction event, but it has enough similarities to those previous events to concern us all. Furthermore, we are not “just” changing the climate. Our plastics are fouling the ocean, our pollution is changing the very air we breathe, and our homes and appetites are destroying species and habitats at alarming rates. But although our methods have changed, our impact on the world is a time-honored one.

 

One chapter is titled, “The End-Pleistocene Mass Extinction.” This dates back several thousand years, tracing a line of destruction around the world affecting primarily (though hardly exclusively) mega fauna. Giant kangaroos and moas, American rhinos and lions and sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths and mastodons, European elephants and aurochs and even Neanderthals. Cause and effect cannot be conclusively determined, but it seems unlikely to be a coincidence that the extinction of all of these species followed the introduction of a new, invasive species that has spread around the world. That species is us.

 

The Ends of the World is a powerful, well-written and deeply researched book. It is dark, though there are light-hearted moments throughout as Brennan interacts with scientists and amateur paleontologists around the world. Despite the planet’s best efforts to rid itself, the good news (as Jurassic Park character Dr. Ian Malcolm might say) is that “life will find a way.” That may not be good news for us, though. The dinosaurs ruled the world for millions of years. Then, one day, they were just gone (well, except for the birds). Someday our story may also be told only in fossils and strange remnants left in rocks of a bipedal primate that spread around the planet, only to fail to adapt when the planet changed around them. The question is: are we the agents of that very change?

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Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

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Fiction: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first book in the series, “The Books of Babel.” Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya are on their honeymoon. Senlin is headmaster of the school in a small fishing village. He has long studied and taught about the most amazing technological achievement in the world: the Tower of Babel. Newly married, the couple decides to spend their honeymoon visiting this marvel. Almost immediately after arriving, they are separated and Marya becomes lost. It takes Thomas a couple of days to realize this. By the time he does, the trail has gone cold and his only hope is that Marya has successfully made it to their intended destination on the third floor of the tower. Thomas embarks on a journey into the tower. There he finds that nothing is as it seems, no one is who they say they are, and everything he thought he knew about the tower was wrong.

 

Senlin Ascends is set in a dark dystopian world. The tower is a technological marvel, still under construction after 1,000 years. Most of the world has very limited access to technology. Marya and Thomas travel to the tower via steam engine train, and later we see Thomas’s amazement when he encounters electricity for the first time. The tower has access to more advanced technologies, but Thomas finds the rules governing behavior and organization in the tower are unique and often must be discovered by breaking them. Failure to follow the rules can have severe consequences. Failure to know the rules is irrelevant.

 

After spending several days surmounting the obstacles that face travelers on levels one and two of the tower, Senlin finds his first clue that Marya is still alive when he is on level three. Level three, though, is also where he begins to appreciate just how much trouble she–and really, both of them–are in. Their short honeymoon journey is going to be a trial of many months, and there are many challenging enemies who oppose them finding each other. And a mild-mannered intellectual headmaster is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t make sense. If Thomas Senlin is to find his beautiful bride, he will have to become something he never expected: a hero.

 

The two journeys of Senlin Ascends are both fascinating. The physical journey through the tower is vividly imagined. Each floor has its own culture, its own set of rules, its own internal logic that must be mastered before one can proceed. There are no shortcuts. Failure to follow the rules means banishment from the tower…or worse. But the rules change on each floor, the people in charge owe nothing to anyone else, and following the rules can require compromising your own ethics. Senlin finds that the price of success, the price of moving forward, the price of finding Marya, gets higher the further he goes. But he has no choice if he hopes to be reunited with his love.

 

The physical journey requires a hero’s journey for the protagonist. Thomas Senlin thinks he knows who he is. Intellectual. Calm. Reserved. A man of peace. The kind of man the tower destroys and spits out before passing the first floor. Senlin discovers that he can become more, but he also discovers that the price is high. The man of peace must seek out confrontation. The loyal husband must walk away from friends. The man who understands the world must understand that he knows nothing about this world. These are not easy transitions, and one suspects that the man who eventually finds Marya inside the tower will not be the same man who lost her outside those walls.

 

The second book in this series is Arm of the Sphinx. The third book, The Hod King, is due out in early 2019. Josiah Bancroft has started an interesting fable with Senlin Ascends, and I look forward to reading the subsequent adventures set in this curious and dark world.

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Book Review: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, Nick Pyenson

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

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Nonfiction: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

 

Nick Pyenson is a whale paleontologist working for the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Although whales may not have captured the paleontological imagination the way dinosaurs have, maybe they should. In his 2018 book Spying on Whales, Pyenson reminds us that whales are the largest creatures that have ever lived. Although the largest brontosaurus might barely exceed their length from nose to tail, the blue whale is much more massive. In weight, they are many times heavier than any dinosaur, heavier than any other sea creature that has ever lived, and they are living in our oceans right now.

 

Although Pyenson is a paleontologist, he also studies living whales. Spying on Whales is not just about fossils and times long ago. Pyenson takes the reader to current expeditions where living whales are being watched and tagged. Clear-eyed about the realities of a world where whaling remains an ongoing concern, Pyenson also takes us on board a whaling ship and to a whale-rendering plant in Iceland. He acknowledges the ethical dilemmas faced in using these operations for scientific research and is clearly conflicted by the choices he has made. Whaling has not stopped, and his presence neither encouraged nor discouraged the whalers. He and other scientists have made some groundbreaking discoveries from the fresh carcasses of the killed beasts. Whether that justifies his presence there or not is left to the reader to decide.

 

Much less controversial is his work with fossilized whales. Pyenson takes us to Chile, where several layers of whale skeletons were discovered when a road was cut through a high mountain desert. Walking in the footsteps of Darwin, Pyenson tells a gripping story of how a local paleontologist made the discovery, how the Smithsonian was able to field a team to not only help with the dig but also to pioneer techniques in x-ray mapping the bones in situ, and how this all had to be organized and accomplished within a month because of the demands of the road construction timeline. Pyenson is a good story-teller and he gives much of the credit to the rest of the team. The working theory is that there were at least four occasions within a few thousand years when an algae bloom wiped out huge numbers of local creatures, not only whales but fish, birds, and other sea mammals. Those animals died and washed ashore in what was then a low lying area. Much later when the region was lifted above sea level by plate tectonics and then later still when it was exposed by the road construction, several virtually intact skeletons of early whales were identified and preserved for study by the team.

 

Whales today are known for their size, although there are a few that are quite small. Unfortunately, most of those smaller whales are very endangered. It is likely that the Yangtze River dolphin has gone extinct, and a species of small dolphin in Mexico has fewer than 30 remaining individuals. Many larger species were hunted nearly to extinction. Blue and right whales may never recover their pre-whaling numbers, Humpback whales, though, seem to be nearing or at their pre-whaling numbers, and gray whales may be using new ice-free channels through the Arctic Ocean to recolonize the Atlantic, where they had not been seen for centuries until recently when two individuals were spotted far apart from each other.

 

Whales today face many challenges. Although hunting is greatly restricted, it has not ended. Climate change is putting new pressures on whales, potentially affecting their migration patterns and feeding habits. Thousands of whales are killed accidentally by ship strikes and by getting caught in fishnets. Plastic and other pollutants are being eaten by whales with unknown consequences long-term. And the sounds made by our industrial and military work in the ocean has unknown effects on animals which use sound to communicate over vast distances.

 

One other unknown effect humans have had on whales is changing the whales’ cultures. Whales communicate, and different whale pods have developed different cultures. For example, although they are biologically indistinguishable, there are three distinct cultures of orcas in the Pacific. One culture eats salmon almost exclusively, and stays primarily in fixed locations near the mouths of rivers where salmon go to spawn. Another group travels up and down the coast and eats primarily marine mammals. The third is much more oceanic than the first two, and their hunting is focused largely on sharks. Although there is no difference in the DNA between the three groups, they seldom interact and in their behavior patterns they are essentially different subspecies. Distinct cultures have also been observed in pods of sperm whales…but sperm whale populations were devastated by whaling ships. We will never know what effect the depopulation of the species had on its culture, nor will we ever know if or how that can be recovered even if the population rebounds.

 

Spying on Whales is a warm book about fascinating creatures. It is a great book for kids interested in science (it ends with a heartwarming story about the accidental discovery of a whale skull by the author’s preschool son–and how there is now a specimen in the Smithsonian’s collection whose discovery is credited to the child). It is also a fascinating read for those of us who maintain our childhood fascination with science and with the amazing creatures that share this planet.

0735224560

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson