Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Signature of All Things

After two joyless books, I was in the mood for some lighter reading, so I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things.

This is a character-driven novel, with a rather plodding plot, if it has a plot at all. Fortunately, the characters are interesting, and the primary character -- Alma Whittaker -- is one I won't soon forget. A stalwart woman of science whose life spans the 19th century, Alma is born into privilege as the daughter of Philadelphia's wealthiest man, a self-made botanical entrepreneur. Money is the least of her privileges; she is blessed with parents who nurture and encourage her considerable intellect and thirst for knowledge.

As Alma reached her middle years, I anticipated the author of Eat Pray Love would rescue her heroine from spinsterhood with a steamy romance. Things did not go quite the way I expected, but I can say no more without spoiling.

This was a satisfying novel and one that makes me eager for the snow to melt so I can poke around in my garden and observe the wonders of the plant kingdom.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Despite living in Michigan for the past 22 years, I don't know much more about Detroit than the average American. I've only been there three times, each a short overnight visit. And after reading Charlie LeDuff's memoir, Detroit: An American Autopsy, I can't say I'm any better informed.

Detroit, LeDuff tells us over and over again, is a hellhole. He writes of his childhood on Joy Road in Livonia, a near suburb of Detroit. And the road name is basically the only joy in the book. LeDuff's Detroit is sordid, saturated with murder, corruption, cronyism, drugs, and despair. Those hipsters, urban farmers and young entrepreneurs you've heard are flocking to Detroit? LeDuff apparently hasn't met them.

This reads like a 1940s crime noir novel, with LeDuff playing the role of hard-edged gumshoe, which in his case is reporter for the Detroit News, the job he holds for most of the story. LeDuff is the lead character in a gritty tale of frozen corpses, murdered strippers, crooked politicians, incompetent business executives, heroic firefighters, shattered families, and LeDuff's ever-present cigarette. There's even a scene with a cop in a hat and trench coat.

In the prologue, LeDuff calls this a "book of reportage," but this is not a typical work of journalism. This is a memoir of the reporting he did in his two years with the News. He goes behind the scenes to show his work in getting the stories, with a lot of personal information thrown in. LeDuff doesn't bother with any kind of meta-analysis to explain Detroit's decline, aside from some references to the legacies of racism. There are no footnotes, and some conversations are clearly reconstructed from memory, unless it is LeDuff's habit to take notes while drinking.

Reading this book felt a little like rubbernecking at a major accident. It offended my ideals of journalism, strained my credulity at times, and, in one chapter, made me grateful to not be married to LeDuff. Yet, I couldn't stop reading. I finished this in less than 24 hours, closing it only to eat or sleep. I can't wait to discuss it at book group.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Prague Cemetery

Reading anything by Umberto Eco always makes me feel a little smarter, and that is true with his novel, The Prague Cemetery. However, this story is more clever than it is enjoyable, probably because the main character is so repulsive I was loathe to spend any of my valuable reading time with him.

Eco is a masterful writer. He chronicles the foibles, eccentricities and gullibilities of humanity, and in this novel, as in my favorite of his, Foucault's Pendulum, he revisits the bizarre terrain of conspiracy theorists, where freemasons and Jesuits are embroiled in elaborate plots, at least in some imaginations.

To appreciate Eco's cleverness, it would help to be acquainted with European history, particularly the latter half of the 19th century. Only the main character, the split-personality Captain Simonini/Abbe Dalla Piccola, is fictional; the supporting cast includes personages famous, infamous and obscure, using and being used by Simonini to thwart or further various intrigues. I frequently interrupted reading to look up names and events on the internet.

I would have enjoyed this story more if it had one prominent non-vile character, perhaps a nemesis to Simonini.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Sixth Extinction

Choosing a depressing book to read during the coldest week of the coldest winter of the past two decades perhaps was not a good idea, but the latest visit from the polar vortex gave me a good excuse to stay inside to finish Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction.

Kolbert isn't providing a newsflash; scientists have been telling us for many years that we are living in a period of species extinction not witnessed since the event at the end of the Cretaceous period that wiped out the dinosaurs, which fossil evidence indicates was the fifth time in the planet's history that the diversity of life cataclysmically contracted. Species are disappearing at an alarming and accelerating rate, and this time, the villain is one very successful "weedy" species, an invasive species like no other.

Even though I consider myself reasonably educated on ecological issues, before reading this book, I had a simplistic notion of the cause of the current species extinction. I believed it to be largely a result of human-induced climate change. But as Kolbert explains, the warming of the planet is merely accelerating a process that started when homo sapiens walked out of Africa some 100,000 years ago. 

The rapidly-unfolding climate change brought about by the burning of fossils fuels is certainly a major factor driving species extinction, as it alters habitat, acidifies the oceans and changes the composition of the air we breathe. But other human activities also have a significant impact, including predation (hunting, poaching), habitat destruction, and global commerce that spreads invasive species.

Kolbert visits around the globe with scientists in several disciplines to describe their research and, sometimes, their near-hopeless efforts to save a disappearing species. These are interesting and admirable people, but probably not the sort with whom you'd want to spend much time on a gray winter day. Fortunately for Kolbert, most of her field visits occurred in the tropics, so at least that provided some relief to this depressing tale with her descriptions of the wonders and beauties of the endangered species she saw in the Amazon rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. But then, sadly, we are left to mourn for them, and for ourselves.

Despite the grim subject matter and the apocalyptic title, the author does not take an alarmist stance or issue a rallying cry to humans to mend our ways before it is too late. The tone here is more fatalistic, a sad witness to an inevitability rather than a call to action. Also, Kolbert makes clear that it's the diversity of life rather than life itself that's at stake, and we simply don't know yet whether the loss of diversity may threaten the species that caused it.

This book is an excellent piece of science journalism, well-written and researched, with an impressive bibliography. I recommend it, but if winter has already depressed you, wait until spring to read this.