Monday, July 04, 2016

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Instead of reviewing a work of fiction for you today, I’m going to talk about an astounding work by the scientist writer Elizabeth Kolbert, entitled, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Published in 2014, it won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015.

Kolbert explains to the reader that until the late 1700s it was believed that prehistoric mass extinctions had never occurred. It was believed then that just as specification occurred gradually over immense periods of time, so too, extinctions must occur only gradually, so gradually that given the tiny time period of homo sapiens, it would be unlikely that even a single extinction could be witnessed. However, as geology has developed, it has become clear in the fossil record that there have been five catastrophic periods of mass extinctions. In the course of the book, she describes each of these: one caused by the earth being hit by a an asteroid, others by glaciation and or global warming.
Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early to say whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five, it becomes known as the Sixth Extinction. 
[…] mass extinctions are defined as events that eliminate a ‘significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geographically insignificant amount of time’
She continues: "Conditions changes so drastically or so suddenly (or so drastically and so suddenly) that evolutionary history counts for little."

While there is always a background rate of extinction, it is nothing like the rate of mass extinctions. For example:
Today amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate ... extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. 
What makes the sixth extinction stand out is that it is being caused by a single species of animal, human beings. Summing up in her final chapter, Kolbert says:
Right now in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.
From what I have said so far, it may seem that this is a horribly depressing book to read, but in fact, Kolbert’s writing is so clear and her travels while writing and documenting her claims so incredible that I came away from the book feeling like I have a much firmer grasp of evolution than before. Not since Stephen Jay Gould’s Ever Since Darwin have I learned so much about the continually unfolding story of the evolution of life on earth.

Each chapter presents the latest beliefs in geography, biology, astrophysics, but in a language even the lay person can grasp. While the book is clearly a warning, it is not a warning of what will come, but a description of what has been happening for at least the last two hundred years. Kolbert quotes with admiration the Stanford ecologist, Paul Ehrlich: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

As she meticulously lays out her case for the Sixth Extinction, she points out many interesting little facts about earth’s history, for instance, in explaining why there is so much diversity in the many incarnations of the Amazon rainforest, some version or other of which has existed for millions of years, lots of time for diversity to accumulate,

By contrast, as recently as twenty thousand years ago, nearly all of Canada was covered in ice
a mile thick. So was much of New England, meaning that every species of tree now found in Nova Scotia or Ontario or Vermont of New Hampshire is a migrant that’s arrived (or returned) just in the last several thousand years.

Kolbert has packed into three hundred pages an amazing array of statistics and descriptions of scientific projects that left this reader on the edge of his chair turning pages as if reading a mystery thriller. It is a great book, and one that we can all read, and should all read.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Ones Who Matter Most by Rachel Herron

If you are in the mood for a kind of emotional mystery story, and a heartfelt tale of mother love, you should pick up Rachel Herron’s The Ones who Matter Most. It is sure to evoke tears as well as joy and laughter.

Abby Roberts is rehearsing her line as she awaits her husband’s arrival home from work. She’s about to tell him she wants a divorce, not because she doesn’t love him anymore, but because the most important thing in the world to her is having children; she has had three miscarriages. Her husband is sympathetic, but with each miscarriage, he cools more to the idea of being a father, and finally admits he is opposed to adoption or pursuit of some sort of medical solution to their failed attempts. When Abby goes to the family doctor to try to understand why she is not getting pregnant again, she is shocked to find out that her husband has had a secret vasectomy. So, all of her careful planning, the lovemaking at just the right times of the month have been a joke. And then when she does announces to her husband her desire for a divorce, he drops dead from a massive heart attack, not from the shock of his wife’s request, but simply because his heart has given out.

So begins this novel of love and loss. In the midst of her grieving over the death of her husband and her dreams of having a family with him, she discovers that her husband was married before, and not only married, but that he had a son with his previous wife. So the man who has told her he thinks he is not suited for fatherhood, in fact already has a son, a family he has left behind. Driven as much by curiosity as rage, she goes to the home of her husband’s ex-wife and there meets his beautiful son Matty. Fern, Matty’s mother, is less than happy that this new wife shows up on her doorstep. She is a bus-driver who from one month to the next is not sure she can make her mortgage payment and put food on the table for Matty and his paternal grandfather, who has chosen Fern and Matty over his own son when the son chooses to leave his wife and son.

I’ll try not to give away too much of this story, although it is the story of Fern and Abby, and what Fern sees as Abby’s attempt to steal from Fern her son, or, at any rate, to infiltrate her family, that occupies the rest of the book. It is a book that is profound not for its philosophical or political insights, but because of its close look at family and of the ones who matter most.

Abby offers her husband’s insurance money to Fern, but Fern is offended by the offer, sees it as an attempt to buy her way into Fern’s family. To make matters worse, Fern’s brother meets Matty, and they have an instant attraction for one another. So, thinks Fern, not only does she want my son, she wants my brother as well. She wants my family, and she can’t have it.

Perhaps parts of this complicated story of love and family stretch the reader’s credulity, but in the end I felt it to be a lovely story of the redemptive power of love. The women characters are strong and drawn convincingly. Each of Abby’s attempts to help Fern and to get closer to Matty has some sort of disastrous consequence for Fern, leading finally to her losing her job as bus driver and her ability to provide for her family.

What shines through in the novel is the intense power of mother love and the healing power of family. Perhaps I will not be giving away too much if I tell you that Fern and Abby finally manage to cobble together a new and very different kind of family. I don’t think it hurts to know sometimes that a novel is going to have a happy ending, especially since so many novels are so emotionally painful to read.

And that’s probably enough.  I suppose this is an overly sentimental story, but one that appealed to me a lot, and also one that will give you a couple of days of interesting reading and a good feeling inside.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Lies And Other Acts Of Love by Kristy Woodson Harvey

My momma always told me that honesty was the most important thing in life. But I’ve never understood why people are so hell-bent on honesty. It’s not the truth that sets you free. The truth is the thing that destroys lives, that shatters the mirror. The truth is selfish and shameful, and better kept to oneself. In fact, I’m quite sure that the only thing that paper-clips any of our lives together are the white lies. They are the defibrillators that bring us back when we were on the brink of succumbing to the light. 
So begins Lynn White’s (known by all as Lovey) discourse on marriage and families. Kristy Woodson Harvey’s little novel Lies and Other Acts of Love is a light-hearted but serious look at love and relationships, and the role that honesty and what she calls white lies both hold together and shatter families.

This is not a great book; there is an economic snobbery about it that offended me some throughout, and yet I found myself entertained and sometimes deeply moved by the relationships described in what appears to be a rather intimately autobiographical novel. There are two narrators: the matriarch of the family, Lynn (Lovey) who has five daughters, and Annabelle, a granddaughter who is as stiff and unforgiving as her grandmother, Lovey, is fluid and compassionate and forgiving.

Like so many modern novels, this one flips back and forth both between narrators and between epochs. Lovey tells her story of how she came to love and marry Dan (aka Daddy D) in the 1940s, and Annabelle speaking in the present, describes her deteriorating marriage to a musician, Ben, and her attempts to unravel family secrets that threaten to explode her rosy view of what she sees as the perfect marriage and family of her grandmother, Lovey and Daddy D.

In the present, with all their daughters raised and most of them married, Lovey’s beloved Dan is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and she is doing her best to care for him at home. In one of his rare moments of lucidity in the middle of the night, Dan wakes to ask Lovey, “Can I get you anything?” And when she replies, “Not a thing, sweetheart. Are you all right?” His reply, “As long as you’re here, I’m perfect.”

The description of the love between Dan and Lynn (Lovey) is, I think, the high-point of this novel; Lovey is a wise and caring person who treats her daughters with great respect, encouraging them to live their own lives as they see fit and to trust their instincts; she  does not insist on always getting at the truth, realizing that there are times when attention and caring are more important than the truth.

Annabelle, on the other hand, is rigid and uncompromising in her pursuit of truth, although in the end, with the help of her grandmother and an Episcopal priest she begins to work for, she begins to see that some things (for example, keeping families together) may be more important than omissions and white lies. Through questioning and snooping, Annabelle gets closer and closer to revealing a truth about the distant past that could shatter the lives of those in her close-knit family.

This little element of mystery in the book makes it more enticing as a story, as well as raising questions about the relative importance of truth compared to loyalty and family solidarity.

While there are parts of the book that are soap-opera sentimental, and some religious overtones that this reader found to be detracting from the quality of the story as a whole, the insights into what makes relationships good ones and on just how deceit can quickly destroy a relationship are worth the sentimentality and the not so subtle evangelical elements.

Lovey notes that while the death of her 89 year old husband is not tragic, it is devastating, and as she says, “It is, most of all, a death of the self.” Just so, the partner who is left is no longer who s/he was in the partnership, and yet there is no new, whole person to replace the self that is lost.

Another theme that is taken up in the book, and I think dealt with quite skillfully is the need for friendships outside of marriage.
You should never worry about moving to a new town with your husband, according to Lovey, because, in reality, your husband is the only friend you need. That was a lovely sentiment, but, as I was learning, maybe not a totally true one. I loved Ben madly, but I needed friends.
I think many relationships cave in on themselves precisely because there is too much weight put on them and not enough importance attached to friendships aside from the marriage. Annabelle certainly comes to realize this, but as is so often the case, she does not really see or act on the need for friends until her marriage is crumbling, which makes it all the harder to seek out support and counsel from others. Fortunately she does have her wise old grandmother, Lovey. Although she almost loses her, too, by being too insistent on the perfection she wants, by keeping Lovely (and her grandfather) on pedestals that cannot be maintained.

I had read a dozen or so war novels and psychological thrillers before stumbling on this little book which is both light-hearted and deceptively deep. I was ready for it, and found it delightful. I have been talking about Kristy Woodson Harvey’s 2016 novel, Lies and Other Acts of Love.