Mid-2019 book review

Photo of books on a desk

The news from this year’s book review is that I have belatedly decided I’m a fantasy fan. Even though I had read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager and the entire Song of Ice and Fire series (including the “Dunk and Egg” prequels) in my 20s, I still somehow thought of myself as “above” the glossy paperbacks with their scowling wizards and soaring pegasi. Well, the veil of self-delusion has lifted. Bring on the pegasi.

The other news is that I’m breaking 2019’s book review into two posts. There are just too many books to cover. (Famous last words! My reading velocity is going down as the summer starts to heat up.)

Quick links

Fiction

Non-fiction

Fiction

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

A haunting, beautiful book. I’d never considered myself a big fantasy fan, but somehow this one really stuck with me. I decided to read it because of this Atlantic article, and I’m glad I did.

I think what sets this one apart is that, while books like Harry Potter or the Narnia series are about childhood and its relationship with fantasy, The Last Unicorn is about growing up and growing away from fantasy. In the book, people have forgotten about unicorns or can’t see their horns. Some of them look upon the unicorn and start crying even if they don’t know why.

The book is ultimately about loss – loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of childish fantasies – as well as regret. It’s a very profound and moving book. Oh, and the author has a real gift for language; the book is filled with beautiful poetry to paint its fantasy world. Anyway, read it.

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

I decided after reading The Last Unicorn that I should start taking fantasy books a bit more seriously. So I picked up The Magicians, and quickly devoured all three books in the trilogy. The whole series is great, although for slightly different reasons than Unicorn.

At first glance, Magicians comes across as a mash-up between Harry Potter and Narnia, but with some decidedly adult elements thrown in. At times I burst out laughing at the incongruity between the magical situations that the characters found themselves in and their wry commentary on it. These are fantasy novels for people who think fantasy novels are a bit silly.

In the end, though, I think Magicians is actually closest in theme and tone to The Dark Tower by Stephen King. It has the same sense of taking old fables and tropes and turning them into something gritty and believable. It’s a fantasy world seen through a dark, ironic lens. But it’s also a great piece of storytelling. Well worth the read.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

I needed one last piece of post-apocalyptic fiction for the road, before switching over to the wizards and unicorns.

This one tells a good story, although ultimately I don’t find its depiction of a world waiting to die very believable. I just find it hard to imagine that, in the face of a nuclear dust-cloud descending inexorably towards Australia, that an entire continent would decide to go the “stiff upper lip” route and carry on as usual, pretending as if Armageddon wasn’t on its way.

Societal breakdown and anarchy seem more likely to me, although I guess that might be hindsight talking. This book was written in 1957, well before post-apocalyptic fiction had really settled into its groove and the Mad Max-style mohawked warlords had become staples of the genre. So it gets points for trying – I’m sure this book spooked a lot of people back in the days when fallout shelters and “duck and cover” drills were still a thing.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

I loved this book. I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s blog posts for years, and I’m surprised at what an effective storyteller he is. Think Black Mirror, but funnier and less bleak.

The two short stories that stood out the most to me were the first – about a toaster oven that refuses to toast “unlicensed” bread – and the third – about cancer survivors radicalized by an online forum.

The first story in particular feels plausible in a disturbing way, and it cuts to the core of some of the concerns I’ve expressed about the ways that technology can be used to take more power away from those who are already powerless. For instance, consider this (true) story about renters in Brooklyn who are unable to stop their landlord from installing face-recognizing cameras. This story shows that Doctorow’s DRM toaster isn’t so much a vision of the future as it is an extrapolation of present trends. Which is what good science fiction is all about.

Nonfiction

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

A central fact about eating meat is that it’s much easier if you forget where it comes from. With this book I forced myself to take a hard look at where it comes from, and I found the results to be disturbing and appalling.

I don’t think it’s unnatural for humans to eat meat (my incisors are proof of that), but I do think that the modern factory farming system is immoral. It’s a form of industrial cruelty, systematized and magnified on a monstrous scale. Anyone who has owned a pet wouldn’t want it to experience even one minute of what these animals have to suffer every day of their lives.

If humans still did animal husbandry the old-fashioned way, on small-scale farms where the animals could live more-or-less decent lives, then I wouldn’t have a problem with eating animal products. What bothers me isn’t the way they die – it’s the way they live. Reading about the lives of egg-laying chickens and pigs in factory farms activates all my moral instincts and says in no uncertain terms, This is wrong. In fact, I think most meat-eaters would consider it wrong too, which is why they try to push it out of their minds.

I’d love to say that, after reading this book, I went fully vegan and never looked back. The truth is that I gave it a shot for a few weeks, found it too difficult, and then settled into a quasi-vegetarian/pescetarian thing, which is what I’ve been doing for the past decade or so anyway.

The main difference is that I have a better sense now of what kinds of foods actually reduce animal suffering. For instance: less dairy, more wild-caught fish. (I know; it’s surprising. Read the book.)

My relationship with food is still complicated, but at least this book has brought some facts and numbers to inform my decisions.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

I’ll admit: as recently as 2010, I probably would have described myself as a “climate change skeptic.” Not because I doubted the science (the consensus was clear at this point) but because I questioned whether the economic cost of combating climate change would outweigh the benefits of preventing it. India and China were rapidly developing – who was I to say that poor people in Kerala should live without air conditioning?

Like most everybody else, though, I’ve come around to the massive challenge posed by climate change. Living through two summer forest fires in Seattle, where people wore protective masks and the sky looked like a hazy Martian sunset, certainly helped change my mind. As did this book.

Before The Uninhabitable Earth I had also started reading Carbon Ideologies by William T. Vollmann. They’re good books, but honestly they’re so long and dense and meandering that it’s hard to recommend them to anyone but the convinced climate activist. If you’re really interested in the physics, the numbers, and the nitty-gritty, then these books are for you.

Wallace-Wells’s book is different. It’s short, it’s punchy, and it encourages you to actually envision a world after global warming, and to let it hit you at a gut level. I imagine a book like this will inspire some great science fiction (cli-fi?), which might do more to get people to care about climate change than all the facts and figures in the world. So for that, it’s a book I strongly recommend.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert’s book is another eye-opening look at humanity’s relationship with nature and where we fit into the grand arc of geologic history. I’ve had a longstanding interest in paleontology, and I find Kolbert’s defense of the Anthropocene (which is what this book amounts to) very compelling.

One thing that always puzzled me about climate change was why one or two degrees of average temperature, or a few percentage points of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, would really be such a catastrophic event for humanity. Wasn’t the carbon dioxide level orders of magnitude higher during the Mesozoic? Why would a few percentage points be our death knell?

What this book makes clear is that it’s not so much about the absolute numbers, but instead the rate of change. Earth has adapted to rapid changes before (such as an unlucky rendez-vous with an asteroid), but the recovery always takes a long time. Like, “longer than the human species has been around” long. Are we willing to trade 300 years of indulgence in fossil fuels for hundreds of thousands of years of getting the Earth’s ecosystem back on track?

If Wallace-Wells’s book hasn’t already bummed you out too much, then you should definitely pick this one up. It certainly helps put things in (geologic) perspective.

2 responses to this post.

  1. It’s funny how often people seem to (unconsciously) find themselves in a dilemma between vegan (or vegetarian) and eating meat every day, or even several times a day. Limiting meat to about one meal a week is a pretty big step for a lot of Americans, but it means they could still eat meat and would have a huge impact, both ecologically and in terms of animal welfare.

    I grew up in a household where we only ate meat occasionally, but I didn’t think of myself as vegetarian. However, I was a lot closer to it than most people around me!

    Reply

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