Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall

ddontevenThis book posits that people refuse, most often subconsciously, to accept climate change even when the science is solid. This is due to a series of coping mechanisms and mental partitioning that worked as an evolutionary advantage throughout humanity’s ascent up the food chain, but fail utterly when faced with a challenge that is uncertain, devastating, and (possibly) distant in its true impact. A few reasons:

  • People who experience serious environmental disaster and choose to rebuild almost always believe it will never happen (to them) again, and thus the people most affected by climate change actively refute it.
  • Climate change is incredibly uncertain — it’s hard to quantify which weather disasters are caused by climate change and which are merely your average terrible storm/flood/whatever.
  • The groups explaining the problem (scientists, environmentalists) have absolutely no concept of narrative spin, unlike their opponents. They think a constant barrage of information and graphs is the key to people’s hearts and minds.
  • The media rarely covers it, it’s somewhat of a political taboo, and people just don’t talk enough about it to keep it in the forefront of their brains.
  • The human brain is just not predisposed to giving up short term gains to avoid monstrous long-term losses.

It’s an interesting, depressing summary of the issue. It made me confront my own climate change sensibilities: General distaste and condescension towards anyone who refuses the science, and a willingness to work towards a solution. But what do I actually do about it? I own a car, but I rarely drive it unless I’m traveling some place distant. I bus, train or walk everywhere else, but I also live in a city with decent public transportation and couldn’t drive and park in downtown San Francisco regularly even if I wanted to. I’d still bus to work even if I could drive, but only so I could sit down and read, ha!

While the main thrust of the book was a great topic, the content is stretched quite thin. It seems like it would have worked better as long form journalism and not a full book. It’s repetitive.There are sections where Marshall reviews what he has said in a chapter (literally: “To sum up what I have said so far”) that I duly skipped. For a book that asks that climate change be given a compelling story that demands action, it’s kind of narratively lukewarm and passionless.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

boneclocksWhen I was a kid, I liked books that took me on an adventure. Many did. They laid down a few rules, introduced our hero, and off we went, through twisting, perilous journeys and transformative loves. This stopped happening at some point. The YA novels became rote. Sure, there was adult novels containing adventure aplenty, but the essential, magical piece was missing.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here: The Bone Clocks took me on that adventure, again.

It’s 1984 and fifteen year old Holly Sykes is running away from home for typical reasons — fights with mother, questionable decisions w/r/t much older boyfriend, general familial/societal misunderstanding. Like many teenagers, Holly is the only one who has ever felt these feelings before, ever. Mitchell shows care and empathy for adolescents even when we know they are being ridiculous. Holly’s plight ratchets up a few notches beyond mere teen angst when it’s revealed she had a series of odd, possibly supernatural events happen to her as a child (labeled Holly Sykes and the weird shit part 1, part 2, etc.) and the adumbral personages from this period of her life start surfacing in the present day (of 1984).

And as we turn the page on Holly’s final, self-shocking revelation, we see the date has changed from 1984 to 1991 and we are are in the first-person-I head of a completely different person, bereft of Holly’s resolution. This is how the book flows — time jumps and character swaps.

It’s not an uncommon technique in literature to leap large swathes of time in a single turn of the page. But, The Bone Clocks limits the chapters to such discreet, episodic moments in time. This, combined with the changing points of views, means that you’ll be embroiled in a character’s immediate problems and then swap twenty years to another character and come to see the first character’s turmoil as a distant blip, long resolved. It makes a single life seem really quite short. This helps set up the appeal of the villains — the soul sucking Anchorites that live forever and owe no small debt to Anne Rice’s vampires. The moral failings of living forever, especially when they require some of cost (‘decanting’ innocents!), have been affirmed as verboten ad nauseum. It takes a skilled writer to breath life into why immortality can be so appealing. The villains really are jerks though.

The physical design of the book itself is a continuation of the time theme. A clock in the top right of the page literally ticks down. It’s a fascinating mechanism and a sell for the singular experience of reading a physical book. I read this in paper but I recently bought an eReader and the comparison between the two has been on my mind of late.

David Mitchell, as always, is a superb writer of prose. He slips into the voice of each character and each time period, though there is a trademark, Mitchellian turn of phrase that remains regardless of the chapter. He’s the sort of writer who could write anything and I’d read it. I’d read his grocery lists, no joke.

The novel isn’t flawless. It’s long and the pacing isn’t entirely perfect. The fantastic and realist elements don’t always mesh as well as they could, especially when compared to Mitchell’s masterful Cloud Atlas. But these are minor detractors to an excellent book. So much so, I am reading non-fiction next to avoid being disappointed by the next novel I pick up.

Once Upon a Time : A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

onceThis book was alright.

It poses a question of form: when a book is sort of middling, a bit boring at times but never quite bad, certainly not in any funny or remarkable way, how do you review it without affecting the same feelings in the reader of the review?

My solution: Keep it brief.

Once Upon a Time is an overview of the history of fairy tales — the major players, the major theories, the major events. From the early, sinister folktales and the men and women that recorded them, to the shift to Victorian children tales, their places in Freud and other psychoanalyst’s oeuvre, to their deep examination by 20th century feminists, and then their reclamation of darkness and adulthood in the literature and films of the present day*.

It is very general. I would call it shallow. It rarely delves. There’s a handful of interesting facts — for instance, Wilhelm Grimm ardently defended the violent lessons of fairy tales as necessary for children, while at the same time changing them to be as patronizing as possible to women and girls — but not enough to carry the book. The author is clearly passionate about the topic, but the passion does not translate to and infuse the text.

And that is easily all it takes to move a non-fiction book from engrossing and memorable to serviceable.

*I give this book points for mentioning  Blancanieves, a seriously fantastic film retelling Snow White. It reimagines without diluting.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

bookofstrangenewthingsPeter Leigh, an English preacher, travels billions of miles from Earth to the newfound desert planet, Oasis. His mission: to bring the word of Christ to the alien inhabitants. Yet he is not beset by your average challenges for missionaries — mistrust, lack of communication, customs. Indeed, the oasans are incredibly receptive to the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things.

Meanwhile, Peter’s wife Bea is sending letters describing increasing worldwide catastrophe occurring back on Earth…

This book is fantastic. I was invested in Peter, the eminently hopeful, kind of weak, kind of bumbling protagonist, even while groaning through his boneheaded mistakes (generally involving communication with his wife). I loved the people of Oasis, both its native inhabitants and its hodgepodge group of damaged human immigrants. The people are colorful, as they should be. It’s a baldy science-fiction book that will be marketed as straight literature or ‘genre-defying’. I guess the genre defying part is smart character study and stellar prose. Which reinforces exclusion of sci-fi as unserious, but whatever.

Faber’s sentence-level craft is superb. His character work subtly reveals much without smashing you over the head — he understands the difference between the main point-of-view character’s perception of another character, and how that character actually is. The plot is smooth, moving between nail-biting tension and balmy contemplation. There was a point in the book where I knew something bad had happened to Peter’s wife, and as a careful reader, I had a good idea of what had happened — I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, and I’m usually proven right — but no, Faber was in complete control and knew what I was thinking and actually it was a different bad thing that was set up just as well. The dialogue sounds like real people. The epistolary relationship between Peter and Bea reads like a separated couple unused to separation (“The cat misses you!”) and not like the astounding wordsmithery that often permeates letter-correspondence in novels. OK, at least Possession had the excuse that the letter-writers were poets. Peter and Bea’s letters are warm, chilling, tense, not boring as they might have been in lesser hands.

The planet of Oasis, bland at outside appearance, is richly described. It’s very easy and comfortable to feel like you’re there, amidst the green swirling rain and flat horizon. The fleshy-headed, berobed natives, who I feel guilty calling ‘aliens’ even for the purpose of this review (instead of what they are: people), go from strange and off-putting to almost unbearably endearing. They fulfill their sci-fi ascribed role as a foil for humans, while remaining their own distinct entity, who will be living amongst the stars on faraway Oasis long after the book is closed.

It’s rare in science fiction, indeed rare in anything but Christian fiction, that a book intelligently integrates faith into its narrative. Typically religion is a boogeyman or otherwise The Answer To All Things. Peter is devout, but not hardline in his beliefs. The Bible is open to interpretation. Other beliefs should be respected. The novel itself does not lend final credence or doubt to religion, though it does leave me wishing God were real, if not for humans, at least for the oasan’s sake. Instead, it is concerned with major Christian tenets that concern everyone. Notions of mercy, and forgiveness, and redemption. Regardless of faith, as humans we must realize people are capable of terrible, cruel things and just as capable of turning their life around and doing wonderful and compassionate things. The question is how to live with these people, how to forgive or understand them, or conversely how to live with yourself if you are one. God is an answer, but not the only one. And even in the absence of God, it’s worth investigating why singing Amazing Grace in unison is powerful.

(Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for hooking me up! This advanced-reader-copy thing is working out for me lately.)