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Adventures in the Anthropocene

The Holocene represents an era of geological time beginning with the conclusion of the last ice age. This epoch witnessed the rise and fall of every human civilization. It is characterized by its relatively warm temperatures compared to the previous epoch, the Pleistocene. This epoch, the Holocene, allowed life to flourish in its temperate climate. The warm weather making the struggle to live easier for most creatures. Humans thrived, explored, and our population grew steadily, as did our impact on the Earth.

 The Holocene began 12,000 years ago and, it is argued, that it came to end around the latter part of the 18th century. At this time, humans began to put greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and our dominion over land and sea spanned the globe. Since the industrial revolution, a Great Acceleration has been underway and the impact of humanity on Earth is clearly noticeable. In 2000, Paul Crutzen, a renowned chemist, argued that as a result of humanity’s vast impact on the Earth, it was prudent and necessary to mark the end of the Holocene and begin a new geological epoch; one that took into account the incredible force of human existence on earth.  He deemed this new epoch the Anthropocene, and argued that the impact of humanity on the Earth’s ecosystems had become too powerful to remain unmentioned.

The Anthropocene, or the Human Age, began around the end of the 18th century but was amplified greatly after the two World Wars in the 20th century. This is known as the Great Acceleration, a period of time during which a rapid increase in human activity occurred. For example, “it took 50,000 years for humans to reach a population of 1 billion, but just the last ten years to add the latest billion.” The explosion of the human population, along with the needs to sustain such a massive population, affected the Earth in remarkable ways. Our need to feed 7 billion people strains farmlands and fisheries across the globe. Our need to transport resources and ourselves puts more greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere than ever before in history. Our oceans are rising and becoming more acidic with each passing year. From Russia to Bolivia, our forests are being depleted. Deserts are expanding. We are experiencing the 6th mass extinction in our planetary history and it is estimated that 20% of plant and animal species will disappear in twenty years. And while there are certainly geological, atmospheric, and ecological factors that are contributing to these drastic changes in the Earth’s biosphere, there is no greater contributor to these changes than humans.

Gaia vince, author of Adventures in the Anthropocene. Image provided by Milkweed Editions.

Gaia vince, author of Adventures in the Anthropocene. Image provided by Milkweed Editions.

In her book, Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Heart of the Planet We Made, nature and science journalist, Gaia Vince, travels to the far reaches of the globe in search of individuals and communities greatly affected by the rise of the Anthropocene. In the second chapter, Ms. Vince travels to Nepal, where she encounters a scientist, although he would likely refer to himself as a farmer, who has discovered a way to create artificial glaciers to support the all-important spring irrigation. Natural glaciers used to provide the essential water for irrigating the fields, but due to rising global temperatures, the glaciers have receded above the tree line on the mountain, and the only water that comes from them are small creeks.

Gaia travels to the Maldives to explore how its citizens are coping with the rising seas that threaten to sink the islands. She discovers that they are considering constructing artificial archipelagos, and are even in search of a potential new home for all Maldivians. The islands are expected to be completely underwater by the end of the 21st century, and to be uninhabitable years before that due to storms and flooding.

Her adventures in the Anthropocene yield interesting insights into how large swaths of humans are adapting to their changed environments. The book explores the most affected regions and uncovers ordinary people making extraordinary innovations to protect and maintain their homelands. Although some may read this and be filled with despair, Vince dismisses that despair in order to dispel the inaction which follows. Instead, she focuses on the hope that the stories of these communities inspire others in the world to take action to protect and defend the Earth. It may be easy to deny scientific assertions about global temperatures, ocean acidity, or climate change as a whole, but it is much more difficult to deny the stories and experiences of people dealing with the direct effect of humanity on the biosphere.

Ultimately, Vince argues that humanity has a greater role than all the other species that have walked the Earth. We have a responsibility, as thinking and loving beings, to protect the Earth and make it a habitable place for all species. Are we to ignore our impact on the Earth, and continue to plunder and consume resources without conscious thought of our power? Or are we to understand our place in the biosphere and take steps to protect the Earth for our future generations? I’ll leave you to decide your role in humanity’s, and Earth’s, future, and I hope that there are enough individuals out there who see that climate change isn’t happening. It’s happened.

The self-awareness that comes with recognizing our power as a planetary force also demands we question our new role. Are we just another part of nature, doing what nature does: reproducing to the limits of environmental capacity, after which we will suffer a population crash? Or are we the first species capable of self-determination, able to modulate our natural urges, our impacts and our environment, such that we can maintain habitability on this planet into the future?
— Gaia Vince

Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Heart of the Planet We Made was published in the U.S. by Milkweed Editions of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is available for purchase at SubText today.

Why I Read

This essay was inspired by Wendy Lesser's Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. Wendy is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review and author of ten books. Why I Read  is available for purchase at Subtext.

Why do I read? I didn’t always enjoy reading. There was a time when I found reading mundane and burdensome. I first fell madly in love with reading when I transitioned from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps to historical non-fiction.

I remember the exact moment. I was in my elementary school’s library and had just finished reading Stine’s Night of the Living Dummy. It wasn’t a bad read -- a suspenseful tale of a young child whose worst nightmare becomes reality when a ventriloquist’s doll comes to life to haunt and terrify her and her sister. As exciting as that sounds, the story of Slappy the possessed ventriloquist’s doll never captivated me.

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I asked the librarian to help me find my next book. She asked me a few things about what I wanted to read. “I want to learn about things that are real,” I said, “not about made-up stories.” She directed me to the non-fiction section, and helped me comb through the titles until I came across a book that caught my eye – one about the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. I was nine or ten at the time and was far too naïve to abide by the “don’t judge a book by its cover” rule. When I saw the image of those six courageous men raising the Stars and Stripes on that war-torn mountain top, like a walleye to the Rapala, I was hooked.

I was mesmerized by the heroic stories of the soldiers and the tales of battle. I wanted to know everything about the nature of war and was fascinated by the history of our country and our world. This fascination would lead me down a path of historical study that I will never find the end of. (Meanwhile, I have rediscovered an appreciation for “made up stories” and now love fiction, too.)

The moral of this story is that reading isn’t about what is good or bad or any of the other qualitative adjectives so superfluously attached to works of literature. Reading is about finding that one piece of work that excites your soul; that stirs the embers at the bottom of your fire and awakens a new and previously unexplored space of your consciousness. For me, that was historical texts and eventually philosophical works. For you it might be love stories, or political discourse. Hell, it could even be R.L. Stine!

In our increasingly technology-driven society we are exposed to more written work than ever before, even when they are as superficial as Facebook or as shallow as a “journalist’s” story on J Biebs. With all our technological advancements creating new entertainment media, reading a book (you mean a book with, like, paper?) seems to be pushed further and further toward the back of our cultural freight train.

To hell with that I say! A book will always serve to fulfill our insatiable desire for knowledge and our need to briefly escape reality. Books are filled with symbols that can be transformed from scribbles into concepts that are as immutable as the sun and stars.

I am reminded of a quote by Carl Sagan that expresses this idea in more beautiful prose than I could ever pretend to recreate:

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“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

In the hands of the right magician, a book becomes more than just squiggles on paper. A book creates a world within your own imagination. You aren’t merely an observer reading. You are the creator who gives life to the characters. Words describe the characters, but your imagination brings them to life. You provide the emotion. You embody their hopes, fears, loves, and despairs. You become an active participant in the adventure.

Reading literature changes the neural pathways of your brain and improves connectivity between neurons. Deeply immersing yourself in a work of fiction generates empathy for the lives and experiences of others. And in a society where egotism and the “look out for number one” mentality dominates, anything that teaches empathetic reactions and creates connections between individuals ought to be valued highly. Reading is ultimately a contemplative task. It allows the individual to scour the deepest caverns of his or her own mind and discover things about him- or herself that would have otherwise been left unexcavated.

 I read to escape the everyday grind. To relieve stress through the adventures of characters who are more riveting than my own simple existence. For entertainment and for education. To bring those authors of past epochs back to life within my own imagination. Because every book is infinitely better than keeping up with the Kardasians.

At this point in my life I can honestly, without equivocation, say that reading is my favorite activity. Nothing excites me more than searching the stacks at a bookstore and waiting for the perfect book to glow brightly and attract my mind with its gravity. That excitement grows steadily until I am genuinely invested in the characters’ own worldview and, when the book is finished, I quickly race back to find the next adventure.

So, let me ask you – why do you read?

On Immunity: An Inoculation

Jeffery Shotts, the executive editor at Graywolf Press, calls On Immunity “an inoculation against our fear.” In eloquent prose, well-researched and forceful arguments, and a dazzling exposition of myths and metaphors, Eula Biss, winner of the National Book Critics Award for her work Notes from No Man’s Land, explores an increasingly pressing issue: the act of vaccination against disease. Biss draws on conversations and issues presented by physicians, mothers who share her same fears, and also literary greats such as Bram Stoker, Voltaire, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson, to discover the foundation of our cultural fear of vaccinations.

Biss begins with an examination of the myth of Achilles. In this story, Thetis, Achilles’ mother, dips her son by the heel into the River Styx in order to immunize him from harm. And yet, as the story goes, the very act Thetis takes to protect Achilles becomes his greatest weakness.

Throughout the book, Eula Biss presents and dissects, with the precision of a carpenter’s X-Acto knife, our fears of vaccinations. She explains and justifies these fears, and understands them herself, as she experienced them when it was time to decide whether she ought to vaccinate her own child. Her son was born in the midst of the H1N1 pandemic and as a result she became hypersensitive to the matter of protecting her son from infectious disease. This story is as much an exploration of the efficacy of vaccination as it is a mother seeking answers and remedies to her own fears of injecting impurities into the body of her child in the name of immunity.

The author covers many issues surrounding vaccination, and dispels many slanderous rumors, such as when someone of incomparable wisdom like Jenny McCarthy says things like this, even though all the scientific literature on the issue has shown no link between vaccination and autism. Or when so called experts like the inimitable Dr. Bob, author of The Vaccine Book, warns parents “not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR [vaccine], we’ll likely see the disease increase significantly.” It is precisely this type of thinking that severely damages our collective ability to defend ourselves from disease. (The reader should note that sarcasm was employed in the preceding paragraph.)

This serves as the perfect transition to the most thought provoking concept with which Biss utilizes her precision knife to cut away the misperceptions of vaccination. Her meditations on ‘herd immunity’ were what most drew me into the text. I found myself pondering the implications of this metaphor for days after I finished the book. Biss states that “the Greeks imagined the body politic as an organism, itself alive and part of a greater cosmic organism—both the citizen and the city were bodies within bodies.” She elaborates on this idea further and provides an overwhelmingly convincing argument for vaccination grounded on the metaphor that the individual and the community at large are bound as one, and that the individual has a social responsibility to protect itself from disease and therefore protect others as well.

The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. The capacity of some vaccines to generate a collective immunity superior to the individual immunity produced by those same vaccines suggests that the politic has not only a body, but also an immune system capable of protecting it as a whole. Some of us assume that what is good for the body politic cannot be good for the body natural—that the interests of these bodies must be at odds. But the work of epidemiologists and immunologists and even mathematicians often suggests otherwise.
— Eula Biss

 

She concludes with a simple yet powerful message: “However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other’s environment. And Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.” 

On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30th, 2014, by Graywolf Press. All quotations used come from a galley version I received from the publisher and may differ from the final product.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing


Cover photo generously provided by Coffee House Press

Cover photo generously provided by Coffee House Press

This book has won award, after award, after award. This book has been reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed. This book is “Joycean.” This book is “unlike anything you’ve ever read”. This book “stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, and The Road as a masterpiece." This book… is tragic, haunting, and utterly fantastic.

All the accolades, all the reviews, and all the comparisons, though certainly deserving and accurate, do not even begin to scratch the surface as to why this book is an important addition to the literary landscape. McBride's innovative style captures "the moment just before language becomes formatted thought." The fragmented sentences keep the reader entrenched inside the protagonist's own experience, which at times can be difficult to share. The book is almost entirely devoid of physical and temporal details, adding only that which is immediately presented to the protagonist. And yet, despite the lack of setting, description, and dialogue, the story is captivating and beautiful.

The girl, who remains nameless throughout, is born to an unwed mother. Her brother develops a brain tumor at a very young age. Their father abandoned them. Her grandfather, a staunch Catholic, discovers that his grandchildren are being raised in a "kind of godlessness" and chastises her mother for allowing "evil in this house".
She is beaten as a child.  Her uncle sexually abuses her causing her to define her existence through her sexual encounters. As a result of McBride's unique style, the reader becomes a part of each of these experiences. The pulsating and stunted sentences create the sense that these thoughts, emotions, and terrors are your own. 

Eimear McBride is author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.  Photo credit: Jemma Mickleburgh

Eimear McBride is author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. 
Photo credit: Jemma Mickleburgh

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a masterful literary achievement. The prose goes beyond 'stream of consciousness', almost becoming consciousness itself. Although it is a work of fiction, the universality that McBride writes with fosters the notion that this girl actually exists. And in some sense she does. For all the suffering this girl endures, and by Jove does she suffer, there are hundreds of thousands of women who have endured similar strife. McBride dispels the boundary between fictional character and historical individual. Suffering, on the scale that our protagonist goes through, happens. This realization is one that could be ignored in a typical work of fiction because the reader and the character are often kept at arm's reach through narration and dialogue. McBride, however, has torn down that wall of separation. The reader becomes the character's every thought and emotion. Every moment of fear, panic, laughter, heart break, depression, and fiery hatred is transferred from the squiggles on the page directly into the mind of the reader. 

If you desire to continue your foray into the next episode of 50 Shades of Bleh, by all means, continue. That is your prerogative. But if you so desire to challenge yourself as a reader, to plunge into a world of suffering and to come out on the other side a changed individual, then this is the book for you. Because that is what this book will do.  The beginning requires an adjustment, but as you become acquainted with the style, and allow the words to rush over you like a torrential rain, your outlook on your own existence, as well as the existence of others, will be changed. 
This book is a true piece of art in that it alters the understanding of the observer. It creates an empathetic connection between those otherwise entirely disconnected. Towards the middle, you will find yourself holding your breath as you turn each page to discover what lies beyond. And when the book is finished, and you set it on your nightstand, gasp for air, breathe deep, and be thankful.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press
 

Bibliotherapy


My favorite aspect of being a book seller is having the opportunity to promote literature that I love and that I am passionate about. It is one of my greatest pleasures (aside from stomping my best friends in fantasy football week after week) to discuss and share the books that are important to me. A good book should entertain, provide humor, and create a sense of enjoyment. A great book will do that as well. The difference is a great book will alter your understanding of reality, and impose its world upon yours. A great book will leave you longing for a return to that sense of enchantment and beauty that it stirred within you. A great book both enlightens and empowers the reader.  For these reasons, and many more, I've decided to begin offering Bibliotherapy sessions. 

To begin, I will focus on the fantastic Twin Cities Independent Publishers. The Twin Cities are a Mecca for independent presses and we are fortunate to have some truly amazing people provide us with many extraordinary works of art. In an effort to encourage you to support these great local publishers, I will be reviewing some of their exciting fall releases.

From Coffee House Press, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride; a remarkable and innovative work from a debut Irish novelist about a girl's struggle against existence. From Graywolf Press, Eula Biss' On Immunity: an Inoculation. This is another spectacular work in Graywolf's line of nonfiction. Biss focuses on the unnecessarily divisive discussion of whether vaccinations from devastating diseases are of value to our communities. The answer: OF COURSE THEY ARE! And from Milkweed Editions, Sins of Our Fathers by Shawn Lawrence Otto. Otto is an award-winning writer and co-producer of the Oscar-nominated film, House of Sand and Fog, and his first novel focuses on a flawed man who must make the difficult choice between self-preservation and doing what's right. It is a story about the legacy of racism and corruption in the Northern Heartland. 

I hope you enjoy these reviews, I hope some of you will be introduced to titles you may otherwise not have heard about, and I hope to encourage you to support your local bookstore.

Thank you for reading.

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