Book Review: The World Without Us

Note: This is book #13 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

World Without Us

I guess you could call this book by Alan Weisman a kind of “speculative nonfiction.” It revolves around a peculiar thought experiment: imagine that every human everywhere on the plant just winked out of existence. Maybe a supervirus wipes us out in a few days. Maybe powerful space aliens decided to relocate every last one of us to an intergalactic nature preserve for our own good. Or maybe Jesus comes back and shouts “OKAY, EVERYBODY OUT OF THE POOL! WE’RE GOING HOME!” Why and how we would vacate the planet don’t matter. What matters is what would happen to it after we left.

This is the strange hook upon which Weisman hangs a litany of topics: ecology, evolution, environmentalism, civic engineering, agriculture, paleontology, zoology, the plastics industry, the petroleum industry, nuclear bombs, and a lot more. In fact comparatively little time is spent discussing how familiar things (say your house or New York City) will rot, fall apart, deteriorate, and eventually get gobbled up by nature. This is surprising, since it’s exactly the kind of thing that the dust jacket and the few talk show interviews I saw Weisman do would suggest that you’d be reading about.

Instead, the author usually follows this pattern with each new section of the book:

  1. Introduce a new subject (e.g., giant sloths, the ocean, coral reefs, Istanbul (not Constantinople), nuclear waste dumps)
  2. Talk about what that subject (or whatever preceded it) was like in the distant past, before humans
  3. Talk about how badly humans screwed it up (usually through over hunting, over farming, or over pollution)
  4. Talk about what may happen to it over time if we were to just up and go away tomorrow

There are exceptions, but this pattern pretty much explains the majority of the book. It’s often interesting and educational, but I have to admit that I also just as often found it dry, dense, and boring. There’s only so much discussion about how an aggressive plant is going to eventually displace its cultivated neighbors once their human caretakers are gone, or how the gigantic ancestors of tree sloths used to lumber through North American forests before our own ancestors strolled up to them and clubbed them out of existence. Weisman seems to rarely employ any kind of pizazz or character when explaining these things, tending instead to keep it pretty academic. Sometimes you have a subject matter that’s peppy enough to stand on its own (like, say, the life span of nuclear waste or an island of garbage twice as big as Texas floating around in the Pacific), but for a lot of the other material, it needed a stronger and more engaging voice.

And it’s not like Weisman is worried about keeping things neutral –the whole book is unapologetically an environmentalist’s work, with the author’s views and anxieties showing through like sunlight through a plastic grocery bag. And that’s fine and dandy. I just wish he had, say, spruced up his discussion of spruce trees a bit. It was educational, but not as engaging as I hoped it would be.

Others who did the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 217: More Easter, Eggs, and Sugar

The big event this week was, of course, Easter. We actually did some stuff last weekend, but we had a lot planned here, too. These plans, for a reason I will never understand nor care to understand, always seem to include new clothes. Mainly in the form of matching dresses. Fortunately no attempt was made to coordinate my own wardrobe with theirs.

This trend also included new shoes for Mandy. These were, in fact, the first hard soled shoes that anyone had ever put on her, and Mandy did not like this ONE BIT. Once the torture devices were strapped on she would just stay rooted to the spot and cry. It was like she was wearing shoes made out of cement instead of fake leather, and absolutely nothing we did would get her to so much as lift one heel off the floor. So we just stood there and took pictures of her, which in retrospect was probably a little mean. She eventually got used to it and the shoes, though.

On Saturday we had Ger’s mom and godparents over to dye Easter eggs, and a huge mess was made by all. Then on Easter morning we had an egg hunt around the house, which both girls enjoyed, though Sam seemed to get more joy out of cracking the eggs open and seeing what kind of sugary surprise nested inside.

As we sat around the post-egghunt breakfast table, though, I glanced out the kitchen window to see an amazing sight: snow. LOTS of snow, on Easter morning. I swear, sometimes I think the weather in this city where I live forgot to take its meds some days. There was one thing that Geralyn was adamant on, though: She bought these thin, sleeveless, freaking Easter dresses, and the girls were going to wear them, by God.

And so they did, though I don’t think that’s what’s meant by wearing White before Labor day.

Book Review: The Ghost Map

Note: This is book 12 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

The Ghost Map

I think I can pretty say that this book by Steven Johnson isn’t going to be for everybody. It tells the story of how several men tried to cope with and understand a massive outbreak of cholera in London during 1854. Yeah, riveting, right?

Actually, it was. In addition to talking about the disease itself (which basically causes death by diarrhea), the book follows the quest of a London doctor named John Snow as he propels the nascent science of epidemiology into its own. Snow went door to door in what was largely considered a doomed neighborhood, gathering information about who died, what their habits were, and most importantly how they got their water. He was working on a theory (one that turned out to be quite solidly supported) that cholera was transmitted via drinking water, and one public water pump in particular: the now infamous Broad Street pump that was befouled because a cholera victim’s septic tank was leaking into its water supply.

This was a time before the germ theory of disease was widely known or accepted, so Snow was more of an underdog and outsider than you might think. The prevailing wisdom of the time was the “miasma theory,” which held that “all smell is disease,” and that cholera and other maladies were literally carried on the wind in the form of smells and bad air. It was amazing how hard Snow and the other main protagonist of the tale, Reverend Henry Whitehead, had to fight against this theory, which was largely taken as fact despite its frequent lack of evidence. But the team’s tenacity and creativity won the day, resulting in the closure of the Broad Street pump, the avoidance of another cholera outbreak, and the iconic map of cholera deaths from which the book takes its name.

In addition to this central story, Johnson talks about related subjects, such as the London underclasses, the sociology and civic engineering of large cities, and the new London sewer systems. (The latter were particularly interesting, since they were built as a means of cleaning up the filth of the city, but they basically just ended up flushing it all into the Thames river and making waterborne diseases like cholera worse.) About the only complaint I have about the book is that it goes off the edge towards the end in what is basically a thinly veiled plug for Johnson’s Outside In project. But in general, the whole narrative proved to be both fascinating and educational. Plus I guess I just love this history of science when it’s presented in a context and with interesting characters.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

Week 216: Lies, Easter, and Snakes

It’s noteworthy this week that Sam has reached an important developmental milestone on the road towards maturity: learning to lie. She has, however, not quite reached the milestone marked “learning to lie convincingly.” The other night when Geralyn was out, Sam decided to throw a series of interconnected fits when I told her to pick up her toys right before bath time. I kept dishing out the time outs, but after about 45 minutes she had picked up a total of four toys, accompanied by her self-generated soundtrack of howling, sputtering, and crying. Finally, I told her that fine, if she wasn’t going to clean up I wasn’t going to read her any books at bed time. This caused a new, protracted outburst that lasted while she slowly climbed the stairs, soaked in the tub, and –amazingly– brushed her teeth.

I briefed Geralyn on the evening’s shenanigans when she got home. The next morning, over breakfast and after I had left for work, she asked Sam how her night had been.

“Fine,” Sam said, more than a little petulantly.

“Did you pick up your toys?”

“Yes,” Sam replied, stabbing at her banana slices and toaster waffle. “I picked up ALL my toys.”

“That’s, uh, good. But not what I heard. What books did Daddy read you?”

“He didn’t read me any books.”

“Why not?”

“Because I didn’t want him to.”

So you can see that there’s a bit of entrapment that probably wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, but fortunately we get to be the judge, jury, and both lawyers in our own house. Now, if Sam would only realize that.

Things were a lot more pleasant over the weekend, though. Because our actual Easter weekend is going to be kind of busy, we went to an Easter egg hunt on Saturday. Unfortunately it was in the MIDDLE of NOWHERE, and it took us like an hour to drive there. On the plus side, both the kids had a blast. There were baby ducks, bunnies, and the much anticipated egg hunt.

Here’s the thing about public egg hunts, though: they’re pretty lame. The place had big plots of land marked off according to what age group would be allowed, lest some brute of a five year old steamroll kids who can barely waddle form one egg to the other. And the eggs, by the way, are not particularly well concealed. The verb “hunt” in this case seems to have been redefined to mean “Walk two feet, squat, and gather 12 of the hundreds of eggs within even the small reach of a toddler.” The kids hunted them much in the same way that our primitive ancestors hunted berry bushes in an open field. I mean, the little plots of land were literally covered in plastic eggs and since they organizers imposed a catch limit of 12, it took Sam about as many seconds to complete her task. We’ll have a much better time with our egg hunt at home, where if I have anything to say about it she’ll NEVER find some of them.

Sam was also able to get her face painted at the event, but when asked if she wanted an egg, a chick, or bunny whiskers, Sam said, with great certainty, that she wanted a totally rad snake tatoo on her cheek. I suggested painting a loop of barbed wire around her bicep, but she insisted on the snake. The perplexed face painter, was, however, able to convince her to make it a pink one.

Book Review: Lucifer’s Hammer

Lucifer's Hammer

Note: This is book 11 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

As far as ZOMG TEH WORLD IS ENDING! books go, this one by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle was really pretty good. The idea is that about the time humans and chimps were striking out on their own separate branches on the evolutionary tree, some dark planet out past Pluto slingshots a comet towards us. A bunch of time passes, and then in the late 1970s the dark planet proves to be one hell of a shot because the comet (dubbed “The Hammer” by the increasingly nervous onlookers) pummels the ever living crap out of Earth.

As you can imagine, things go bad. Huge amounts of water are vaporized and turn into rain that continues for months and even years. This, along with mile high tsunamis obliterate just about everything on any coast and create seas where there used to be savannas and valleys. And remember charming old world Europe? It’s gone. Totally underwater. Most tectonic plates around the globe get a bad case of the shakes, resulting in massive earthquakes and volcanoes that annihilate whole regions. And because of all that water vapor, clouds, and rain, the planet’s temperature is sure to drop so that earth-scraping glaciers are due more quickly than you might guess.

And yet all that is just the backdrop of Lucifer’s Hammer. The book’s real story is about how a handful of people survive (or don’t survive) the apocalypse. What I really liked about the story is how it took a huge cast of characters and wove them all into the same overarching tale. Many of the characters had at least tenuous relationships before the comet hit, so it’s often not much of a stretch. You get to see them do exciting stuff like running from the aftermath of the comet (termed “hammerfall” by the survivors), trying to scrounge up enough food to survive the coming winter, dealing with their own internal struggles, fighting off rival groups of survivors and would-be warlords, and trying to rebuild society. The whole thing ends with their facing the dilemma of trying to take the safe course that will set the human race back by a millennium, or taking a riskier route that might preserve some of the fire of modern civilization. It’s a great ride and a heck of a page turner.

It’s also worth noting that one of my favorite things about this book is how it unflinchingly presents moral dilemmas that are almost impossible to contemplate when you live in a safe neighborhood with a fully stocked refrigerator and easy access to endless food, supplies, and luxuries. If you were part of a relatively small group of survivors that has just managed to find a safe place and gather enough food and medicine to let you survive the weather, how would you deal with an endless stream of other refugees that threaten to overrun you. What would you do if taking in someone’s children meant that you and everyone else in your group would eventually starve, but turning them away meant that they would die but your group might survive? That’s the kind of thing that these characters had to deal with in the name of survival. It’s harsh, but it’s fascinating.

So, if you’re looking for a good page turner with a little science and a little morality thrown in for good measure, I could easily recommend this one.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

Week 215: Reading, Smash Bros, and Shopping

Not much to report this week, except that I wonder if these pictures are future portents of how my two daughters’ reading preferences differ (click through to see the full images):

And, you know, I’m not really sure which reading selection I’m more proud of. I guess this is why you should have multiple kids: to cover all the bases.

While we’re on the topic, though, Samantha has really become intensely infatuated with the newly released Super Smash Brothers Brawl video game for the Nintendo Wii. I took her with me to the store to buy it (more on that in a second), and she asked to look at the box on the way home. She went through every one of the numerous characters shown on either side of the packaging, demanding that I name them and tell her what their “special power” is. I was mostly able to oblige her, and since then she has constantly wanted to pretend to be these characters and engage on a perpetual mission to rescue someone from Bowser, the maniacal dragon-slash-turtle who is a staple of Nintendo’s rogue gallery. I am most often called upon to be Mario or Link, while Geralyn is usually Princess Peach or the armor-clad heroine Samus. Sam is whoever she wants to be, often several characters in the span of a few seconds. Mandy, of course, is always Pikachu, the aggressively cute little yellow mouse who sneezes lightning.

But let’s back up half a step more. I wanted to get the Smash Brothers game on Sunday when it was released, and since I had a gift card for Toys R Us, I headed there to make my purchase. Sam wanted to come (naturally), and stated matter of factly that since we were going to the toy store that that meant I would be purchasing her a new toy. Rather than fight her on this, I thought I’d capitalize on it as a learning opportunity. I gave Sam a $5 bill, and told her that she could buy a toy as long as it cost five dollars or less. I’d help her learn to read the price tags. It would be educational!

Instead, once we set foot in the store it went something like this:

“Daddy! I want to buy this! Is this five dollars?”

I looked. “Sam,” I said, “No. Those are AA batteries. You’re not spending your money on batteries.”


“No. No batteries!” I slapped the batteries back onto the rack and headed for the videogame section. “Let’s buy my thing first and then you can have as much time as you want to look.”

I got to the game section, grabbed a copy of Super Smash Brothers (and also fell for their “50% off the strategy guide” pitch), and then stood in line. Sam stood next to me, eyeing the game I held.

“Daddy, how much does your toy cost?”

“Huh? Oh, fifty dollars.” Immediately I knew where this conversation was going.

“Is that more than five?”

“Yes, Sam, it’s ten times more than five.”

“Then you… Then you can’t buy that toy, Daddy. It costs too many money.”

“Sam, I can buy it. I get to spend more than you do.”

“Why?” The last syllable was drawn out into a near whine.

“Because I don’t buy many toys and I have even less time to play them, Sam. Because I’m the daddy.” Several other parents in the vicinity were giving me knowing half-smiles at this point.

Sam crossed her arms and looked at me like a miniature courtroom attorney who has caught her witness in a clever trap. “Then I get to spend fivety dollars on my toy. I can spend fivety dollars. I want the batteries.”

“No.” That flummoxed her. Eventually she settled on a plastic skillet full of plastic foods, which cost exactly five dollars, made no noise, and she promptly ignored them when we got home in favor of grilling me on the toy I had bought for myself.

As far as Mandy goes, not a whole lot to report. She’s content to walk around in regular circuits around the house, but I can tell that she does get jealous when her sister gets to go outside. Still, she has her great library to work through.

Book Review: Duma Key

Duma Key

Note: This is book 10 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

In preparation for doing this review of Stephen King’s latest, I did some poking around and read some other reviews on the ‘net and was surprised to find that a lot of people like it. I, despite being a King fanboy, didn’t care for it that much. It’s gotten to be that King barely writes what you can fairly call horror books anymore. That’s his prerogative, of course (roaring, scarcely imaginable success has its privileges), but between this, Blaze, Cell, Lisey’s Story, and The Colorado Kid it’s just not been the King I grew to love.

Look, it’s not that Duma Key is a bad novel. In fact, it’s pretty well written and refreshing in its setting. Instead of yet another everyman cum hero from a xenophobic town in rural Maine, Duma Key tells the story of a successful building contractor from Minnesota named Edgar Freemantle. Our hero is maimed in a work site accident, and when the resulting physical and mental damage wreck his marriage, he retires and moves to a small island in the keys of Florida to recuperate. Part of his therapy involves taking painting up again, and he turns out to be very good. Supernaturally good, in fact. The stuff he paints is very surreal, and the paintings seem to have sinister lives of their own that are tied to an old and evil somethingoranother on the island. It’s the kind of “artist/creator as a magician or god” ground that he’s covered in other works, like later Dark Tower books and the short story Word Processor of the Gods, but here it’s pretty fresh in its presentation.

And King does a good job of what King often does well: He builds character. Edgar Freemantle and the friends he makes Duma Key are interesting, nuanced, complex, and flawed. They’re good literary characters, in short, not Mary Janes or cliches. The thing is, though, that the book is ALL character development and setup, to the point where it languishes over those actions. We get to know a lot about Edgar Freemantle, but honestly, I thought I had ENOUGH after a couple hundred pages and was ready for the plot to develop. Instead, we get long scenes about beach walks, art shows, and father-daughter chats that are nicely done except that there are too many of them and they drag.

Then, literally in the last 100 pages of the 600 page book, King seems to remember that he’s got to do something that makes the book fit in the “Horror” section of the bookstore and drags out some extras from the first Pirates of the Carribian movie. Dead, squishy sailors walk in from the surf and oh yeah there’s some kinda monster in the woods that Edgar and his ka-tet (to use The Gunslinger’s term) have to figure out how to best. That part was cool, but it felt forced and like it was part of another book.

I know I’ll keep buying new King books as long as he makes them, but I think I’m gonna have to go back to some of the older stuff to remind me why he’s one of my favorites for a good old fashion page turner.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

Week 214: Play, Quiet, and Nodding

Much like myself, this week’s post is short and late.

Sam and Mandy are playing a lot together lately, but you really gotta watch them. Well, not you, but me and Geralyn. Sam seems to be at a stage where she wants to play rough, with tackling, pulling, and, um, standing on people. And Mandy seems to be a people in her estimation, so she gets subjected to this kind of thing. Whenever Mandy objections to such treatment and starts to cry, Sam’s soothing balm seems to consist of getting right in her face and saying “quietquietquietQUIETQUIET!,” which is a chant that ends up at the top of her voice. This usually startles Mandy to the point where she actually does stop crying, at which point the torment resumes if we don’t get there in time.

Mandy continues to do her own endearing things. She has picked up on the concept of a question, and seems to be able to identify them based on tone of voice if not content or implied punctuation. If you ask “Are you hungry?” She’ll pause for a second, as if considering a complex riddle, then look at you and nod her head two or three times. Or shake it. Despite what Geralyn thinks, her responses seem to me to be pretty much random. Ask her “Mandy, is there a chimera on my head?” and she’ll nod wisely all the same. Or shake her head. Still, it’s a start.