New in Books: ‘The Sixth Extinction’

Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)

Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)

book-sixthextinction-kolbert-cvr-200According to scientific writer Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophoe), there have been five waves of mass extinctions in Earth’s history. They all had natural causes. In the current epoch — called by some researchers the Anthropocene in recognition of humanity’s transformative effect on the planet’s ecosystems — there is another wave of species disappearing, and it’s because of us.

The Sixth Extinction is on sale now. My review is at PopMatters:

In Kolbert’s account, the Anthropocene is marked by accelerated change and disruptions recalling the natural calamities of the past. In other words, humankind is the new asteroid. There’s the ocean acidification and increased carbon dioxide concentrations destroying everything from frogs to coral reefs (increased “biotic attrition” in one of the book’s more memorably clinical terms) … Interlocking webs of travel networks make continental boundaries meaningless, mixing flora and fauna together at higher rates of speed, dooming even more. The result, Kolbert writes, is much the same as the pulses of “megafauna” extinctions that started occurring some 40,000 years ago when humans began sweeping across the Earth and wiping out megaherbivores like Cuvier’s North American mammoths. “It might be nice to imagine there once was a time when men lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert notes dispassionately. But “it’s not clear that he ever really did”…

You can read an excerpt of The Sixth Extinction in Audubon magazine.

Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)

Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)

New in Theaters: ‘Omar’

Training to kill in 'Omar'

‘Omar’: Terrorists or freedom fighters?

Omar-posterIn the Oscar-nominated thriller Omar, a young Palestinian man in the West Bank is faced with two challenges: First, how to convince his friend that he’d be a good bet to marry the friend’s little sister? Second, and more importantly, how does he escape the law after helping to murder an Israeli soldier?

Omar opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:

For such a razor-sharp thriller, the West Bank-set Omar smuggles a dense packet of ambiguity into its compact running time. This shouldn’t be a rarity, given how many stories there are about the conflict between occupiers and occupied, the dueling taxonomy of “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” But too often these clashes are related in absolutes, where one narrative is bought into more than another. Hany Abu-Assad’s skillful story wrestles with those grey moralities without spoon-feeding one or the other to the audience. It’s a story about people, not ideologies, but it knows how inextricably the former intertwine with the latter…

Between a rock and a hard place.

Between a rock and a hard place.

Here is the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: ‘This Town’ and the Gilded Trough

this town-coverAlmost the best thing about Mark Leibovich’s new Washington, DC tell-all This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital is what’s not in it. He didn’t include an index, thusly avoiding the tendency of Beltway types to cruise into bookstores and flip instantly to the index for any reference to themselves. Given the high-pitched response to his book from the corridors of power, a surprising number of those people have actually been reading the thing. It’s worth it.

My review is at PopMatters:

Mark Leibovich’s This Town is angry but funny, hitting big targets with ease while somehow avoiding the shrill tone of the screed. As the New York Times’ chief national correspondent, he has spent more time covering politics in the American capital than any human being should have to, unless serving time for a horrific crime. After 16 years covering the circular grip n’ grin of Washington politics, Leibovich has served up a heaping platter of disgust, but he’s done it with a smiley-face emoticon. After all, he’s still got to work in the place he calls “a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives”…

You can watch Leibovich on The Daily Show here.

New in Books: ‘The Way of the Knife’

Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007

Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007

Suddenly, about midway through the twelfth year of the post-9/11 conflicts, America decided to have a conversation about drones and the forever war. Books and op-eds were written, opinions voiced. Then all that was forgotten.

book-wayofknife-mazzetti-cvr-200In April, though, Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Mazzetti delivered The Way of the Knife, a precise little guidebook to all the secretive ways that America has been waging war without borders or oversight just about anywhere in the world we darn well please.

My full review is at PopMatters; here’s part:

When people of the future look back on America’s first wars of the 21st century, they will study the flash-bang invasions and slow-death occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in the decade-and-a-half following 9/11. Lessons to be learned are many and complex, though occasionally quite simple. Don’t invade countries without an exit strategy, for example. Avoid using vengeful locals or untrained and unsupervised National Guardsmen to run prisons; that would be another. Train at least a few guys to speak something besides English—preferably the langue of the country they’re occupying.

It’s less clear what lessons will be gleaned from America’s third undeclared and so-far nameless war; since we’re still right in the middle of it…

You can buy The Way of the Knife anywhere. Here’s an excerpt.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in China

finneganswake1There’s something about James Joyce’s last and arguably unreadable novel Finnegans Wake that has always attracted the obsessive. Fans range from Marshall McLuhan—who, one critic quipped after reading his manic interpretations, was possibly the only living person to have read every single line of the book—to those various reading clubs that have popped up where people read a couple pages each meeting over the course of many years.

Now, after one woman spent eight years doggedly translating what Joyce’s wife termed “that chop suey” into Mandarin, the book has proven to be surprisingly successful in China. Per the Wall Street Journal:

A newly affluent nation that prizes black Audi sedans and Louis Vuitton handbags has made a literary status symbol of what may well be English literature’s most difficult work. Thanks in part to a canny marketing campaign involving eye-catching billboards and packaging, “Finnegans Wake” sold out the first, 8,000-volume run shortly after it was released in December. The book briefly rose to No. 2 on a bestseller list run by a Shanghai book industry group, just behind a biography of the late Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modern-day boom.

Perhaps it’s a sign of increasing affluence that people have the inclination to acquire status novels that they have little intention of actually reading.

New in Books: ‘Invisible War’

invisiblearmies1Earlier this year, up-and-coming military writer and think-tank-er (if that’s a term) Max Boot published a pretty incredible piece of writing. Invisible Wars: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present is one of the best, most thoughtful books on military history for a general readership to come along in some time. (Even if calling itself “epic” in the subtitle seems a touch hubristic, though correct.)

Don’t let its length and breadth of scope throw you, this is as readable as any magazine essay, and definitely worth your time. My review is available at PopMatters:

In this grand survey of what one could term irregular warfare, spanning from the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD and earlier to the present day, Boot shows that a good reading of the historical record leaves little room for old stereotypes. He has no truck with the romantic heavy-breathing that writers of his ilk can slip into when talking about generals and battles. He also doesn’t waste time in this book repeating the old army-groupie saw about how some particular war might have been won if only the media/politicians/concerned civilians had just gotten out of the way and let the guys with guns take care of the problem…

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

New on DVD: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

zerodarkthirtydvdBetween the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. That wasn’t the case with Zero Dark Thirty, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Greedy Lying Bastards’

Greedy-Lying-Bastards_Koch-Industries

greedy-poster

It’s hard to think of a richer subject for these anti-scientific, fear-mongering times. So there was hope that the new documentary Greedy Lying Bastards, which opened yesterday in limited release, would be going for the jugular. Does it? Yes and no.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

As Craig Scott Rosebraugh’s film ably shows, there are many “charlatans” and deniers who make a decent living confusing the issue of climate change, with surprisingly receptive audiences. One of the stranger moments in Greedy Lying Bastards is footage of Tim Philips, president of the oil-industry-funded lobbying group Americans for Prosperity and seemingly just another bland Beltway spokesman in a suit, being greeted at a speaking engagement like a reanimated Elvis. No such excitement will be waiting for Rosebraugh’s film, an earnest but wholly unimpressive bit of advocacy cinema which fails to tap into the dark seam of anger that its title implies…

You can watch the trailer here:

 

New in Theaters: ‘War Witch’

War Witch

war-witch-posterThere has been plenty written about the tragedy of child soldiers in the African wars, but little that has been put on film that wasn’t a documentary. Kim Nguyen’s blistering, Oscar-nominated War Witch uses the subject as the basis for a haunting, unforgettable film about a lost girl trying to put some kind of a life together.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

In some sub-Saharan African country where wars ebb and flow in a constant, blood-dimmed tide, a teenage girl with the eyes of a traumatized warrior tells the story of how she became a soldier. She wants her child to know what happened, even though she believes her evil deeds are not forgivable. The girl, Komona (Rachel Mwanza), relates everything in a numbed voiceover as though narrating a nightmare. With all its talk of witches and gris-gris and the many ghosts walking around like flesh-and-blood people, War Witch is more like a fairytale from long ago than an of-the-moment topical drama…

War Witch opens in limited release on Friday. Seek it out.

You can see the trailer here:

New in Books: ‘The Dinner’

book-dinner-hermankoch-200 (1)Herman Koch’s nasty surprise novel The Dinner was first published in his native Netherlands back in 2009. Since then, it’s been published in about twenty-five countries and been compared to everything from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to Yasmin Reza’s God of Carnage. The American edition hit shelves this month.

You can read my review at PopMatters:

It begins with blank effect, as though listening to your none-too-interesting friend relate a perfectly ordinary evening filled with ordinary grievances. The narrator, Paul, grouses about this and that, with a chipper flatness that suggests one of those quiet, empty books about ennui and social conventions. Before it’s all over, though, Herman Koch’s serenely malicious little mousetrap of a novel, The Dinner, will have revealed some deadly shadows behind the bright-mannered griping of its opening pages…