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)

Writers’ Corner: S.J. Perelman

perelman1S.J. Perelman specialized in a particularly adroit style of urbane humor, which he deployed for decades at the New Yorker and in the occasional Marx Brothers script (the latter of which earns him automatic inclusion in any writers’ Hall of Fame).

He also had some salient advice for writers, not necessarily about the act of writing itself, but what writers had to look forward to in their choice of such a “shabby-genteel” career:

My vocation, it may have leaked out to you, is that of a writer, which means that I sit in a hot little room stringing words together like beads at so many cents per bead. It’s shabby-genteel work and, on the whole, poorly paid, but I’m too fragile to drive a brewery truck and I’m too nervous to steal … In the poolrooms I frequent, it has often reached my ears that the chief advantage of being a writer is that it allows you to sleep late in the morning. Don’t believe it. You can enjoy the same privilege as a night counterman in a cafeteria, and, what’s more, in that job you can always bring home stale Danish pastries for the kiddies…

in-my-opinionThat comes courtesy of a book called In My Opinion: The Seventeen Book of Very Important Persons. Apparently back in 1966, Seventeen magazine had an advice column frequented by the likes of Perelman, Philip Roth, Pete Seeger, and Joan Crawford (?!). Maybe teenagers read back then.

(H/T: Embarrassing Treasures)

 

Readers’ Corner: Fall Football Edition

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It’s that time of year when attentions get torn between the World Series and the ever-growing all-encompassing athletic-entertainment complex that is football. Being that the latter has almost definitely overtaken the former as America’s game, there’s no end to commentary and opinion about the gridiron spectacle.

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One of the month’s more intriguing notes on football, though, comes from an unexpected source: Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. Here’s a short excerpt (noted by James Wood in the New Yorker) in which the narrator is talking about the ritual of watching Sunday football games out in Las Vegas:

On game day, until five o’clock or so, the white desert light held off the essential Sunday gloom — autumn sinking into winter, loneliness of October dusk with school the next day — but there was always a long still moment toward the end of those football afternoons where the mood of the crowd turned and everything grew desolate and uncertain, onscreen and off, the sheet-metal glare off the patio glass fading to gold and then gray, long shadow and night falling into desert stillness, a sadness I couldn’t shake off, a sense of silent people filing toward the stadium exits and cold rain falling in college towns back east…

Never mind that college games happen on Saturday for the most part; you still have here a beautifully gloomy little snapshot of that autumnal bleakness that always seems to hover around the game.

 

On the Media: What’s a Journalist?

Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

—Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

The trick for being a journalist, of course, is knowing that what Malcolm says above is absolutely true and yet, still being to have a great time at your job. As they say: messy business, but somebody’s got to do it.

On Cinema: ‘Frances Ha’ in IMAX!

THRILL to Greta Gerwig's dancing in 'Frances Ha' in IMAX!

THRILL to Greta Gerwig’s dancing in ‘Frances Ha’ in IMAX!

It’s been nice to see The Onion spicing up their pages with the addition of some bold-faced names lately. Check out, for example, Joyce Carol Oates’ recent advice to aspiring young writers trying to get published (“A good writer should always be curious, constantly looking around for new and more powerful people to sleep with”).

Almost better, though is this satirical piece from director Noah Baumbach (or an Onion staffer doing a nice impersonation of his dry style that’s been used for a few “Shouts & Murmurs” essays in the New Yorker) about his new talky black-and-white micro-budget comedy, Frances Ha; now helpfully providing summer counter-programming for all those who don’t feel like seeing anything with The Rock in it. In short, Baumbach says, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen this sucker in 3D:

I just went all out when I was writing it, tailoring every character and scene for maximum impact on a six-story IMAX screen in a 601-person amphitheater…. And the effect, to be honest, is simply stunning. Through the magic of IMAX, every social faux pas, every quiet epiphany, every dinner party, and every awkward conversational exchange practically jumps off the screen. You feel as though you can almost reach out and touch the glass of white wine that a character is drinking. Simply put, no celluloid version of Frances Ha could provide the same visceral impact as witnessing a 30-foot-tall Greta Gerwig towering above the audience as she negotiates her relationship with her best friend or tries to find an apartment, all displayed in vivid black-and-white.

Now, if only it were true; the possibilities are nearly endless.

Media Room: The Boys Clubs

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Have you heard about how the glass ceiling has been shattered by women moving into positions of power across American industry? No? Neither has New Republic reporter Lydia DePillis, whose new Tumblr 100 Percent Men does nothing but highlight all the “Corners of the world where women have yet to tread.” Some highly sarcastic selections:

So some are more surprising than others (NASCAR). As snark goes, it’s a handy flashlight on the unspoken biases still permeating a society that has supposedly moved beyond such things.

Reader’s Corner: When Burroughs Wrote to Capote

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Poloroids of William S. Burroughs and Truman Capote, taken by Andy Warhol.

The last few years have seen a continuing Truman Capote renaissance, with two competing movies on how he wrote In Cold Blood, and new Modern Library editions of Breakfast at Tiffany’sComplete Stories, and Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Next to all the celebration, though, there is also a reexamination of Capote both as crime writer (many of In Cold Blood‘s assertions having now been brought into question or completely debunked) and as a fictionalist.

capotestoriesMichael Bourne has a perceptive take on Capote’s sad legacy at The Millions. His viewpoint on the the early promise and sparkle of Capote’s (calling him “American literature’s beautiful child”) that later fizzled out in self-parody (much as the man himself seemed to), has the man’s legacy dead to rights.

More curiously damning is this letter that Capote received in 1970 from William S. Burroughs (included in the letters collection Rub Out the Words and dug up by the good people at Letters of Note). The two men may have shared a few things—being openly gay writers in a much more homophobic time and possessed of a certain aristocratic disdain—but it’s clear that Old Bull Lee had little but contempt for Capote, then still being showered in praise for In Cold Blood, while the murderous surrealist from St. Louis toiled away on the margins:

…I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising—I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell. You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker—(an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth)…

You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.

It was prophetic. Capote never finished another book after In Cold Blood. He dabbled with Answered Prayers for almost two decades but never finished it.

Note also this line from Burroughs, which evinces a surprising attitude of creative romanticism from the old buzzard: “You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell.” This is a warning that should be given to every young writer about their gift: Use it well and wisely when you have the chance, because the world doesn’t look kindly on those who squander such things.

New in Books: ‘The Story of America’

Those truisms quoted today from Ben Franklin? Not meant to be taken seriously. Voting anonymously with paper ballots at polling places free of violence? Unheard of in America until 1890. This and more discussed in Jill Lepore’s new book The Story of America:

When in doubt about your thesis, cover the spread and present everything as a variegated tapestry of humanity. Sometimes this can serve as a neat dodge for a potentially failed project, better than trying to shoehorn everything into an explanation that doesn’t quite hold water. Depending on the richness of your material, this can be either a rag-and-bone shop of leavings (usually subtitled “sketches” or “impressions”), or a rich panoply of story that rattles and bursts with humanity. Even though it should fall in the former category, being mostly a collection of New Yorker articles, Jill Lepore’s wonderful The Story of America fits snugly into the latter…

The Story of America is on sale now at finer (and not so fine) bookstores everywhere; my review is at PopMatters.