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July 2016 BOOKLIST
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When we think of “green” books, we usually think of provocative nonfiction, either in the reportorial mode of Rachel Carson’s world-altering Silent Spring and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, or in such personal dispatches as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Gretel Ehrlich’s In the Empire of Ice. The array of environmental nonfiction is extensive, covering everything from global warming to deforestation, industrial agriculture, landfills, the freshwater supply, pollution, invasive species, and extinction. The problem is that readers are not always willing to devote precious reading time to such demanding and distressing books, however fascinating the information and superb the writing. Yet it is essential to our survival that we understand how our species is altering the planet and how these precipitous and destructive changes are affecting our health, spirit, and future. What to do? Bring out the secret weapon: fiction.
Short stories and novels about our place in nature address the profound emotional, social, moral, and metaphysical dimensions of environmental devastation in imaginative, alluring, and poignant ways, from psychological realism to magic, humor, adventure, and romance. Ecofiction continues to evolve from such overt and audacious tales as Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang to subtler works, in which nature’s presence reveals much about our symbiotic relationship to the rest of life. Here are some recent titles of particular daring and artistry.
Anthill, By Edward O. Wilson
This is the celebrated biologist’s first novel, and it’s brimming with Wilson’s grand passion for nature and deep understanding of our innate biophilia, or love of life. With a charming hero, Alabamian Raphael Semmes Cody, a rare and vulnerable old-growth longleaf forest, and an exciting plot involving high drama in a large ant colony, Wilson’s econovel is gripping. For some background on how this world-class scientist and environmentalist ventured into fiction, read my Story behind the Story and interview, At Length with . . . Edward O. Wilson. It just so happens that I’m currently reading Wilson’s forthcoming nonfiction book, an arresting analysis of the evolution of the human condition titled The Social Conquest of Earth. Look for a Booklist review in March.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
This big, many-faceted novel of the paradoxes of American life includes a story line about how maddeningly difficult it is to defend threatened wildlife and landscapes, as hardworking, well-intentioned Minnesotan Walter gets caught up in a ludicrous project involving the imperiled cerulean warbler and mountain-top-removal coal mining in West Virginia.
Nashville Chrome, by Rick Bass
Bass writes magnificent nonfiction about places he loves, especially Montana and the Arctic, and nature always plays a role in his fiction—even in this fictionalized portrait of the top-of-the-charts country trio Maxine, Bonnie, and Jim Ed Brown. The result is a rapturous, mythic, and surprising novel that celebrates music as a life force, whether it’s made by humans or birds, insects, animals, trees, water, wind, or fire.
Once upon a River, by Bonnie Campbell
Sharpshooter and runaway Margo Crane, Campbell’s 16-year-old wild-child hero, embarks on a dangerous river odyssey in this rhapsodic tale of survival and female power, an episodic novel brimming with breathtaking evocations of the natural world.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Much like Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Margo, Russell’s Ava finds herself on a perilous journey through the American wilderness, in her case, the mysterious and endangered Everglades, which becomes a character in this spectacularly inventive and gripping quest story in which the brittle artifices of humankind are contrasted with nature’s fearsome might.
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, by Laura van den Berg
In van den Berg’s outstanding short stories, young women in difficult circumstances confront the profound mysteries of nature and the monstrous delusions of helpless humans in a time of accelerating environmental catastrophe in a great array of settings, from a peculiar American theme park to Scotland, the Amazon, the Congo, and the Great Lakes.
When the Killing’s Done, by T. C. Boyle
Boyle is our most steadfast, incisive, creative, and effective ecofiction writer, finding new ways in each of his indelible stories and novels to awaken us to the great ongoing battle between our rampaging species and the rest of life on earth. This intensely unnerving and suspenseful tale of invasive species and disastrous folly and hubris is set in the surprisingly wild Northern Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara.
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