By Mark Lynas (Picador, $14)
In The Day After Tomorrow, melting polar ice caps cause a shift in the trans-Atlantic current, leading to hailstorms, flash floods, and all manner of weather nastiness. In the film's most haunting scene, a giant wave sweeps over the Statue of Liberty, obscuring all but the torch.
Although this scenario is far-fetched (especially the fact that it unfolds over the course of a week), environmental activist Mark Lynas argues that signs of a catastrophic climate change have in fact been occurring for some time. As he recounts in his lively, brisk, and terrifying first book, High Tide, Lynas set out to all corners of the globe to bring back evidence of this trend. "Over the next three years I would visit five continents, searching for fingerprints of global warming," Lynas writes, sounding like a perversely inverted modern-day Francis Parkman. "I would interview Mongolian herders, Alaskan Eskimos, Tuvaluan fishermen, American hurricane chasers and a whole army of scientists."
With a great deal of wit and sensitivity, High Tide tells these people's story. Lynas talks to Tuvaluan fishermen whose islands have disappeared, to native Alaskans who have watched ice melt and their food supply vanish, to Caribbean islanders who have been hit with the harshest hurricanes ever, and to folks in England who survived the worst flood in three centuries.
A few disasters do not a trend make, so Lynas is careful to support his anecdotal reportage with hard scientific facts. Lynas' hometown of Oxford, for example, has had more snowless years in the last decade than over the previous half-century. OK, so what if Oxfordians have to make do with fewer white Christmases? Try this one on for size, then: The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates that 160,000 people are dying every year due to climate change.
That's just the tip of the melting iceberg, Lynas warns. If global warming plays out as scientists predict (and they have been right about this trend from the beginning, he notes), then over the next century temperatures could rise another 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks in part to pollution, dieback of Amazonian forests, and the release of methane gas in the ocean due to higher atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels. Remember, 95 percent of the world's species died 250 million years ago when a Siberian volcano spewed out tons of carbon gas and triggered a greenhouse effect. The temperature change that caused this disaster?
Thankfully, Lynas argues that all is not lost. In the last chapter, he recommends that we go back to the table and ratify the Kyoto Protocol; allow countries to trade pollution credits, thereby aligning the world on an overall global-warming goal; and stop all exploration for new oil, coal, and gas. On a personal level, Lynas' recommendations are pretty obvious: Drive less, switch to low-energy lightbulbs (which can save an amazing amount of emissions pollution over a lifetime), and—most importantly—if your politicians don't support environmental goals, vote them out of office.
Let's hope this book makes the rounds during this year's presidential election season. JOHN FREEMAN
Mark Lynas will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Tues., June 22.
No Ordinary Matter
By Jenny McPhee (Free Press, $23)
The world of Jenny McPhee's second novel, No Ordinary Matter, is populated by the stuff of soap–opera gorgeous women, private detectives, one-night stands, mistaken identities, and long-lost siblings. Yet this send-up of soap-opera silliness often threatens to tip from ironic to silly itself.
Sisters Lillian, a neurologist, and Veronica, a soap- opera scriptwriter and aspiring composer of musical theater, meet every month at a hip New York pastry shop to compare notes on a bizarre series of events set in motion by Lillian's decision to conceive a child via a one-time encounter, without the father's knowledge. Veronica meets and falls in love with the unwitting father of Lillian's child, a handsome actor and New Age dabbler, on the set of the soap she writes for. All this intrigue is interspersed with far more serious and engaging scenes from the sisters' childhood, including events surrounding their father's death.
McPhee is obviously an intelligent writer with some provocative ideas and real wit, as she demonstrated in her widely praised first novel, The Center of Things. At times those qualities shine here, but much of her smart dialogue is weighed down by stilted, simplistic feminist theory and other clunky asides. For instance, Lillian is supposed to be as brilliant as she is beautiful, but you can't tell from her tired diatribes against men and motherhood. And McPhee needs to give her readers more credit—take the way she persistently spells out even the most universal allusions ("Lillian tended to side with the lotus eaters—the strange islanders in the Odyssey who . . . ").
McPhee's people are more nuanced and her dialogue more subtle than in the genre she parodies. But her plot twists aren't just statistically improbable, they are often dramatically improbable, forcing her characters to do things totally unmotivated and therefore inexplicable. These wild soap-opera antics pose a serious dilemma: Is parodying a bad genre an excuse for bad writing? A case in point is Veronica's song lyrics from her musicals, scattered throughout the book. Yes, musicals are often poorly written, and this is no exception—but knowing it's supposed to be bad doesn't make it any more fun to read.
No Ordinary Matter is pleasant beach reading, but it could have been much more. SUMMER BLOCK
Jenny McPhee will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 8 p.m. Tues., June 22.
By Andrei Codrescu (Algonquin, $24.95)
Best known for his cultural commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Romanian-born Andrei Codrescu has published more than 30 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His latest, Wakefield, is an allegorical novel that pays direct homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne, is reminiscent of Russian satirist Mikhail Bulgakov, and is not only a Faustian tale but echoes the very structure of Faust. It's also more of a discursive diatribe on the ills of modern culture than it is a story.
Codrescu's alienated hero, Wakefield, isn't ready to die when the devil comes to take him. A motivational speaker by trade, he argues his way out of imminent death by promising to bring the devil proof that his life is worth saving. His begins by undertaking a corporate lecture tour, in which he attempts to inspire software programmers to use their wealth creatively, as if they were poets. Wakefield proceeds to seek the genuine—in people, in architecture, and even in technology. Codrescu's take on 21st-century technology echoes Hawthorne's on the machine age: It is meant to free us, but instead it makes us dependent on it, diminishing our ability to be creative and thereby free.
Wakefield is awash with cleverness and abundantly peppered with symbolism—indeed, deciphering Codrescu's metaphors is an integral part of reading this book. Codrescu also writes pages and pages about the philosophy of architecture. Depending on taste, some readers will delight in these mysteries and discursions, whereas others will feel impatient. In fact, the whole book is intensely discursive, hopping from character to subplot to main story and back, like someone with ADD surfing the Internet. Some trimming and streamlining at the hands of a skilled editor would have benefited it considerably.
Nonetheless, Codrescu is a brilliant and provocative thinker, and Wakefield succeeds as a vehicle for his discourse on the American character, deconstructing, examining, and comprehending at least parts of it. SAMANTHA STOREY
Andrei Codrescu will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 17; Elliott Bay Book Co., noon Fri., June 18; and University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., June 18.