I'm just not sure about Karen Russell. I felt about most of these stories the same way I felt about Swamplandia! -- I liked the idea and was intereste...moreI'm just not sure about Karen Russell. I felt about most of these stories the same way I felt about Swamplandia! -- I liked the idea and was interested in the characters, but something didn't gel for me. I found there were notes of bitterness and harshness that soured the mix, and I felt that things were left hanging or unexplained in ways that were unsatisfying and bothersome.
The title story was excellent, though, and I'm glad I didn't give up before I got to it. The story about the Minotaur's children in the covered wagons was also very good. (less)
"Science's objectivity sheds some assumptions but takes on others that, dressed up in academic rigor, produce hubris and callousness about the world....more"Science's objectivity sheds some assumptions but takes on others that, dressed up in academic rigor, produce hubris and callousness about the world. The danger comes when we confuse the limited scope of our scientific methods with the true scope of the world."
Imagine how much life there is in a square meter. If, like myself, you are currently sitting in an airport, halfway between two destinations, there is probably very little. One human, perhaps, with associated microflora. Maybe a few sickly plants, if you pick one of the displays that attempt to give the eyes something green to rest on. But if you choose a spot outside, almost anywhere in the natural world, and if you look closely enough, there is an almost endless richness of living things. George Haskell spent a year observing and meditating on one small patch of ground in a narrow strip of old growth forest in Tennessee. He recorded his observations and the ponderings that they inspired in "The Forest Unseen," a lovely and inspiring volume.
"The Forest Unseen" begins in January and follows the forest through its storms, its slumber, and its awakening in spring. He observes the birds of summer, the bugs, the crowded verdure of the canopy, the invisible dissolution into soil of every living thing. The book is loosely organized -- each day he writes about has some central topic and the procession of themes is dictated by the change of the seasons. Members of the cast -- ephemeral spring flowers, warblers, katydids, fungi -- come into prominence through several chapters, then disappear as they die back, migrate away, or change to a less noticeable life stage. The book is rich with the stories scientific inquiry has unveiled, but they are related casually, without the dense citations that I have become accustomed to in peer-reviewed articles. Instead, reading this book is like spending time in the mind of someone who has spent a lifetime learning interesting things and now wants to share the connections he has made as they occur to him during his meditations on his spot of soil.
"The Forest Unseen" has, through its musings, a few connected themes that recur, appearing in conjunction with songbirds and bacteria, nematodes and hickory trees. Haskell reminds us that we are connected to all life, that the molecules of our bodies existed long before us and will exist long after us in the soil, in the air, and in the bodies of innumerable beings that are as alien and as familiar as our own strange bodies. We cannot be apart from nature because we are nature, and though we may be a greedy and destructive species, we depend on others and are not central to the workings of the world. If this all sounds rather sentimental, well, it is. Sentiment, feeling, is part of our animal selves -- it is part of how we understand and participate in the world, and to deny sentiment is to deny the thing that allows us to appreciate and cherish the earth. I don't doubt that unsentimental science helps us understand, but as animals, we also need amazement, awe. Even the anger that Haskell feels when the salamanders are cruelly harvested as bait has a place.
This book, like Bernd Heinrich's "Life Everlasting," serves as a necessary reminder that the earth is teaming with strange life, and we should not forget that, every day, we exchange materials with the life that surrounds us. When I cracked open a new book today, it said that the "darkest" of Darwin's truths is that we are animals too. I could not disagree more. There is nothing dark about being bound so intimately in a web of life that has such deep roots, such wide branches, a wild, tangled, fragile, changeable, undestroyable net of life and sex and death and life again. It makes me wish for my own green place to wonder at it all with no expectations and with my mind wide open.(less)
My fiance is a mathematician and I am a biologist. One of his professors reviewed this book, and he wound up with a copy. I wanted to like this book,...moreMy fiance is a mathematician and I am a biologist. One of his professors reviewed this book, and he wound up with a copy. I wanted to like this book, I really did. And there were parts of it that were quite good. The treatment of Darwin was very good -- even though I have read quite a bit about Darwin's life, I still found it enlightening. The there were lively overviews of networked systems and emergent behavior, and the philosophical/logical discussions of what life is and whether it could exist elsewhere were intriguing. However, the book felt hastily written and/or edited. There were numerous factual errors or misstatements. I can't believe that Ian Stewart didn't know that some of the things that he said were wrong (the possible outcomes of some of the Mendelian crosses, for example), but there it is in print, wrongly stated. One or two errors of this type are forgivable, but I spotted quite a few, and it grew very tiresome.
Even worse than the occasional factual misstatement, there were a few places where the logical underpinnings of some ideas were not fully explained or explored in a way that made them misleading. For example, in the "Lizard Games" chapter, he talks in depth about the mating strategies of the side-blotched lizard. There are three different types of male lizard: fighters can defeat pair-bonders, pair-bonders can defeat sneakers, and sneakers can slip past fighters. This is sort of an oversimplification of the system, but you can see how it is analogous to the game rock-paper-scissors. Stewart explains that if Alice and Bob play rock-paper-scissors over and over, if Bob always plays rock, Alice can figure out how to beat him. Therefore, both players should play all three strategies in roughly equal frequency. But wait! Each individual lizard does only play one strategy! How does that work? Who are the "players" in this game? Stewart just leaves the argument there and doesn't close the loop. The "players" aren't necessarily the male lizards themselves, but their mothers. A mother will be most fit if her sons successfully father offspring. She will do the best if she always "plays" the best strategy by having the type of sons that defeat the most common type of male in the population -- she doesn't have to do this consciously. Therefore the system as a whole will tend to have equal numbers of all three types of males; whenever fighters are most common, sneakers will be selected for until they are most common, in which case pair-bonders will be selected for, and on and on. By failing to finish the logical progression in his argument, Stewart left the reader with an incomplete perception of how this type of system becomes stable, and how evolution in general works. The rest of that chapter has nothing to do with game theory, and in fact, ends with a very misleading hint that the lizards might be in the process of becoming separate species (which they aren't, because their genes are always mixed in the same pool of females -- unless females strongly prefer to mate with males of their father's type).
That chapter was the worst offender for incomplete and therefore incorrect logic, but it wasn't the only case in which his analogies were bad or his arguments left puzzlingly open. Which is too bad, because when I wasn't annoyed at the errors and inconsistencies, I liked the book. It just felt like it was maybe pushing up against a deadline, and Stewart or his editor didn't do the final careful read through that it really needed.(less)