September 20th, 2017
brigdh: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] brigdh at 08:21pm on 20/09/2017 under
The Excursionist by J.D. Sumner. A novel about Jack, a man determined to visit 100 countries before his 35th birthday, all so he can join the Traveler’s Century Club.

Ugh, this book. It’s glaringly self-published, which I do not inherently object to – I'm all for self-publishing! But hire an editor, dude. It’s not typos or grammar mistakes that give it away (the book’s actually remarkably free of those)(which I suppose is damning with faint praise, but I am totally here to damn this book), but a constant stream of contradictions and just... well, odd choices. The one that leapt out to me most strikingly was when the narrator, in describing the Traveler’s Club, sticks the URL right in the middle of the text:
One down and two to go. Now all I had to do was to get to Kilrush and then to Fulgary and I could join the Travelers’ Century Club. See www.travelerscenturyclub.org for further details.

This would maybe even have been not so weird if it had come in the introduction, the first time the reader is told about this goal, or in the endnotes. But no, none of the above. This quote instead comes from the end of chapter ten, when the Traveler’s Club has been mentioned multiple times without needing an URL.

It’s minor, I know, but similar minor annoyances pop up constantly throughout the text. Jack only needs to visit three more countries, so he heads to the (fictional) islands of Placentia, Kilrush and Fulgary. The fact that these are separate countries is the entire point of the book. And yet the flights between them are repeatedly described as "domestic". In addition, it’s implied Placentia and Fulgaryy are still considered UK territories. Granted, other people probably aren’t as fascinated by the debate over what “counts” as a country as much as I happen to be (I blame this game, on which I spend way too much of my free time), but when it’s the central premise of your story, it needs at least a little consideration.

I could forgive all of the above if Jack was a character I enjoyed spending time with. Instead he’s a complete and total asshole. He condescends and mistreats service employees, he shallowly judges fellow tourists, he rates all women by their attractiveness and sulks when they don’t want to sleep with him. Every time he interacted with any other living creature I wanted to punch him.
For example, discussing his job as a stockbroker: Getting a job in the City is like getting a girl. The less interest and enthusiasm you show, the better chance you have.
Describing his ex-wife: I was still paying for my ex-wife’s house. She had taken me for a mug, then a Merc, then a million. I did quite well out of the divorce settlement; I kept most of the back garden and some of the roof tiles. I wouldn’t have minded if I hadn’t come home to find somebody else’s kippers under the grill. I should have twigged when he helped move her stuff out when she ‘just needed some space’. […] And if I said no to her demands, I would get a call saying my daughter was ill or had been invited to a toddler’s party on the day I was supposed to visit. Her other trick was to pretend I had got the dates or the times wrong. It was easier just to give up. People only change in books or in films, not in real life. I stopped seeing my daughter as regularly when my folks told me she had started to call Graham ‘Daddy’.*
Interacting with a flight attendant: ‘Could I please have one of those bottles of fizzy mineral water?’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir, we are not allowed to give them out.’ She bent down so close to my face I was worried she was going to kiss me.
‘I don’t want to bother you all the time, asking you for water. Can you leave me the bottle; I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.’
‘I am afraid we can’t do that, sir.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘It’s against regulations. I am sorry, sir.’
‘But your in-flight magazine says quite clearly on page twenty-eight, that passengers should make sure they remain hydrated.’
‘I know, sir. I am sorry but they are the regulations.’
‘I am only asking for a bottle of fizzy water. I have spent thousands of pounds flying Business Class with you. I’m thirsty,’ I said.
‘I am sorry, sir. It’s the rules.’
‘The rules… what airline has rules to prevent passengers from drinking water? Why advertise what a great service you provide, if you won’t give water to a thirsty passenger? What’s the point of pouring an eggcup-sized measure of water if I can jug down full glasses of wine? You do this because, as you know, the less weight you carry the less fuel you need, which means lower fuel costs and better profit.’ And with this, the hostess began to take away my empties.


I could have given you more egregious examples, but I chose these because they all occur before page 35. (And the text of the book doesn’t start until page 8!) Now you too have a sense of the density of Jack’s dickishness.

Though I've got to mention one more: at the end of the book, it’s revealed that Jack’s dead girlfriend who disappeared forever, possibly murdered, cheated on him shortly before her death. When Jack finds out this information, he explicitly decides not to go to the police with it, because, hey, it helped him get over her. Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!
I felt better about not being with her but I also wish I hadn’t wasted so much time thinking about her. I still didn’t know how Kay died but I suspect Naz may have had something to do with it. With forearms like Naz, it wouldn’t have been difficult to squeeze the life out of her. But I didn’t actually know what had happened to her. And for the first time, I wasn’t particularly bothered either. Should I go to the police? And tell them what exactly? I decided, rightly or wrongly, to move on.

Ughhhhh, this book, y’all. This book. I got it for free and that was still too much money.

* The daughter never gets a name, appears on screen, or is even mentioned beyond one more passing notice that she exists. I’m definitely convinced Jack is a worthwhile father.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
September 13th, 2017
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posted by [personal profile] brigdh at 07:37pm on 13/09/2017 under
Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things by M.R. O’Connor. Despite the name, this book actually has very little on de-extinction – about half a chapter near the end, mostly on Revive & Restore's Passenger Pigeon project. Instead O'Connor writes about various conservation projects of extremely endangered (but not yet quite extinct!) species, including the Florida puma, the Kihansi spray toad, the Hawaiian crow, and the Northern White Rhino among others. We're talking severely endangered; the rhino was down to four living individuals at the time of this book's writing, and I believe it’s only three now.

O'Connor discusses the various methods taken to try and preserve these rare species – introducing members of a closely related subspecies to boost genetic diversity, capturing wild individuals to set up captive breeding programs, freezing DNA for future scientific endeavours – as well as how these approaches have succeeded and how they've failed. This leads into the other topic that forms the basis of the book: the philosophy and ethics of conservation. Does it matter if the Florida puma goes extinct if the Texas puma is still doing fine? How do we deal with a captive breeding program that leads a species to develop new traits that won't be useful in the wild? If evolution is constantly ongoing, and a species will change to match its environment, then even improving an environment means humans are influencing a species’s evolutionary path – is that choosing their future for them? If saving nature fundamentally requires meddling with nature, what does it mean to say wilderness is separate from humanity? And how does one define what counts as a 'species' anyway?

These are all pretty fascinating questions (to me, at least), and O'Connor really gave me some new ideas for musing on.. It's very much a book of science, but I also appreciated that for all the nitty-gritty details of cutting-edge research she never lost sight of the poetic, spiritual dimension to humanity's attitude toward nature.

It wasn't what I thought it would be when I checked this out of the library, but I'm very glad I read it.


Once & Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals by Sharon Levy. This is by far the best book I’ve found on woolly mammoths – what they looked like, what they ate, how they behaved, and so. For as much as they appear in pop culture, for as much as other books reference them, there is a surprising dearth of books just about them.

But Once & Future Giants isn’t limited to woolly mammoths. It covers multiple types of Pleistocene megafauna (the technical term for all those big species that went extinct at the end of the Ice Age – saber toothed tigers, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, mastodons, etc). There’s even a quite cool chapter on the megafauna of Australia; I’m certainly fascinated to know that there was once a ten foot tall carnivorous kangaroo and a marsupial lion. Levy also drops cool factoids about how we can still see traces of megafauna today, from the avocado (what else could eat such a giant pit?) to the plight of the California Condor, a huge bird evolved to subsist on megafauna carcasses but now trapped along the coast where it makes do with the remains of similarly-large marine mammals.

Another major focus is the ongoing debate among archaeologists and paleontologists as to why all these megafauna went extinct simultaneously. It basically boils down to two camps: humans hunted them into oblivion (the Overkill Hypothesis), or climate change did them in (the rise in temperatures at the end of the Ice Age causing steppes to transform into forests). Levy goes over the latest evidence for both sides of the debate, but never quite choses one for herself. Which I sympathize with, because there really is convincing and contradictory evidence from both sides, but also because “it was the combined effects” does seem like an obvious solution to the debate.

Late in the book, Levy applies these lessons to modern conservation issues. I was particularly fascinated by her account of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, a local environment from which they had been extinct for nearly a century. Rewilding, as it's called, was controversial with local ranchers, hunters, and even some scientists believing wolves would be dangerous and have a detrimental effect on the park. They've have been intensively studied ever since, to guard against unforeseen consequences, and the research has had some amazing finds. The wolves have not just decreased the elk population size, which anyone could have guessed, but led to growth in the songbird population, to changes in tree species, and even altered the courses of Yellowstone’s rivers. It's an incredible account of how the presence (or absence) of a single species can spiral out and out.

Overall a great book that covers an impressive array of research.

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