At the start of this year I really wanted to read a few books about environmental issues, as it seemed pretty salient and increasingly important. So I thought I'd round them up for anyone else who's interested. Generally I read a lot of different things and although I know there's a thread between them, I thought I might post them up here in a series of 'Five books about...' as and when I've got through a batch!
Up next, five books about the middle east.
All these books are available from the excellent Hive, Foyles, Blackwells or Waterstones in the UK, please don't shop at Amazon! Even better, take a walk to your friendly local independent bookshop.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
I was worried this would be too technical for me as I didn’t study science. However, it was an extremely easy read, with everything explained in nice bite-sized chunks. Wohlleben explains, in layman’s language, exactly how trees function as a community and not as isolated individuals, how this occurs, the balance of competition and co-operation between them (just like humans), and why an old-growth forest is nothing like a newly planted one. It’s a short, accessible primer into the ecology of trees and forests, and will help anyone who wants to argue that chopping down ancient forests and replacing them with new trees is somehow an environmental ‘neutral’. I really enjoyed this book, it was like being taken for a walk round the forest by a very patient, knowledgable, avuncular sort of German. Would recommend to anyone, a really fascinating and accessible book. I have definitely been looking at trees differently, since I read it.
The Understory by Richard Powers
Unlike the previous book, this is fiction, but it does cover similar territory. The first third of the book is essentially linked but separate short stories about a motley collection of people and their relationship with the trees in their life. The second follows some of these protagonists onto an anti-logging protest, and their radicalisation as environmentalists. The third is a sort of mush of repercussions, mixed in with some ideas of techno-utopianism. The first third is beautifully well-written, and strangely moving. The second part works more as a thriller, but if you’ve ever been to a protest – any sort of protest – there’s just none of the mess and paranoia and internal politics that occurs in real life, and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. Powers claimed that he read 149 books to write this one, but I don’t think he hung out in a protest camp much! The final third just doesn’t make sense. Some interesting parts to this book, but it doesn’t deliver on its initial promise. I would recommend reading the first section as a collection of short stories, only.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
I have to admit I didn’t finish this book. People I know raved about it, but I hated it from the start. The main character, who lives in the rural USA, is a downtrodden mother surrounded by ill-educated, oppressive religious idiots who are too stupid to look after their own economic interests. Although they are farmers, they know nothing about farming, and are too stupid to even check the value of land they are proposing to sell to a logging company. The main character is ‘rescued’ by the appearance of Mexican butterflies who are a not very subtle metaphor. The whole thing reeked of metropolitan condescension and oozed contempt for its poor, white characters. I thought this book was worse than bad, it was actually nasty. It mainly served to remind me that this kind of stuff is actually why some people hate environmentalists.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
I read this classic piece of ecofeminist sci-fi from the 70s decades ago and ending up discussing it on Twitter along with a couple of the other books on this list, so thought I’d reread it. I wanted to read a book that might imagine what a better green world might look like, and this was the only one I could think of. It follows the journey of Connie, a woman wrongly imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital, who is contacted by (or may be fantasizing) a woman from a future in which gender has been got rid of and everyone lives in harmony with the environment. On a reread, Piercy’s eco-utopia seemed, to me, smug and oppressive. Also, there’s no interrogation of the string of bafflingly bad decisions Connie takes. It’s like she has no agency: as a pure cipher of an oppressed person, she isn’t allowed any. I also found it faintly racist. That said, it’s a cracking read which storms along at a pace, and Piercy’s technology of the future, a mix of super-automated machines, biological engineering, and low tech, communal agriculture is beautiful. I feel like Piercy might have been onto something when she located the threat to our freedom not in brute power but in the ability to define resistance as madness, and I liked the ‘no-one is too powerless to matter’ theme. Flawed overall, but still an interesting read.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
This classic was written in 1962 and I thought it might be entirely out of date, but although the insecticides that Carson wrote about have largely been taken out of use, the book is still relevant and fascinating. Carson is an extremely good writer, and works her way through the science in a way that is both interesting and accessible. But more than that, as an anatomy of a catastrophe, Silent Spring is horrifying and fascinating. It provides a little history of why, post-WW2, the Americans thought it would be good idea to drench thousands of acres of their country in toxic, deadly carcinogenic chemicals. From planes. It’s all there, from the monomaniac scientists who’ve been trained too narrowly, the dodgy studies, the military equipment needing repurposing, the callous disregard to human health, the untrammelled profit motive, the weak state regulation, to the dismissal of opponents as cranks and crazies. If you ever wonder why Americans don’t trust science, it’s worth remembering that these kind of madnesses were rolled out as ‘science’ at the time. I was left wondering just how many things we’re now doing would seem as mad as the ones Carson describes, fifty years down the line.
Theatre Director Emma Rice is more or less the UK’s only big-name female theatre director, having previously worked with Kneehigh, then at the The Globe in London, and more recently set up her own company, Wise Children. Rice was summarily defenestrated from the Globe after upsetting traditionalists, and this is her first big production since. I hadn’t seen any of her stuff at the Globe, but the last of her productions I saw in Bristol really wasn’t great, so I was a bit nervous as to how this would turn out. Especially as I wasn’t an Enid Blyton fan as a kid. I did however, read plenty of other exampes of the girls' boarding school genre to which Malory Towers belongs.
Malory Towers kicks off in the current day, and I was afraid it would try too hard to be ‘yoof’ but it quickly sent it’s protagonist back in time to Malory Towers, where (I couldn’t quite work out), it was either the 1940s or the ‘20s. It got under steam with a train journey, arrival at the eponymous Malory Towers, and a story about bullying. There was a play within a play, a daring clifftop rescue, a tomboy who loves horses, and a personal disaster. As to the girls, there was the nerdy one, the musical one, and the one that's all Mother I Don’t Like It, Please Don’t Leave Me Here. Not being a Blyton aficianado, I wasn’t sure how many of the books had been mashed into one theatre production, but it worked seamlessly. There was comedy, drama, music, and Much Emotional Learnings All Round. The six female and one ‘gender-nonconforming’ performer were all excellent. I was mildly annoyed by the overuse of projections for scenery, but that’s just me.
All in all, it was an enjoyable production with a great cast and lots of laughs. But that’s on a superficial level. When I tried to prod the entire edifice a bit harder, I became a bit more confused. I figured that Rice had chosen these girls’ stories in order to make a show about female relationships, which are something that theatre would usually run a mile from. So far so good. But then there was the casting of the ‘gender-neutral’ performer, as ‘tomboy’ Bill. Also there was a lot of blah about loyalty to Malory Towers, character-building, etc, which is exactly the kind of thing that expensive private schools go in for. Between all the tiffin and rousing speeches on one hand, and the feministy slant and political-gender-correctness on the other, I wasn’t quite sure where we were; somewhere halfway in a sort of Brexity nostalgia about a lost England, or a brand new world of unsureness and performative correctness all round. Then I thought that maybe that was fair enough, in a way, because that’s where we are, in real life, right now. And I was a bit like, Mother I Don’t Like It, Please Don’t Leave Me Here. But I can’t blame Emma Rice for that, I suppose.
Malory Towers is Wise Children/Bristol Old Vic co-production
Photo by Steve Tanner