Staff Favorites

Elizabeth Kolbert
Reviewed by Nathan

Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, is a great book about a tragic subject. As its title suggests, The Sixth Extinction is about the ongoing mass extinction event. Whereas other extinction events have been caused by passive environmental changes or sudden catastrophes like asteroid collisions, the sixth extinction’s cause is pretty clear-it’s us.

Kolbert devotes individual chapters to issues that are accelerating the extinction rate. These include ocean acidification, the rapidly increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, deforestation, global warming, and overexploitation. Kolbert also examines several species that are going extinct because of these changes, including golden frogs in Panama, trees in the Amazon, bats in New England, and corals in Australia. Kolbert is quick to point out that humans have been altering the environment for a long time; she has convincing evidence that the extinction of many of the mega fauna from the last ice age, along with Neanderthals, was caused by humans. What’s changed in the last one hundred years or so is the rate of extinction, not its actual occurrence.

The Sixth Extinction is incredibly well written and researched. It’s easy to see why it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2014, as it explains all of its concepts in a very straightforward manner. It’s intended for a general audience and it’s the best book on its subject I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever. The Sixth Extinction is equally profound and depressing, although it also has occasional moments of dark humor. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental issues.

Brian Azzarello
Reviewed by Nathan

Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight rekindled interest in one of Batman’s most recognizable villains. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in that film was met with such acclaim that DC decided to release a one-off graphic novel, simply titled Joker. Written by Brian Azzarello, Joker tells the story of a low-level thug named Jonny Frost and his encounters with the titular character. Frost is tasked with picking up the Joker after he is released from the insane asylum and then proceeds to work for him as the Joker tries to take back his criminal empire.

Azzarello succeeds in producing a grittier, more realistic version of the character. Those familiar with Frank Miller’s Sin City series will be right at home with this neo-noir interpretation of the character. It’s not a Batman story, who’s only in the book for about five pages. Joker is also completely lacking in any of campy humor older versions of the character often displayed; there’s nothing funny about the Joker here, and his crimes are repulsive and disturbing, not to mention gory.

There’s a couple flaws to The Joker. Comic purists may take issue with changes to some of the characters in Azzarello’s Gotham; Harley Quinn is a gun-toting stripper with one line of dialogue, the Riddler is now a gun-runner who walks with a cane, and Killer Croc is a stereotypical hulking thug. Not all of these changes work, but a bigger problem lies in the storytelling and the nature of the character. Part of what makes the Joker such an interesting villain is that it’s impossible to know or understand him. The Joker’s actions are irrational and don’t really have a point, which makes for difficult storytelling. Nor are we really given much of a reason to care about Jonny Frost, who’s mostly just along for the ride.

But somehow Joker still works for the most part. It’s one of the few Batman stories to successfully probe the mind of one of comics’ most depraved and complex characters. It may not quite be up the standard of The Killing Joke (which is probably still the best Joker story) but it’s still definitely worth a read for comic enthusiasts. 

Ray Bradbury
Reviewed by Nathan
A Pleasure to Burn

Shortly before Ray Bradbury’s death in 2012, Harper-Collins published a collection of Bradbury’s short stories entitled A Pleasure to Burn. Containing numerous short stories, many of which are thematically related to Bradbury’s best-known work, Fahrenheit 451, A Pleasure to Burn is a must read for fans of Fahrenheit 451 and science fiction.

The stories in A Pleasure to Burn have much in common with Fahrenheit 451. Like the latter, these are science fiction and fantasy stories that are concerned with real world issues. Themes Bradbury explored throughout his career are all present, including censorship, government surveillance, our infatuation with mass media and technology, conformity and resistance to conformity, and our marginalization of art and literature. Critics have noted that Bradbury’s work often seems prophetic and A Pleasure to Burn is no different. Mildred’s seashell ear thimbles are a lot like an Ipod, and the reduction of meaning to a few lines of text sounds suspiciously like a meme.

One of the most surprising aspects of A Pleasure to Burn, and something that seems to have gone largely unnoticed, is how meta some of Bradbury’s work was. This is literature about literature, but more specifically it is fiction about fiction. Classic horror authors (along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who complains he doesn’t belong) are the main characters of “The Mad Wizards of Mars.” The plot of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is re-enacted in “Carnival of Madness,” with an element of black humor as the censor who gets chained up in a wall by a former librarian doesn’t understand the reference.

There’s a couple downsides to A Pleasure to Burn. More than half the book is taken up by earlier versions of what would become Fahrenheit 451, so it’s sort of redundant. Fans of Bradbury’s work may find the work unnecessary, since much of A Pleasure to Burn has been available for some time in other short story collections. However, for those like myself who have not read much of Bradbury outside of Fahrenheit 451, A Pleasure to Burn is also a pleasure to read.

Denise Kiernan
Reviewed by Nathan
The Girls of Atomic City

In The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II Denise Kiernan explores the lives of the residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge was the location of the Clinton Engineer Works, whose purpose (unbeknownst to most of the workers) was enriching uranium for the atomic bombs. Many of these workers were young women, including many recent high school graduates, and interviews with the surviving workers form the core of Kiernan’s work.

The Girls of Atomic City works best as a recollection of daily life in Oak Ridge. We get numerous anecdotes about the challenges workers faced, including difficulties with housing, rations, working conditions, and, as the book repeatedly stresses, the necessity of keeping everything going on in Oak Ridge a secret. We follow the lives of a rather large cast of women through their time at Oak Ridge, many of whom would meet their husbands while working on the project. The book also excels at providing insight into the largely unknown women scientists who helped develop the science behind the bomb and explaining that science in an accessible way.

Still, there’s too much left unsaid in The Girls of Atomic City and Kiernan seems intent on avoiding many important issues. How black workers felt about segregation, how women felt about sexism in the workplace, health problems arising from handling nuclear material, and whether the workers had any moral dilemmas about the need for secrecy or guilt over the destruction the project produced are only touched on briefly, if at all. And there’s too much feel-good patriotism in the book; Kiernan has produced a linear story of American ingenuity in which we collected the scientists, we built the bomb, we won the war, and the workers lived happily ever after. The legacy of atomic weapons and government secrecy is, of course, much more ambiguous than that.

Despite these flaws The Girls of Atomic City is an interesting read on an important subject. Its emphasis on the everyday women whose work was instrumental in winning WWII is fascinating, even if I wish it was more analytical and less anecdotal.