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Book Review: MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret AtwoodHow do you feel about lab grown meat? Glowing, green bunnies? Is our future weird, repulsive, curious, frightening and delightful?

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy — Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013) — captures it all. It takes the reader into an apocalyptic future of genetically-modified, transgenic everything to explore the social implications of modern bioscience and extrapolate the horrors of our current environmental trajectory. It’s intriguing speculative EcoLit.

“People need stories…because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.” — MaddAddam

Atwood’s trilogy offers useful insight. It provides excellent examples of the ability to: imagine consequences, envision the future, tell stories, and view issues from a variety of perspectives — all essential skills for environmental activists.

The trilogy stands out for its storytelling. Instead of following a linear path and rushing from point to point, these books spin stories. They weave timelines and perspectives and, together, complete an intricate web.

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story, which is part of the story too.” — MaddAddam

The books could be read as standalones in any order. MaddAddam begins with a synopsis of the prior two books, which makes them sound daunting and absurd. It’s complicated. Better just to dive into the story and wordplay, you’re in good hands.

The trilogy takes place in the near future. Crake engineers the extinction of mankind before mankind can destroy the Earth. He replaces humanity with his own creations — the Crakers — innocent, new inheritors of the planet.

From the synopsis: “The Crakers are free from sexual jealousy, greed, clothing, and the needs for insect repellent and animal protein — all the factors Crake believed had caused not only the misery of the human race but also the degradation of the planet.”

But within every dystopia there’s a little utopia,” as Atwood says. Here it’s the Crakers.

MaddAddam by Margaret AtwoodOryx and Crake is a classic dystopia told from the viewpoint of a lone survivor in an empty and dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape. As Snowman tries to survive, he tells how the apocalypse happened. The future envisioned shows the world that results from income inequality, the rise of corporations, and environmental negligence. The poor live in pleebands, the rich work and live in corporate enclaves, and the environmental resistance is hunted by the CorpSeCorps. The book memorably introduces horrific Chickie Nobs, an envisioning of the lab grown meats which today are ready for taste-testing, and dangerous Pigoons, pigs designed with human kidneys and brain tissue ready for transplant. The story focuses on life in the elite Compounds of bioengineers intent on controlling nature and follows the male characters: Snowman and Crake.

Year of the Flood tells a parallel story to Oryx and Crake in the viewpoint of the female characters: Ren, Amanda, and Toby. It takes place largely in the toxic pleeblands and introduces the God’s Gardeners — a religious group that reveres nature and worships environmental saints including Jane Goodall. The Gardeners foresee the inevitable apocalypse and plan for survival. Everything left in the background in Oryx and Crake comes to the fore in The Year of the Flood and vice versa. It’s a fantastic lesson in storytelling: what to leave in and what to leave out. In a trick of well-woven plotting, the book sinks its hooks deeper into the reader at mid-point as the tapestry unfolds.

MaddAddam picks up where The Year of the Flood leaves off. Toby, a former member of the God’s Gardeners, tells her own story as well as a simplified and neutered version to the naive and inquisitive Crakers — hilarious! It’s outlandish, mythic and heroic adventure with dear and memorable characters (notably Zeb and the young Craker, Blackbeard).

MaddAddam by Margaret AtwoodThe story has a tragic and realistic premise:

“The people in the chaos cannot learn. They cannot understand what they are doing to the sea and the sky and the plants and the animals. They cannot understand that they are killing them, and that they will end by killing themselves. And there are so many of them, and each one of them is doing a part of the killing, whether they know it or not. And when you tell them to stop, they don’t hear you.”

So, it’s delightful that MaddAddam offers so much wry humor and clever comedy. It is the funniest and most hopeful of the trilogy. Laughter, satire and fiction can be powerful and effective responses to dystopian threats. Gotta’ love those Pigoons.

What to read next?
Try The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (see the EcoLit review) for a nonfiction pairing, and a scientific look at how the world might recover if human beings became extinct.

Inspired by these novels?
Atwood’s website recommends BirdLife International,, and Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Sipping the Atwood Blend in support of Pelee could be appropriate if you’re taking coffee with your reading.

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Book Review: The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker

The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker

The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker
You could read Melville’s Moby Dick. You could travel the world. You could read about the plight of immigrants and refugees in The New York Times and discuss them over dinner. You could visit the border. You could ship out on a whaler or ship out with Greenpeace. You could give birth, remain childless or try intro-fertilization.

Or, you could read Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden. (Astrophil Press 2010). The poem makes a great thematic companion to any of the above activities.

At the crossroads of Welcker’s poem, fetuses, whales, refugees, immigrants, and aliens intersect. The poem travels by invoking the names of exotic locales around the world — countries of islands and enclaves — and explores rites of birthing, passage, and injustice.

Why read poetry? Non-fiction typically fulfills our dogged pursuit of knowledge. These days, we want fast facts, conclusions. We want to be told. We want to be smarter.

But The Botanical Garden grows facts. Did you know? “The heart of a whale may weigh 1,500 pounds.” You can learn a lot about whales, refugees, detainees immigrants and aliens here. You can learn the definition of an asylum seeker and the differences between a refugee and an undocumented immigrant. You can hear what’s polluting the ocean: plastic nurdles and chemical weapons dumps.

However, in The Botanical Garden facts run wild but are not abandoned. They are interspersed with fictions, “A subtropical whale; the color of papaya.” Words are transposed to give facts new meaning, “while migrating the refugee surfaces.” Rather than expounding or straining to provide an objective report, the author goes exploring and the reader, setting sail within words, must also enter a mode of exploration.

In The Botanical Garden, you will encounter new ideas and unfamiliar arrangements that challenge preconceived notions. The contextualization of words, the unexpected nearness for example of “echolocation” and “ultrasound,” floats the reader into new territory. Listen: “The cries of whales sound eerily like the cries of displaced peoples.”

You will begin thinking about the problems of polluted oceans, drought, and displaced peoples, while a few seeded facts blossom into Welcker’s ponderables:

  • The heart of an immigrant may weigh as much as a nation-state.
  • Counting is a system that does not involve seeing.
  • Truth is a manipulation of language. Sometimes. Not always. Don’t be sorry.
  • How we move away from drought and how we move toward it.

With globalization, the distance between people has cinched. The world’s problems are not problems of one place. Our borders are shifting and ill-defined. Countries struggle to maintain them. We can leap from location to location. There’s magic in this movement. Welcker’s poem captures this experience and recreates it. The world — the work reminds us — is a complex, multi-faceted place.

Poet Ellen Welcker
Ellen Welcker, author of The Botanical Garden, paddleboarding a salt marsh on the North Carolina coast.

The author describes how the work came about:

The Botanical Garden is essentially one long poem that travels through—and names—every country in the world. (And as I knew would happen, it is already out of date, thanks to the 2011 addition of the country of South Sudan). I was living first in Reno and then on Vashon Island, outside of Seattle, while I wrote this poem. I was thinking about these human-imposed state and nation lines, and how futile they are in the face of ecological concerns. Climate change has amped up natural disasters both in size and frequency, nuclear crises like Fukushima, oil wars, and habitat depletion are scratches in the surface. But the ocean – no one even pretends to lay claim, or responsibility, rather – to the ocean. It is truly a no-man’s land when it comes to protection and rehabilitation. So these were the kinds of thoughts I was exploring while writing my narrator through these countries, encountering walls, borders, and boundaries of all sorts, some solid, some invisible, and as she navigates them, finding her own physical and psychological borders shifting and mutating as well.

There are many worthy ways to read The Botanical Garden. You can read it line by line in order or at random. You can flip through it reading page by page in lapping, little waves or you can read it full on, in order, all at once entering the tides and watching them crescendo. The poem is like an ocean in this sense.

Welcker uses the poet’s bag of tricks: tantalizing metaphors, restless ambiguity, repetition, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and general keenness for sound. She co-opts bureaucratic jargon, “Oceans are largely considered a waste management option.” to rebirth it in a new world. Sentences are repeated and strategically placed. The poet’s words plash together.

Surprising for a work that channels whales and oceans and transports the reader to big thoughts and far away places the actual book, The Botanical Garden, is a small square, the width of a hand. It contains two poems: the title work and “a map, my loves, I am drawing it by heart.” By contrast, the second poem with similar themes — love without boundaries — comes in a more familiar aural rush.

The Botanical Garden received the 2009 Astrophil Press Poetry Prize, recognizing innovative new voices in American poetry. It reminds us to dive into the teeming ocean of poetry, as well, when we seek to grow.

What to read next?
Plume (2012) by Kathleen Flenniken, was inspired by reports of environmental contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington, and is the 2013 Washington State Book Award Winner for Poetry.

Find more reviews and reading suggestions for contemporary poetry at Gently Read Literature.

The author recommends checking out these “two groups doing interesting and important border-obliterating work” — Inuit Circumpolar Council and Navdanya.

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Book Review: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

penguins book cover

Let me preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of co-author Dee Boersma’s work.

Years ago, I was part of a volunteer project at Punta Tombo, assisting Dee and her team with a penguin census. It was a week that changed the direction of my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. Dee has spent more than 20 years at Punta Tumbo researching Magellanic penguins — and helped to found the Penguin Sentinels organization.

So now that you know of my affinity for penguins and those who work to protect them, on with the review.

This is a reference book at its core.

It provides an in-depth description (and plenty of photos) of each of the 17 penguin species — from Gentoos to Rockhoppers to the Emperor penguins that were made famous in March of the Penguins. You’ll learn how to identify each, as well as its breeding habits, range, prey, and predators. (Did you know the Emperor penguin can dive up to 500 meters and hold its breath for 23 minutes?)

Yet even though this book is chock full of penguin details, such as counts and feeding habits and population trends, there is plenty drama between the lines.

For example, in the African Penguin section there are two photos of the Halifax Island colony in Namibia. In the photo taken in the 1930s, the colony is filled with penguins. In the 2004 photo, only a handful of penguins can be seen. The African Penguins are in big trouble, due to oil spills and overfishing.

I didn’t realize until reading this book the extent to which penguin eggs were once collected by locals. And penguin guano was also a target (which some species very much need for their nests).

Not all penguin species are declining. The Gentoos appear to be growing in number (though it appears that most species are indeed in various stages of decline).

Ultimately, this book is a call to action. For example, if the human demand for seafood ended tomorrow, the fishing trawlers would have a reason to be out in the oceans, scooping up the penguins’ food supply (as well as the penguins themselves).

Climate change is a more insidious challenge simply because it’s not so easily combatted or its impact fully understood. All we do know is that the waters are warming and food sources are moving or declining. And penguins must adapt to these changes or fade away.

Some species, sadly, are fading away.

If you’re passionate about penguins and the oceans, this is a must-have book. You’ll find yourself referring to it again and again, as I have.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (Editor), P. Dee Boersma (Editor)


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Book Review: Beg: A Radical New Way of Regarding Animals by Rory Freedman

Rory Freedman’s new book, Beg: A Radical New Way of Regarding Animals, is a must-read for anyone who believes himself or herself to be an animal lover. The main idea behind this book is that many people who think they love animals in fact unknowingly participate in any number of things that do animals great harm — and this idea is indeed “radical” to people who love their dogs but eat pigs (who are just as intelligent) or love their cats but wear leather, and so on.


Yet this book is not at all preachy; Freedman uses the same warmth and humor that made the Skinny Bitch books so wildly popular. And she is also not the type of activist who feels superior to anyone who isn’t yet on the same page — she writes, “I wasn’t born a vegan…I was contributing to a lot of violence and suffering. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you, with love, that you too have been complicit in the confinement, torture, and slaughter of animals.”

This will surely sound harsh to some readers — yet this is precisely what Beg is about: opening pet lovers’ eyes to the realities of what other animals suffer and asking what it truly means to call oneself an animal lover. While the book begins with stories of Freedman’s own pets, she inserts a short letter about a third of the way through letting us know “the party’s over” — in other words, the tough stuff starts here. And it’s also the most important stuff — the many ways in which we all may be contributing to animal suffering (and, as she also points out, human suffering and environmental devastation) through choices that can very easily be changed or modified.

Freedman tackles such topics as why we need to adopt animals, not buy them; the horrors behind dog shows and the declawing of cats; animal studies, and why they’re bad for both animals and humans; bullfighting, dog racing, the circus, the Iditarod, sport fishing, hunting, and other forms of “entertainment”; and fashion, from leather to fur to wool.

Readers new to the facts behind these issues may not realize that, for example, while the American Humane Association (AHA) monitors animals on the set of films and assures viewers that “no animals were harmed during the making of this film,” most animal abuse and deaths occur during training or off set. (As just one example, check out the “humane” treatment of elephants used in the film Water for Elephants, in this article and video by Animal Defenders International.)

Many who choose faux fur over the real thing may not realize that some of the “faux” fur is not faux at all — and much fur, both real and fake, comes from cats and dogs, part of a gruesome and heartbreaking fur trade in China.

Readers who think of themselves as environmentalists may be interested to learn that giving up meat and leather are among the very most environmentally friendly things they can do (Freedman notes that “animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change…It beats out all transportation in the world combined”). And readers who might say, “Aren’t people more important than animals?” will learn that the human-rights abuses in factory farms are rampant, and that the grain being used to feed animals could be far better used to feed the world’s hungry.

The only thing I wish were different about this book are the title and package, which are so specifically geared toward dogs that I worry cat people and others might feel it’s not for them (as more of a cat person, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I didn’t already admire Freedman and her work). It would be a shame if this ends up limiting the audience because this book shows the reality of how far we all need to go in how we treat animals and also offers amazing resources, tips, and ideas for positive change.

And Freedman is the first to admit that it’s a long journey: As someone who once had her own cat declawed (“Had I allowed simple common sense to pervade my teenage brain, I would’ve known that declawing a cat is cruel and barbaric…How selfish and stupid”) and who used to eat meat at three meals a day, Freedman writes with compassion as well as understanding. Change is hard, she admits, but she’s not shy about exhorting readers to give it a try — and she’s taking a hands-on approach. (Visit her website for more info.)

“So what’s it gonna be?” Freedman asks us. “You’re either in or you’re out.”

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Book Review: The Revenge of GAIA

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity by James Lovelock

I began reading about Gaia after editing the second book in Blair Richmond’s Lithia Trilogy, The Ghost Runner, in which an environmental studies professor brings up the Gaia hypothesis in class. I was intrigued by the idea that the earth is a living, breathing entity that might defend itself against threats. Of course, this glimpse of Gaia was in a fictional context, and I wanted to learn more about the origins of Gaia. So I began reading the work of James Lovelock, the independent scientist who founded the Gaia hypothesis (now the Gaia theory), beginning with some of his earliest writings about Gaia in the 1970s and onward to The Revenge of Gaia, published in 2006. One thing that struck me was Lovelock’s optimism in his earlier works (“whatever we do to the system, we will be drawn into the Gaian process of regulation,” he wrote in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979), followed by his dire predictions later on (“before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few remaining breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic regions where the climate remains tolerable,” he wrote in The Revenge of Gaia in 2006). If this sounds drastic, this is precisely the point—we humans should have started paying closer attention long ago to how our abuses of land, air, and water have affected the planet.

Now, Lovelock believes, we are past the point of no return. The idea of sustainable development, he tells us, is like a smoker quitting smoking in order to cure his cancer—it’s far too late for that, as the damage is already done. The planet is desperately ill, Lovelock writes, and will “soon pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years.” Can anything be done? Lovelock suggests turning to nuclear energy right away, and he also believes we need an international program to save the environment “whose scale dwarfs space and military programs in cost and size.” We must to act as if we are in immediate danger, he says, because we are. In an earlier book, Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine, first published in 1991, Lovelock mentioned the three deadly Cs: cars, cattle, and chainsaws—and our efforts at sustainable regulation so far haven’t been enough, leading to the devastation of land and forest, the pollution of air and oceans, and a planet warming too rapidly now to be able to stop its progression. In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock offers little hope for the future: “There is a small chance the skeptics may be right, or we might be saved by an unexpected event like a series of volcanic eruptions severe enough to block out sunlight and so cool the Earth.” When the best we can hope for is catastrophic volcanic activity, this is pretty depressing—but my hope is that readers don’t dismiss these predictions but embrace them and find new hope in protecting the planet.

As devastating as this book is to read, I appreciate that Lovelock doesn’t mince words—soft-pedaling around the problem or denying it altogether isn’t going to save the planet or the animal and human populations that are and will be in danger. Lovelock emphasizes that the responsibility lies with us all—it’s not exactly a call to action but a reminder that we are all a part of the system and should remember that with all of our choices. “As we go about our daily lives we are almost all of us engaged in the demolition of Gaia,” he writes. “We do it every hour of every day, as we drive to work, shop or visit friends or as we fly to some distant holiday destination. We do it as we keep our homes and workplaces cool in summer and warm in winter…We will, by thinking selfishly only of the welfare of humans and ignoring Gaia, have caused our own near extinction.”

book link

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