Book Review | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Book Review by Jim Scott | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Perhaps your magnum opus is your chicken liver rigatoni with cippolini onions and sage celebrated by your dinner guests.  Then share the table with “chef” Macfarlane, a master in non-fiction nature writing.  His meal, Underland, is a sumptuous dish of claustrophobia broiled slowly with a peripatetic discussion of deep thoughts while journeying into the bowels of the earth.  He and his companion (the reader, in true Aristotelian fashion) will stare into the face “of deep time…the chronology of the underland…the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretches away from the present moment…measured in units that humble the human instant…kept by stone, ice, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates.”

This is no knockoff of James Tabor’s acclaimed, deep cave exploration Blind Descent.  Not as an adventurer seeking record-breaking cave depths, Macfarlane offers this brilliantly researched work to tease the reader’s understanding of the geologic ways of our planet and, along with it, to explore the writer’s take on the human impact against the natural backdrop.  He has done this with the humility of modern physicists (though physics is not his discipline), who recognize that human knowledge is an island in an ocean of ignorance. 

Robert Macfarlane is a passionate environmentalist and Fellow in English at Emmanuel College of Cambridge University, where he is Director of Studies in English and University Reader in Literature and the Environmental Humanities.  He is a winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award (2017).  Underland recounts his cave explorations in England, France, Italy, Finland, Norway, and Greenland, supplemented with exhaustive research into biology, ecology, geology, history, glaciology, and astrophysics.  His prose has the transcendent beauty of that expected from an English professor, combined with mythological darkness of literature from the underworld, human imagination of ancient Greek, Hindu, Aztec, Mayan, Inuit, and Finnish storytellers.

  He is a profound believer in climate change who pulls no punches in delineating man’s degradation of the environment.  He speaks both to serious laypersons and scientists, asking without preaching, “did we do that?” as he tackles the issues of whether we stand today in a man-made world gone nuts, or whether that change is yet one more manifestation of nature’s power and variability of the Holocene (the official epoch of the planet’s current history).  Implicit in Underland is his suspicion that the “gone nuts” theorem is a popular by-product of the yet unproven exit from Holocene to Anthropocene (the age of man), which he defines as the “crowning act of  (man’s) self-mythologization…and technocratic narcissism” instead of recognizing the vast forces of the agency of nature.  Readers may recall Nobel Prize physicist, the late Richard Feynman, “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

This is no global warming polemic, nor a denier’s playbook.  This is a learning springboard and a summons to get beyond political convenience, to acquire more actionable knowledge of planet Earth and mankind’s feckless stewardship.  Do not be surprised if this book surpasses Macfarlane’s previously acclaimed The Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Old Ways (2012), and Landmarks (2016), and is acknowledged as his magnum opus.  Take the time to read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Interview with Lionel Shriver author of “The New Republic”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Lionel Shriver author of The New Republic

Ostracized as a kid, Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. A disgruntled New York corporate lawyer, he’s more than ready to leave his lucrative career for the excitement and uncertainty of journalism. When he’s offered the post of foreign correspondent in a Portuguese backwater that has sprouted a homegrown terrorist movement, Edgar recognizes the disappeared larger-than-life reporter he’s been sent to replace, Barrington Saddler, as exactly the outsize character he longs to emulate. Infuriatingly, all his fellow journalists cannot stop talking about their beloved “Bear,” who is no longer lighting up their work lives.

Yet all is not as it appears. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba—”The Daring Soldiers of Barba”—have been blowing up the rest of the world for years in order to win independence for a province so dismal, backward, and windblown that you couldn’t give the rat hole away. So why, with Barrington vanished, do terrorist incidents claimed by the “SOB” suddenly dry up?

A droll, playful novel, The New Republic addresses weighty issues like terrorism with the deft, tongue-in-cheek touch that is vintage Shriver. It also presses the more intimate question: What makes particular people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? What’s their secret? And in the end, who has the better life—the admired, or the admirer?

Lionel Shriver is a novelist whose previous books include Orange Prize–winner We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World, A Perfectly Good Family, Game Control, Double Fault, The Female of the Species, Checker and the Derailleurs, and Ordinary Decent Criminals. She is widely published as a journalist, writing features, columns, op-eds, and book reviews for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Economist, Marie Claire, and many other publications. She is frequently interviewed on television, radio, and in print media. She lives in London and Brooklyn, NY.