Finishing 20 Books of Summer: The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

The final choice for my colour-themed 20 Books of Summer, a terrific essay collection about the best and worst of the modern human experience, also happened to be the only one where the colour was part of the author’s name rather than the book’s title. I also have a bonus rainbow-covered read and a look back at the highlights of my summer reading.

 

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green (2021)

(20 Books of Summer, #20) How Have You Enjoyed the Anthropocene So Far? That’s the literal translation of the book’s German title, but also a tidy summary of its approach. John Green is not only a YA author but also a new media star – he and his brother Hank are popular vlogging co-hosts, and this book arose from a podcast of the same name. Some of the essays first appeared on his various video projects, too. In about 5–10 pages, he takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance.

Indeed, the essays reveal a lot about Green himself. I didn’t know of his struggles with anxiety and depression. “Harvey,” one of the standout essays, is about a breakdown he had in his early twenties when living in Chicago and working for Booklist magazine. His boss told him to take as much time as he needed, and urged him to watch Harvey, the Jimmy Stewart film about a man with an imaginary friend that happens to be a six-foot rabbit. It was the perfect prescription. In “Auld Lang Syne,” Green toggles between the history of the song and a friendship from his own old times, with an author and mentor who has since died. “Googling Strangers” prides itself on a very 21st-century skill by which he discovers that a critically injured boy from his time as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital lived to adulthood.

Green is well aware of the state of things: “Humans are already an ecological catastrophe … for many forms of life, humanity is the apocalypse.” He plays up the contradictions in everyday objects: air-conditioning is an environmental disaster, yet makes everyday life tolerable in vast swathes of the USA; Canada geese are still, to many, a symbol of wildness, but are almost frighteningly ubiquitous – one of the winners in the species roulette we’ve initiated. And although he’s clued in, he knows that in many respects he’s still living as if the world isn’t falling apart. “In the daily grind of a human life, there’s a lawn to mow, soccer practices to drive to, a mortgage to pay. And so I go on living the way I feel like people always have.” A sentiment that rings true for many of us: despite the background dread about where everything is headed, we just have to get on with our day-to-day obligations, right?

Although he’s from Indianapolis, a not particularly well regarded city of the Midwest, Green is far from the conservative, insular stereotype of that region. There are pockets of liberal, hipster culture all across the Midwest, in fact, and while he does joke about Indy in the vein of “well, you’ve gotta live somewhere,” it’s clear that he’s come to love the place – enough to set climactic scenes from two of his novels there. However, he’s also cosmopolitan enough – he’s a Liverpool FC fan, and one essay is set on a trip to Iceland – to be able to see America’s faults (which, to an extent, are shared by many Western countries) of greed and militarism and gluttony and more.

In any book like this, one might quibble with the particular items selected. I mostly skipped over the handful of pieces on sports and video games, for instance. But even when the phenomena were completely unknown to me, I was still tickled by Green’s take. For example, here he is rhapsodizing on Diet Dr Pepper: “Look at what humans can do! They can make ice-cold, sugary-sweet, zero-calorie soda that tastes like everything and also like nothing.” He veers between the funny and the heartfelt: “I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing.”

Each essay closes with a star rating. What value does a numerical assessment have when he’s making such apples-and-oranges comparisons (a sporting performance vs. sycamore trees vs. hot dog eating contests)? Not all that much. (Of course, some might make that very argument about rating books, but I persist!) At first I thought the setup was a silly gimmick, but since reviewing anything and everything on Amazon/TripAdvisor/wherever is as much a characteristic of our era as everything he’s writing about, why not? Calamities get 1–1.5 stars, things that seemed good but have turned out to be mixed blessings might get 2–3 stars, and whatever he unabashedly loves gets 4.5–5 stars.

As Green astutely remarks, “when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir—here’s what my experience was.” So, because I found a lot that resonated with me and a lot that made me laugh, and admired his openness on mental health à la Matt Haig, but also found the choices random such that a few essays didn’t interest me and the whole doesn’t necessarily build a cohesive argument, I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars. I’d only ever read The Fault in Our Stars, one of the first YA books I loved, so this was a good reminder to try more of Green’s fiction soon.

(Public library)

 


Initially, I thought I might struggle to find 20 appealing colour-associated books, so I gave myself latitude to include books with different coloured covers. As it happens, I didn’t have to resort to choosing by cover, but I’ve thrown in this rainbow cover as an extra.

 

Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie (2021)

A Daisy Jones and the Six wannabe for sure, and a fun enough summer read even though the writing doesn’t nearly live up to Reid’s. Set largely between 1969 and 1971, the novel stars Jane Quinn, who lives on New England’s Bayleen Island with her aunt, grandmother and cousin – her aspiring singer mother having disappeared when Jane was nine. Nursing and bartending keep Jane going while she tries to make her name with her band, the Breakers. Aunt Grace, also a nurse, cares for local folk rocker Jesse Reid during his convalescence from a motorcycle accident. He then invites the Breakers to open for him on his tour and he and Jane embark on a turbulent affair. After Jane splits from both Jesse and the Breakers, she shrugs off her sexist producer and pours her soul into landmark album Songs in Ursa Major. (I got the Sufjan Stevens song “Ursa Major” in my head nearly every time I picked this up.)

There are some soap opera twists and turns to the plot, and I would say the novel is at least 100 pages too long, with an unnecessary interlude on a Greek island. Everyone loves a good sex, drugs and rock ’n roll tale, but here the sex scenes were kind of cringey, and the lyrics and descriptions of musical styles seemed laboured. Also, I thought from the beginning that the novel could use the intimacy of a first-person narrator, but late on realized it had to be in the third person to conceal a secret of Jane’s – which ended up feeling like a trick. There are also a few potential anachronisms (e.g. I found myself googling “how much did a pitcher of beer cost in 1969?”) that took me out of the period. Brodie is a debut novelist who has worked in book publishing in the USA for a decade. Her Instagram has a photo of her reading Daisy Jones and the Six in March 2019! That and the shout-out to Mandy Moore, of all the musical inspirations, in her acknowledgments, had me seriously doubting her bona fides to write this story. Maybe take it as a beach read if you aren’t too picky.

(Twitter giveaway win)

 

Looking back, my favourite read from this project was Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon, closely followed by the novels Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and Ruby by Ann Hood, the essay collection The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (above), the travel book The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, and the memoirs Darkness Visible by William Styron and Direct Red by Gabriel Weston. A varied and mostly great selection, all told! I read six books from the library and the rest from my shelves. Maybe next year I’ll not pick a theme but allow myself completely free choice – so long as they’re all books I own.

 

What was the highlight of your summer reading?

14 responses

  1. I’ve just reserved The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet from the library on the strength of your review. Just stoppit! You’re costing me a fortune!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Costing you? You mean you have to pay for reservations? For a time my library charged 50p per reservation, but they’re now free and I take full advantage! Just think how much you save each time you borrow from a library instead of buying new!

      Like

  2. I couldn’t resist buying Songs in Ursa Major – am sure I will enjoy it, but it’ll be hard to live up to Daisy Jones – love its title though. I’m generally quite generous in my ratings and had a really good run of 5-star reads over the summer from my TBR piles. Highlights were Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan, Drive by James Sallis and Charles’ Yu’s meta-SF debut.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The eternal quest: to find the gems from one’s shelves! I’m glad you had some good ones studding your summer reading. I know I’m quite a stingy rater compared to some.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d thought I might give “Songs…” a try, but I hate a trick so much I can’t do it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, unless you’re cleverer than me and work it out long before it’s revealed 😉 And you might still find it fun anyway!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congrats on finishing the challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for hosting! It’s always a good excuse to get through random books from my shelves.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well done for finishing! Mine was off my own shelves too but not just the oldest ones this year. I think I might go back to doing the oldest ones next year as I feel stuff is languishing now. But I read some great diverse stuff in my “free” two months before my usual August of Viragoes. A September of review books and an October of I think TBR before Novella and Nonfiction Novembers for me now …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I made my list a mix of new acquisitions and some that had been lingering for years. I don’t keep my books in date order, but it would be interesting to go through the shelves sometime and find the ones that I think have remained unread for the longest — and then do something about it.

      Hurrah, glad you’re thinking about novellas already!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Adding The Anthropocene Reviewed to my list! (And I identify with his love for Indianapolis. It was a fun place to visit when I went to college in rural Indiana. There are most definitely progressive people in every city in every red state – East TN, where I live, included.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My best friend lives in Winona Lake, IN, where she went to college. Although hers was a very conservative Christian college, she and a lot of her friends are more progressive now and into social justice initiatives plus hipster stuff! Non-Americans probably think of the entire Midwest as a cultural desert, but of course it has as much going for it as anywhere else.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Congratulations on finishing your colour palette! 🎉

    One that I enjoyed recently that I think you would enjoy even more, is Edith Widder’s book about luminescence and deep water life, Below the Edge of Darkness.

    Also, for your novella month, you might like Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay (translated by Jennifer Croft).

    I’ve been reading so much more than usual, trying to keep electronics turned off to manage the heat. It’s been an unexpectedly bookish summer, even in light of my habits!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I didn’t quite manage a rainbow; no yellow or orange titles! But there was decent variety in there.

      I have an e-copy of Below the Edge of Darkness. It was sent to me for consideration for Shelf Awareness, but I ran out of time.

      I’ll have to look through my spreadsheet at the end of the year to see if I read more in any particular season. I feel like I finish more books in Nov.-Dec., but that may be a) because of prioritizing novellas, b) trying to get back to long-languishing set-aside books, and c) racing through the current-year titles I mean to get to before year’s end.

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