Scribbler’s Rodeo

The Ends of the World

The good news is we’ve been through this before. The bad news is that the “before” we are talking about is global mass extinctions, of which there have been five. So far. Which does not include the one we may or may not already be entering or, indeed, be midway through.

Not every first-time author would be wise to choose as their topic the entire history of life on the planet from the beginning of time, but former Vineyard Gazette reporter and freelance national magazine contributor Peter Brannen seems well suited to the job. Taking a page from the great nonfiction stylist John McPhee, Brannen’s approach to covering events that take place over a geological time scale is more reportorial than strictly scholarly, leavening the passage of eons with travels in the company of an eclectic assortment of scientists and serious “rockhounds.” These he describes deftly: “A fresh-faced and affable scientist who speaks the Queen’s English,” he says of one early on, “Darroch sticks out among the crowd of goateed, mildly autistic, middle-aged, Midwestern American males that haunt stateside geology conferences.”

His enthusiasm for the subject is obvious – “I found myself almost embarrassed by how deeply the pock-marked slabs moved me,” he says in the presence of dinosaur footprints in Connecticut – but he is well aware of the capacity of muddy detail to fossilize even the most elegant prose. Before skipping lightly over the years between 1.85 billion and 850 million years ago, when little of interest happened in the history of life on earth, he notes that geologists refer to them as the “boring billion,” and then cheerfully advises “when a geologist calls something boring, reel in horror.”

The Ends of the World is most definitely not boring. Quite the opposite: it’s fascinating – and, it must be said, more than a little bit sobering.

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, by Peter Brannen (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2017).

To the New Owners

It’s familiar, if bittersweet, territory for anyone who has been on the Vineyard long enough to wonder where all the years went: a modest family summer home – not much more than a camp, really – at the end of a long dirt road on the Island passes into the hands of a new generation. They are able to share it among themselves for a decade, or maybe two or even three. They are established summer people, writers, journalists, Washington lawyers. They are happy with their leaky faucets, lack of television, decomposing shingles. They are lucky and they know it. But ultimately, as the camp’s value (and associated costs) rise from the somewhere under $100,000 for which it was purchased in the 1970s to thirty times that amount in 2014, the family place must be sold.

That’s not a spoiler, by the way; that’s the first chapter. Fortunately for readers, Madeleine Blais, whose previous books include the best-selling In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle, is far too good a writer and far too astute an observer of life to let a stubborn fact of Island reality drag her into maudlin territory. The book is more often funny than melancholy, and a welcome window into a bygone summer scene of intellectuals and opinion-makers. To the New Owners is certainly nostalgic, as befits a memoir of a lifetime of summers spent partly in paradise. It is also, however, a moving meditation on the power of place and memory.

To the New Owners: A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir, by Madeleine Blais (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017).

My Soul Looks Back

Jessica B. Harris is many things: author, culinary historian, college professor, theater critic, restaurant critic, recent consultant to the National Museum of African American History & Culture. But it’s a safe bet that those who are lucky enough to know her personally – she has summered on the Vineyard off and on since her childhood in the 1950s – are unlikely to describe Harris as a quiet wallflower. And yet that is the role she mostly plays in her remarkable new memoir, My Soul Looks Back. Her humility is understandable, however, when you realize the outsized cast of characters with whom she circulated in New York and elsewhere during the 1970s and ’80s: James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Nina Simone...on and on. “I am not central to the story, although I have lived it,” she writes in the prologue. “It is about an extraordinary circle of friends who came together, lived outrageously, loved abundantly, laughed uproariously, and savored life while they created work that would come to define the era.” 

It is far from a name-dropping tell-all, however. One senses that’s not Harris’s style. Of her family’s place on the Island, for instance, she says very little other than that her “oh-so-aspirational, oh-so-bourgeois” parents put off a “Grand Tour” of Europe to get it: “my father spotted an ad for a place on Martha’s Vineyard and my mother used the deposit for what would have been an early voyage of the SS France for the down payment, which allowed us to become summer home owners, placing us yet another step up the social ladder.” In place of breathlessness, there’s a distinctly elegiac quality to the book that sneaks up on the reader much as it seems to have caught the principal characters by surprise.

“They were heady times indeed,” she writes near the end. “Nothing could survive that white-hot intensity.”

My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir, by Jessica B. Harris (Scribner, 2017).