Well, someone has to tell it like it is and Kolbert lays it out there as clearly as anyone possibly can. She travels the world, to visit rocks containing the fossil record of the first five great disruptions in evolution when species, genera, and families disappeared with virtual instantaneity. Then she keeps traveling to demonstrate that, again geologically speaking, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction in the last two billion years. This time, the era called the Anthropocene, will appear in the rock record, millions of years from now, as the period when one species, Homo sapiens, destroyed an inordinate number of species around the globe. Humans have changed the climate, introduced devastating invasive species from one part of the planet to another, demolished habitats of every variety, and polluted land and sea to such an extent that only the heartiest rats, cockroaches, and bacteria are likely to survive. Philosophically, it is interesting to ponder that perhaps the most sentient species in earth’s history is aware enough to understand the malice it is causing, but not smart enough to do anything about it. In the end, the book, well written as it is, was too depressing to finish.
In the 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt did not yet have presidential ambitions. As a young man he was trying to sweep corruption from the halls of New York City’s police department. To sidestep detectives he doesn’t trust, Roosevelt turns to a reporter from the New York Times, Moore, and a psychoanalyst called Kreizler to solve a series of gruesome murders of young male prostitutes. The descriptions of turn of the century New York are colorful, informative, and a loud reminder of the breadth of inequality suffered by immigrants living in hovels on the lower east side. The only problem is that after 200 pages the first clues are only beginning to be assembled. After 400 pages the killer has been identified and yet there are still a hundred pages to go. It’s not a good sign for what is supposed to be a suspense-filled mystery when the reader is keeping such careful track of the page numbers.