Murders wasted…

Author:  Lawrence Millman

At the End of the World coverIt checked so many boxes.   First, it’s a true story about murder, one of my favorite guilty reading pleasures.  Second, the murders take place in the Canadian Arctic, a great backdrop for drama of any variety.  Lastly, it’s written by an acclaimed author who’s an accomplished lichenologist.  I love lichen!!  So it was with considerable enthusiasm that I started reading.  Unfortunately, despite all its promise, almost everything about Lawrence Millman’s At the End of the World goes terribly wrong.  I can’t wait to tell you why.

But first, I’ll start with telling you what the book is supposed to be about.  In 1941, some Inuit in the Belcher Islands – located in Hudson Bay – got rather carried away with Christianity.  One declared himself Jesus, another declared himself God and along with a few acolytes they mistook some of their neighbors for Satan and killed them.  It’s an intriguing tale to say the least and it caught Millman’s attention.  So, in 2001, he traveled to the Belchers – checked out some varieties of lichen along the way – and interviewed the surviving witnesses to try and piece together and make sense of the details.  In the process, he collected a lot of interesting material, he even experienced the 9/11 terrorist bombings from the Arctic.  It’s clear to me that he had ample opportunity to create something compelling and readable.  Moreover, based on the nice things that many talented people blurbed about him on the back cover of his book, I think that the man possesses the necessary skill set as well.

Sedimentary rock photo

Two billion year-old sedimentary rock on Flaherty Island.

Unfortunately, Millman is unable to resist interrupting himself.  At every opportunity, he insists on telling the reader how much he despises computers, search engines, email, iPhones or devices of any kind.  Not surprisingly, this makes it impossible for him to develop any sort of flow or tension in his story arc. In reality, there is no arc.  It’s more like a rutted gravel road.   It’s not that he doesn’t have a few interesting or compelling things to say about how computers have irreversibly degraded society – and I’m actually rather sympathetic to his plight – it’s just that his complaints have only the most tenuous connection with the main topic and each interruption brings everything to a complete halt.  Over and over (and over) again.

Lichen photo

Lichen!! Actually, it’s Rhizocarpon geographicum and some others.

The book is similar to Barry Lopez’s Horizon – an old guy exploring remote places and writing about how the world is changing.  Except that Lopez does it one hundred times better and isn’t an asshole about it.

Let me finish with one particularly appalling example – the one that served as the nail in the coffin for me.  More than half way into the book, after having repeatedly aired his many grievances about the Internet, electronic devices of every type and anyone associated with them, Millman quotes Albert Einstein.  It’s a great quote, that’s (suspiciously) right on target.  The only problem is that Einstein never uttered or wrote anything like it.  The quote arose as an Internet meme several years ago.  The fact that Millman fell for one of the stupidest tricks in the modern world, all the while disparaging the supposed ignoramuses who use computers as a source of information is particularly entertaining.

Sometimes a book is bad.  So you stop before you get too far in.  Sometimes a book is bad, but it annoys you so much that you just have to push through to the bitter end.  At the End of the World is in the latter – fortunately rare – category.  Before reading it, I would have said that it was impossible for a book about murder, the Arctic and lichen to be bad.  But I guess this is the exception that proves my otherwise sturdy rule.  This discouraging experience hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for lichen – or moss or fungus for that matter – but I wish I’d chosen something else to read.  Not recommended.

— D. Driftless

Rock photo by Mike Beauregard (CC BY 2.0)

All of the following books contain the word “world” in the title.  I’ve reviewed each one for you and can give you my personal Driftless guarantee that they’re all better than this one:

The Ice at the End of the World   /   The Map that Changed the World   /   The World Until Yesterday   /   The Day the World Discovered the Sun   /   Between the World and Me   /   Why Does the World Exist?   /   My World   /   A Sense of the World   /   The World’s Fastest Man

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