On the Page: Jon Mooallem and Ma Jian

WildOnes_300dpiWild Ones
Jon Mooallem
(Penguin Press, 368 pp., $27.95)

Even ardent environmentalists are apt to find that much of what has been written on the subject makes for less-than-engaging reading. Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones is something altogether different—a deeply curious exploration of America’s obsession with wild animals. Far from a zoological study, Mr. Mooallem’s book is about people, the stories we tell each other and our use of nature as a kind of identity formation.

Through the prism of polar bears, whooping cranes and a near-extinct California butterfly, Mr. Mooallem explores the contradictory impulses and the well-intentioned but deeply flawed interventions that define our interactions with wildlife. The stories that he tells are at once funny, heartbreaking and revealing—like that of the 19th-century conservationist William Temple Hornaday. He was so outraged that the U.S. had reduced its once-magnificent buffalo population to just 300, he went out to Montana to shoot several dozen of the survivors so that future generations of Americans would have to miss out as well.

Mr. Mooallem is merciless when it comes to illustrating the futility of conservation efforts and the bleakness of even best-case scenarios for the survival of various species. But he has an eye for absurdity and a real fondness for the people whom he writes about. Wild Ones makes a compelling case not only for why we care about lost causes, but also why we should. —Kim Velsey

TheDarkRoad_300dpiThe Dark Road
Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew
(Penguin Press, 384 pp., $26.95)

Traveling to Bobai after the 2008 Olympics—one year after the uprising in Guangxi that led to the burning of several government buildings—Chinese dissident Ma Jian described a scene where family planning propaganda posters sprouted like mushrooms along the town’s entrance. They were the same color as the traffic signs and, it should go without saying, much more regularly enforced.

“The effect was oppressive and surreal,” Mr. Ma wrote in The Guardian. So it is with his semi-fictional novel The Dark Road, an unflinching and luridly revealing look at the brutal measures for population control some 30 years after the People’s Republic of China implemented its one-child policy.

Mr. Ma certainly has a keen ear for melodrama, which, on a purely aesthetic level, overshadows the narrative of the book’s heroine, Meili, as she travels down the Yangtze River with her family in search of a safe place in which she can procreate (or not) in peace. Along the way, Meili and the reader are subjected to inhuman cruelties that go beyond a sane person’s comprehension: pregnancies forcibly terminated at nine months, babies murdered out of the womb, crippled infants sold into slavery by their parents, government-enforced IUDs for grandmothers under the guise of “family planning,” rape, human trafficking, murder and the degeneracy of men from the Generation of No Siblings, who force their wives into constant pregnancies, only to abort their unborn children if they aren’t male.

And while these are horrific crimes against humanity, the constant barrage begins to feel less like a story and more of a series of (very) unfortunate events. Despite the torturous “Keywords” that begin every chapter (“Balloons, uterine walls, work permit, vegetables, vaginal speculum”), the story Mr. Ma ultimately tells is the transition from rural peasant life to a culture of overpopulation, “e-waste” and genetic mutation. Essentially, the trading of an old type of evil for its insidiously polluted 2.0 version. —Drew Grant