30 October 2007

Because Inquiring Minds Want to Know: How the Blogging Roundtable Will Work

If you are interested in participating in the Blogging Roundtable, here is some additional information and a proposed timeline:

1. Participants must be willing to identify themselves by either his/her known blogging pseudonym or real name. Your blog will be identified and linked and I'll post a brief description of you & your blog (I'll ask you to provide the description). No intentions to 'out' anyone if you blog pseudonymously, but I do want to know whose comments I'm posting on my blog. So, no 'anonymous' participants will be allowed.

2. I don't have a set number of participants in mind and I have no idea how many people will be willing to participate. Probably 5 is an ideal number. If I get more volunteers than that, I'll try for a cross-section of bloggers. Who knows? Maybe I'll do other roundtables in the future if this one works well. (I have dozens of ideas for future ones!)

3. If you want to participate & your email is not on your blog, please send me an email (see sidebar; you know what to do: remove the spaces, etc.) in addition to comments left here so that I can contact you.

4. I will send out the questions and will want first responses within 4 - 5 days. A compilation of responses will be redistributed to the participants so that they can comment upon what others have said. That way, it's a discussion, not stand-alone comments. I'll turn this around in 2 days after receiving the responses.

5. Feedback/follow up comments on the first round will be due within 2 - 3 days.

6. I'll take all feedback, edit for length (if necessary). I also reserve the right to edit for appropriateness. (Hey! Nice people post here, so I don't anticipate this being necessary!) Before posting, I'll send out one more time so that the participant has a chance to review for correctness any editing done. I don't want to misrepresent your ideas!

7. If you want to participate, I must have your email address. I would recommend that you not leave it in the comments unless you love spam. Instead, send to me at my email address posted in the sidebar. (Yes, this is a repeat of #3 .)

8. I'd like to post the roundtable discussion (with links to your blogs) by Nov 15.
9. Provided I have enough volunteers to participate by 11/3, the timeline would look like this:

Questions to participants 11/4
Responses due 11/8
Compilation to participants by 11/10
Feedback/followup by 11/12
Final copy to participants 11/14
Publish post 11/15

I think this will be fun. I hope you want to play along, either as a partipant, or in the comments when I post on Nov 15.

29 October 2007

Is it about the medium?

There is an interesting discussion on art blogs in the November issue of Art in America. "Report from the Blogosphere" is a roundtable discussion of five bloggers across the country who blog about art. (Sorry, no online link). While these are blogs of professional art dealers and critics, I found several parallels in the discussion of art blogs to the vociferous and ongoing debate about book blogs and traditional print review and criticism. Like in the world of book blogs, there is, apparently, some concern and controversy over the role, potential influence and quality of artblogs.

One interesting quote from art critics Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof: "As populists, we see our blog as art activism. Writing the blog is a political act -- an end run around the print powers that be".

This can apply to blogs on any subject, but especially when reviewing or critiquing something of cultural value or significance, whether it is visual art, movies, music or books. I think this quote is spot-on: it is the populist nature of blogs that sometimes causes concern and fosters dismissive attitudes among some in the established media. There is a lot of junk on the Internet but the fact that not all of it is poor quality is what can concern the traditional media. It isn't that there are many bloggers out there spouting off about their own concerns, it that there are some bloggers -- some well-written and frequently read -- that may be putting forth ideas contrary to the mainstream or contrary to the economic interests of a publisher. Perhaps the headline should be Upstart Bloggers Cause Kneejerk Reactions, but the root cause of that reaction is a discomfort with a new populist means for disseminating information, for spreading ideas and commentary, for making recommendations and ultimately shaping opinion -- even if only in a very minor way to a limited audience.

By its nature, blogging is more casual. It can also be more immediate. Since in most cases it is just the blogger and her comments, there isn't someone to review or copy edit a piece and to prevent you from publishing something incredibly stupid. There aren't standards to specify length, or reading level or to enforce restrictions on certain subjects. So, in some respects, it is about the medium: a short blog post should not be compared either to a diary or to a newspaper or magazine article as it is neither. But, it isn't all about the medium. Sometimes it is the content that is the chief importance. To dismiss all book blogs because some do not provide critical reviews, is like saying that you won't read any magazines because you don't like the celebrity-focused, gossipy nature of People or the look of the glossy paper it is printed on. To think that because there is a multitude of readers willing to write about books means that they will cause the obsolescence of print reviewers is just as short-sighted.
What a discerning reader should easily differentiate is what the writer/blogger's goals are. Is it meant to be a review? a recommendation? a chatty conversation with friends? a finished piece of criticism? Blogs can be any of those. Only when it is framed by what it is intended to be, can you judge its quality and value.

I am interested in book bloggers responses to questions similar to those in the Art in America roundtable. If you are interested in participating in a similar discussion regarding blogging in general, and blogging about books in particular, please leave a comment. I'll compile a list of questions to email to those willing to respond, and then post the 'roundtable' discussion here in a few weeks.

21 October 2007

Ninja Coke Machines

From an article in yesterday's NYT:

She said that while her ideas might be fanciful, Japan’s willingness to indulge the imagination was one of its cultural strengths.

“These ideas might strike foreigners as far-fetched,” she added, “but in Japan, they can become reality.”

-- Artist Aya Tsukioka regarding her skirt that turns into a vending machine disguise as a means to thwart would-be criminals. Also available: a man-hole cover purse and a child's backpack that converts to a phony fire hydrant. Photos here.

If it wasn't $800 I think it'd be a great Halloween costume!

Is imagination really a culture strength? Wouldn't the Nikes underneath the vending machine give the disguise away? Are there Clark Kent-worthy phone booths around Japan that would allow one to transform into a soda machine while being pursued? Are we Americans so cynical that we can't see how this bit of urban tromp d'oiel camouflage would work?

While I don't know about the effectiveness of Ms Tsukioka's designs or understand the anxiety about crime in a nation with a very low crime rate, I think her comment about indulging the imagination has some merit. After all, isn't imagination about seeing what isn't obvious, and blurring reality so that it is only what seems to be that is actually seen. Illusion transforms what is into something else.

20 October 2007

I should stick to books

Or....How I am so not a food blogger:

A few weeks ago I received one of those silly chain letter type emails. Normally I don't bother to open them and hit the delete button quickly. But, the one I received was from a family member who never sends this kind of thing and I was tricked by the subject line into opening the email. It intrigues me though: send a recipe to two people, send the email to 10 more. You are suppose to receive 3 dozen recipes. I still haven't responded, although I feel that I should. I don't think I know 10 people that I'd like to send this to who would bother to respond. 1/2 of those I would have sent to received the same email as I did; what's the point of sending it to someone who doesn't cook?

But, I thought I'd take pictures of the recipe that I would share. Might as well turn this into a post, I thought, and take some photos. But, I realized why I can't do this all the time. Taking interesting pictures of food that looks appetizing -- even edible -- is difficult:

My favorite chicken recipe
Chicken Tomatillos
Mexican Oregano Chicken

1. Chicken: 1 cut-up chicken. But, I prefer thighs (6) or leg quarters (3). Salt, pepper, brown in small amount of olive oil.

It's difficult to get an attractive looking photo of raw chicken.

2. Remove chicken when browned. Brown the other ingredients: 1 good sized onion, some garlic, 2 - 3 chopped chipoltole peppers in adobo sauce.

Use as much garlic as you like. I throw in a few spoons from the chopped up stuff in a jar. My spouse would go to the effort to find the garlic gadget to smash up the cloves. My imprecise measurements for this and all recipes drives him batty. What's important for the taste of this dish is the garlic, onion and the adobe sauce; add as much as you like. Season to taste, as the chefs say on TV.

3. Physalis ixocarpa Tomatillos. About 1 pound. Peel the husks, quarter & add to the pot to brown. Add just a little amount of chicken stock to the pot to be able to scrape the fond on the bottom of the pan. Deglazing the pan adds so much to this dish!

I like the color contrast between the tomatillos and the yellow cutting board. I've never seen any, but some tomatillos can be purple.

4. Red Wine -- one glass.

For the cook, not for the pot! Everyone knows that red wine doesn't go with chicken. Actually, a full-bodied red pairs well with this dish because of the spicy sweetness of it. But I'm not a sommelier either. Maybe I'll try that in a different post.

5. When the onions, garlic, tomatillos and chipotole have browned, add 2 teaspoons (minimum) of oregano, 5 tablespoons of brown sugar, and 1.5 - 2 cups of chicken stock to the pot. Add the chicken back into the pot and reduce heat to simmer.

I made a mistake last time I cooked this. I used 2T instead of 2t for the oregano. The additional oregano only made the dish taste better. Substituting epazote for the oregano can also give this dish an interesting (and more authentic Mexican) taste.

I use Splenda brown sugar blend. It's just as yummy as real sugar. The brown sugar is as key an ingredient as the adobe. The combination of sweet and spicy is what makes this great! Omit the sugar and you'll have a disappointingly boring dish.

Don't forget to add the chicken! Without it this recipe would be called Tomatillos!

6. Not much action to show when next step is simmer for 45 minutes.

But I like the look of the red glow on the cooktop and the pan. I love this LeCreuset pan.

7. Serve over rice.

I think this looks unappetizing in the photos. But trust me: this dish is delicious.

8. I like this photo because I like the way the sunlight hits the cooktop and highlights the tiles. It has nothing to do with the recipe.

The tiles were handpainted by the former owner of this house, based on pictures in a book of the wildflowers that grow in the woods.

If you're interested in participating in the recipe exchange, email me your email address. Maybe I'll get enough people to send it to that I can actually participate.

17 October 2007


I am as if
a shimmer in a lake,
rippling away from the edges;
gently, quietly,
in concentric circles.
Sunlight fading the arcs
when the wind highlights
those at the far reaches.

Few notice.
Do they think the water is like glass?
Only see their own reflections?
Too busy to hear the silence,
to not plumb the depths?
Deep down in the murky bottom
is where I howl and cry.

There, only the occasional
sound wave clouds the
view to the surface:
cool green tunnels running
to a distant yellow sky
beyond leafy shores.

16 October 2007

Observing what surrounds you

Many throughout the bloguniverse yesterday were posting on the environment. Whether it was a deep-seated desire not to be part of the crowd, procrastination, or just no motivation to write much yesterday, I'm a day late with this post. But, I'm not going to preach about how we should be green, or give 50 helpful ways in which you can aid the environment, or write about the geopolitical implications of drought in developing countries. Not that those aren't worthy topics, but you can read about them elsewhere from more authoritative sources.

What I will write about, though, is being aware of the natural world that surrounds us.

Last week I sat for awhile on a bench at 'Lettuce Lake' at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an Audubon Society sacntuary near Naples, Florida. At first I was a little disappointed when I arrived. I've never been to Corkscrew at this time of the year. I expected it to be lush. But it took me a few minutes to realize that what I expected was not lush, but colorful. There was not an abundance of different colors; there was an abundance of green.

It's the end of the rainy season. The water level in the swamp was higher than when I've been there in other seasons, although it is clearly nowhere near high levels. Typically, at Corkscrew I see lots of birds, flowers, and an alligator or two. There are spiders, and snakes, bugs, and other little critters that scamper through the cypress swamp.

At first it seemed that the swamp was very quiet. There were few birds nearby, although I could hear them, and saw several fly overhead. I closed my eyes to listen to the variety of sounds throughout the quiet place. Slowly I was able to distinguish the different calls, chirps, and sounds of the swamp. The animals were there, but apparently it's when it's drier that they tend to congregate more in one place. When there is more water, there are more places for life to spread out. And with the plant growth, there were more places to hide.

I have an acquaintance who claims to abhor nature. I'm not sure what that means. Nature is all around us, even in cities. But we tend to ignore it in the everyday. I went to the swamp expecting nature to put on a show for me, to present its colorful panorama for my enjoyment. But life is not like that.

The natural world exists without regard for us. Too often we exist without regard for the it. Close your eyes today for a few minutes and listen to the sounds around you. Open your eyes today and see what is there. If we did this more often, if we were more aware of and had more respect for the cycles of life that go on without us, then I think there would be less need to teach (or preach) about the care of the environment and our unwitting and sometimes selfish impact upon it.

Here are a few of the photos I took last week, at the swamp and at the shore:

15 October 2007

The purpose of a fairy tale

Found a link on BookSlut to an article in The Guardian by Neil Gaiman on writing fairy tales:

The book came out, first in illustrated and then in unillustrated form. There seemed to be a general consensus that it was the most inconsequential of my novels. Fantasy fans, for example, wanted it to be an epic, which it took enormous pleasure in not being. Shortly after it was published, I wound up defending it to a journalist who had loved my previous novel, Neverwhere, particularly its social allegories. He had turned Stardust upside down and shaken it, looking for social allegories, and found absolutely nothing of any good purpose.

"What's it for?" he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.

"It's a fairytale," I told him. "It's like an ice cream. It's to make you feel happy when you finish it."

I haven't read Stardust, but any book, described by it's author as 'like ice cream' is deliciously tempting. The entire article here.

14 October 2007

How to spend the afternoon not reading either of two books you can't put down....

Thinking that I'd finish one book (Alan Bennett's wonderfully delightful novella, The Uncommon Reader) and then get back to Ian McEwan's Atonement which is just getting to the 'can't put down stage' as I know it's approaching the ugliness of humans bit that McEwan is so good at writing, I thought I'd let my college-age son drive back to school as I read. He had borrowed my car while I was on vacation.

Just a few miles onto the interstate, far enough to get past the city speed limits, he states:

I wouldn't have bought this car. There's a lot that I don't like about it. He proceeded with a long list of ridiculous issues that surely are more important to college-aged freshman males than they are to their mothers. Little 'issues' like the staid color navy blue, the crappy factory-installed stereo with no mp3 player, the lack of power seats, the funky day-glo indigo color of the dashboard lights (which I have to agree is weird but I didn't test drive it at night) or the ridiculous expense -- given their relative safety value -- of side-curtain air bags. This last comment, I'm sure, was a test to see if I was listening. It was only a lead-in for the next comment, one that was too good to have been sacrificed to a book:

But it does handle nicely on the road. Why, when I took a road trip to St Louis last weekend, I was amazed how you can get over 100mph before you even know it! The car doesn't even shake until you're way past that.

Good German engineering. I said, trying to mask a "Pull over this second! You're never driving one of my cars again! Ever!" tone of voice that was combined with a rising sense of panic as I noticed that we were sandwiched between two semis with little breathing space.

Silently, I cursed that my reading glasses didn't allow me to see the speedometer from the passenger side seat. Couldn't decide for the next 60 miles if reading was a distraction from the certainty of imminent highway disaster, or if it only made the quick glances from page to pavement more agonizing.

I'm grateful that Freshman aren't allowed vehicles on campus at Big 10 Engineering school with a train for its mascot. And I'm happy that it only took my dear son three days and two parking tickets to realize that having to move a car parked on city streets every day was more hassle than it was worth.

Back to work tomorrow and, sadly, back to reduced reading time. Ah! if only vacations could be the routine, and I could always spend my afternoons reading and my evenings taking pictures like this from boats at dock or at sea:

12 October 2007


I'm a failure at blog challenges. And I don't care that I am.

Last year, when I started blogging (and blogged regularly, unlike this year...but that's another post) I was intrigued about the idea of a 'challenge'. Just trying to read books instead of flat-lining in front of the tv each evening was a challenge to me, but I was curious about this idea of a group of bloggers reading a certain type of book. So I signed up for several challenges and group blogs.

And then failed to keep up with the required reading. Oh I had some 'good' excuses -- behaviors that should have been seen as likely to fail. Like deciding to read The Red and the Black -- in French! I had neglected to apply my weight rule of selecting books (a direct inverse relationship between the weight & portability of a book to the likelihood of my reading it) to the LaRousse's French-English Dictionary, a necessary accompaniment. Don't think I made it past page 50.

Or thinking that I'd read War & Peace, but wanting the paperback version of the Briggs translation not yet available in the US. I carried the copy I picked up in Waterstone's throughout England and then on to Italy. Had I traveled home 2 days later, I wouldn't have been able to bring it on the plane due to the terrorist threats, but it wouldn't have mattered in the long run -- I still haven't read it!

Or last year's RIP Challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. That was a challenge that I thought would be challenging since I don't read horror, Gothic novels or fantasy. I thought it would be good to 'stretch' my reading repertoire. I rushed out to the half-priced store and bought 7 books: Hawthorne's The Fall of the House of Usher, a collection of Poe's stories, James' The Turn of the Screw, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, the short stories of Washington Irving. Like in the original lyrics to The Ballad of Gilligan's Isle, I'll have to add '...and the rest' as I don't recall the last two and I'm not near my bookcases to confirm the titles.

I even wrote a post about "the other side" and my expectations for this foray into works of the creepy, crawly and spooky:
I once heard anxiety described as "fear stretched thin". Anxiety is fear's half-sibling, twilight to fear's night. It bears similar characteristics, a familial resemblance, a safer variety like a quickly moving stream that you think you can surely navigate although you know there is a slight possibility that you might slip and fall into the unswimable rapids. It is the feeling, rather than the knowledge, that fear is around the next bend of the road, on the other side, waiting for us to cross the center line.

I read Hawthorne's work for about 20 minutes or until I fell asleep, whichever came first. I started to re-read The Turn of the Screw and initially was surprised that I liked it. I had hated it when it was required reading in college course and have avoided James ever since (I've been told that is unfortunate, but I have yet to be convinced.) I loved reading Neverwhere and now wonder if I had already started it when I wrote the post I referenced above because I mentioned the Underground station. And one of the best short stories I read last year was Irving's The Devil and Tom Walker. I don't understand how I missed being given this wonderful story to read in school (though the portrayal of the shrewish wife is a bit politically incorrect, to say the least!)

But, participating in the challenge? I didn't post about one of them! The closest I came was a blog entry, saved in draft form, with the words in the body "Irving. Devil. Tom Walker & his shrewish wife" Obviously, my notes to myself served no purpose as I probably didn't read them again until today!

So, this year I've stayed away from reading challenges although many have tempted me, and some have even lead me to consider works I might not have considered otherwise. I easily could have participated in the Non-fiction Challenge, as I've read mostly non-fiction this year. At least I met the reading portion of the challenge, if not the blogging portion. And I've probably met at least a portion of the requirements for a few other challenges.

I started this post thinking I'd write about a book I just finished reading that is indirectly tied to last year's RIP challenge. If it hadn't been for Carl, I probably would not have picked up Coraline or anything else by Neil Gaiman. But this post became something other than I intended. And I'm loosing steam with my writing: it's closing in on the dinner hour and the beach is 10 feet from my doorstep and I think I need to go for a walk. So, maybe I'll write about Coraline another day. But, in case I don't, I'll write this: it's a fairy tale and a horror story, not just for kids despite it being marketed as such, and is a great way to pass any afternoon reading. I'd recommend it, whether for a reading challenge or not. It would probably be a great story to read to your children, especially during this season of the creepy, the crawly and the spooky.

11 October 2007

On reading that Lessing has won the Nobel Prize

Doris Lessing is one of those writers of whom I always feel that I should have read more. I've only read one of her short stories and it instantly comes to mind when I hear her name.

Our Friend Judith is commonly anthologized. My first reading of it was in the text used for an Intro to Lit class I taught as a grad student. I had never read anything by Lessing at the time but I was not unfamiliar, if perplexed, with her reputation. In my undergraduate classes, she was praised by professors in Women's Studies classes, and merely mentioned by professors in Literature classes. "Oh yes, Lessing. Well, the feminists seem to like her a lot".

My first reading of the short story was, therefore, influenced by these comments. In retrospect, I'm not sure that I ever had a professor mention Lessing that had actually read her work. The syllabus was mandated; Our Friend Judith was for the unit discussing character and an unreliable narrator. It is a good story to teach these concepts.

Naive readers will state that the story is about nothing much, except for an old spinster who gets upset about a cat. When I was teaching this story (in the mid-80's), some students might state that the story is about a woman who is independent and her friends who are envious that she is. Some would have picked up on a 'feminist' twist to this story, perhaps because they had run to the library to read criticism in order to sound as if they knew what they were talking about. But few realized from the first reading that the story was more about the busybody narrator and her gossiping friend Betty than it was about Judith.

I reread this story the morning after reading that Lessing won the Nobel Prize. Twenty-odd years after reading it for the first time, I still like it and I am still admiring of the structure of this story. Maybe some day I'll read more of Lessing's work. Maybe it is similar to this brief story. Maybe then I'll understand if there is a reason --other than the blatant sexism of my 70's era Literature professors --for their comments.

10 October 2007

If I Lived on this street....

.... I would have to smile every time I looked up at the building with these wonderful creatures:

But would I notice them every day? How many times have I walked by these and not noticed them? Do they tell me the true character of the building? Do they reveal or mask the likely lives of those that live in the building or those who pass by each day?

A few weeks ago I had a car service pick me up at the airport. It was the same service I use frequently. Yet, had I never used them before, my impression would have been that they weren't very good. The driver was late. He went to the wrong terminal. He complained. He drove without his seatbelt, the alarm buzzing seeming only to irritate me. It was the dirtiest limo I have ever been in. I told him to take the Queensboro to Westside Highway to Canal and the Holland Tunnel. He insisted he take the BQE to the Midtown Tunnel, across Midtown to the Lincoln. I rolled my eyes as we merged onto the BQE and I spied the worse mid-morning traffic jam I'd ever seen in New York.

But, he did know to get off the expressway and take city streets to get me to my destination on time. I saw a part of Queens I probably never would have been in. "What a different city than Manhattan" I thought. Later, after I arrived at my meeting (on time!) I marveled at his bizarre brilliance in taking a most unlikely route: through several sidestreets in Queens to 59th Street Bridge (for all of you readers over 45 who remember the tune....hum a few bars of the Simon & Garfunkle song and feel groovy), north a few blocks, then east to FDR, past drab Lower East side buildings and past the skyscrapers in the Financial District, south to the very end of Lower Manhattan, through funky Tribeca, and then north on West Side Canal and the Holland. The quickest LAG to NJ trip I've ever made! Sometimes the quickest route is not a straight line between two points.

So what do apartment-building statues that look like the offspring of gargoyles on the Gothic-styled cathedral around the corner, an old song from the 60's, and a dirty car/effective driver have to do with anything other than they all made me smile in a small way on the same day? And what does this have to do with books? (Yes, books... this is a quasi-book blog so this lazy blogger should talk about them sometime!) Well, they all seemed to fit with the book I was reading the same week -- Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

One gives nothing away to say that Invisible Cities is about Marco Polo explaining cities he has visited to Kubla Kahn. And one doesn't divulge a plot spoiler by saying that all of the cities described are the same place. Kubla Kahn knows Marco's deceit, and he plays along with the game, even describing his own cities, pointing out the obvious features that Marco has overlooked. It doesn't even matter that the city is Venice -- Venice, Italy, or Venice, California, or Venice, Florida, or some Venice that only exists in your mind. Or that it is in the 11th century, or the 16th, or some century yet to come.

The chapter titles bemuse and bewilder: "Cities and Memory", "Cities and Desire", "Cities and Signs". "Thin Cities". "Trading Cities". "Cities and Names". "Cities and Eyes". "Cities and the Dead". "Cities and the Sky". "Hidden cities". "Continuous cities" . . . . All describe a city that once existed, or never existed, or exists now and will exist in the future.

I can't tell you any more about the book without it sounding like a dry compendium of cities and their social ills. I can only tell you that it is a truthful description of a place that is familiar and people you know even if you've never met them. I can only tell you that it should bring a smile to your face or a tear to your eye. It might make you think that you'll pay closer attention to your city the next time you take a walk, or drive, or hurry somewhere. It might make you look for the city that was and the city that is and the city that might be, if only on maps in your imagination.

09 October 2007

Of Islands and Oranges

My job took me to this island, the island of the City Like No Other, many times over the last 6 months:

As much as I love New York, I was more than ready to spend some time on a different type of island:

When I logged into Blogger this morning, I was surprised to realize just how long it had been since I posted to this blog. I composed dozens of vignettes this summer, mentally thought of writing about different scenes, sights, sounds and smells in NYC, but few have made it to paper and none have been posted here. Perhaps they will be posted in the future.

For now, I'm enjoying my time at the beach, listening to the surf pound, the birds squawk, and the occasional squeal with delight as the waves break around a child's ankles; feeling the warmth of the sun absorbed by the sand as I walk at the shoreline, watching the coral and pink skies at sunset, eating fresh seafood, drinking fresh squeezed orange juice, and -- what else? -- reading!

On impulse the other day, I picked up a copy of John McPhee's Oranges. How many books can you think of that are categorized as both 'Food' and 'Literature', as this one is?

Oranges is a thoroughly delightful work of non-fiction that seemingly describes all there is to know about the luscious orange (at least at the time it was published in 1967): where they came from and how the introduction around the globe of this succulent, sweet fruit has followed the courses of history; how oranges have inspired poetry and wars and been used as religious symbols in art and influenced architecture (think orangeries); how they have have been coveted as objects of beauty; how crop failures due to insects and freezing weather have wrecked havoc on the economy of towns; how the engineering inventions to make concentrated orange juice almost destroyed the market for the fresh fruit, and how an adequate mechanical means for harvesting had yet to be invented. After finishing the book this afternoon, I read a bit on the web on oranges. Consumption of oranges has decreased in the last few years. The acreage of orange groves has decreased since McPhee wrote his book 40 years ago although the number of trees and yields per acre have increased. Brazil -- the originating place of the navel orange -- is now the leader in orange exports, exporting almost twice as many as the US. But, apparently, oranges are still hand-picked in the field, a difficult task described by McPhee when he profiled the 'Orange Men' of the Florida groves.

One curiosity spawned by this book is the origin of the word orange. McPhee writes about the origin of the English word, evolving from the Sanskrit, then likely, after many linguistic transformations, being confused with the Provencal place name for the town that eventually became known as 'Orange'. In many parts of the world, there are two words for oranges, differentiating between sour oranges (like the blood oranges of Seville that are so delicious in marmalade) and sweet oranges. Sweet oranges in many languages are known as "portugals" because they were developed in that country. But -- and this is my curiosity -- what about the derivations of the word for the color orange? The fruit can be a range of colors. The word orange to represent the color wasn't used until the mid-1500's. In Thailand, oranges are as green as limes. Yet, the Thai word sohm is used for both the fruit and the color.

Did Western Europeans have a word for the color orange before oranges were brought to Spain by the Arabs in the 12th century? Or did they need to invent a word for the color of the fruit that grew in the luxurious gardens of the Alhambra? Apricot, bittersweet, coral, peach, red-yellow, salmon, tangerine, titian are all listed as synonyms for the color orange. Three of them, interestingly, are names for other types of fruit. In some languages (e.g., Dutch, German, Russian) the word for orange has a similar origin to the word for apple, as oranges were once called 'Chinese apples' by the Romans. As different as apples and oranges: whether fruit or hue, they are very different things on my mental map.

I started to read McPhee's In Suspect Terrain about 15 or 20 years ago. I never finished the book, although sometimes, when I travel through northern Indiana and southern Michigan, I think about the theoretical existence of undiscovered deposits of diamond pipes under the Great Lakes that I learned about from McPhee's book. After reading Oranges I think that I will read other books by McPhee. Looking to read "Literary" nonfiction? McPhee would be a good choice.