Pages

Showing posts with label Nonfiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nonfiction. Show all posts

25 November 2008

New Books in My House

A box was left at the usual dropoff point, the place on the front walkway near the edge of the drive that looks like a front porch only to the driver of the big brown truck. I'd been looking for it for a few days, my latest order from Amazon.

It's an interesting collection of books, three books that have nothing to do with one another, that might appear to not have been ordered for the same reader.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan, is a book I heard about on NPR when it was published a few years ago. It sounded like a interesting book but I never got around to ordering it. I thought of this book as recently as a few months ago -- I even remembered its name -- although I have no idea what caused the title of this book to drift across my brain. So, when I heard The Lemon Trees was the next title for one of my book clubs, I thought If only it was the same book.... This is not the type of book that we usually read, and the selections recently have been rather lightweight. When I went to order it, I was surprised to find that it was exactly the book I had heard reviewed previously.

The second book is for another book discussion group, and it, too, is unusual for this group. The Lemon Tree because it is non-fiction and somewhat serious might be an appropriate book for this second group. But, what are we reading for December? I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw the email: Anne Rice's Christ the Lord Out of Egypt. I almost didn't buy it, but decided I was being too much of a snob. I have so many preconceived ideas about this book and am convinced that I will hate it. I decided I wouldn't spend more than $10. It was .20 cents over and I needed the extra to qualify for free shipping (so I could have it arrive on time, in the middle of the yard, in the rain...). The book was stuffed into the box in a way that crumpled the cover. Even though it is a book that I'm not too excited to have, I wasn't happy at the packaging. I read the first chapter. It is about what I expected and don't know that I'll make it through the entire 337 pages, but I'll try to keep an open mind. Blahhhhh!

The third book, and the one that I was most eager to arrive, is Sandi Shelton's Kissing Games of the World. I've been reading Sandi's blog for awhile now and I always find it worth my time to stop by to read her posts. BlogLily recently wrote a review of it that prompted me to click open another browser window immediately and order Sandi's book. I read the first chapter this evening and knew that if I didn't put it down, I would stay up all night reading it. Unfortunately, I have to work tomorrow, so it will have to rest until tomorrow night, when I can start to read it while doing some preparatory baking for Thanksgiving.

It struck me after I leafed through the opening pages of each of these books, that I have one book that is about a historical figure, but is completely a work of fiction as there is no historical record for when Jesus of Nazareth was seven years old, one work of fiction, that, in the first few pages, grabs you with very real characters, and one non-fiction book that tells the stories of several people, who in telling their stories, are conducting a very real political act.

21 July 2008

Summertime, Ponds, Reflections

Over the weekend, we celebrated a friend's birthday by attending Symphony on the Prairie, the annual summer offerings of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, performed at Connor Prairie Farm, a living history museum. Like most summer outdoor symphony concerts, this series is mostly pops, with a little classical music. It is a very casual atmosphere, with picnic baskets, fireworks, and a few mosquitoes. My music purist spouse doesn't care too much for outdoor concerts; he doesn't like it that the crickets don't pay attention to the conductor. Me? For an occasional summer evening, I find it a relaxing way to spend a few hours with friends.

In browsing through the program, before the lights went down (that'd be the sun), I found two quotes about summer, both that I have read previously, but was delighted to come across again:

"Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." -- Edith Wharton

"In summer, the song sings itself!" -- William Carlos Williams

I complain too much in the summer about the heat. Where I live, if the temperature edges past 80-85, you can safely bet that the humidity will be over 90%. There is no such thing as 'dry heat' in the Midwest. Yet, the longer hours of daylight, the flowering gardens, even the occasional pesky mosquito, seem to inspire a slower pace. Despite the heat, I do like summer. "Summer afternoon" are two beautiful words, especially if they are lazy summer afternoons where all obligations are put aside for at least a little while so you can hear summer sing.


I picked up a book today that has languished on my bookshelf for about a year, Philip Gulley's Porch Talk. It is a collection of essays by Gulley, a Quaker minister, who writes in a humorous, down home style. I first read Gulley for a book discussion group a few years ago, and was prepared to detest him. I was sure that it would be overly sentimental drivel at best, or worse: sermonizing. But, what I found is that while his Quaker philosophy infuses every page of his essays, his essays are not chances to preach, but opportunities to brighten up corners of the world, in spite of the darkness that may be there. Sometimes his essays are not those kinds of enlightening opportunities, but just a few pages that will make you laugh.

In "Pond Life", Gulley writes about his desire to bring a little bit of the natural world to his yard by building a pond. As a pond owner, I could predict the direction this essay would take, so I began reading with a smile in place.

'Let's build a pond', I suggested to Joan. 'We could fill it with fish and water lilies and have a little waterfall and listen to the gurgle of water. It would be just like living beside a mountain stream.
...
We read a book about goldfish and koi and how not to kill them, then spent a tidy sum of money buying a dozen fish to stock our pond. We followed the book precisely, gradually acclimating the fish to our pond, fine-tuning the pH balance to provide the optimum environment. The third morning, Sam rushed in the house to share the happy news that our fish knew how to swim on their backs. The second bunch of fish lasted nearly a week before a wandering herd of raccoons eviscerated them. The fish that replaced them died of a gruesome fungus, and the batch after them was a midnight snack for a great blue heron
-- pp 29-30, Porch Talk: Stories of decency, common sense, and other endangered species, 2007

I remember our first fish. As I was trying to empty the bag of water & fish into the pond, I dropped it. One fish flew through the air and smacked its head on rock. The other flipped onto the driveway and was washed downhill by the accompanying water. Both survived for a few seasons, but, that first day, after the gentle sedative, placed in the water for the trip home, wore off, I'm sure they wondered what sort of partying they had done the night before. I still have a few of my original fish, although the koi, which had grown from about two inches to 12 after 4 years, went fins up during a particularly cold snowstorm last year. Looking in the pond the other day I noticed there there were some fry; two little gold guys flitting around between the rushes, trying to stay hidden and out of the way of the big fish while still grabbing at pieces of food floating on the water.

We've seen animal tracks on the ice in the winter, leading directly to the air hole in the ice. Blue herons live nearby and I'm sure that they and other fisher-birds have enjoyed sushi served from my pond. We've fought string algae by floating pantyhose filled with straw in the filters, rigged strange apparatus with netting to capture leaves in autumn, and have tried to figure out sources of leaks. Still, I find it pleasurable to sit on the porch, or near an open window, to hear the water gurgle down the stream into the pond. I've often thought that tinkering with the rocks lining the stream must be similar to maintaining a zen garden; each movement of rock alters not only the flow of the water, but the sound as the water cascades over the small waterfall. That sound fills the space around you and quiets a busy brain.


Gulley jokes about the work of maintaining a pond, but he also writes about the emotions that the pond evokes. His pond reminds him of summer days as a child spent near a pond with his best friend. But it also reminds him of the death of his friend and the possibilities that died with him.

Sometimes, while sitting by my pond, I think of Tim and our pond life. I think of the wife he never married, the children he never had, and it occurs to me that, although some things (houses, fields, lakes) diminish over time, other things (loss, grief, the heartbreak of lives cut short) do not. There is much good to recollect while seated by my pond, and much sorrow too, and sometimes they are one and the same. pp. 34.

Gulley writes about ponds, tooth fairies, life, death -- even taxes. His essays are quick little bites of reflection. I think I'll keep Porch Talk on my desk for awhile so that I can quickly sample an essay whenever I need a five-minute respite from workday worries. I think it may be similar to listening to my pond.

15 July 2008

Into the Wild (Follow up for LitLove)

In the comments on this post regarding Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Litlove wrote:

That's a very interesting review, Cam, on what is clearly an engaging book. For some reason I was most intrigued by your comment that the mistakes Krakauer made weren't important, unless in a theoretical discussion of truth and veracity in biography. I found that an interesting thing to say about a work of non-fiction, and biography in particular where extracting the 'truth' of the situation is supposed to be paramount. I wondered if you might say a bit more about why the inaccuracies didn't matter?

I understand why one would question why I didn't think that alleged mistakes by Krakauer were important. So, at Litlove's request, I will expand on that thought.

First, I think that truthfulness and factualness is important in biography and memoir. There have been several uproars in recent years regarding some authors bending of the truth in order to make a memoir more interesting. In some cases, what was presented as facts were so stretched as to be yarns completely woven from whole cloth. It probably isn't even necessary to mention specifically James Frey's Million Little Pieces as an example, so loud werer the outcries over the fabrications in that book. A Million Little Pieces spawned a million comments over the internets and other media, and I don't intend to delve into that topic here, other than to state that I do think that it is important to report facts as accurately as possible, although I realize my previous comment may lead one to assume that I don't think it is necessary, except in a theoretical way.

However, the issue that I have is with some commentaries that I read (after reading the book, and, unfortunately, I didn't save links or references to quotes), which suggested that Krakauer was sloppy in his conclusions regarding the death of Chris McCandless. McCandless died of starvation after living in solitude in the Alaskan wilderness for over 100 days. Some believe that he accidentally ate too many of the mildly toxic seeds of the wild potato plant, or had carelessly mistook the similar-looking but more highly toxic wild sweet pea as being the edible wild potato. Krakauer suggests that it was a mold that grew upon the seeds that he ate, rather than the seeds that brought about a metabolic condition that allowed the weakened McCandless to starve.

Is Krakauer stretching here to make his conclusions about McCandless hold true? Perhaps one could argue that. However, I think his discussion of the actual causes of McCandless' death would not weaken his argument if excluded. If anything, Krakauer's lingering questions about the death support that argument that Krakauer was determined to figure out the why of Chris' death, more than the how. One of the ideas countering the McCandless myth is that he had a deathwish and went into the wilderness to die. Krakauer's work doesn't support this idea of a suicidal journey; it earnestly tries to defend the opposite.

But, little is known about the days McCandless spent in the wilderness. He had no contact with any other human being, and left only scanty notes and a few photographs. Any story about his life in the Alaskan wilderness would have huge gaps without some suppositions. The root cause of his death will remain a mystery. His mental state and his intentions for going into the wild will never be known.

Why do I think that it doesn't matter? As I wrote in my first post, I think this book is as much about Krakauer as it is about McCandless and other young adventurers like them. Krakauer makes no attempt to hide his involvement in this story. Although he never met Chris McCandless, he felt a strong affinity for him, felt that they were driven by similar motivations. Krakauer even devotes two chapters in the book to his own adventure attempting a solo climb of a mountain known as The Devil's Thumb. He uses these chapters to draw parallels between his life and desires and McCandless.

I knew that people sometimes died climbing mountains. But at the age of twenty-three, personal mortality -- the idea of my own death -- was still largely outside my conceptual grasp. When I decamped from Boulder for Alaska, my head swimming with visions of glory and redemption on the Devils Thumb, it didn't occur to me that I might be bound by the same cause-and-effect relationships that governed the actions of others. Because I wanted to climb the mountain so badly, because I had thought about the thumb so intensely for so long, it seemed beyond the realm of possibility that some minor obstacle like the weather or crevasses or rime-covered rock might ultimately thwart my will.
. . .
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate the mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.

As a young man, I was unlike McCandless in many important regards; most notably, I possessed neither his intellect nor his lofty ideals. But I believe we were similarly affected by the skewed relationships we had with our fathers. And I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul.

The fact that I survived my Alaska adventure and McCandless did not survive his was largely a matter of chance; had I not returned from the Stikine Ice Cap in 1977, people would have been quick to say of me -- as they now say of him -- that I had a death wish. Eighteen years after the event, I now recognize that I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and an appalling innocence, certainly; but I wasn't suicidal.

At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn't yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who'd entrusted the deceased with their hearts. I was stirred by the dark mystery of mortality. I couldn't resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman's sex.

In my case -- and, I believe, in the case of Chris McCandless -- that was a very different thing from wanting to die.

--Into the Wild Chap 15, p151, 155-6.

I think these paragraphs are at the heart of this book. It is the desire, the compelling urge, to "steal up to the edge of doom and peer over the brink" that is central to this book, not the medical reasons why McCandless perished by starvation.

13 July 2008

Reading Notes: Into the Wild

Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer, Villard Books, 1996, 207 pp.

Recently, I was thinking about how to answer the question: What type of non-fiction books do you like to read? My initial response was: The kind just like Into the Wild, which I had just completed, although I had to ponder what exactly that type was. In a few adjectives: riveting, novelistic, informative, thought-provoking. Perhaps thought-provoking is the most important. And, like a good novel, the characters have stuck with me for several days after finishing the book. Why were people so taken with Chris McCandless? What motivated McCandless? What did McCandless really learn on his journey into the Alaskan wild? Is there some American ideal that grabs hold of people and drives them to search out the yet unexplored areas of our world, or is it a desire to grapple with living on a precipice of death? Furthermore, while Krakauer has a point of view, I wondered about that perspective, questioning how much of Krakauer's work is about him, how much was supposition, how much was really about McCandless.

I have not seen the Sean Penn produced movie adaptation of this book, nor had I heard of McCandless, the 20-something college graduate who gave away his money and, after being a vagabond for a few years, literally walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness where he died a few months later. I also didn't read the introduction before I read the book, in which Krakauer writes that he was so taken by this story that "a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy [was] impossible". No small wonder, then, that I thought several times -- even before I read Krakauer's account of his trying to climb Devil's Thumb in Alaska as a young man -- that this book was as much about McCandless as it was about Krakauer and, perhaps, all who are called to test their mettle in the wilderness while questing for some sort of personal or spiritual truth.

Krakauer provides insight into McCandless' character in chapters that deal with his family, his two year trek across the American West, and through interviews with people who knew McCandless in school as well as after he gave away all of his belongings, renounced his family and began using the name 'Alexander' as he roamed around the West. There are also chapters about others who have mysteriously left civilized society to live in wilderness areas, whether desert or tundra, who like McCandless eschewed the trappings of wealth, who sought a transcendental-like experience. They left to find themselves; in some cases they did. Some died doing so.

McCandless was taken with Thoreau, with Tolstoy, and, according to Krakauer, Louis L'Amour's portrait of the West. Krakauer touches upon McCandless unhappiness with his family, and, while he suggests that one cause was McCandless' judgmental assessment of his parents' relationship , which began as an adulterous affair, he ultimately doesn't discover why McCandless was so harsh in his assessment of his parents' life and material success. Several of the people that McCandless spent time with during his journeys are described in the book. All of them told Krakauer how smart McCandless was, how caring, and how much they cared about him. But, none seemed to be able to pinpoint why. Two of them even said that they lost their faith (in mankind, in a God) because of Chris' death. That is a powerful influence and it remains a mystery to me, after reading this book, why.

Krakauer devotes a chapter in this book to his obsessive -- and almost deadly -- quest to climb a formidable mountain in Alaska when he was in his early 20's. Despite the odds and the undeniable fact that nobody had been able to traverse the face he wanted to climb, he was convinced that he could do so -- and that he must. In his attempt he came face-to-face with the very real possibility that his situation was precarious, that he not only would he not be able to successfully climb Devil's Thumb, but also that he might die in the attempt. Even if he returned safely to his base camp, he knew that a few errors might have meant that he would not be rescued before he succumbed to hypothermia.

Krakauer's belief is that McCandless was not intent on suicide and that his death was neither a result of stupidity or careless denial of the dangers that he faced. Rather, he writes that McCandless made a few seemingly minor errors that cost him his life. Had he done a few things differently, he would have walked out of the Alaskan wilderness and had stories to tell.

But, would Christopher 'Alex' McCandless have done anything other than tell engaging stories of his escapades living alone for 4 months? Would he have laughed death in the face? Would he be a hero for having done so? Or, would there still be those who would think that he was a fool for taking the risks that he did? Would some think him mentally unstable for having done so? Perhaps he would have walked back into the woods at a later time and made the same mistakes that led to his starvation in a place so remote that there were none to help him.

Since completing Krakauer's book, I read that Krakauer was incorrect with some of his facts and conclusions about McCandless' death. I'm not sure that matters, other than in a theoretical discussion of veracity in memoir and biography. I've also read that McCandless' wilderness shelter -- an abandoned Fairbanks city bus -- has become something of a tourist mecca. Even more than I don't understand McCandless' motivations, I do not understand why some would want to venture into the wild on the Stampede Trail to see a rusted bus where a young man died.

I find Krakauer's description of McCandless and other rogue adventurers interesting to read, but I wish that there were clearer answers as to what he was searching for. I'm not sure that Krakauer knows either, and maybe that is the point. I understand the desire to go live in the woods beside a pond, but, ultimately, the pond can be as inprisioning as society. I don't think that Chris McCandless was a hero, and I don't think that he was courageous for living on his own in the wilderness. Nor do I think that he was a fool for doing so. To be able to confront our demons is the thing that is courageous. I'm not sure that it takes solitude in the wilderness, living on the edge of survivability, to contemplate one's life and come to terms with one's values. I think it is just easier to not consider those things when you don't disrupt the status quo.

I wonder what McCandless would say about those who have made him into a hero. I think he would think that it is bullshit. But, I also wonder if he realized that to live with people one needs to forgive them their shortcomings. Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. If he was an avid reader of Tolstoy I wonder what he thought of the opening line of Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"

Like the happy families in that famous opening line, McCandless remains an enigma.

06 July 2008

Reading Notes

Off the Deep End, W. Hodding Carter, Alqonquin Books, 2008, (Advanced Reading Copy).

I received this ARC back in April as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. The description of the book sounding interesting: middle-aged man decides to train for the Olympic Swim team, in part as a way "through a midlife crisis". When the book arrived, there was a note that one chapter was missing and would be send later. The book was published 2 weeks ago, but I haven't received the pages yet. Since the Olympic swim trials were this week, I decided to read this without the remaining pages. I'm not sure what has been left out -- given the publication date, it doesn't seem likely to have been an epilogue stating whether Carter made the Olympic team -- but I'm not sure that the book would seem any more complete had the absent chapter been included.

This book is very uneven: there doesn't seem to be a coherent arrangement to the chapters and the timeline is unclear. Some of the chapters were published previously. Those that haven't been appear less polished. I realize that this is an ARC, but it seems to me that more substantial editing would need to happen. I'm not involved in publishing, but I always thought that ARCs were 'almost ready' for publication and that any substantive editing would have already occurred. Perhaps I'm wrong with this book.

Carter adopts a self-deprecating sense of humor in this book, but the book doesn't seem to have an overall consistent tone. The result of the humor, then, reads more like arrogance than self-deprecation. I think that Carter wants the reader to see that he did have a certain amount of arrogance to think that he even had a chance to make the Olympic team, but I was left wondering if that really was his point. The approach of the book is also unclear: parts of it are memoir, parts training guide, parts sports travelogue when he writes about swimming from one Virgin Island to the next, or participating in an 8 hour swim around Manhattan. The audience isn't clear. Is he writing to swimmers? If so, then he shouldn't have included some of the explications about the sport (pool size, standards, etc.). But, if he wasn't intending to target swim enthusiasts, why did he go into such detail (and assumptions) about certain swim personalities, not just on an Olympic level that a casual observer of the sport might know, but on the regional Masters level.

Overall, I found the book disappointing. It could have been so much more. Carter did not qualify for the Olympic Swim Trials. Despite the flaws of the book, I wish that he had. Along with Dara Torres, it would have been quite the story for 2 40-something swimmers to leave younger contenders in their wake.

18 November 2007

Sunday odds and ends

Today was a quiet day. Spent much of it reading an ARC (via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program), Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited. I started to read this a few months ago, but set it aside. The authors, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein were interviewed on the Today Show yesterday. I only caught the last few sentences of the interview, but it reminded me that I hadn't finished the book.

I'm the child of an identical twin and can attest to many of the odd similarities between twin siblings. At the same time, I realize that there could have been no mistaking either for the other except during a quick glance. They were alike, but could be so different and distinct. So, I thought that I'd find this book interesting.

There are those sorts of twin oddities throughout the book. And, as you read Schein's and Bernstein's book, it's hard not to understand both the curiosity and the anxiety that must come from finding out as an adult that you have a twin. The book is written in diary form, alternating between twins. While this does give the reader a sense of reading both sides of the story, I found it confusing after awhile. The voice of both authors is too similar. At the same time, that similarity is an oddity -- is it because they are twins? I have a few more chapters to finish the book. I'll have to think for awhile whether this ultimately takes away or adds to the the work.

-----Other things----

- It has turned cold here this week, and despite some rain, the leaves are still on the trees. It has been a pretty fall. In the last few days I've seen a few trees that have more than one color leaf on them. I took the photograph below at a school near my home. Green, yellow, gold, orange, red, gold, and purple leaves were all on the same tree. I'm not sure that the picture does the tree's glorious color scheme justice. This is the first year that I remember seeing multi-colored trees, like this one. Maybe it has to do with the milder weather we've had recently.

- For the second time in less than a week, someone has recommended the book Three Cups of Tea. I think I will need to go to the store tomorrow to find this one. Repeat recommendations always prompt me to consider buying the book (unless it's something like The Davinci Code).

- Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Here is all I need to know about cooking a turkey: I am the middle daughter of a large family; I have plenty of sisters who will dry out a large bird in the oven for hours. I don't need to know how to carve either. I'm not bringing pies this year. I'm responsible for sweet potatoes. Not the mushy, sickening sweet marshmallow-y kind. I have three recipes to choose from:

1) sliced sweet potatoes with a lemon glaze. Good mixture of sweet and sour.

2) sliced and baked with apples, cranberries and pecans, topped with a small amount of cinnamon and brown sugar. If I feel exotic, I'll have a little bit of nutmeg and cloves too. Walnuts or pecans are optional -- which means I usually forget to add them to the baking dish.

3) baked, then mashed with cilantro and butter.

I like #3 the best, but I think #2 is best for the company on Thursday.

- Someone I used to be friends with recently published a first novel. I'm pleased for her for accomplishing her goal. And a bit jealous too. I hope that I'm not one of the evil characters in the book -- or a dead corpse.

- Philosopher Henri Frederick Amiel said: Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind..

- Maybe it is time that I make amends and call my old friend to congratulate her on her book.

- The blogging roundtable should be posted in 1 - 2 days. Please check back for some lively discussion by some interesting bloggers: Litlove, Imani, Emily & Smithereens.

13 November 2007

$1/Day, Child-headed Households, 28 Million, A Continent Dying....Don't Look Away: Part II

I wrote yesterday that I would post a list of books about global poverty, the UN Millennium Development Goals, and Africa. These are books that I have read or am in process of reading. There is much more information out there. Reviews are from Amazon's web pages (linked).

On global poverty:

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Times Jeffrey Sachs, Penguin, 2005.

From Publishers Weekly:
Over 18 chapters, Sachs builds his case carefully, offering a variety of case studies, detailing small-scale projects that have worked and crunching large amounts of data. His basic argument is that "[W]hen the preconditions of basic infrastructure (roads, power, and ports) and human capital (health and education) are in place, markets are powerful engines of development." In order to tread "the path to peace and prosperity," Sachs believes it is encumbant upon successful market economies to bring the few areas of the world that still need help onto "the ladder of development." If there is any one work to put extreme poverty back onto the global agenda, this is it. (Mar 21).

Ending Global Poverty: A Guide to What Works, Stephen C. Smith, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005,

"We have an opportunity, in this generation, to reduce global poverty, both through acts of charity and by working as citizens to influence public policy. Stephen Smith offers reliable information, stories of success, and good advice on how to get personally involved in this important fight. Read it, and then take action. " --David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World



What One Person Can Do, Sabina Alkire, Church Publishing, 2005.

What Can One Person Do? confronts a poverty-stricken world, and with clarity of purpose offers practical steps to create lasting change.


Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, Muhammad Yunus, Public Affairs, 2003.

It began with a simple $27 loan. After witnessing the cycle of poverty that kept many poor women enslaved to high-interest loan sharks in Bangladesh, Dr. Muhammad Yunus lent money to 42 women so they could purchase bamboo to make and sell stools. In a short time, the women were able to repay the loans while continuing to support themselves and their families. With that initial eye-opening success, the seeds of the Grameen Bank, and the concept of microcredit, were planted.

On the AIDS crisis in Africa:

A Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa (CBC Massey Lecture) Stephen Lewis, 2006, House of Anansi Press

"We have an opportunity, in this generation, to reduce global poverty, both through acts of charity and by working as citizens to influence public policy. Stephen Smith offers reliable information, stories of success, and good advice on how to get personally involved in this important fight. Read it, and then take action. " --David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World

28 Stories of AIDS in Africa, Stephanie Nolen, Walker Publishing Company, 2007.

From Booklist:
Nolen puts a very human face on HIV/AIDS in Africa, verbally and visually. A photograph accompanies each of the book's 28 personal histories (one subject stands for one million infected people in sub-Saharan Africa). The faces in the photos appear no different than faces of everyday Americans, but that appearance belies the horrific reality of lives shredded by devastating disease.

There Is No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Rescue Africa's Children, Melissa Fay Greene, Bloomsbury, 2006.

From Publishers Weekly:
Not unlike the AIDS pandemic itself, the odyssey of Haregewoin Teferra, who took in AIDS orphans, began in small stages and grew to irrevocably transform her life from that of "a nice neighborhood lady" to a figure of fame, infamy and ultimate restoration. In telling her story, journalist Greene who had adopted two Ethiopian children before meeting Teferra, juggles political history, medical reportage and personal memoir.

On African Politics:

The Fate of Africa, Martin Meredith, Public Affairs, 2005.

From Booklist:
Meredith is a journalist, biographer, and historian who has written extensively on modern African history. His massive but very readable examination of African history over the past century unfolds like a drawn-out tragedy. Of course, the arrogance and ignorance of European masters planted the seeds of many of Africa's current problems. But Meredith refuses to let Africans off the hook for the endemic violence, corruption, and political repression that plague so many African states. While he pays tribute to icons like Mandela and Senghor, his contempt for the venality and worship of power that has characterized so many leaders from Nasser to Mugabe is palatable and justified by extensive documentation.

Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

From Publishers Weekly:
This absorbing account by a young man who, as a boy of 12, gets swept up in Sierra Leone's civil war goes beyond even the best journalistic efforts in revealing the life and mind of a child abducted into the horrors of warfare. Beah's harrowing journey transforms him overnight from a child enthralled by American hip-hop music and dance to an internal refugee bereft of family, wandering from village to village in a country grown deeply divided by the indiscriminate atrocities of unruly, sociopathic rebel and army forces....Told in clear, accessible language by a young writer with a gifted literary voice, this memoir seems destined to become a classic firsthand account of war and the ongoing plight of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide. (Feb.)

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.

02 December 2006

Breathing Space





My office is located in one of the most beautiful office parks (an oxymoron if ever there was one) that I've ever seen. Lots of green grass and trees. Two lakes at the edge; just beyond, a river. Not much traffic: the lay of the land is such that it hides the nearby expressway. Only now that the last leaves have fallen can I look out and see other buildings and an apartment complex. Nothing hints that this is located in a busy city of over a million people. It is a good thing to have beauty so readily at hand during the day. It makes it a tranquil place to pass the time, if one needs to be at work in an office building that is.

Sometimes, though, in the course of business, I need to be at my employer's other offices. Unlike my regular work location, there aren't any nearby trees or greenspaces to camouflage the city. Like my office, there is water nearby: the building sits adjacent to the bank of a river. And, though in a much different way, one can look out the window and see a breathtaking landscape, it isn't the same. When I sit in the 'guest' office, I look at a marvel of an urban cityscape. I have always looked in awe at the skylines of the great American cities -- Chicago, San Francisco, and the daddy of the them all: New York. But, I can't look out that window, gazing across the river at what is there without seeing what isn't there. You see, the river is the Hudson, and the office is directly across from lower Manhattan.

I've been to New York a few times since 9/11 and have stood in silence at the WTC site, trying to re-imagine the space as it had been. I last saw the towers about a month before the attacks, while staring out the window at Newark International, waiting to catch a plane. On 9/10, I saw a photo taken of my son a few months earlier, sitting in the same airport, the towers in the distance rising above the planes on the tarmac and the river and the other buildings. He is looking the other way, the photo's background one that should have remained inconsequential, just a part of the steel and glass skyline, not something that was a symbol of anything, not something that would, beginning the next day, forever dominate that snapshot. They were just buildings, impersonal concrete, no thought given to the commerce that occurred there, the people who worked and would die there. It wasn't until this fall, five years later, that I had looked at the Manhattan skyline from the New Jersey shore. My mind's eye kept trying to fill in where the towers had stood.

Shortly after that last trip to NJ, I was browsing at the library at church. Perhaps I unconsciously thought about the scenery that I had looked at for the preceding week as I looked for something to read. Maybe that is why I picked up Rowan Williams slim volume Writing in the Dust: After 9/11.

Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Cantebury, was two blocks away from WTC attending a meeting when the planes hit. This book, written in the weeks immediately after the attacks, is his reflection on the meaning of that day and what he suggests should have been the appropriate response to the events of 9/11. The title, as Williams writes in the epilogue, refers not only to the dense dust he was surrounded by after the buildings collapsed, but also to the temporary nature of his reflections. "This isn't a theology or a programme for action", Williams writes, "but one person's attempt to find words for the grief and shock and loss of one moment. ...[I] hope only that they may help to take forward someone else's mourning. ".

What strikes me though, having read the book twice through in one sitting, is that these words should not be temporary; or at least, they are not ready for dissolution yet. They are as relevant today, while we are embroiled in the war in Iraq with no easy or clear-cut way out of the mess we have made, as it was in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on WTC and the Pentagon.

Williams first writes of the nightmare of being in the area of the attacks, of escaping only to feel the rumble of the second tower collapsing, and breathing in the thick debris-filled air. He writes of a void, "the emptiness and anaesthesia", in the midst of terror and death, but how we shouldn't be eager to fill that void too quickly, with easy answers. He writes of the perversion that would make someone do such an incomprehensible act, how it couldn't be in the name of religion despite the terrorists' claims. He warns of what he calls the "great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda". He contrasts the truly heroic actions of the responders, working for the secular goal of community health and safety, with the wrongly self-proclaimed heroism of the religious zealots who hijacked the planes. And, in his first chapter, Williams calls for a 'breathing space' to consider what happened and how we should respond.

It is this idea of a breathing space that Williams returns to throughout his reflection, encouraging a breathing space to understand what happened and to know an appropriate response to and punishment for such unspeakable violence. We need breathing space to know how to move forward and prevent such angry violence from happening again. We need breathing space to speak of, and maybe to redefine, our belief in God. That is what he wrote at the end of 2001; I don't know if he was right, but I do believe that if our country had done what Williams suggested, we might not be in the current situation in Iraq.

At the time Williams was writing this, America had just begun the campaign in Afghanistan. Williams writes of the decision to go to war, questioning whether it was an act of 'just war':
A good deal of the moral capital accumulated during the first days and weeks has been squandered. From a situation where Muslim nations, even Iran, expressed shock and sympathy, we have come to a point where the shapelessness of the campaign leads Muslims to ask whether there is any agenda other than the humiliation of an Islamic population. We may think this an outrageously wrong perception, but it becomes -- or should become -- a rather urgent factor in calculating how to restore a sense of lawfulness that would sustain some coherent action to punish and to secure a future that will be more settled and just for everyone.

But terrorism is not a place, not even a person or a group of persons; it is a form of behaviour. 'War' against terrorism is as much a metaphor as war against drug abuse. It can only mean a sustained policy of making such behaviour less attractive or tolerable. As we've been reminded often, this is a long job; but there is a difference between saying this, which is unquestionably true, and suggesting that there is a case for an open-ended military campaign. (p. 37).
He continues:
We could ask whether the further destabilising of a massively resentful Muslim world and the intensifying of the problems of homelessness and hunger in an already devastated country were really unavoidable. We could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination.
The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment. (p46-47).
By attacking a country that was not the attacker, Williams reasons, we have only deepened the gulf of misunderstanding between the West and the Arab world:
Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game. However much we protest that this is a caricature, this is how it is experienced. And we have to begin to understand how such a perception is part of the price we pay for the benefits of globalisation. (p. 55)

So, there is a particularly difficult challenge here, to do with making terms with our vulnerability and learning how to live with it in a way that isn't simple denial, panic, the reinforcement of defenses.( p 57).
The most important point, though, in Williams brief book (at approx 70 pages, it's really a long essay), is that it is important to understand the misuse of symbols. Symbols, Williams writes, can be manipulated, and abused to the point where it is the symbol one supports, rather than the reality behind it. Just as the twin towers became, for al-Qaida, a twisted symbol of Western greed and gluttony, the towers or the terrorists can be a symbol of our fear, and hatred of others we do not understand, veiled behind the symbol of an outrageous act.
'Using other people to think with'; that is, using them as symbols for points on your map, values in your scheme of things. When you get used to imposing meanings in this way, you silence the stranger's account of who they are; and that can mean both metaphorical and literal death. Death as the undermining of a culture, language, or faith, and, at the extreme, the death of tyranny and genocide. ...The collective imagination needs the outsider to give itself definition -- which commonly means that it needs somewhere to project its own fears and tensions.

Living realities are turned in to symbols, and the symbolic values are used to impression the reality. At its extreme pitch, people simple relate to the symbols. It is too hard to look past them, to look into the complex humanity of a real other. (p. 64-65).
It's tough to think of the WTC towers as a bad symbol, but that isn't what Williams was suggesting, and I don't mean it either. Rather, Williams means that anything, when reduced to a symbol can be negative, representing only the distillation of our own misinformed interpretation. It's like the flag: it can be a symbol of patriotism, of loyalty to one's country. But, it can also represent the bullheaded idea of 'my country as I see it, my country right or wrong, my country as my agenda'. Here is where we get caught in symbols and they begin to define us, rather than the other way around.

So, is a bad thing that I look at the skyline of Lower Manhattan and re-image the outline of the towers? No...as long as I hold that symbol as something to make me think about what happened, and not just how I might have reacted to it initially. It is the moral and spiritual thing to do; the right thing. To quote Williams again:
What use is faith to us if it is only a transcription into mythological jargon of the mechanisms of that inhuman grief that grasps its own suffering to itself as a ground of justification and encloses the suffering of others in interpretations that hold it at a safe distance?

And Christian faith? Can we think about our focal symbol, the cross of Jesus, and try to rescue it from its frequent fate as the banner of our own wounded righteousness? (p 72-73).
We are beyond taking a 'breathing space' now with the war. If we had in the initial days, or even sooner, the conditions in Iraq may not have deteriorated to the state they are in now. A louder voice would have been crying out sooner regarding the steps taken to put ourselves in the middle of a war in the Middle East. But are we not all to blame for not listening to those who were the loud voices, not to blame for not hearing them, for not being reflective instead of reflexive?

We need to evaluate all symbols and sloganeering that we encounter. What is really meant by a War on Terror? What is meant by an 'axis of evil'? How can we move beyond stereotypes, to foster true understanding with others elsewhere in the world? While that might not answer the question of how we pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it might help us post-deployment with finding the path forward.

Book Review: Hell and High Water

Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and Politics -- And What we Can Do Joseph Romm. William Morrow, 2007.

I so wanted to give this book a hearty recommendation. Its topic is one that I am very interested in --I think we all should be concerned about the global warming and need to take individual grassroots-level action to help find remedies. I was curious by the subtitle. Besides being one of the longest subtitles I've come across recently, I was concerned that the book might do a little over-reaching in it's purpose. And that was confirmed as I read through it.

Romm's book presents a worse-case scenario for the implications of society not doing anything to curb the effects of global warming. This book presents lots of well-footnoted facts -- facts I've read elsewhere, ones I find convincing, although I do not have the technical background to refute any scientific flaws that may exist. In addition, Romm's book is a analysis of what hasn't been done by our government to implement means of reducing activities that are leading to global warming. It is this part -- the attack on politics -- where the book disappoints. While Romm is good with presentation of the data supporting the global warming trends, he relies more on unsupported (although not untrue) and suggestive attacks on the current administration, than on persuasive argument to convince the reader that the government is not doing enough to enact needed legislation. (Note: I'm not a supporter of the Bush administration, and can't disagree with Romm's premise, so bear with me here....)

Most of the facts on global warming have been presented elsewhere (Gore's recent movie, An Inconvenient Truth comes to mind although it is not the only example), so Romm isn't adding anything new to the body of knowledge for the lay reader who is aware of the situation and the overwhelming support in the scientific community for the need to address causes of global warming trends. But, Romm's writing slants so much to attack -- at points even seeming to contradict the point he is making. (e.g., at one point Romm writes of how a government representative made a statement which contradicts his (Romm's) point in the previous chapter, but then states that they only agreed as a delaying tactic, not because they sincerely want to believe there is a problem.) I think that it is here that Romm could have been most effective if he hadn't relied on attack-ad style tactics and hyperbole. He isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already believe the facts about global warming that the US government is burying our collective head in the sand. But shouldn't that be the point? If not, he is no better in advancing arguments for correcting the situation than the vocal and attention-grabbing mouthpieces of some oil companies who manipulate the data to disprove Romm's scientific allies. The data about global warming is convincing enough that he should have changed the tone here. Instead, a reasoned voice is one that is more likely to be heard and to encourage action.

Another way in which the book disappoints is that it is very slim on the 'what to do about it' portion suggested by the title. A few paragraphs in the closing chapters is all that is presented. As someone interested in the topic who has read enough to convince me that something needs to be done, I was looking for something that would give reasoned, valid options for moving forward, rather than finger pointing.

I'm tired of divisive politics. I don't think the issue is so one-sided that we can only blame one political party -- I don't see the other political party stepping to the forefront on this either.

The chapter, "Missing the Story of the Century", did grab my attention though. Romm makes the point that as news media seek to 'balance' stories, they often give equal footing to both sides of the debate despite the preponderance of evidence. This is a different twist on the lament about so-called 'media bias', and I think that Romm has a valid point here. If the overwhelming number of scientists agree with the data on global warming and are in concurrence as to the root causes, why does the media give equal footing to those who oppose such data, including those that may be funded by the same industries that have the most to lose if we impose stricter governmental regulations? Romm uses the example of a recent (2005) segment on Meet the Press where there were four experts discussing avian flu. Romm's point was that all were in agreement regarding the potential for a catastrophic bird flu outbreak, yet there are some who might disagree with the likelihood of such an occurrence. His point, specifically, is that the press wouldn't think to have an opposing view since the majority concur; yet with global warming, they always give air to those who disagree. This may explain why studies show that few Americans think there is concurrence among scientists on global warming, while there are also studies that show that the majority of scientists do concur. I don't know what the solution is -- what percentage constitutes a majority opinion that dictates that we should listen to flat-earthers, regardless of the topic? Romm doesn't offer a solution either, and I'm not sure that Romm's reasoning behind the equal opportunity media time is because the media doesn't want to be blasted for bias. This chapter could easily be a book; I'm sure that this isn't the only topic where this is occurs.

While the above paragraphs might make you think that I wouldn't recommend this book, that isn't completely accurate. I think that Romm adequately lays out the facts regarding global warming trends, environmental impact of melting polar ice, and the reasons why we should reduce CO2 emissions (and sign the Kyoto treaty). He does make an argument about the dissembling actions of our government, although he seems more interested in painting the Republicans with a broad brush as 'bad guys' than in honest debate about how we should go about changing the situations and what types of economic plans we should have for doing so. He just seems to have taken on too much in one small book to make a strong case for how to change the problems -- both politically and technologically/environmentally.

TWO NOTES: 1) If you are interested in a concise Q&A regarding environmental issues and how to defend against contrarians, check out this link. Courtesy of Rev Sam at Elizaphanian.

2) Some in the blog universe have posited recently that it's important to disclose if a copy is a review copy. Here is my disclaimer in case you didn't notice the 2007 pub date indicated above. I received this book as part of HarperCollins' FirstLook program. Disproving, at least in this one case, the opinion that only positive reviews are done by bloggers when the book is free.

20 May 2006

It's Only A Dog

I was skeptical about reading Marley & Me. It seemed too trite of a subject to be much more than a long article -- how could it be a full length book? With all of the ruckus over memoirs recently, if this wasn't too far-fetched (or maybe if it was), I did think that the made-for-memoirs details would provide a few laughs.

I am a snob about what I read (what a surprise!). It had better be good; it had better inform or entertain or make me think. I better not wish to get back those lost hours spent reading the book. A book about a dog? Not likely.

I read beyond the first chapter. Yes, it was short, but a poor excuse for a book can lose me in 2 or 3 pages. By chapter 3 I hadn't wanted to throw the book across the room, but I wasn't convinced that I needed to finish the book. But then something happened: my own very old dog's health changed drastically overnight. I spent the better part of two days sitting beside him, gently petting him, wishing I could ease his pain, letting him know that he was as valued to me as I think we've been to him.

And that lead me back, a few weeks later to Marley. It is just that affinity between pet & pet owner, between companion & friend, that this book is about. Told in brief slice-of-life chapters, John Grogan recounts the tales of Marley, the rambunctious, always a puppy, canine terror that ruled the roost for 13 years. By telling the stories about the dog, the reader also comes to know John Grogan, his love of gardening and of writing, of his family, and of the pains and joys of being a parent, a neighbor, or a friend. Throughout the book there are plenty of opportunities for the book to fall into a saccharine mess. After all, by it's nature, it is perched dangerously close to such a fall into the sugar bowl. And yet, there are episodes that you can't help but laugh at, like the description of a cross-country move involving an airplane ride with 3 young childen, some goldfish, crickets, frogs, a snail, and one tranquilized dog that howls so loudly in the hold that all of the passengers can hear him.

Pet owners know that it is never 'just' a pet. Reading about how Marley was not just a dog, but a companion and family member to the Grogans is something pet owners will understand. Marley & Me may not be a thought-provoking literary jaunt that you'll remember for a long time, but it is a lighthearted read that almost all pet owners would enjoy spending a few hours with.

10 April 2006

Precious Gems in the Night Sky: The Planets by Dava Sobel

"For myself, I confess that none of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets' fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of magic beans or precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder -- portable, evocative, and swirled in beauty." -- Dava Sobel, The Planets

Three things recommended this book to me: the eye-catching cover depicting a map of Tyco Brahe's universe, the author Dava Sobel whose books Longitude and Galelio's Daughter I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and its simple title: The Planets. A wonderful science writer writing about the cosmos, with a cool cover to boot. There was much to expect, but, it turns out, plenty to disappoint.

The Planets is divided into 11 chapters -- one for each planet, an intro & a coda. But the titles of each chapter suggests something different: Mythology, Beauty, Geography, Night Air. Each chapter discusses a portion of our Solar System in conjunction with a corresponding theme. Part history, part lore, part scientific discussion, each chapter discusses not only the heavenly body referred to in the chapter title, but also a history of how the heavens have been defined otherwise throughout the history of western thought.

In some chapters this works well, such as the chapter on Mythology and Mercury, or the chapter on Sci-F and Mars. But elsewhere, this device seemed too contrived and annoyed me. For instance, in "Music of the Spheres", Sobel writes of Holst symphony "The Planets" and Saturn. After a few paragraphs the connection becomes overworked. Perhaps Holst's well-known piece did represent a view of our universe, but what does it tell us about the universe? Isn't the music really just inspired by the planets, not descriptive of them -- not in a scientific way at any rate -- although ancient astronomers may have written of the music of the stars? Maybe there are solar sounds and ratio in orbital patterns similar to music, but is there really a connection, a harmony more physical than metaphysical? If so, I didn't get it from Sobel's writing.

Similarly, while Sobel's description of astrology is interesting, she seems to both support and refute its validity. From a historical perspective, the book discusses astrology's importance throughout history, and how the scientific revelation the the earth was not the center of the universe made astrology obsolete. Yet, she writes of a 'star chart' for a satellite's launch date and how 'accurate' it was. Elsewhere she begins with an elaborate description of an Ellis Island immigrant and likens it to 'false memories' of those who claim to be victims of alien abductions. She then makes a quantum cognitive jump into the cosmos to discuss the search for Pluto and the discovery of the Kuiper Body Objects. Once the leap is executed, the reader doesn't return to the alien kidnappings; there is no connection and perhaps the only thing worse than this preposterous association would have been if Sobel DID loop back in some sort of literary mobius strip way to the world of aliens. If Sobel wants to believe in astrology or Roswellian creatures performing surgeries on the human populace during REM sleep, fine with me, but I don't like the scientific mysticism attributed to it in this book.

Lastly, in a few places I tired of reading information from Sobel's other books. Intrigued as I was in learning about Harrison's clocks and his efforts to solve the 'longitude problem', the information regarding maps and efforts to define longitude seemed repetitive. Information that seemed almost a recitation from Galileo's Daughter, while not completely irrelevant, read as if a lazy editor had cloned the earlier text in order to lengthen this book.

I like the idea of this book -- science facts regarding our universe coupled with a history of how the universe has been understood throughout the ages by art, literature and religion. That there was a time -- long before we had the words to define and describe our solar system in today's scientific terms -- when the arts and science and faith were so intertwined that they were inseparable. But, because it can't always be connected specifically to current scientific knowledge, the book in its execution becomes too disjointed.

Yet, to return to the passage quoted above: "...[N]one of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets' fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of...precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder..." If Sobel's intent is to evoke wonder and awe of our universe, perhaps she is successful in showing how it has inspired throughout the centuries. Those precious sparkling gems in the night sky have symbolized an abundance of human thought and experience. Maybe the poets and the scientists marvel at the same thing, but for different reasons, in different voices, in different times....

Postscript -- On a readerly level, I most enjoyed the first half of Chapter 10, 'Night Air' in which Sobel writes a 'fictionalized' letter from astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848) to astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818 - 1889). In the notes section Sobel indicates that the facts in the letter are true although it is unknown if the women corresponded. Maybe Sobel should try her hand at historical fiction next time.

05 March 2006

On Partial Reading of 'Good' Books, and Spending Time Reading 'Bad' Ones

I'm usually willing to ditch a book after reading about 1/3 if I don't find it intriguing. My method for reading novels: If I'm doubtful that I want to finish the book, I'll commit the scandalous act of reading the last pages. If I find that the ending is predictable, the book is tossed. If, however, I think 'what the ...? How'd that happen?', I'll read further. Sometimes this has rewarded me with the completion of a book I otherwise wouldn't have cared about losing. It took me years to get beyond the second chapter of The Cider House Rules, but I've appreciated Irving ever since. I heard Irving read the first chapter of Til I Find You, and I look forward to reading it, but it may wait in the TBR pile for some time before I pick it up.

With some books, I'm resentful for having wasted my time whether I've read the ending or not; reading Alice Hoffman's Here on Earth comes to mind: 30 pages to go, I feel asleep. The TV was on. I awoke at 2 am to Wuthering Heights only to realize: Oh, crap! This book is such a rip-off of Bronte -- and I didn't notice it. (I hadn't read Heights since I was 12; obviously, it never topped my 'Memorable Books' List.)

Sometimes I will start a book and put it down half way through. Other books enter my reading life, pushing the partial reads into the periphery -- to the bottom of the book pile, under the bed, the back seat of the car. Sometimes it's months before they creep back into sight. Sometimes they demand attention, but I continue to ignore them, choosing other works instead. Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty fits into this category. Started in November on a plane ride, I allowed it to linger in the carry-on until recently. I hadn't forgotten about this book, but I didn't feel like I had the energy to plunge through it to the end. It's a beautifully written book. I was a naive 20-something in the early 80's, even in London briefly, and while I floated in much different circles than the main character Nick, I knew that Hollinghurst's depiction of the socio-political milieu during the Thatcher/Reagan era was on target. However, within the first few chapters I made a mental note to reread Brideshead Revisited; a few chapters later, anything by Henry James. It's been 25+ years since I've read either and I want to confirm and support my reading of Hollinghurst's subtle references to each. Perhaps this is what keeps me from returning immediately to finish reading this book. Look for a discussion of this in a post at a still to be determined date. I will finish The Line of Beauty, but it may take a while before I return to it, longer still before I write about it.

So, why then, with many 'good' works awaiting me, did I waste my precious reading time over the last few weeks reading not one, but two books which certainly rank among the poorest examples of published writing I've ever held in my hands? Perhaps my goal to read so many books this year has inspired some sort of bibliophile's OCD, twisting my psyche to believe that I must finish what I have started. Or, maybe it was a sort of voyeurism, like rubber-necking at a car crash, that propelled me forward: "It can't be any worse, can it? Oh wait, it can. Enter into evidence, chapter #12...."

Book Waste #1: The Good, The Bad, and the Mad: Some Weird People in American History, E. Randall Floyd. I'm not sure why I purchased this book. A book bought on impulse while standing in line at the bookstore, one that jumped out at me from the bargain book bin. At least I didn't spend a lot of dough! It vaguely reminded me of a book with a blue cover I treasured when I was about 8 or 10 years old. Part of a series, the book (title no longer remembered) consisted of several individual biographies of people of note. It was my introduction to biography, to reading non-fiction for pleasure, and the start of an enjoyable life-long collection of trivial facts that carry little value other than enabling me to be good at Jeopardy! (Are you listening Alex & Clues Crew??)

At slightly more than 100 pages, this book looked like fine fodder for filling in brief gaps of wasted time, like standing in line at the post office or while watching the Olympics. Profiling 30 characters -- some known like Jane Addams or Huey Long, others only known perhaps in esoteric circles like Robert Howard -- the book does give the reader some truly oddball characters to consider. But, the writing is dry and uninteresting and often repetitive. A summary of each chapter is presented in the opening paragraphs. This technique in itself is not bad, but the writer doesn't follow up with enough details to make his case. Instead, the reader is left reading the same 'facts' over again, or left dangling, hoping for more than just a comment on some unusual aspect of the individual's behavior. In still other chapters, I wondered just what was so odd about the person. I found myself thinking of the comment all Freshman Writing instructors apply too frequently on student papers: "Show; Don't tell".

Reading this book was spending a couple of hours that I'll never get back, reading that could have been so much more. A compilation of profiles, such as this, should at least be entertaining if it isn't going to spark the reader to learn more about someone beyond the People Magazine-length profile. There must be better reads while standing in line at the PO.

Book #2 House Calls and Hitching Posts, Dorcas Sharp Hoover. This was my reading group's selection of the month and the premise sounded promising: a biography of a doctor who treated the Amish people of Northern Ohio for 40 years. In my reading group, I often take some heat for not finishing books. This year, I decided that, time allowing, I would complete all of the books. It was difficult to not throw this book into the heap after the first two chapters, but because I was determined to finish it, I trod through 30 chapters, nearly 400 pages of plodding prose.

Yet, I felt some twinges of guilt for despising this book so much. The subject after all, is interesting. Dr. Elton Lehman is truly an inspiring human being -- dedicated, selfless, caring, tolerant, faithful to his personal beliefs -- and the book does give some insightful glimpses into the lives of the Amish. But, this book was in desperate need of professional editing. While it didn't suffer the scourge of many self-published books (I tried but couldn't find one typo or glaring grammatical error), the prose varied widely from purplish and overwrought to simplistic as an elementary school composition. In an effort to retell stories accurately or perhaps to convey a folksy, country setting, dialog is used throughout. But, the dialog is poorly written and seems contrived. While fabricating events in a memoir a la Frey is definitely out of bounds, a good writer knows when to trim, understanding that retelling every bit of minutia does not help to convey the full story.

Reading House Calls and Hitching Posts was like being trapped by someone's aging uncle at your second cousin's wedding reception: you want to be polite and listen to the stories, but after some time the stories run together and you'd rather make your escape by dancing the hokey-pokey or drinking more of the too-sweet punch. An experienced editor would have trimmed this book by 200 pages and the end result would have been both an interesting and a captivating read. Can't something be inspirational and well-written? While not a complete waste of my time like Book #1 above, it was a disappointment.

What about you? What are your criteria for continuing to read a book? What treasure have you discovered by continuing past painful introductory chapters? Do you have a recommendation for a work of 'inspirational literature' that is well-written? Can you think of a self-published work that did NOT give you reason to think "No wonder nobody else would publish this?" Please comment.

19 February 2006

Remembrance of Books Past

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins, Bloomsbury: 2003

Sixpence House was one of those bookstore serendipity finds: a mis-shelved book that suddenly caught my eye, demanding to be purchased despite a strong possibility of being doomed to languish in the 'to be read' pile for months. I no longer recall when or why I decided to purchase this book. Perhaps it was the blurb claiming "a bookworm's answer to A Year in Provence"; it would have been the 'bookworm' that enticed, not the reference to Mayles' memoir. More likely, it was the idea of a 'town of books'. Having never heard of the Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye, I must have been intrigued by the idea of a small village with 40 bookstores.

Collins' memoir retells the story of his sojourn in Hay-on-Wye with his wife, Jennifer and infant son Morgan. It was a journey that began with a grand idea to live in an "old, old house with old, old books" in the countryside where one could live a writerly life. And buy books. Lots of them.

Collins is a good storyteller, but he doesn't so much tell the story of his life in Hay as much as he tells the story of books he has read. Interspersed with the tales of daily life in Hay -- being trapped in the lesser-frequented pub unable to make a polite exit without offending a lonely bartender, searching for an old house to buy, meandering through the many bookstores in Hay -- is Collins' homage to the many obscure books he has read throughout his life. There is an aptly quotable book suited for almost every occasion. A walk through a cemetery leads to a passage about 19th century burial practices. Peering in the window of a small, eclectic shop on the street takes the reader into a description of a novel about a man exhibited at a zoo. A visit to a bookbinder provides the opportunity for Collins to muse about books worth saving and books remarkable not for their content but for the stories of their existence -- the faked memoirs, the book made famous for the pornographic text bleeding through the marbled endpapers, the poorly written stories unworthy of the intriguing titles given by editors.

The books that populate Sixpence House are as much a part of the town as the people who live there. In describing a 'town of books', Collins lovingly describes a universe of reading and writes a book that many bibliophiles would enjoy.

05 February 2006

Neo-Con Bashing, or Are We at Peril of Losing Our Democratic Soul?

Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, Jimmy Carter, 2005.

Former President Jimmy Carter's latest book presents the argument that the effect of the current 'conservative' movement in American politics undermines the values upon which America was founded and is taking the United States on a radical departure from core democratic values. Carter states up front that political values cannot be separated from one's moral belief system. He is unapologetic about his Christian beliefs defining him; these beliefs, he explains, are the foundation of his political views. His traditional Christian view -- a perspective he argues is mainstream -- is very different from the minority Fundamentalist view that dangerously dominates today's political landscape. Rather than 'conservative', Carter posits, it is a radical attack on the beliefs the Founding Fathers presented in the guise of traditional values and righteousness.

In a series of essays Carter addresses the often volatile and polarizing political issues of our time: abortion, equality regardless of gender, race or sexual preference, separation of Church and State, terrorism, human rights, nuclear proliferation and the environment. In each essay he presents a traditional Democratic stance and describes how his personal Christian values support that position. Intertwined with summarizations of the religious values that constitute his moral center is discussion of relevant events from Carter's presidency and his humanitarian work at the Carter Center during his post-presidential years. After establishing his framework for each issue, he presents the actions and decisions of the Fundamentalists and Neo-Cons that are counter to this position. Rather than present the opposites as Republican or Democrat, he argues that his position is 'traditional' while the current Republican party has moved to a radical Fundamentalist position that is contrary to mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs. The difference between the two positions is clear.

While Carter at times writes in detail about the issues, presenting both facts and antidotes to support his argument, the book falls short of making its point fully. Too much attention is paid to events Carter has been personally involved with and how those efforts are at odds with political decisions being made today. While the contrast is evident, Carter's book fails to present the long view. The effect of this is that the book feels like merely an attack on the policies of the Bush administration and the efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention, rather than an argument that the underpinnings of American democracy are at stake. The reader can't help but understand that this was Carter's goal, but he doesn't provide enough insight or historical perspective to convince a "non-believer" -- or maybe even a centrist who doesn't see all issues as Red State vs Blue State -- of the errors of the ways of the Neo-Cons. In an effort to make the book a readable, accessible work, Carter is often too superficial and thus seems only to present the liberal Sky Is Falling line that a few misguided ideologues are the source of the imminent downfall of America.

Carter's position is not flawed; it simply doesn't go far enough to pinpoint how our values are 'endangered' and that the consequences of current political decisions are not something that might be easily reversed by the next political wind to take hold in Washington.

28 January 2006

The Final word on Frey?

Found at MetaxuCafe and originally posted at No Rules, Just Write.

Worth waiting for? My first post on James Frey

Any bets on when the docudrama based on the life and fraud of Frey will be made? The story within the story within the story: James Frey the writer creating James Frey the angst-ridden teen turned addict, with cuts to James the publishing novice duped by his editors, framed by the happenings at Harpo:

"Read this! "
"It's great, so uplifting! "
"Give him a break. The truth is more important than the facts."
"He lied; how could he?"
"Oh dear viewers -- my friends -- let's cry; we're so let down. It was too good to be true! We felt his pain. Now we feel his shame."

What entertainment it will be to continue the mixing of fact and fiction!

15 January 2006

Talk to the Hand: Rants, Shoots and (Rudely) Leaves

Talk to the Hand #?*! The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. Lynne Truss. Gotham Books, 2005.



Cam's Concise Critique: A long-winded bellyache on our bad manners. An arrogant, unhumorous look at the fall of western civilization brought about by cell phones, traffic jams, tv, and poor customer service that offers trite examples of the problems without offering real solutions.


My Rating: Skip it.


Review: In her first book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Lynne Truss elevated a spot-on, sincere rant to a book-length argument against improper grammar. In her second book, Talk to the Hand, Truss tries to ride on the coattails of her earlier success to rage against a decay in manners throughout society. However, far from writing an enjoyable sequel to Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss has delivered a long, ill-humored, unoriginal whine about how the world is falling apart due to the unruly, ill-mannered Visigoths rallying at the gates, talking on their cells phones, and screaming "Eff-off" at the slightest offense. Society is bad and all that, but Truss' book, in the end, is an arrogant and rude diatribe.

Although there are feeble attempts at appearing scholarly -- Truss quotes repeatedly from other works decrying the fate of Western Civ and includes a 3 page bibliography -- the book seems padded, little more than a term paper bloated by quotations to meet a word count. Little in this book is original. Who hasn't complained about the insincerity of the customer service voice mail that repeatedly claims 'We're sorry for your wait'? About the woman who describes her recent surgery to the disembodied, never-present listener on the other end of the cell phone while seated at the next table in a restaurant? About the world-weary, road-raging driver who displays the "You're # 1 sign" when cut off in traffic?

As for being humorous? Standup comics have done a better job of portraying our anti-social failings. They usually are funny; Ms. Truss is not. A comic will point out our flaws and we laugh at the universal truths of our failings. While some bits in Ms. Truss' book are funny, she tries to rally the reader to be like her, to see himself as a curmudgeonly fuss-budget who staunchly stands with Truss in believing that all of culture is being flushed down the toilet with little hope for redemption. Salvation lies with those who are above the offending manners marauders. But, even when she tries to find commonality with the offenders, her faux offended persona falls short of holding up a mirror to our failings. We may indeed be like the examples of Rudeness Incarnate in her book, but with the whining, belly-aching, assault Truss presents, one reads this book hoping not to be as arrogant and contemptuous of others as she is.

The reader who enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves should not waste her time with Talk to the Hand. You will miss Ms. Truss' ability to take the mundane and make it laughable. But, you won't forget about Eats, Shoots and Leaves as you read this. Ms. Truss mentions the earlier work throughout her new book, least you forget that she is skilled at ranting humorously about society. This helps to lengthen her short, magazine-length complaint to its published book length form.

This book neither amuses or instructs. It adds no new insights as to why people behave how they do. It presents no real solutions to the issues presented. The 'flame of hope' offered at the beginning is lamely summarized in the last one and 1/2 pages of the book: we should be kind and friendly and polite.....and roll our eyes and smugly smirk at those who don't realize we are trying to rescue the ill-mannered from themselves.