Category Archives: Books Read 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.

>Becoming Human Together

>It is an old story
But one that can still be told
About a man who loved
And lost a friend to death
And learned he lacked the power
To bring him back to life.
It is the story of Gilgamesh
And his friend Enkidu.

Gilgamesh was king of Uruk,
A city set between the Tigris
And Euphrates rivers
In ancient Babylonia.
Enkidu was born on the Steppe
Where he grew up among the animals.
Gilgamesh was called a god and man;
Enkidu was an animal and man.
It is the story
Of their becoming human together.
— Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative

Copyright, 1970, Herbert Mason

What else would the oldest known narrative be about but the full range of emotions: love, hatred, fear, arrogance, joy, determination, survival, friendship, death, grief. These are the emotions that make us human. Gilgamesh is the story of how we experience these emotions.

I knew little about Gilgamesh before I read it this week. I knew that was considered one of the oldest narratives. I knew that it had a story of a great flood in it. When my son went to sell his copy after completing an AP Lit class 2 years ago, I pulled it out of the pile, and promptly forgot about on the shelves. When I opened it recently and read the first lines, I was captivated.

On one level, you can read Gilgamesh as a fairytale, an epic, or a myth. It can be read as a tale of hubris, with a fall and a recognition of one’s own mortality told through the story of an arrogant king who meets, fights, and then befriends, his equal, but, in his headstrong desire to be triumphant, brings about his friend’s death. It can be considered a story of a journey, with the hero, in typical epic fashion, learning a truth through his quest. Or, one can view it as the timeless and universal story of how grief can change one’s life.

After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh grieves for his friend. He wants to fight the course of fate, to change the outcome of his life so that he may continue to have the presence of his friend. Without it, he is not sure how he can go on.

Reading of Gilgamesh’s desolation, I thought of a modern description of grief, Auden’s poem, Funeral Blues:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

There were no phones or airplanes in ancient Mesopotamia, but Gilgamesh would have understood that Enkidu was his compass, his “working week and Sunday rest”, and like the speaker in Auden’s poem, he wanted everything to stop because of his grief. Gilgamesh, experiencing grief for the first time, feels that his sorrow is different from others. “The word Enkidu/Roamed through every thought/Like a hungry animal through empty lairs/In search of food. The only nourishment/He knew was grief, endless in its hidden source/Yet never ending hunger.”

Gilgamesh’s grief is what keeps him going in his quest to find a way to defeat death and bring his friend back to life. When he finally finds it, he is joyous and refreshed. But when he leaves the plant of eternal life alone for a few minutes, a serpent smells its fragrance and devours it for himself. Gilgamesh knows that this is the end of his quest and is filled with the sorrow of defeat. He returns to Uruk, fearful that people will not remember his friend. Gilgamesh recognizes that his pain is his own. He looks at the city walls and is awed by his people’s achievements and he goes on, despite his personal sadness.

Grief is overwhelming, and friendship is personal and intimate. When we first encounter grief we want everything to stop — clocks, telephones, barking dogs, life — because everything has changed. We look at the world with different eyes because things are radically and irreversibly changed. And yet, eventually, we go on, somehow.

Love and Sorrow makes us human. Grief is private and universal. It is why the epic of Gilgamesh, written 2150 BCE, is relevant today.

>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.

>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.

>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.

>Errant Blogger Returns

>Hi everybody, if there’s anybody still out there reading this. Been absent for a few weeks due to an underwhelming enthusiasm for writing anything.

Been so unenthusiastic about even logging in, that I never posted who won the little give-away that I did on 5/28. How’s that for being a really bad blogger? Three of you answered — Emily, Bloglily, and the blogger formerly known as Chief Biscuit now using her IRL name, Kay. (BTW, Kay has changed the name of her blog to Made for Weather, which is also the title of her most recently published book of poetry.)

None of you guessed the right answer, though Lily was closest: I thought Jonathan Strange would be cool for those reasons and gifted it to my son who thought 800 pages!. And so it sits unread. Since you each responded, you each win. Send me your postal address and I’ll send you a little bookish surprise. Emily — I have your address and will send with the book I promised (Rosalind Franklin and DNA) to you soon.

The answer? Stevenson’s Treasure Island was a holiday gift meant to be read with my husband’s grandson, but he was more interested in my son’s Harry Potter book. That was when he was just learning to read, and longer ago than I’d like to admit. Not only has he now read for years, last year’s gift was Michael Chabon’s book Summerland. Sigh! I think he is too old now to think that Treasure Island is a cool book, even though it has pirates in it.

I don’t think that there is any one reason why people have books they haven’t read. I think most bibliophiles have so many unread books because we always are reading at least one and always on the look out for something to read in the future. As if we were squirrels storing up nuts for the winter, we stock books on our shelves lest we not run out of something to read.

While I haven’t been posting here, I have been reading and have finished 4 books in the last 2 weeks. Escape by Carolyn Jessop, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon.

The last two were books I read for book groups I’m in. I’ve been intending to write about book groups for some time, so maybe there will be such a post here soon. Escape was a book I couldn’t put down and stayed up until 5am one Saturday night/Sunday morning to finish. I’ve thought much about the Texas CPS/YFZ issue since April and, while I in no way support the cult’s treatment of women and children or their bizarre beliefs, I was uneasy with how the State Government of Texas went into the YFZ Ranch and placed all of the children in protective custody. It seemed to me that it was more about the state not sanctioning the cult’s polygamist beliefs. But, after reading Jessop’s book about life in the FLDS, I’ve had to rethink my positions.

Currently, I’m trying to plow through Earth Community, Earth Ethics as part of the EcoJustice Challenge. I’ll write about that when I finish, either here or at the challenge site. And, I found Gilgamesh stuck under the seat of my car and started to read it while waiting for a store to open during a heavy downpour. I’m completely taken by the first lines.

So, it’s not like I don’t have anything to write about. I intend to be here more regularly. Hope you’ll stop by again.

In the meantime, here is a picture I took last night during a sudden 10-minute hail storm. I’m lucky that I haven’t been flooded out, but I am so tired with all this rain!

>Quote from Lewis Thomas:


Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking a very long, geologic time, you would have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held aloft by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.

— Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. 1974.

I first read Thomas in the late 70s and have read all of his books, but it has been 20 years since I last read him. If you are not familiar with Thomas, and you are interested in science writing, especially reading an excellently written literary discussion of scientific ideas, or if you are interested in observations about nature, our planet and ecology, I would recommend The Lives of a Cell. Since I no longer own this book, I think I need to put it on my wishlist so I can re-read this.

I came across this quotation in Earth Community, Earth Ethics, by Larry L. Rasmussen (1997). In a discussion with Emily earlier this week, she mentioned Rasmussen and his theological perspectives on nature and the environment and our part in it (not just an agent acting on behalf for or against nature). I immediately went to the web to find book titles by him. I’ll be posting on this book here and at the Eco Justice Challenge blog in the coming weeks. You can read Emily’s explanation of why it’s eco-justice and not environmentalism here.

>Top Contender for Worst Book I’ve Read This Year

>I tried — really tried — to finish Holding Her Head High: 12 single mothers who championed their children and changed history, by Janine Turner (a book I received as a review copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program) but I can’t do it. When you find you are reading with the purpose of counting the number of cliches per chapter, there is no point in wasting any more of your time. I had begun to feel like a roadside gawker at horrible highway accident.

For the record, in the chapters I read, the phrase — as if you might not remember the title of the book — holding her head high was used an average of 4 times per chapter. Maximum chapter High Head Count: 8. If that doesn’t give you a sense of the tediousness of this book, I might discourage you with the following: improper use of quotations, misspelled words, poor (or wrong!) word choice, dull sentence structure, sloppy research, an inappropriately casual narrative voice, repetitive paragraphs, and poor organization. In general, it reads like a 8th grade term paper — one that would get an ‘C’ from a burned-out easy grader.

How anyone could make the lives of some of the women profiled (Helena Augusta, Christine De Pizan, Abigal Adams*) boring is surprising. More surprising still is that this book was published (although I’d guess that Turner being a Hollywood actress may have had some influence on the book deal). Some LT reviewers commented that this book should have been marketed differently (as a devotional rather than a sociological or history work), suggesting that for a different audience it would fare better. I don’t think so; poor writing is poor writing. A sad comment to make about a book with a topic that suggests that it could be so much more.

(*Note: Please don’t bother to correct me about A. Adams. I know that Abigal Adams wasn’t a single mother; John Adams outlived his wife. But, because she raised her children by herself during the Revolutionary War and Adams’ ambassadorial trips to Europe, Turner chose to include her in this work. There are other profiles in this book that are, arguably, not about single mothers.)

>Words on Wednesday: Words Learned as a Child

>I recently reread Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I first read this book about 40 (!) years ago and although I didn’t recall the plot precisely, there were many things about the experience of reading that book that I have retained over the years.

Meg is one of the most memorable protagonists from any book I read as a child. She was strong and willful and awkward and smart, unsure of how she fit in her world — all characteristics that I identified with.

There were scenes from the book that I’ve remembered, such as when the children travel to Camazotz and first see the conformity of the townspeople: all of the houses look alike, all of the children bounce their balls at the same time, all of the mothers open their doors and step outside in unison. Driving through many suburban cookie-cutter neighborhoods reminds me of this scene and makes me giggle thinking that there might be some controlling blobby brain dictating their movements. (One could argue that conformity in our society is enforced through marketing and consumerism, rather than some monolithic dictatorial presence, but I think that is a different post.)

But, what I recalled as I read this book were all of the wonderful words that I encountered for the first time when I read this novel when I was 9. Sure there were the scientific words like tessaract that I wasn’t even sure existed. A tesseract is, of course, a real word. Although it is theoretical, you’ll find an entry in Wikipedia about tesseracts. But, I can’t say that I’ve ever had the opportunity to use tesseract in my writing or daily speech. But, there were other words that I vividly remember looking up in the dictionary and desperately trying to figure out how to use them: wraithlike, antagonistic, raucous, sonorous, propitious, sadist, inexorable. As I came across each of these words I was reminded how I would get up from my favorite reading place and traipse into my grandfather’s room to look up the new words in his dictionary. Each word was mysterious and powerful and I wanted each of them to be mine.

A Wrinkle in Time was the first book that I remember challenging me and it may have been the book that made me into a real reader.

What was the book from your childhood that made you love words and love reading?