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The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren

lionheartI was asked some time ago what my favorite book was as a child, and I couldn’t say. I could have listed a dozen, at least, that I loved, but I don’t know how I could have chosen one. I asked my mother, and she said my favorite book as a child was the one I was reading right that minute. I read a lot.

But something about The Brothers Lionheart has stayed with me. I don’t know when I read it, or how many times – not many, I think, maybe only once; but it made a strong impression, and I’ve found myself thinking about it over the years. (Astrid Lindgren is better known as the author of Pippi Longstocking, but I think this one kicks Pippi’s butt.) So I finally went and got my hands on a copy recently, and I’m so glad I did!

The story is fantastical. When it opens, little Karl Lion is sick; he’s been in bed for six months. But his older brother Jonathan is a good big brother, one of those golden people, beautiful and strong and talented and kind, and modest because he seems to just really not notice or care how special he is. He’s sweet to his little brother, and stays up late telling him stories. Karl knows he’s going to die. Jonathan tells him it’s okay, because he’s going to a beautiful place beyond the stars called Nangiyala, a land still in the time of campfires and sagas, where the brothers can have adventures together. Jonathan is only sorry that Karl will get there before he does, since Jonathan seems destined to live a long and healthy life.

But there is a fire, and Jonathan saves his brother’s life but forfeits his own; and when Karl succumbs to his illness, Jonathan is waiting for him at Knights Farm in Cherry Valley in Nangiyala. They have horses, and rabbits, and a vegetable garden; Jonathan tends the rose gardens of a nice woman named Sofia, and they are friends with everyone in the town. Karl is happy. But too soon, he learns of Wild Rose Valley, the next neighborhood over, where things are not so simple and joyful: an evil tyrant named Tengil has enslaved the people of Wild Rose Valley and built a wall to keep them from their friends in Cherry Valley. Jonathan and Sofia are part of the resistance; and although Karl is very small and very frightened, he finds himself involved, as well.

There are forces of evil dressed in black uniforms and scary helmets; there is an occupation; there is a fire-breathing dragon; and there are brave citizens. It is a saga itself, and Jonathan is its shining golden hero, but Karl doesn’t do too badly either. I loved this story very much, this time as much as when I read it as a child. And the ending thrills me as much as ever.

This is definitely a book for kids; the language is simple and childlike, and the thing I found most striking upon this adult read was the pacing. It moves very quickly! It takes very few pages to establish how lovely & simple & calm Cherry Valley is; and then we’re on to the darkness next door immediately. An adult book would have been longer and allowed the action to develop a little more slowly. But this made for a very enjoyable, quick read. I’d recommend it for anyone who likes fantasy and dreams and adventure, and who might not be up for a longer, more involved novel.

There is another level on which this story can be read as allegory. Tengil’s occupying force presents several clear options for comparison (and I think also offer some tips on how not to do it). One valley looks so sweet, good, prosperous and happy, and yet if you open your eyes just a little – zoom out to the point where you can see as far as just the next valley over – things are not nearly so happy or easy as you thought. Without putting too fine a point on it, I think this offers an analogy for capitalistic western culture. Speaking of capitalism, I was charmed by the idea of everyone helping everyone & taking care of one another in this idealistic Nangiyala. One can dream.

Themes include the beauty of a deeply felt brotherly love, resistance against evil, loyalty, hope, and courage; but there are also themes related to death & what happens after, tyranny, war and betrayal. The book has been criticized for its approach to suicide (although I would argue it’s not quite that simple). For me, the good is bigger than the darkness, and the ending is happy. I feel that the interplay of dark and light is part of what makes this story the kind that has stuck with me for over 20 years, and keeps it from being saccharine. But not everyone will see it that way.

I am so pleased to report that Jonathan was still simply heroic, Karl still sweet and surprisingly brave, Sophia still good and the dragon still scary, even now that I’ve grown up. Do check out my childhood favorite with me.


Rating: 9 trips along a river.

Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff (audio)

lillian&dashEvery since reading A Difficult Woman, I have recognized Lillian Hellman as a fascinatingly complex & ambiguous character, clearly a “difficult woman” and therefore a kindred on some level. A fellow traveler, you might say. I have read very little Dashiell Hammett (just a few short pieces), but I respect his contribution to a genre I love, and I hope to get around to more one day. Furthermore, Hellman is a counterpart to Dorothy Parker, another spunky female wit I have enjoyed reading and reading about. So then, it should be clear why I was interested in this novel about the Hellman and Hammett love affair, which lasted several decades (during which they remained married to other people) and bears on the literary and political events of their time.

This audio version is narrated by three different readers (Mark Bramhall, Lorna Raver, and Bernadette Dunne), an effect I very much liked. One reads Lillian’s (or more often, Lily’s) first-person parts, one reads Hammett’s, and the third is the third-person narrator of the story. It begins with the pair’s first meeting, and follows them through his novels and screenwriting successes, his radio shows, and his later difficulties working and prodigious drinking; her plays and movies, both wild successes and disappointments; her years as a farmer, and both their testimonies before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both refused to cooperate with HUAC, and both paid dearly; Hammett went to prison at age 58, and tried to drink himself to death when he got out, while Hellman lost her farm, just for starters.

I can’t speak to how precisely this book follows the factual history of these two lives (I don’t know where my copy of A Difficult Woman is), but I don’t really care. This was a great story, heartfelt and heartbreaking, about two delightfully irreverent and vibrant personalities. Their voices felt very real and accurate to me, and HUAC pissed me off all over again. I promised myself once more that I would finally get around to reading one of Hellman’s plays. Hold me to it.

A love story with mysteries & politics mixed up in it, written in the impeccably wry and witty voices of Hellman and Hammett, in a beautifully performed audio edition – I couldn’t ask for more, although I will ask for another. What’s next, Sam Toperoff?


Rating: 8 bottles of champagne.

John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

The carefully researched and engaging story of John Muir, Alaska’s glaciers and the movement they built together.

muir ice

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is neither a straightforward biography of Muir nor a simple study of the global significance Alaska’s glaciers. Rather, Kim Heacox (The Only Kayak) is concerned with the relationship between Muir and the glaciers that rivaled Yosemite in his affections, and the impact that pairing had.

From a humble background in Scotland and Wisconsin, and between stints as a surprisingly apt businessman, Muir lived as a self-described tramp, ardent nature lover and student of flowers, trees, mountains and–upon finally reaching Alaska–glaciers. His famed role as author and activist came late in life, and not easily: he found writing hard work and political activism distasteful, though necessary. However, Muir made perhaps the greatest impact on conservation of any individual in United States history.

Heacox meticulously researched and lovingly describes Alaska’s rivers of ice and Muir’s path toward them, his emergence as writer and preservationist, and his far-ranging influence in legislation, literary legacy and new traditions–including the birth of the conservation movement as we know it. Though often descriptive rather than persuasive, Heacox lends his own voice to the cause in his final chapters: “To debate [climate change] is to give credibility to an argument that shouldn’t exist.” He closes by adding the arguments of Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Derrick Jensen to Muir’s, in the interest of preserving our wild spaces–thereby continuing Muir’s work.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 little dogs.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (audio)

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson describes his experience on the Appalachian Trail. He and his family had just moved to New Hampshire and he discovered the trail almost literally in his back yard, and decided, what the heck? he’d try walking it. At the last minute, an old friend agrees to join him, to his relief (now he won’t be alone out there with the bears); this old friend turns out to be overweight, a smoker, recently sober, and in no shape for such a lengthy walk in the woods, but they set off nevertheless, beginning to walk the AT in Georgia and headed for Maine.

a walk in the woodsOh, Bill Bryson, you funny, infuriating man. I have had a love-hate relationship, as they say, with this book. Bryson is very amusing, and this is his strongest suit; at his best, he had me giggling aloud on the train during my commute, which I try not to do because that’s weird, right? But he can be downright annoying as well. I’m not sure what he conceives this book actually is; amusing memoir? (For which, grade B+, at least.) Nature tale? (C-, on which more in a moment.) Camping satire? (Please stop.) His ineptitude at the outdoorsiness might be funny to somebody, but I just find it obnoxious and …well, kind of stupid. On the other hand, he hiked the Appalachian Trail for months, you guys, completing nearly 900 miles of it, and I have to respect that, as I’ve never done any such thing. But with such an opportunity to tell us about the AT, he spends a great deal of time telling us what poorly prepared rookie campers he and his friend Katz are; the trail itself is often just background, if even that. The book was 1/3 through before he even mentions a view, let alone describes one; and precious few times from then on. In fact, I think I’ve answered my question: Bryson conceives of this book as an amusing memoir, and the fact that it takes place on the AT is mere coincidence and in no way important to the story he has to tell.

When he rails against our destruction of natural areas and our Park Service’s poor management of those lands, he does a fine job, and I both learned something and enjoyed the polemic; but then he pulls punches, as when writing about tree diseases:

A great tragedy, of course. But how lucky, when you think about it, that these diseases are are least species-specific. Instead of a chestnut blight, or Dutch elm disease, or dogwood anthracnose, what if there was just a tree blight? Something indiscriminate and unstoppable, that swept through whole forests? In fact, there is. It’s called… acid rain.

No, Bryson, it’s called people! Call a spade a spade! Sigh.

Later in the book, when Bryson and Katz (the brunt of all the best jokes) part company temporarily, Bryson shifts focus a bit toward the history of the AT and gets less jokey. I appreciate this content, but it lacks the sparkle of his more humorous writing. In other words, I felt that A Walk in the Woods struggled throughout with an identity crisis.

The audio edition is good, I’ll say that without qualification. William Roberts’s reading is hilarious, and suits Bryson’s writing voice well. The book is absolutely at its best when describing Bryson & Katz’s mishaps on the trail, and only mildly interesting (for those interested in such things) when it leaves their narrative to wander the AT on a more intellectual level. One final pet peeve: as far as I can understand, Katz and Bryson do a lot of littering. Katz repeatedly handles the frustration of his heavy pack by dumping gear, and I don’t think there are garbage cans out in the woods. (I hope not.) There are a cigarette pack and three butts discarded by Katz at an important point. This makes me ANGRY. Littering on the AT?!

Representative quotation:

I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory.

Me too, Bryson.


Rating: 5 cream sodas.

I wasn’t sure whether to go with 4 or 5; but I did finish the book, so there’s that.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

An essay collection that earnestly examines feelings–the author’s and the world’s.

empathy

Leslie Jamison follows her debut novel, The Gin Closet, with an essay collection that has earned her the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The Empathy Exams opens with Jamison’s experience as a medical actor. In this role, she is given a character, complete with props and not only symptoms, but behaviors: body language, failure to make eye contact, dishonesty. In portraying deception, or a pretended lack of self-knowledge, Jamison contemplates what it is to feel, how we communicate what we feel and what we do with these communications.

While all her essays are linked by the topic of empathy, their subjects range widely. One essay about incarceration deals with a man serving time for mortgage fraud who continues to declare his innocence; another covers the case of the West Memphis Three and the documentaries about them that so moved Jamison as a young woman. “Morphology of the Hit” studies Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which Jamison calls “a map for storytelling,” and she uses that map to construct a narrative of the random act of violence she experienced in Nicaragua.

Within the context of pain, both injury and chronic illness receive repeated treatment. The Barkley Marathon, a grueling, almost unfinishable race through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, is presented both as a subcultural phenomenon and a subtext for pain. Jamison attends a conference for Morgellons patients–who believe they are infested with fibers and foreign matter crawling out of their skin–and the few doctors who will take them seriously; she finds herself responding with such empathy that she is in danger of catching the disease herself. She also leads readers on two “Pain Tours,” closing with the specter of female pain, and female guilt over pain–making the studied choice to apologize for neither.

Throughout these varied topics, Jamison makes references to many thinkers and influences, from Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), Susan Sontag and Frida Kahlo to her own friends. Her essays often dwell in the theoretical and the academic; she is interested in philosophies, and admits to difficulty experiencing, recognizing and sharing her own emotions–a difficulty that occasionally manifests in pedagogy. However, readers will finish with no doubt she is sincere in her quest to own, identify and comprehend empathy.


This review originally ran in the April 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 itchy patches.

Not a great rating, right? Reminder: when I write reviews for the Shelf I work to (mostly objectively) state what is of high quality about a book, and who might like it and why; if applicable, I mention who might want to steer clear. When I rate the books here, I am stating my personal reaction. I think Jamison did good research & does some good writing; but the academic & theoretical nature of these essays didn’t appeal to me. I was hoping for a more emotional reaction to the world; and specifically I was interested in the medical acting concept, which received relatively little play time. I wonder if *I* have an essay to write about empathy, based on my experiences working in a cancer hospital. I don’t know that I’m ready to write it right now; but if/when I do, it will be more emotional and less cerebral than these essays here. Not better or worse; but this is how my personal reaction – the personal appeal this book had for me – rates The Empathy Exams.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

An accessible study of Seneca, adviser to the appalling and scandalous Roman emperor Nero.

dying every day

Classical historian James Romm tackles Nero’s Roman Empire, and the controversies and contradictions of the moral philosopher Seneca, in the appropriately titled Dying Every Day.

Nero became emperor in 54 A.D., at the age of 16, under the thumb of his overbearing mother, Agrippina. Like his uncle Caligula–who had also come to the throne at a young age–Nero scandalized Rome with debauchery, exhibitionism, violence and terror. Romm’s chapters are tellingly named: Fratricide, Regicide, Matricide, Matriticide and Holocaust are bookended by two Suicides, the whole capped by an epilogue entitled Euthanasia.

Nero’s legacy is fairly straightforward, but the tutor brought out of exile to prime him for autocratic rule is a more complex character. Seneca was a Stoic who admired Socrates and Cato, prolifically produced moral treatises and scorned wealth. In his role as Nero’s teacher, mentor and trusted senior adviser, however, he colluded in murders within the royal family and amassed a personal fortune. His prose and drama leave behind a contradictory image, and historians from his contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier? Romm (Ghost on the Throne) doesn’t claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 bloodlines.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

crossing to safetyIn the fine tradition of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Of Mice and Men, Crossing to Safety borrows its title from poetry – in this case, Robert Frost. I find this an interesting tradition; it does not always necessarily yield greater meaning, at least not for me (perhaps if I were better with poetry!), but I’m sure it does say something about the author and his tastes, and maybe about the book itself as well.

Crossing to Safety is a novel of four people, told in first person by one of them. At the beginning, our narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally have just traveled to Vermont to visit old friends; it becomes clear fairly quickly that Charity Lang is dying, attended by her husband Sid. These four have been best friends for decades, although they haven’t always been as close (especially geographically) as they’d like. Before spending much time in the Vermont of the present, Larry begins remembering their youth together.

Larry and Sally were newlyweds and new graduates during the Depression, when Larry got a one-year post teaching English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It’s not much – not much money, and not much security for the future; but they’re young, Sally is pregnant, and this is the Depression; they will take whatever they can get. Larry is determined to produce as much writing as possible. He wrings every moment out of every day: eating, sleeping, teaching, prepping for his classes, and writing. They meet another young couple, the Langs, and are impressed with Charity’s warmth and 1000-watt smile, Sid’s open heart and intellect, and not least, their money. Both Sid and Charity come from backgrounds entirely different from Larry’s and Sally’s; but despite being very wealthy, Charity’s ambition for Sid’s academic career makes the Langs no less dependent upon the university’s approval than the Morgans are. Strangely, despite vastly different financial circumstances (and during the Great Depression, when these things matter possibly more than ever), the foursome is able to form a singular bond. The Langs are generous without seeming to be; they honestly take pleasure in sharing, or need to share, and the Morgans receive gracefully and understand that they are giving a service, as well.

In fact, one of the main messages of this novel is that of this uniquely strong and loving friendship, which while it does contain some jealousies and insecurities, handles them with such grace that they don’t seem to matter; but another of its main messages, for me, was about class. It’s every bit as rare and surprising to me that such a wealthy couple and one that needs to work so hard for its money could be so close, and I think that’s at least as powerful a point as the first one.

Crossing to Safety is a quiet novel, in terms of having relatively little action. Arguably the greatest challenge faced by our foursome – certainly, by the Morgans – is Sally’s near-death from polio, which cripples her permanently; and yet this action takes place off-screen, as it were. Where many of the past memories are presented in flashback form, Sally’s experience is merely referred to. In other words, while there are certainly evocative, moving events in the lives of the Langs and Morgans, Crossing to Safety is overwhelmingly contemplative and rearward-facing: quiet, more than anything.

And yet, as Terry Tempest Williams quotes in her introductory piece to my edition, and as Stegner writes as Larry Morgan, this story is not dramatic in the sense of big reveals, cheating spouses, or large conflicts. And that’s okay – it’s beautiful, in fact, as a celebration of friendship (even while acknowledging flaws and hiccups) and life itself. The latter part of the book deals with end-of-life issues, and perhaps because I work in a hospital for a living, I found this section particularly thought-provoking. Here, as throughout, none of our foursome handles things perfectly, but we can still love them all.

Crossing to Safety is quiet and loving and lovely as a representation of marriage, friendship, ambition, contentment, and end of life. Stegner is a beautiful writer; I’m won over.


Rating: 9 picnics.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900′s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

never go backI believe I said earlier that this may be the sexiest Reacher novel yet. Possibly it’s just been a while since I read (or listened to) one, but I still think that may be true. He finds a beautiful woman in just about every book, and I appreciate that Lee Child always makes sure that the woman is intelligent, knows her own mind, and enjoys their relations as much as Reacher does; no bimbos or advantages taken. I’ll just say that this installment in Reacher’s saga is no exception, and leave it at that.

Never Go Back follows on the action of 61 Hours, in which Reacher talks on the phone with his successor, a Major Susan Turner, now the commanding officer with his old military police unit. He liked her voice; and now he’s gone looking for her. He travels by hitch-hike and bus to his former headquarters and approaches his old former office, but behind his old desk is not Major Turner but a man who tells Reacher that Turner took a bribe and is now under arrest. He then promptly recalls Reacher to his old command – back to being a major and serving in the army again! (This was a jaw-drop moment for me.) …and tells him about not one, but two cases being brought against him; thus the recall to service, so that the military can arrest him themselves.

This is how Reacher finds himself in a cell in the same unit as Turner; and if we know Reacher, we know he won’t stay there. He breaks them both out and they set out on the road to prove themselves both respectively innocent. There is a matter of a Los Angeles drug dealer with a 16-year-old head injury; a woman who claims to have known Reacher in Korea, around the same time; a bank account in the Caymans; and rogue military officers with access to every level of security. Reacher has to kick a bunch of butt, and Turner is equally awesome. I don’t know what to say about this book that is necessarily new. In fact, these books are absolutely formulaic – but if you like the formula, they remain pleasing. I like this formula. I don’t like romance novels, so I respectfully hand them over to the readers who like that formula; and we can all be happy. And I should point out that despite the formula (we know Reacher will get the girl; we know he’ll win the fight; we know Right will be restored), there is always suspense: we don’t know how the mystery resolves, necessarily. But we do know how it will end.

I did have some concerns. Reacher has always been interested in numbers and calculations, which is one of those intriguing character traits of his, but also contributes somewhat to his implausibly perfect persona. In this volume I think Child overshoots it considerably: there is a running game being played, both within Reacher’s head and out loud, involving 50/50 chances, coin tosses, equal probabilities one way or the other. But Child has the 50/50 concept badly mixed up with having two options. Just because there are two options – binary – does not mean the chances are equal both ways; I think very few of the 50/50 scenarios Reacher plays with in this book are actually equal probabilities.

But all in all, Never Go Back is more of the same, in the best possible way. I hope Child lives a long, long life and produces another 18 Reacher novels (at least); and I hope Dick Hill sticks around and keeps reading them, too. No other voice could ever be Reacher for me. And there is already another Reacher novel promised for this September!! I am content.

Final conclusion: if you like the Reacher model, you’ll be pleased with this installment.


Rating: 7 cars.

“The Etiquette of Freedom” by Gary Snyder

wildThis is the first essay in Gary Snyder’s collection, The Practice of the Wild. I’m going to post my thoughts on these essays one by one, as they fit into my reading schedule.

“The Etiquette of Freedom” begins by establishing the vocabulary for a discussion of “practicing” the wild. I think it’s useful for Snyder to explain this use of “practice”: he means it in the way we practice a religion (Zen Buddhism) or we practice yoga. Thus by “practicing” the wild, he tell us (in this book’s new preface), he means “a deliberate sustained and conscious effort to be more finely tuned to ourselves and to the way the actual existing world is.” As my yoga instructor likes to emphasize, this is not about achievement – that’s why we say that we practice. It’s a journey, not a destination.

The central work of this essay is for Snyder to define nature, wild, wildness and wilderness. While it was an interesting exercise, and I learned some history and some Buddhist principles and some biology (I had to look up ‘serows’)… I definitely look forward to some more concrete, applicable, how-to-live advice; or at least some more direct criticisms of our world. Every reader is seeking something different in every reading experiences, of course. In my reading at this time, I’d like something a little closer to our earth than this academic exercise.

However, I am always open to philosophies cleverly expressed: “if the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down.” Possibly I’m also partial to criticisms of growth in particular. I also like what Abbey wrote, that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Our societal confusion of growth with progress is a pet peeve of mine.

It also occurred to me that this more theoretical and linguistic approach might appeal to my mother the linguist. For example, “language is like some kind of infinitely inter-fertile family of species spreading or mysteriously declining over time, shamelessly and endlessly hybridizing, changing its own rules as it goes.” This is a favorite feature of language, I think, for her and me both.

I found myself seeking a definition of “etiquette” that fits here; he doesn’t mean good manners, does he? I need to find a decent dictionary; mostly the online ones give me just the standard definition, but I’m sure he’s using a more obscure secondary one. Funny, that an essay concerned with definitions would leave this one unanswered. I will use Merriam-Webster’s, “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life”, and extrapolate: I think Snyder means that he is seeking the conduct prescribed for practicing a free and wild life, or life in a free and wild world. Not in terms of table manners, then, but in terms of how to live.

What do you think, Pops?

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