guest review: A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, from Pops

Thank you, Pops, for sharing another recommended read. I remember hearing about this one several months ago!

Truly a classic of Scottish literature, A Scots Quair is a fictional trilogy written in 1932. I am totally enthralled; it is proletarian rustic history, romance of the earth, real-time anti-war essay, epic of Scotland’s industrial emergence, Victorian romance, visionary social observation, heartfelt conservationist ecology, salt-of-the-earth characters, staggering timeless relevance, Gaelic heart, linguistic challenge, lyrical poetic voice. Simply amazing. There are also striking cultural & spiritual similarities with the Pacific Northwest, and I’m not just talking cold & rain!

This was a “recommended” book discovered in planning for our 2010 trip to Scotland, which I loved and it certainly contributed to my appreciation and devotion here after such long delay. I wrote most of this summary after reading only book one, and it rings true as I finish the set two months since beginning the journey.

My paperback is printed in painfully small print; that combined with the blend of colloquial Gaelic & unfamiliar sentence structure to present a long learning curve before I fell into its flow and grew to cherish its voice. It took me a while to squeeze this commitment into a busy time, but after that tentative beginning I never wavered; the story was a reliable companion and ultimately I rued reaching the end.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the author. He writes of the period in which he lived: the dawning of the 20th century in Scotland up until publication in the 30s. The helpful 1986 Introduction by scholar David Kerr Cameron notes: “Sadly, Gibbon died aged only thirty-four, in 1935, almost as he completed the trilogy that would be his outstanding achievement, already aware of the fate of his beloved peasant folk but hardly realizing how important he himself would become.”

The story observes the course of change during this time in northeast Scotland by following Chris Guthrie from her birth to death, divided into three formative periods & locales in her life. The characters flowing in and out are countless, yet so many become familiar & cherished. Tragedies of the time are ever-present, as is a rich appreciation of nuance and humor in those lives. I am struck again by the wonder of a female character portrayed so compellingly by a male author.

This is one for all time, and I thirst to find some of it’s legacy in other forms…

guest review: The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt, from Pops

This review bears on some recent discussions: scientific fiction and scientific nonfiction.


Thanks to Kirk Smith at his blog, Fiction About Science, for both passing on a copy of this book to my Pops, and for publishing his review there. I am reposting it here, as originally published by Kirk Smith.

falling sky

The Falling Sky is about a “realistic scientist doing realistic science.” That is the hook that brought me to this special first novel written by a PhD astronomer, now a recognized writer in Edinburgh, Scotland. But it is so much more than that.

One could say this is the insightful story of a young woman finding her way from adolescence into a life of her own; or her personal contemporary tale of sexual awakening and relationships with other women; or a striking and remarkable exploration of how a scientist’s unique perspective can literally saturate the way she perceives and interacts with everything around her; or an emotionally wrenching journey with a family trying to make sense of a pointless and tragic death. It is really all of that.

That may seem to be quite a burden to place on an easy-reading first novel of only 264 pages; but Goldschmidt succeeds gracefully and does not overreach. Her story of Jeanette comfortably weaves modest measures of these elements together – and tempts the reader to fold closed the pages, finger inserted, while looking off into space to savor the author’s words and Jeanette’s thoughts. In that sense, this is not a “quick read.”

There is fuel here for artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists alike. Those familiar with Edinburgh are teased with pleasing glimpses.

But for one so inclined to the feast, it is possible to see the scientific perspective virtually everywhere in this story; in its language, metaphors, analogies, repetition of certain words and its oblique references to black holes, cosmology, time scales, anti-matter, entropy. Some may see excess or stridency in this; for those it should be accepted as essential immersion in Jeanette’s world, as setting and mood, and not as cause for anxiety or fear of missing something. There is more to savor.

Storytelling here is not linear, but not distracting: chapters alternate between “Now” and “Then” as the 3rd person narrative traces Jeanette’s young life as an astronomer while we gradually learn more of her adolescent past. She is smart & ambitious, yet confused. She is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lens often fails her in navigating the human world of relationships. She is an emotional creature like all of us, and it wrenches her life. The reader is drawn in as she searches.

For my money, this is a beautifully composed review, as well as describing what sounds like a quite attractive read. The book is in my hands now, so eventually you can expect me to weigh in. Thanks, Pops.

the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)



An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

Kingsolver on Knitting and The Interconnectedness of Life

Barbara Kingsolver has captured my heart with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior. Only fitting, then, that she should make such a charming, truthful, and lyrical submission as this to Orion magazine: “Where It Begins”. I can’t decide which is more valuable and valued: her lovely message, which I won’t sully by summarizing, or her lovely writing, for example:

…banish all possibilities, the winter and the summer, the bare feet under the table, the shattered day undone and dregs of old regard and bitter unsettled tea leaves and the words forever jostling ahead of each other in line, queuing up to be written. Especially those. Words that drub, drub, drub at the skull’s concave inner wall. Words that are birds in a linear flock, pelting themselves in ruined fury all night long against the windowpane.

I am so very happy to hear that words are still drub, drub, drubbing at her skull’s inner wall, because I want them out here.

Enjoy. (Thanks, Pops.)

Stretching by Bob Anderson (illustrated by Jean Anderson)

I received my copy of Bob Anderson’s iconic Stretching on my 16th birthday, as you can see here:

stretch

That inscription reads, “Happy 16th Julie. May you always keep on stretching mind, body & soul – 7 years & beyond! Love, Dad.” You see I was Julie rather than Julia and he was Dad rather than Pops – it’s been a little while! (The 7-year part is a reference to my aunt (my father’s sister) Laura Kastner’s book, The Seven Year Stretch.) I was a young athlete and my father was a slightly older one, and he wanted to pass on the important lessons communicated here.

stretchingStretching was originally published in 1980, before I was born; my copy was printed in 1997, but this book has been through multiple editions since. I still see posters on the walls at gyms and the like with Jean Anderson’s recognizable illustrations, teaching Bob Anderson’s stretches. Paging through this book now, I am impressed at how well it stands up. We mostly still use the concepts outlined here. I showed it to my physical therapist’s intern (hi, Percy!) and he thought it still looked pretty solid.

The book opens with chapters on who should stretch (hint: he’s pretty inclusive), when to stretch, why to stretch, etc., and then begins on the stretches themselves, which are heavily illustrated. The illustrations, by the author’s wife, are perfect: simple line drawings that show the positions used, with cross-hatching to indicate where I should feel the stretch.

I hope the Anderson's won't mind my sharing of this one page (click to enlarge)

I hope the Anderson’s won’t mind my sharing of this one page

A good portion of the book is dedicated to these text-and-illustration teachings; and then come combinations of stretches, like stretching routines for times of day and while watching television, and for various sports. As a soccer player I wore out that two-page spread; as a cyclist I keep a photocopy of the corresponding two pages handy. Then there are exercises for developing strength; a note to teachers and coaches; and advice on nutrition, back care, and running and cycling techniques. The nutrition part is a little more apt to be dated – possibly outdated, depending on what you believe, but mostly dated in the sense that today a person could read copious volumes on any one of several dozen faddish, extreme dietary programs (yes, I’m looking at you, Paleo), and Anderson’s advice is old-fashionedly simple. Also charmingly dated is the bit on cycling technique; nothing I found in a quick skim is wrong, but as with nutrition, it’s a far cry from the laser-heavy methods of precision bike fitting we use today. Frankly, I miss Anderson’s matter-of-factness and simplicity, but there you are.

In a word, this is a great reference manual for anybody – literally – but possibly of special interest to athletes, because of the sport-specific advice offered. Although old, it’s still gold. Thanks, Pops! Still stretching!


Rating: 9 deep breaths.

a few short pieces


“A Shirt Full of Bees” by Bill McKibben

My father sent me a copy of this essay, but it’s not shareable under copyright restrictions; and I couldn’t find a publicly accessible version I was happy with. I’m sorry. If you can track down this issue of Utne Reader, through your local library for example, you can read the article yourself.

How strange the way things come together. I’ve just recently been enjoying Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; and my favorite parts of that book are her in-depth, lengthy examinations of parts of nature. One of those subjects she gets good and lost in is newts. And here is Bill McKibben, opening “A Shirt Full of Bees” with an episode starring Terry Tempest Williams (When Women Were Birds; I also loved her Pieces of White Shell) and a newt. Williams crouched on her haunches for half an hour examining the newt, “lost in the world of the newt” in McKibben’s words, and he found himself bored, restless, ready to keep walking, to reach the summit – something we do constantly, of course. And then, on another day, he steps on a yellow jacket nest, and as he erupts in hives and dashes down-mountain for medical aid – “My dog was the best dog I’ve ever had, but I doubted she was up to surgery” – McKibben sees more clearly the beauty around him. That’s the larger point in this short essay: we are always pushing for the summit, and too busy to examine the newts on our path. As I observed in Oil and Honey (the only one of his books I’ve read; but my father is rather an expert), McKibben is a gifted writer. He pulls together two anecdotes – his walk in the the woods with Williams and the newt; his walk in the woods with his dog and the yellow jackets – in a lovely, poignant, meaningful, beautifully written and well-structured essay of three pages. This is the goods, right here.


“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth

Pops reminds us that Kingsnorth was the author of “Dark Ecology” that I discussed back in January. This latest is available here.

Kingsnorth opens charmingly with recollections from his youth, ages 12, 19, and 22, in natural settings. These are the experiences that taught him to love “the other-than-human world.” He became an “environmentalist,” that radical thing. And now he laments what “environmentalism” has been bastardized into: a quest for zero-carbon emissions, for alternative energy sources, for sustainability – all good things, doubtless, except that “sustainability,” he argues, is code for finding a different way to do the same things we do now. In other words, we need to release less carbon, so we need to find another energy source so that I can still have my lights and electricity and drive my car and buy my cheaply made clothing at the mall. He points out that we seek a way to sustain our lifestyle – not to sustain the earth, which is sort of what we claim to be seeking. And of course there is the central, painful irony, that “the farmers are being edged out by south-country refugees like me, trying to escape but bringing with us the things we flee from.” He even addresses the touchy subject of “industrial wind power stations (which are usually referred to, in a nice Orwellian touch, as wind ‘farms’)” which McKibben has also struggled with. Are “wind farms” environmentalist?? There is an argument.

Kingsnorth is clever in his criticisms: “these days I tend to consider the entire bird with a kind of frustrated detachment” (that is, the oft-cited bird that has a left wing and a right wing), with which I certainly sympathize; “the colonization of the greens by the reds” characterizes all those myriad left-wingers (“disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists, and a ragbag of fellow travelers who could no longer believe in communism or the Labour Party or even George Galloway…”) who’ve taken over his movement. But don’t let his wittiness distract you from the fact that he is right. Again ironically, the problem seems to lie in the success of the “green movement”: save-the-planet is now a perfectly respectable, mainstream concept that you can now find on 3 out of 4 cereal boxes, and that bringing of Kingsnorth’s environmentalism into centrist politics has weakened it, watered it down, naturally, as centrism does.

Like the earlier Kingsnorth piece I read, this one gives quite a dark view in examining “environmentalism.” But like that other pessimistic-or-realistic writer, Derrick Jensen, I see his points, and I’m rather more inclined to follow him than I am to follow McKibben’s optimism.


“A Tough Flower Girl” by Phillip Connors

I am not yet done following Phil Connors. This is not a new piece, but one I’ve had to reread now that I am an affirmed follower of Norman Maclean. Connors’ article is available here.

Another fine piece of writing: Connors explores what we find so moving, timeless, and important in Maclean, but he also creates a piece of art in its own right. This short article is an excellent introduction to Maclean, in his best-known A River Runs Through It (and the two accompanying stories), in Young Men and Fire (better-loved, I think, by both Connors and myself), and in The Norman Maclean Reader (imperative for those of us left wanting more by the first two). It is an incisive piece of literary criticism and appreciation; but it also includes a personal story, as Connors opens by pointing out his biographical similarities to the great Maclean. If it is indeed “uncool to admit an enthusiasm based in part on biography”, call me uncool. Not that I share biographical parallels with my literary idols (ha), but I certainly consider their biographies integral to my appreciation. Funnily, I have just finished searching for a good Maclean biography, and am disappointed by the lack. Somebody please write this book. Phil?

Read this article because it says true things about an amazing writer, but also because it is in itself a sparkling, crystalline beauty.


“Smoke” by Phillip Connors

A new piece from Connors, available here.

I am reminded of how much I love Connors’ voice, that he isn’t afraid to have one, first of all, and that he is both intellectual and casual in it. He acknowledges that “self-quotation is a dishonorable habit, but it sounds a little smug to say I saw it coming and leave it at that,” and so he self-quotes from Fire Season, that book I loved so much, in which he predicts that “the big one” is coming. “If you live on a peak in fire-prone country, as I do every summer in the Black Range of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, the big one will eventually come for you.” This very short piece is the story of that fire beginning, and beginning to be fought, and its victory: it burned over two hundred square miles, just this past summer of 2013. There is always a conflict in considering these events. Fire is nature, a natural part of a forest’s life cycle, healthy. But we the human influence have thrown that cycle off until the fires we finally earn and reap are less healthy for the world we’ve come to love, and that’s part of the tragedy that Connors has to share. He ends this piece, appropriately, on a conflicted, hopeful, tragic note. At least he has those memories.

I’m looking forward to the next book that he is reportedly working on now.

the hermit thrush

My parents have recently moved from Houston to northern Washington state, a scant 20 miles from Canada. Pops wrote me an email the other day which I will share in part, with some locations redacted…

First, I’ll remind you the ringtone I assigned your number on my phone is the Hermit Thrush.

Today I rode a big loop out —- and back along the shore of —-; as I rode a quiet back road bordered by forest, I was climbing a moderate hill at a steady pace, but slow enough on a low-wind morning to enjoy near silence, hearing & seeing detail in the woods as I passed; it was then that the Hermit Thrush sang out as your text came in; and I swear I heard a thrush answer in the forest!

That’s happened before, back in Texas, with the Tufted Titmouse assigned to your mother – but there are no Thrushes in Texas; I haven’t yet determined if the thrush we hear around town here is the Hermit or one of the others. The book makes it hard to tell the difference; but somebody out there liked it today!

I commented that that must be a very high-quality ringtone!

from here

from here

The ringtone is an actual recording of a bird; the small speaker of a phone is naturally more effective with high pitched sounds, like bird songs, so it really is natural sounding and projects well from my jersey pocket.

One way researchers “search” for rare birds is to play recordings of their songs & calls and listening for a response, so we shouldn’t be surprised this works.

Indeed – and that makes sense; but still, who’d have thought? And by the way, according to this range map, the hermit thrush is in fact quite likely to be in my dad’s new neighborhood.

So why I am sharing this on my book blog? Well, I continue to be struck by the episodes of coincidence (if you like) or of synchronicity that inhabit my life, my world, and my reading (and cross over from my reading into my “real” world). The final page of the book I reviewed yesterday, Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover, made me think of my father, because it made reference to the song of the hermit thrush:

A hermit thrush spilled one long crystalline note, stilling all the earth to listen, and then poured out an ethereal flute song, over too soon. She closed her eyes, waited. Again, that purest of tones, long-held, chillingly beautiful, and then the cascade of melody like a tumbling stream. A spirit song. For her.

If she could sing like that thrush, what would she sing?

[You can listen to its song here, thanks to the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.]

The next paragraph references, among other trees, the Douglas fir, another species belonging to my parents’ new habitat and appreciated by them. It just goes to show that life really does imitate art, and/or the reverse, and that that’s as it should be.

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