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:


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.

guest review of sorts: The Other by David Guterson, from Pops

In the same spirit in which we both read Endgame and Ishmael, Pops has recently read David Guterson’s The Other, and I have some snippets of his thoughts to share with you. For a little background, I read The Other too, a number of years ago (and pre-blog). I liked it very much; I found it thought-provoking and wise, and it reminded me of a very dear friend. I later read Guterson’s better-known Snow Falling on Cedars, and found it fine but not comparable – so there’s yet another case in which the general opinion differs from mine. Now I will turn this over to Pops, whose thoughts are just represented in brief passages here for you, along with those bits from the book that he found memorable. As ever, thank you Dad for sharing with us.


I just finished reading The Other, and it was quite stunning. In fact, it was nearly literally stunning. (Starting a book with a story about a couple runners is quite a hook for me anyway!)

Why did I wait this long to pick this book up? It has been on my shelf for years and I almost discarded it unread several times without ever knowing why I kept it other than a vague knowledge that it came recommended. I’m embarrassed to find that Julia even referenced it in publishing my comments about Fire Season! How could I have overlooked it for so long? Was this book exercising an independent will, waiting for a certain moment?

I don’t remember terribly many details of the plot from my years-ago reading, but I’ll try to assemble a quick synopsis from memory: two young men, Neil and John William, are friends in high school. They run together. After high school ends and they transition towards adulthood, they head in different directions. Neil becomes a teacher, and John William retreats towards the wild. He camps out in the woods, hikes, lives off the land. He is simultaneously very cerebral, reads poetry, discusses it with Neil; they correspond. They play chess. John William is the superior player. Gradually, JW withdraws more and more from society and from his family; he enlists Neil’s help in disappearing entirely. He wastes away out in the mountains alone in ways that look unhealthy to our eyes as trained by society. He also rejects some things but not others, in a way that looks hypocritical but, I came to feel, highlights the contradictions in us all, in society, in what the world has to offer us. I’m not expressing that well; I blame my distant and vague recollection of the book. JW comes to a less than savory end, and Neil is left with his own compromises.

My father does not discuss plot much here. He and I may have to have our own, off-the-record discussion; as I said in my review of Endgame (link at the top of this post), these issues are very personal, and at some point fall outside the scope of this blog. But in the briefest, sketchiest way possible, Pops says…

What is this book about? Why the impact?

• Two runners with a life long bond
• Seattle, the Olympics and other northwest locations evoked with affection and an insider’s eye
• Timing: in the midst of a streak of eerily connected non-fiction, a novel that matches the others for relevance
• Particularly & effectively juxtaposed with my other current read: E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth (an informed scientific look at “who we are”)
• John William, the character focus of much attention, seeks and ultimately sees too clearly the reality of human’s place on earth, and suffers the fate of such seekers; he becomes an isolated loner in an insane world, tragically fated to be branded insane himself (“the other”)
• Neil, the other character and narrator, who is painfully wedded to the civilization torturing his friend yet arguably as alienated in his own way, and ultimately as tortured by his addiction, notwithstanding sudden wealth
• Though only tantalizingly developed, I loved the character of his wife, Jamie.
• Why are Neil’s sons never named? There are more significant characters in the book, all named; but these are the beloved offspring of our narrator!
• Inspiring contemplation on humanity’s endless, frivolous and prideful introspection in pursuit of explaining who we are, while we never grasp the greater tragedy of our puny yet destructive role in the natural world
• The futility of wealth solving any of our problems – and thus the trivial & sad quest for it
• Brouwer’s, the notable Belgian beer bar in the UW area, is specifically described.

Following are some passages, to offer just a few places where I stopped to reread and contemplate.

This paragraph I reread many times, due to the language and the message hidden there; not an easy one to parse out!

“A light he was to no one but himself” – that’s a line from a Frost poem, “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” which a lot of students don’t respond to very strongly. “A light he was to no one but himself” – I wouldn’t choose that, and if I have to suffer it one day, because of circumstances, I’m fairly certain it will lead to my demise, because that cast, that illumination, is foreign to me – I’m finally saddled with my take on things as ineluctably as I’m slowed, and pained, by the neuroma in my foot. So be it. I have the beauty that I have, and none other, in the meantime. One thing has led to the next in my life, but like lines of a poem. I suppose I’ve thrown in my lot with love, and don’t know any other way to go on breathing. I embrace this world – the world my friend hated – and suffer it consciously for its compensations, and fully expect to awake one day to the consequences of this bargain I’ve struck, since life, eventually, closes in.

On heading into the woods, only to find that your mind is not quite with the program for some reason…

The place felt sinister though. Your imagination can get the better of you where a road ends against a forest. It’s easy to feel trapped with your back against trees. Vulnerable to all of this, I got on the trail and tried loving my solitude, but this was a futile and self-conscious effort. I didn’t want to be there, by myself, while the sun went down. I didn’t want to be hiking in such a tense silence. The maple leaves were youthfully green, but that didn’t ameliorate my nervous view of things. Before dark, I bivouacked, tentless, by the river, banking up a fire in front of a boulder and basking in its heat with my journal and The Collected Eliot, 1909-1962, which an excitable professor had asked me to scour, and although all of that might sound pleasant enough, or not a bad way to pass evening hours – especially with the din of water on the gravel bars and my view of stars illuminated silhouetted hills – I didn’t enjoy being there. I suppose you could say that my aloneness got the better of me, or that I felt fear that night, by the river, by myself – but fear of life, and not of animals or the forest. “The Hollow Men” didn’t help, because I couldn’t disown its mood, or break its hold on my thoughts, as I lay in my sleeping bag by those smoking coals, and though this temper made me tired, it also left me agitated enough to prod, more often than I needed to, the sticks I was burning. I mostly felt wistful. I didn’t want to have behind, already, some experiences I couldn’t have again. Reading Eliot by flashlight was like deciphering runes, and made it more difficult to sleep.

On how ephemeral is “reality” about ourselves (individually or as humanity), and how our “advanced” minds can create such enormous conceit out of nothing…

…maybe the truth is that truth is too complicated. If I extrapolate from myself, there’s a lot of deceit in the world without a beginning, middle, or end. The way it really works, a lot of the time, is that you suffer from the weight of what happened, from what you said and did, so you lie as therapy. Now the story you make up starts to take up space otherwise reserved for reality. For phenomena you substitute epiphenomena. Skew becomes ascendant. The secondary becomes primary. When it’s time to confess, you don’t know what you’re saying. Are you telling the truth, or do you confuse your lies with reality? The question is comical. The answer is lost in the maelstroms of consciousness. It’s even possible to pretend, eventually, that the question wasn’t asked. You’ve been kidding yourself about yourself for so long, you’re someone else. Your you is just a fragile fabrication. Every morning, you have to wake up, assemble this busy, dissembling monster, and get him or her on his or her feet again for another round of fantasy. Is this what some sutras by Buddhists are about? Maybe. The book-length bromides on mental health? At times. The biographies on politicians? Take Nixon or Clinton. Anyway, I don’t know anything about Rand or Ginnie. I don’t know if anyone tried to strangle John William. I don’t really know who tormented whom, or why, or if anyone was even tormented at all. I don’t even know much about myself. I only know that Ginnie protested with Chronic Obsessions pressed against her bibbed chest. Then she kicked me out.

And finally, two paragraphs near the book’s end, set apart in a section on their own, on the emptiness of wealth against a background of questioning…

Jamie and I turned in the ’92 Civic and bought a hybrid, which we recently took to the Canadian Okanagan – the Napa of the North that Wiley and Erin told us about. We walked, swam, biked, sunned, tasted wines, ate well, bought pottery, and watched the sun go down, and though all of this was fun, none of it made us happy. We both wanted something else that was unnameable. It might be forever unnameable. In this regard, money changes nothing, which Jamie and I knew before we had it.

When I think about my friend, I think about someone who followed through, and then I’m glad not to have followed through, to still be breathing, to still be here with people, to still be walking in the mountains, and to still be uncertain – even with all this cash on hand – in a way I seem to have no choice about. I’m a hypocrite, of course, and I live with that, but I live.

Powerful stuff.

It is powerful stuff. I realize we haven’t given you much of a review to speak of, here. But I hope we have expressed that Guterson tells a unique tale in an evocative fashion, that has managed at least to provoke two of us to further reflection and discussion.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

ishmaelIshmael comes recommended by my father, and that’s enough for me.

It’s an environmental novel published in 1992. So, dated? Or prophetic? I’m afraid it stands firm today; we can debate whether it’s overly alarmist (ha) or overly optimistic (sigh), but I didn’t run across anything that dated it especially for me. The premise is: our narrator (who, I’m pretty sure, remains nameless) is a disillusioned 30-something who, as a teen, had looked for someone to guide his idealistic, revolutionary, 1970’s-style environmentalism, and come out disappointed and cynical. Now that it’s “too late”, he’s frustrated to find the following advertisement in the newspaper:

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

(Is “newspaper” the term that dates this story?) Narrator responds jadedly, assuming this is a charlatan, a scammer; but still he goes to the address listed, because he has to satisfy his curiosity (and presumably because some part of him hopes that someone out there can really teach him how to save the world). In this anonymous retail space, he finds… a gorilla. A big, scary gorilla behind a glass wall; and on Narrator’s side of the wall, a chair. He eventually sits, and our gorilla – Ishmael – “speaks” telepathically to him. Ishmael relates his life story, and they begin discussing What’s Wrong With The World And What We Can Do About It.

Leaving aside the rather strange element of the telepathic and exceptionally well-read gorilla, the structure of this story is much like Sophie’s World, a novel I read pre-blog (thus no review here, sorry) and really, deeply loathed. It is credit to my faith in my father that I picked up Ishmael, knowing it was at all like that other. The structure I’m referring to is part of what I disliked about Sophie, although it works slightly better here: there is no plot, no action in the story, and no character development, because our characters don’t do anything. They form a didactic construction that allows Quinn, in ill-disguised fashion, to voice his own thoughts. If he were doing this in dialogue form, it would make a little more sense; but unfortunately the dialogue mostly consists of many paragraphs by one character, punctuated by the occasional “yes,” “true,” or “I don’t quite understand that part; can you tell me more?” from the other. Now, I liked what Quinn had to say, and I frankly liked the gorilla Ishmael, and so this framing element bothered me far less than it did with Sophie (shudder). But I still felt that it was unnecessary, distracting, and ill-concealed. I’d rather Quinn had just written a manifesto frankly stated as his own.

Quinn’s thesis in a nutshell is that our world is badly f*ed; humans have done it by behaving badly; and we need to change quickly if we hope to salvage the earth itself, its very deserving fellow occupants like butterflies, tigers, flowers and rocks, and any of ourselves. I find this thesis abundantly easy to follow. For decades we’ve known that we were badly screwing up this planet (unless you’re Big Oil and have found a way to put your head under the sand (to look for more oil) in which case you’re probably not reading Ishmael, or this blog). Actually I found the third part of the thesis – that we need to hurry up and change so that we can save the world – hardest to follow, because I think things are worse off than Quinn paints them to be. Of course, I’m writing this more than 20 years later, so I’ll give him a pass there.

That said, the friendly gorilla and the simply stated philosophical approach that he shares with our Narrator make an accessible argument. I could see this being a good entry-level discussion piece – or a jumping-off point for further discussion in a reading group or classroom setting. Ishmael is likeable, and the philosophy is mostly sound (at least until the part about how we can change; I am less hopeful than Ishmael is), and readable.

I am not sorry I read this. But I like Derrick Jensen’s Endgame better, even though it doesn’t have as happy an ending. More on that book to come.

Rating: 5 sessions.

article from Orion magazine: “Dark Ecology” by Paul Kingsnorth

This article came to me from coworker Liz (who always recommends good stuff), and simultaneously from Pops, who also thought it was great. That should be testimony enough; but I am unstoppable and will say just a few words myself, too.

Paul Kingsnorth writes about the future of ecology, conservationism, “green” thinking, or whatever you’d like to call it. This is “dark” ecology because the news is not good. I’ll let him give you the real dish because he does it better – as Pops says, “the good news is that Kingsnorth is a writer first, not a social scientist, so it reads pretty well” – but I really appreciated his willingness to look forward to what’s ahead and what we have to do differently than the old guard of environmentalism, which sadly hasn’t worked. And his ideas about what’s ahead and what we might do in anticipation, however dark, resonated with me. Plus, he writes beautiful thinking lines like these:

Our human relationship to the rest of nature is not akin to the analysis of bacteria in a petri dish; it is more like the complex, love-hate relationship we might have with lovers or parents or siblings. It is who we are, unspoken and felt and frustrating and inspiring and vital and impossible to peer-review. You can reach part of it with the analytical mind, but the rest will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains, which see in pictures and think in stories. Civilization has always been a project of control, but you can’t win a war against the wild within yourself.

I give you:


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