So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Hello, all,

This blog is going on hiatus. There are several reasons. First and foremost, I'm running out of books I actually think everyone should read. I also just have too many irons in the fire, and something has to give. However, if you want me to start posting to this blog again, please say so--if there is a demand, I'll pick it up again.

In the meantime I will be reading more books, and if I come across any I think everyone needs to read, I will let you know.

-best, Caroline

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Honey From Stone: A Naturalist's Search for God, by Chet Raymo

My copy of this book bears a poignant reminder of impermanence that the author could not have known about, but which is nonetheless fitting. Written just inside the cover in a neat, almost calligraphic hand, is an inscription;

 The title alone makes 
me smile-- but the words of this book speak volumes to 
my soul... 
I know you'll get it--
Happy Winter Solstice

I'm not so sure of the name at the bottom, the first letter of which is stylized with loops and a heart and hard to read. "Amy" is just my best guess. I don't know who these people are; I found the book in a used book store while browsing there with my mother. How did this gift, this speech from one soul to another, end up in a used book store? Did the relationship fade, such that James no longer cared for the gift? Did James die, or fall on hard times such that he had to sell all his books? Was the book simply lost?

James, if you're reading this, contact me; I have your book.

If James (or Amy) does not contact me, there is no way I can ever know what happened. I have only this inscription, this spoor, of Mystery. And mystery, both in the sense of the unknown and the sense of the unknowable, is the thing that stalks and is stalked by Chet Raymo throughout these pages. As he says,

Knowledge is an island. The larger we make the island, the longer becomes the shore where knowledge is lapped about by mystery.

Raymo is a scientist,  and apparently a rather atheistic scientist at that. In many individuals, myself among them, religion in the traditional sense cohabits in the mind quite nicely with scientific ideas. If there is any friction between the two sets of ideas, they have long since called a truce, but not so for Raymo. And yet, he found himself wondering,

What is the relevance of traditional religion in the world described by contemporary science? Is scientific knowledge a satisfactory ground for the religious experience? Can the language of traditional religion constitute an appropriately modern language of praise?

Raymo's answers to these questions, in the form of a serious of essays touching and going from his rambles on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, are interesting enough for their content, but absolutely captivating for their poetry, a rush and surge of image and language that begs to be read aloud, that begs to be performed. And that is why you should read this book. I would read it aloud to you if I could.

Raymo is an atheistic mystic, an alchemist capable of calling from even unadorned geology and physics, yes, honey. The words are sweet on the tongue. In the end, his insistence on science instead of theology becomes less a closing of the mind upon the rigorous and narrow and more a kind of dedicated openness, a mind held taut by the dedication of not knowing and of seeking to know. As he says,

When I called out for the Absolute, I was answered by the wind. If it was God's voice in the wind, then I heard it.

Raymo, C. (1987).  Honey from stone: A naturalist's search for God. Hungry Mind Press: Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The New Natural Cat: A Complete Guide for Finicky Owners, by Anitra Frazier, Norma Eckroate

So, ok, not EVERYBODY needs to read this book, just those of you who have, or might someday have, cats. And you should not read it blindly, because as good as this book is, it could trip you up if you're not careful. I'll tell you what to watch out for in a minute, but first I want to tell you what a great book this is.

The new natural cat is a comprehensive introduction to holistic cat care, and by extension holistic medicine generally. Holistic medicine means looking at the patient's life as a whole rather than focusing in on a particular disease or health risk. From this perspective, physical health begins with a good diet, protection from environmental toxins, and protection from excessive emotional stress. Any particular diseases are usually seen as symptoms of an underlying imbalance in the patient's life--not that a holistic vet (or doctor) won't prescribe antibiotics and so on, but he or she will also ask about lifestyle. This book is not a veterinary manual, of course, but it is an introduction to a philosophy of health and the kinds of issues a holistically-minded cat-person should be aware of.

If you're not already interested in holistic medicine, you may be wondering why you should care. The short answer is that this philosophy makes a lot of sense to me, therefor I'm recommending it. The slightly longer answer is that I more or less followed its advice with my cat, Gertie, who was a rescue cat and had several severe health problems. She did not quite get cured--she died of cancer at about nine years of age--but her initial prognosis gave her only three years, and for most of her life she probably did not know she was sick. I know, no self-respecting science geek should draw any conclusions whatever from a sample size of one, but she was my cat, ok? Her story made an impression on me.

This book is also works well as a basic cat care book, by the way--it covers feeding guidelines, how to deal with matted fur, how to give pills, how often to clean the cat box, and plenty more, all illustrated with engaging stories about real cats the author has known. A book like this can't replace a good vet (though it did help me find a good vet), but it can be the voice of experience for a first time, or even third or fourth-time, cat person. We all need one of those.

The things to watch out for begin with the fact that Frazier sometimes over-states her expertise; she's not as reliable as she things she is. For example, she categorically states that declawed cats loose the ability to walk, balance, and even stretch and exercise properly. All this is plausible, since declawing actually involves the amputation of the last joint of each toe; a human missing the ends of all ten fingers would be genuinely disfigured. While I agree with her that declawing a cat is wrong (it's possible to trim, or even cover, a cat's claws, by the way), my mother's cat, another rescue, came to us already declawed and she shows no ill effects whatever. Basically, Frazier is like the cat lady next door; she's not a vet, and she doesn't know everything, but if your cat turns up with a problem she's a good place to start because she does know more than you do.

The other thing to watch out for is trickier. Frazier talks about so many great ways to give the cats we care about great lives that it's easy to read her book and fall into a sense of responsibility for a cat's great life. It's easy to believe that if you feed the right foods, offer the right fun and games, keep a home really free of toxins, and follow all her other suggestions, that your cat will never suffer. He or she will live long and joyfully and die quickly and painlessly. And maybe that will happen for your cat. But the sad fact of the matter is that we can't actually promise anyone a long, meaningful life free of suffering--not ourselves, not our kids, and not our cats. And watching a cat die is hard enough without blaming yourself for it.

But that's no reason not to read this book.

Frazier, A., Eckroate, N. (1990). The New Natural Cat: A Complete Guide for Finicky Owners. Plume: New York, NY.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Practice of the Wild, by Gary Snyder

             I read this book for the first time as an undergrad, as part of an independent study project. I don't remember why I chose the book, but I do remember really liking Gary Snyder’s writing. It was as though I'd always liked it, even though I'd never read any of it before, since so much of it seemed like something I had thought myself but hadn’t articulated yet, or perhaps hadn’t articulated as well.
 Writing critically about the book, as I was supposed to do as a student, proved difficult, though. It wasn't that I liked the book so much--obviously I am capable of analyzing books I really like--it was that he wrote so well that the writing itself disappeared entirely into his content. It's like how when a window does its job you look through it rather than at it. I look through Snyder's words to his ideas and have trouble looking at the words. Yet I can recognize that his words are beautiful; this is, technically prose, but many passages could be read as poetry,just for the sake of a kind of clean beauty of language and a bright economy of idea.
It is likewise difficult to discus the thesis of his essays critically, for not only does he present them in mythic and poetic language, which cannot easily be reduced and rationalized, but the mythic style is itself part of the message. The title makes a pretty good summary, if one is needed. “Practice” evokes something like a Buddhist meditative practice, and “wild” refers not simply to unmanaged nature but to an aspect of life that is, by its nature, unmanageable.
I am impressed by Gary Snyder’s command of cultural detail from at least four families of cultural tradition not his birth culture, plus ecology, natural history and etymology (I know enough about these things myself to recognize his knowledge as genuine) and his ability to synthesize these things to form a coherent philosophy of his own. I am even more impressed by his ability to face and clearly love the wild world without turning away in fear and grief. If I ever speak to him, I will ask him how he does it.
Several points of irony appear here, the most poignant being in a discussion of how to educate children; “so much is changing so fast—except, perhaps, caribou migrations and the berry ripening” (p. 56). Of course, in the past decade the climate of the far north has begun to shift so fast that these certainties, too, are being lost. Even when This book was written, much was being lost, or in danger of being lost. It is a celebration, an elegy, of an aspect of life that is endangered. That is why its mythic rhythms cannot be too far deconstructed--there is a danger of missing the point.
Snyder is as close to being a co-religionist as anybody can be, given that I belong to no particular religion, yet am deeply religious. Mine is something of a stew of science and paganism and Buddhism and, yes, some Christianity, too. Snyder's stew is similar, so his words are oddly familiar, like home. 
My favorite line in the whole book is “All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality” (p. 152). Yes, that’s right, that’s what I do.

Snyder, G. (1990). The practice of the wild: Essays by Gary Snyder. San Fransisco: North
Point Press.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Hello, Readers,
I have not forgotten you, I've just gotten distracted by life, and have not been thinking about books much lately. But I'll get back into the swing of things with a post for you sometime next week. Ok?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England., by Tom Wessels

Ok, in point of fact, I don't think everyone really needs to read this book, but I certainly needed to read it, and many people have found it both enjoyable and transformative. Maybe you will, too.

But I bring this up because the author, who is both my teacher and my friend, had his retirement party yesterday, and this post seems a fitting tribute--because this is the book that made him more less a star. A very woodsy and homey star, to be sure, but the man has a Wikipedia entry. This is also an appropriate book to follow the three books on restoration landscaping I've just recommended, because this is the book that inspired my interest in suburban ecology--though I'd be surprised if anyone who doesn't already know can identify the connection. This is a book about the woods, as the name implies.

Basically, it is possible to walk into a wooded area, look around for a while at the plants and the ground, and figure out the history of the area going back decades or even centuries. This book will tell you how to do that, or at least give you a taste of how you might do it, if you keep at it long enough. More importantly, this book is a way for people to connect more deeply with the read it and you start to notice more. It's written for central New England, and a lot of the details (which tree species mean what) will be different in other areas, but the method can be adapted to any forested area.

It's a fun book, easy to learn from, with wonderful pictures (thanks for them go to an illustrator I have never met), and I've found myself quoting from it, or at least using ideas and information from it, in person or print, often over the years. So I guess I have to take that back--I DO think everyone needs to read this book, or at least learn what it has to teach. If I didn't, I wouldn't keep passing on what I learned from it every chance I get.

Wessels, T. (1997). Reading the forested landscape: A natural history of New England. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy

People interested in ecologically sensitive landscaping are generally interested in native plants, but hardly anybody has a good definition of "native," nor any clear explanation of why nativeness is important.

This book, Bringing nature home, is the exception.

Natives, we often hear, are important because exotic plants can become invasive, or because they are not well-adapted to their new homes and so need extra water, extra fertilizer, and so on. Both are quite true, and both are very good reasons for avoiding exotic plants, but clearly they can't both be true of the same exotic plant species...explanations like these, and there are others, don't really get to the heart of the matter. They are reasons to avoid some exotic species, reasons to plant some natives, but they don't provide any cohesive justification for preferring natives categorically. These reasons do not help with questions such as are naturalized plants native? Are plants from another part of the same continent native? Are plants that were historically present on this exact spot before the climate zones moved still native?

Nobody has clear answers to these questions--except Dr. Douglas Tallamy.

Dr. Tallamy is an entomologist, and he therefor tends to see plant/insect interactions from a perspective the rest of us tend to miss--the insect's perspective. Some years ago, he noticed that exotic plants tend not to be chewed up by insects as badly as natives usually are--he wasn't the first person to notice this. In fact, one common explanation for how fast some exotic plants can grow is that the native insects don't know how to eat them. But Dr. Tallamy didn't look at the uneaten plants and think about the growth of vegetation; he looked at the plants the insects hadn't eaten and he thought about hungry insects.

Being a scientist, Dr. Tallamy didn't simply take his own word for it, of course; he conducted a series of experiments and found that, yes, native insects don't usually eat exotic plants. And yes, yards with a lot of exotic shrubs have fewer butterflies--and fewer songbirds--than yards landscaped with natives (songbirds mostly raise their chicks on insects, so no insects means no chicks).

The thing is, here on Planet Earth, all energy ultimately comes from the sun and is soaked up by plants. From plants, the energy goes through a series of animals, and makes the whole world go. Generally, the bulk of the plant-eaters are insects; insects are what a lot of other animals eat, either directly or indirectly. Planting a lot of plants insects can't eat is the same thing as shutting off the flow of energy from the sun.

Dr. Tallamy saw all this, and, alarmed, he started talking to everyone who would listen about landscaping with native plants. The people who listened asked if he could given them anything on the subject to read, so he wrote this book.

So, now that I've told you the moral of the tale, as it were (grow bird food: plant natives!), why do you need to read this book?

First, Dr. Tallamy delivers his message better than I do. He is one of the few writers I know of who can write well for both academic and popular audiences, and Bringing nature home actually follows all the major rules of good academic writing (clear, simple, and properly cited), while still being enjoyable to read--even if you're not an ecology geek. On the page (and in person), he is the very opposite of intimidating.

Second, there's other important stuff in the book; helpful plant lists and tables, beautiful pictures, and little hints at the mind-bending complexity of ecology. We are so used to thinking of good bugs and bad bugs, good plants and bad plants, and the real world doesn't work that way. For example, Dr. Tallamy describes finding a caterpillar eating one of his plants. He was on the verge of killing to protect the plant, when he noticed it had been parasitized by wasps--and the wasps had been parasitized by something else. If he killed all of the caterpillars, then the wasps would have nothing to eat and they would fly away. Then, when new caterpillars moved in (they always do), no wasps would be there to keep their numbers in check. But if nothing ate the wasps, the wasps would kill all the caterpillars themselves. So in order to protect his plants from the caterpillars, Dr. Tallamy not only had to actually have caterpillars in his garden (to provide food for caterpillar-killers), he also had to have caterpillar-killer-killers, to protect the caterpillars from the caterpillar killers, so enough caterpillars would be left to provide caterpillar-killer food.

This is how ecology works; there are no good guys and no bad guys, only a system of interactions that is only as stable as it is complex. Simplify the system--add exotic plants insects won't eat, remove insects that eat the plants, whatever it is, and something will go wrong.

See, this provides both a definition of "native," and a reason why native plants are important; a native organism is one that belongs to a complex web of relationships. If those relationships are missing, then it doesn't matter how long the plant is been here, and it doesn't matter how nearby its home is; it isn't native. And planting non-natives will jam the ecological web, like throwing rocks into the gears.

And of course, it's more complex than that. There are circumstances where exotic plants appear to be a good thing--places where exotics are the only known food of an endangered native butterfly, for example. See, insects don't read the scientific literature. They don't know what they're supposed to eat or not eat.

But wrapping ones' mind around this kind of complexity, and finding out a little more about what we do know, are more than enough reason to read this book. It could change the way you garden.

Tallamy, D.W. (2007). Bringing nature home: How native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens. Timber Press: China.