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, September 25, 2011

Jimmy Buffet's Lyrics

A friend of mine recently asked, via her own blog, which books her readers found inspiring--which made them better writers. I listed several, mostly those I've either listed here or plan to list in the future. But then today I had to clean the house, so I dug out some Jimmy Buffet to keep me going, and you know what? He's a damn good writer.

I used to admire Buffet. I used to say you could listen to his songs and learn how to live. I don't think that was well thought-out on my part. I mean, certainly some of his songs are inspiring, but others, and certainly the ones he's known for, are simply hedonistic and entertaining--good songs, sure, but partying on the beach was not what I meant by living well. I think I meant relaxing, enjoying life and being able to laugh at oneself, a message Buffet expresses adroitly, but there's got to be more, some element of service, of depth. That "more" is missing from Jimmy's oeuvre.

Yet the man can write, and I think now that sheer talent may have been the thing I was inspired by all along. It is he who has penned the line I consider one of the simplest, most beautiful I've ever encountered; "Ceiling fan stirs the air/cigar smoke did swirl." Nine simple words, and only two details, yet he evokes an entire almost tangible scene. Who else can do that? True, the verb tense shifts for no apparent reason (as it does several times throughout that song, “Havana Daydreaming”), but that's irrelevant before such clean economy. The line works. I like Jimmy’s sound, but he tends to keep re-using his tunes, with slight variations, across four or five songs. His voice is pleasant, he's a competent singer, but not much more than that. He's a brilliant showman, but really how many beach-party antics do you need? No, Jimmy's gift is his lyrics. Every time I hear those songs, how he puts words together, I want to be able to put words together, too. I set out, in this blog, to review and recommend books, but I'm allowed to expand that to other forms of written material. It's my blog.

Jimmy Buffet has written several books and short stories, including two children's books he co-authored with his older daughter, Savannah Jane Buffet, herself a child at the time. The books are interesting and fun, but I rarely re-read them. I am more impressed by the writing in his songs. Curiously, in his lyrics Buffet refers to himself not as a musician but as a writer. “If I Could Just Get it on Paper” is actually about the writing process;

Simple words can become clever phrases
And chapters could turn into books
Yes if I could just get it on paper
But it's harder than it ever looks

He concludes that song with the line “if I could just get it on paper tonight/I could tell you what I think I did.” That's one of the mysteries of writing; sometimes you don’t know what you think, or even what you did, until you write about it. You learn about yourself at the same time your reader does. Of course, the same song includes the couplet “life and ink they run out at the same time/or so says my old friend the squid,” which gets both sillier and more profound the more you think about it. Buffet is very good at lines that make you say “huh?”

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say you have to listen to Buffet. But if you do listen to Buffet, don’t just pay attention to the parrots and the pirates and leave it at that. Read the lyrics.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ok, you want something light and fun for a change? Well, here you go. Wizards and dragons and sailing. On the other hand, if you want to keep going in a deeper vein of principles and concepts, this book is for you, too. I read it for the first time when I was twelve or so, maybe younger, and I must have read it twelve times, maybe more, since then. This is the book that gave me ecological awareness, spiritual confirmation, and a larger context for the smaller details of graduate school. I find something new in it each time I read it. And yet, I promise you that if you read for pure enjoyment the big issues will not intrude. Except maybe later; I don't promise the book won't deepen your thinking, just that reading it won't seem like work. And it won't take a lot of time to read. It's only 163 pages long.
This double-headed quality, this equal comfort with the depths and the shallows of fantasy literature, is typical of Ursula K. LeGuin, and distinctive particularly of the Earthsea trilogy. While I am less familiar with the other two books, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, (I've only read them five or six times each) they also have their thought-provoking depths and their fun, sunlit shaEartllows. You could treat these three as Holy Writ, elaborating an entire spiritual tradition from them, though I suspect Ms. LeGuin would have the grace to object to such abject trust. Or, you could use them as rich, delicious food for thought. I won't ruin the fun for you by telling you the details of how my own thoughts have fed on this.
In recent years I've heard A Wizard of Earthsea compared to the Harry Potter books, and I admit there is, at first glance, some obvious similarity. Both belong to the young adult fantasy genre, and a school for magic figures heavily in this first of the Earthsea books. In both there are dragons, and in both some humans have magical power while others do not. But on closer inspection the similarity fades rather than grows. The moods of the two are strikingly different, to begin with, for even at its darkest Harry Potter touches on the silly; there is a comedic undercurrent to that world even when there is nothing whatever to laugh at in the plot. Earthsea is fun, but never funny. There are other differences. Probably it is only the current dominance of J.K. Rowling in the genre, combined with the fact that not all fantasy novelists decide wizards must go to school, that suggests the comparison at all.
It's worth noting that there are more than three Earthsea books. There are at least six, at current count, five of which I have read, yet I consider the first three a distinct trilogy. I do not know whether LeGuin does so, but the later books show a radical shift. Most strikingly, they do not ignore sex, as the first three books do. There's nothing even close to a sex scene, at least not in the ones I've read, but the characters think about it, talk about it, seek it, and decline to seek it, just like adults really do. I would not bar a child from reading the later books, and I actively encourage adults to read the earlier ones (read this book!), but a prepubescent child would probably not be interested in the characters' sexuality, especially in a book that is fundamentally not about sex or romance. The adults the later books appear to be written for would naturally have questions about it. A less obvious, but perhaps more important shift is that the later books explore gender politics as their central theme; the author's voice as a woman is very much part of the later narratives, while the earlier books could just as easily have been written by a man.
Ursula K. LeGuin does a lot of things very well. I could be here all night if I tried to write about all of them, and, frankly I have other things to do. So I will pick the one least likely to come up in discussion; she is fantastic at creating a world. Not just the social world, an impressive feat, but not an usual one among successful fiction writers. No, LeGuin also creates an entirely believable physical and even biological world using only a few sparse words; there are no extended expositions, just clean economy of language and a little animal called an otak hunting in the late afternoon for creek-crabs.

LeGuin, U.K. (1968). A Wizard of Earthsea. Bantam Books: New York, NY

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints in a Finite Earth, by Jim Merkel

            “As the reporters on screen combed the crew of the Exxon Valdez for the guilty, I looked across the polished bar at the mirror and knew it was me,” wrote Jim Merkel. He wasn’t an oil executive or a tanker pilot. He was simply someone who used oil. If no one use oil, there would be no market for the stuff, and oil spills would never happen.
            We are so afraid of guilt, collectively. Something goes wrong, and almost before the dust settles and the injured are treated the search starts for someone to blame, as if guilt were a bird, and if it isn’t settled on some appropriate perch quickly enough it might land on us. We might be crushed beneath its magically ballooning weight. Jim Merkel is different. He claimed 100% responsibility for the consequences of his own actions, ignored the fact that billions of other people are at least co-responsible, and did something about it. He dramatically reduced his resource use and has kept it that way for years. This is a book about how to do the same thing.
            The central gem of this method, aside from the fact that the author can serve as an example, is that it involves setting a goal. Most published material on sustainable living is strictly relative; change your bulbs to fluorescent, buy a hybrid, take the bus, eat organic. Do all those things, and your resource use will shrink; you’ll be doing better. Ah, yes, but will you be sustainable? Does “better” ever become “good”? The shadow side of environmental relativism, which holds that every little bit counts, that no effort is a failure, is that no effort is ever really a success, either. There is no way to measure your degree of success. Merkel walks the reader through the process of setting concrete, objectively meaningful goals. He also frequently suggests taking a break to go walk on the beach when you start to feel overwhelmed.
            There are many technical goodies here; lists and suggestions and rules of thumb. Merkel does a good job of making a complex process as simple workable and workable as possible. If you read this book and it lights you on fire and you follow its advice you will become one of the people the world needs more of. But I don’t actually recommend doing that. Markel does a good job, but he doesn’t do a perfect job. There are some places he causes unnecessary confusion or implies unwarranted clarity. There are other books you should read with this one, to get a fuller picture. I’ll recommend some over the next few weeks. But start here. It’s a fun read, on top of everything else.
            But beyond gems and goodies, here is the story of a man who didn’t shrink from guilt—and didn’t shrink under guilt, either. One of the chief complaints about environmentalists is that we make other people feel guilty. Actually, most environmental educators do everything possible to avoid inspiring guilt, because people who feel guilty usually just shut down. The key is to stay positive, stay encouraging, reassure everyone that it isn’t your fault, no contribution is too small, and you’re going to feel so great when you go green!
            But human beings have the emotion of guilt for a reason. It’s an inner warning system that we might have done something wrong that we need to fix. You know what to do if you see a warning light go on in your car, or wherever else; you check to see if there’s really a problem, and if there is you go about fixing it. Then the light goes off and you don’t have to look at it anymore. Guilt works exactly the same way. If you feel guilty, you either really did something wrong, in which case you can make amends, or your warning light is faulty, so you go in and turn it off. Guilt is not a punishment, it is not a judgment, and it is not an attack. It's just a warning light. It's what the light is warning you about that matters.
            So, as regards global environmental problems, I’m going to go out on an unusual limb, here. It is your fault. Mine, too. Now, get over yourself and get to work.

Merkel, J. (2003). Radical simplicity: Small footprints on a finite earth. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong

 I was, of course, emotionally touched by the attacks of September 11, 2001. I knew the world had, in some ways, changed. I did not, however, find that my view of the world changed all that much; I wasn’t shocked by more evidence that the world is dangerous and that some people in it are cruel. As the years went by I did not particularly mark the anniversaries of the disaster. Rightly or wrongly, I was preoccupied by current events, both personal and national, not by the recent national past. I don’t know why this year is different. Maybe it is the even decade that inspires me to add my voice to the national process of emotional digestion. Maybe I just have something to say; read this book.
Karen Armstrong is a religious historian. She is one of the few writers able to consider religion in a way that transcends individual religions. She can address each religious movement with sympathy, and in its own terms, and yet with a crisp analytical perspective. Despite a Catholic upbringing and training, her own leaning is reportedly now a form of fascinated agnosticism. In her writing, she assumes implicitly that religion is a facet of human psychology and culture, a response to the historical context in which peoples find themselves. Some would argue this is an incomplete view, and it may be, but she can bring a nuanced clarity to some very muddled topics, including, in this book, religious fundamentalism.
“Fundamentalism” is an odd word. It’s not the kind of word most people apply to themselves. Fundamentalists are the fanatics, the extremists, the terrorists, the crazies--in one way or another, the Other. Much of our national conversation takes the subject no further than that. Armstrong defines fundamentalism as a very specific kind of religious movement, an understandable response to a very real recurring problem that fundamentalists themselves usually can’t articulate. She points out that the vast majority of all fundamentalists are not violent, that fundamentalist movements exist within all the world’s major religions, and that far from being a return to tradition (as the members of fundamentalist movements generally claim) fundamentalisms are a distinctively modern religious impulse.
I will not try to summarize Armstrong’s argument, as I might not do it justice. I will say she is to be commended for making the argument, for un-othering the Other, and for making clear that whether Christian, Moslem, Jewish, or something else, fundamentalists the world over have a basic commonality. It’s not all or nothing, of course; religious communities are fundamentalist to varying degrees. They are us, and we are not fools to be worried about the course of our often overly materialist, frenetic civilization.
The Battle for God was published in 2000. Not surprisingly, a new forward was added by the author the following year, written only a month or so after the attacks. That forward reads raw in a way in a way we no longer are. It is uncertain, even reflexive, in a way nearly everyone was ten years ago, and that is as evocative of that time as anything can be. The forward is also a lucid reformulation of the ideas of the book around a specific, arresting event. The forward alone is worth the price of the book.
I should point out that several books exist with similar titles, including another by Armstrong; The History of God. It, too, is a good book, but it is a different one.

Armstrong, K. (2000). The battle for God. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Living Planet, by Sir David Atenborough

Sir David Attenborough, the documentary film-maker, was my first hero. Yes, I am a geek. I wanted to be like him when I grew up. I wanted to be a scientist, by which I meant someone who goes to interesting places and knows lots of interesting things, and tells other people about them. The fact that Attenborough's actual job was to create television, something I have never had any interest in doing, flew right over my head; television just was, it was what the people on TV did that I could relate to. What Attenborough did was to stand or sit or climb or ski into some outlandish, living context, face the camera and (short, greying hair mussed-up by the wind, usually a hint of a smile) know everything. I was smitten. I remember watching a documentary series of his on PBS and liking it, although I don’t remember its name or content. Then, “The Living Planet” came out, and that was even better. I even remember to promo for it; he was walking along a wild beach, looking wind-swept, as always, and said “The Living Planet—watch out for it.” It sounded oddly like a warning. I was six or seven years old.
My parents later got me the companion book to the series as a present. Of course, it was way beyond my reading level, and I found my hero’s presence in book form oddly overwhelming, so I hid the volume on the bottom of my book shelf. In time, preoccupied with new ideas and new people, as children are wont to be, I almost forgot about Attenborough. I even forgot about wanting to be a scientist, though eventually I rediscovered that interest through unrelated channels.  I hardly looked at the glossy coffee-table book again until one day in college when I had to write a book review and did not otherwise have an appropriate book. I became enraptured all over again.
The pictures are gorgeous. The structure (which mirrors that of the TV series, allotting one chapter per broad habitat type) is clever and accessible. And the writing is…see, for all my admiration of him, I’d never realized Sir David Attenborough can write. It sounds strange, but I'd never thought of him as good at anything, because I became aware of him before I could think in those terms. I knew I liked his work, but I had never analyzed its quality. Anyway, certain skills function rather like windows; when they're done right, no one notices them except other window-makers. I don't make TV. I do write, and so I can look at the window of Attenborough’s writing, and it is clear, clean, and looks out upon the whole world.
He has a knack for giving the reader the impression of actually being there. My favorite non-fiction writers all do this, but Attenborough’s method is slightly unusual; instead of using an engaging first-person voice that simulates the reader’s own inner narrative, Attenborough uses the second person, as though he is giving directions. In discussing volcanic vents in Iceland; “If you approach upwind, much of the heat as well as the ash is blown away from you…[until the wind shifts]. You must then either keep a sharp eye out for flying boulders or run for it” (p. 20). He makes it sound as though this is an experience we all share, or will share soon, as a matter of course. Like, you know, when you go to the store you’ve got to remember your shopping list, and when you go to a volcanic vent you’ve got to keep a sharp eye out. Maybe this treatment of the fantastic as familiar is a suggestion?
Sir David Attenborough is, and remains, a hero of mine because he is knowledgeable, skilled, passionate, and dedicated to the world. Almost thirty years after I first became aware of him, he still sometimes pops up in the news in relation to one or another environmental cause. He must be in his eighties. He also knows how to laugh at himself. You don’t see this much on camera, and it does not appear in the book, but I did see an out-takes show from “The Living Planet” years ago. Alongside the expected misbehaving birds and so forth was a sequence where Attenborough was supposed to be standing, on skis, on a snowy slope speaking earnestly to the camera. In the series itself, that’s what you see. But at least once, during filming, it didn’t work. Watch the out-take, and right in the middle of a sentence he slips and vanishes from the frame. The camera swings down-slope and there he is in his insulated suit and skis, a crumpled heap of Attenborough lying in the snow—laughing his head off. He didn’t have to release that cut, you know. I’ve always loved a man who can laugh, and in some sense I guess I’ve always loved him. It was the quality of his writing, a difficult craft I, as an adult now, can relate to, that made him real again for me.
At one point Attenborough describes walking up a river valley in India, into the Tibetan plateau. Gradually the flora and fauna change with elevation, and mountains tower up on either side of the deepest river gorge in the world. It’s all very matter-of-fact, no flowery poetry, dramatic simile, or personal reflection. A week or so later, I saw the same river valley mentioned, by name, in another book in a different context. My first thought was “hey, I’ve been there!” I’ve never been to Asia, let alone that one valley. That is what this man can do.
Do you actually need to read this book? Probably not. It’s a good introduction to some basic ecology, and it’s an enjoyable read, but that’s about it. But come on, I’m allowed to boast a little on behalf of my hero, now aren’t I?

Attenborough, D. (1984). The living planet. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.