Every so often, I read a book that reminds me what great writing is. This is one of those books. If you've forgotten what the difference is between "MEvery so often, I read a book that reminds me what great writing is. This is one of those books. If you've forgotten what the difference is between "Marley and Me" and truly great literature, pick up this book and just read the first chapter. I found it refreshing, exhilarating, and challenging, and incidentally, it's a great book to read if you're pondering what "America" really is....more
I chose this book because I was in search of a gentle, soothing, modern-day narrative with an eye for the changing seasons. “Astrid and Veronika” is mI chose this book because I was in search of a gentle, soothing, modern-day narrative with an eye for the changing seasons. “Astrid and Veronika” is more about the “landscape of a friendship” (Kim Edwards) than actual landscape, but I found its peacefulness, simplicity, narrow scope, and eye for detail genuinely soothing as well as refreshing. A welcome change of pace from the more frenetic, hysterical prose I associate these days with best-sellers. ...more
This evocative and touchable book with its museum-esque illustrations done in collage and watercolor impressed me with its situational-ness. Not onlyThis evocative and touchable book with its museum-esque illustrations done in collage and watercolor impressed me with its situational-ness. Not only does it retell the story of the fateful day Rosa Parks first said "No," it tells us she said it on a day in early December, that her husband was recovering from a bout of flu that morning, that the woman who subsequently called for a bus boycott was buying macaroni and cheese at the Piggy-Wiggly when she learned of Rosa's arrest. If you like texture and detail, you'll like this book....more
This is a powerful, lyrical book, at the same time moving and stark. My best guess is that the illustrations are done in acrylic/tempera paint with poThis is a powerful, lyrical book, at the same time moving and stark. My best guess is that the illustrations are done in acrylic/tempera paint with possibly some pencil flourishes, and the way the paint saturates the entirety of each page contributes to the feeling of being transported to another world—appropriate for a book about the Underground Railroad. ...more
There's something pleasing about seeing aitches with ears and esses with spots. This symbolic, inventive, evocative, voluable (valuable?) alphabet booThere's something pleasing about seeing aitches with ears and esses with spots. This symbolic, inventive, evocative, voluable (valuable?) alphabet book displays each of the letters in the English alphabet as a pictogram redolent of an endangered animal whose name begins with that letter. (Hence ‘O’ becomes Rocky-Mountain Spotted Owl, ‘T’ becomes Tapir, etc.) Some of my favorites are A, D, H, Q, T, and Y. However, this book impressed me more with its overall sense of rhythm and ‘movable type’ than individual pictorial flourishes....more
This is a colorful, multi-cultural, nebulous, mysterious, busy children’s book whose illustrations, I’m almost positive, include an element of fingerpThis is a colorful, multi-cultural, nebulous, mysterious, busy children’s book whose illustrations, I’m almost positive, include an element of fingerpaint as well as chalk and charcoal....more
This book is two things. On the one hand, it’s impressively researched and to all appearances extremely logical, and its harsh criticism of the Bush aThis book is two things. On the one hand, it’s impressively researched and to all appearances extremely logical, and its harsh criticism of the Bush administration is no doubt warranted. However, it is also at least partially, partisan, simply by virtue of being penned by a former Democratic Vice President and Presidential candidate in a year directly prior to a Presidential election. So, I read it and became vastly better informed on a whole host of issues as well as inspired by new ideas, but I also became more entrenched in my previous positions—an experience which I imagine would hold valid for readers of either political party....more
According to Bill McKibben, “This is one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting,” and I agree witAccording to Bill McKibben, “This is one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting,” and I agree with that characterization, minus the hyperbole. In "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman asks us to “picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow” (4), whether as a result of an unspeakably efficient virus, a religious rapture, or alien kidnapping. The cause really doesn’t matter, because Weisman’s focus isn’t on us: it’s on the earth we would leave behind, the earth exactly as it is at this moment. “How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces? How would it undo our…cities and public works…our plastics and toxic synthetics…our art, our many manifestations of spirit? (4)” While the book is eerie in spots (especially the description of a lone electrician cannibalizing spare parts in a silent, abandoned high rise hotel in Cyprus two years after civil war descended on the country in 1974), it poses a fair question. After all, how do we know just what our effects on the earth really are without answering what the earth would be like without us?
Understand, Weisman isn’t asking from an attitude of “Oh, the whole planet would just be better off!” In fact, as chapter followed chapter, I was more and more impressed by the various situations human beings could not just abandon without the whole earth paying a huge price. One obvious advantage of us sticking around is our efforts to protect and promote threatened and endangered species. Another at least potential upside, is our ability not just to cease the activities that have placed so much stress on our planet but to commence activities that will counteract them—i.e. we have the power now not just to offset our carbon use but to find ways to sink the excess carbon we’ve already spewed into the atmosphere. If we were all to vanish tomorrow, our exhaust-spewing and CFC-emitting and DDT-spraying (still used all over the developing world) would stop, cold-turkey—probably a good thing, yes—but all of the carbon already in the atmosphere would just cycle slowly, slowly through the oceans, through plants, for millions of years before returning to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Same sort of deal for mercury in the oceans, plastic in landfills, and nuclear waste…
Speaking of which, Weisman actually details what the consequences would be if humans just stepped away from our 441 functioning nuclear power plants, our ICBMs, and temporary nuclear waste storage facilities. “Chernobyl” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Chernobyl’s cesium-137 and strontium-90 have 30-year half-lives (216). Weapons-grade plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,110 years (202). Uranium-235’s is 704 million years. U-238’s (“depleted” uranium) is 4.5 billion (205). The U.S. just began permanent storage of nuclear waste—in 1999, in New Mexico (206). Most is floating around, stored temporarily in holding tanks and waste processing facilities, and without humans to tend to their preservation and burial (cross your fingers for seismic stability), the earth would experience something on the order of at least 441 Chernobyls. Not to mention elevated levels of hydrogen cyanide, dioxins, furans, lead and chromium and mercury (140) from our countless oil refineries and petrochemical plants, two other enterprises that don’t really allow for a clean hasty exit. Thus, if nothing else, this book exposes the LaHaye/Jenkins "Left Behind" series as the worst kind of pulp fiction it is—more concerned with conservative fundamentalist Christian ideology than with the ultimate fate of God’s creation and created.
Weisman does briefly touch on the religious dimensions of his question in a final chapter, entitled “Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls;” however, he mostly ignores the alternative futures and “end-time” scenarios proposed by various religions since they all focus almost exclusively on humankind’s ultimate destiny and not Earth’s. To Weisman, those destinies are inextricably linked.
Weisman is a journalist, his prose reflects it, and for my part, I enjoyed his “facts first” approach. I believe that a true appreciation for the reality of any situation arises more from a knowledge of specific details than broad themes, and every so often, a particular detail in "Without Us" would leap off the page at me, shock and illuminate. For example, Weisman writes, in relation to the lifespan of plastic, “Would geologists millions of years hence find Barbie doll parts embedded in conglomerates formed in seabed depositions? Would they be intact enough to be pieced together like dinosaur bones? (124)” Ugh. Million-year-old Barbie doll fossils? Equally startling was the factoid that after the Battle of Waterloo, farmers were so desperate for fertilizer that the bones of horses and humans alike were ground down and applied to crops. Call me crazy, but the idea that even prim and proper 19th-century Europeans could be driven to semi-cannibalism did more to drive the fear of ballooning populations into me than any table of human caloric needs or UN Population Projections chart.
However, I find myself dissatisfied with "The World Without Us" on two fronts. The first is that, though Weisman travels from South Korea to Hawaii, researches exhaustively, and interviews a veritable army of experts in his attempts to answer how the world would fare without us, the number of women whose views and projections find their way into his book is precisely zero. One, if you count the protagonist of Weisman’s prelude, “A Monkey Koan,” Ana María Santi, who speaks a patois of Quichua and Zápara in what amounts to an anecdote rather than a consultation, and two, if you count Noonkokwa, a Maasai woman married to a naturalist at an ecotourist lodge in Kenya (whose views ARE quoted in the book), who reportedly desires her family life, including number of children, to conform to the Maasai cultural norm. True, Weisman does cite many women in his acknowledgments, but why are their voices not heard in his book? This is especially disappointing to me, considering how by Weisman’s own admission in the acknowledgments, the original idea for the book came from Josie Glausiusz, an editor at Discover Magazine, and a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather hear exclusively from men if women of comparable expertise cannot be found, but anyone who contends that not enough women occupy high enough niches in the sciences to be cited at least once in a 275-page book that cites so many experts doesn’t have his/her head glued on straight.
Perhaps I wouldn’t mind this so much (there’s nothing wrong with the substance of the book, after all), except in his “Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls,” Weisman proposes limiting “every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one” as an “intelligent solution” to the problem of squaring increasing human needs with those of a planet not correspondingly growing (272). This to me is so unintelligent as to deserve the designation ‘wishful thinking,’ if not ‘nonsense.’ For starters, who would decide on this measure? Implement it? Enforce it? I’m sure no one wants to see the forced sterilizations such as those inflicted upon American women in the 1930s repeated all over the globe. Not to mention…I don’t know about you, but I’M not going to be the one to tell AIDS-ravaged Africa that it can’t produce as many children in the next few decades as it wants to; right or wrong, I’m not going there.
However, the strongest argument against such a global one-child policy is embedded within Weisman’s book itself. In a chapter entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Weisman explores the merits of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) as well as the transhumanist/posthuman movement which advocates the jettisoning of our physical bodies in favor of immortal existence in a virtual reality created by software. Such moves would, Weisman agrees, decrease humanity’s earthly impact and ease the sorrow and weariness we feel watching our world slowly degrade. “The vision of a world relieved of our burden, with its flora and fauna blossoming wildly and wonderfully in every direction, is initially seductive. Yet it’s quickly followed by a stab of bereavement over the loss of all the wonder than humans have wrought amid our harm and excess. If that most wondrous of all human creations—a child—is never more to roll and play on the green Earth, then what really would be left of us? What of our spirit might be truly immortal?” (244). In the end, I think it is Weisman’s shared affection for both Earth and humanity, and his refusal to give up on either, that make his book so worth reading. ...more
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a cross between a children’s picture book and a young adult chapter book. In evolutionary biology terms, it is a transThe Invention of Hugo Cabret is a cross between a children’s picture book and a young adult chapter book. In evolutionary biology terms, it is a transitional form, or maybe, more appropriately, a hybrid, since in 2007 it fills a niche in the world of literature never previously occupied.
From the outside, it looks like a substantial novel—at 525 pages, a book that any grade-school student, regardless of age, should be bursting with pride to carry around—and it even has a Part I and Part II and an introduction by a Professor H. Alcofrisbas. However, upon opening the book, one discovers that the first 45 pages are pictures accompanied by not one word of text, and a quick skim through the rest of the book confirms that pictures punctuate the text at regular and frequent intervals.
I’ve often wondered why there are so many books for youngters that are primarily pictures—with greater and lesser amounts of text attached—and so many books for “old” people—with just words on paper, thank you very much—and so few books for intermediate readers and reading levels. An examination of the various qualities that make Hugo Cabret work partly reveals why. For starters, the pictures in Hugo Cabret are black-and-white, in pencil, and so blend in with the text on a pictorial level. Also, pictures and “picture-makers” figure heavily into the plot of Hugo Cabret, and a story having less to do with the pictorial in general might not incorporate pictures into its presentation so successfully. Finally, the sheer volume of work that author and illustrator Brian Selznick had to cope with compared to that required for a typical children’s picture book…well, let’s just say a lesser man and lesser artist would never have attempted it—nor would he have been able to support himself until the book’s eventual publication on the proceeds of earlier books!
Subjectively, I’m less of a fan of Hugo Cabret. Which is to say I’m less attached to what it is than I am to what it is. It takes place in Paris in the 1930s, mostly deep in the bowels of a train station. It treats of orphans and mechanical wind-up human figures known as automata, magic tricks, an early French filmmaker named Georges Méliès, clocks and keys and rockets in the eye. None of which is really my cup of tea, but that’s not to say that none of it is yours. And Selznick’s splicing of motif with motif, theme with theme, medium with medium (itself a magical term, I realize at this moment) is truly unparalleled. Bottom line: the world could use more books like this one....more
My three-star rating has nothing to do with the quality of the ideas in this book; I think they're all top-notch. My lukewarm response has to do insteMy three-star rating has nothing to do with the quality of the ideas in this book; I think they're all top-notch. My lukewarm response has to do instead with their presentation.
Jared Diamond's prose is very readable but prolix. How, one might ask, could I find prolix a book which purports to condense the entire history of humankind into 425 pages? (As Diamond himself points out, compressing 13,000 years of history into roughly 400 pages works out to "an average of about one page per continent per 150 years, making brevity and simplification inevitable" (408). My answer is simply that Diamond does not actually condense 13,000 years of human history into 425 pages but rather picks and chooses which years with which corresponding phenomena on which continents are most relevant to his thesis. In order to prove that "history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves" (25), Diamond traces the domestication of plants and animals, the origins of agriculture, the emergence of crowd diseases such as Bubonic Plague and measles, the rise and spread of techological innovations like metallurgy and writing, and the seemingly autocatalytic process that promotes the development of large complex political entities from small, less complex ones. But "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is not a comprehensive treatment of the Black Death any more than it is a primer for understanding the development of metallurgy. In other words, he skips a lot, which I agree is inevitable; however, my beef is that in addition to skipping a lot, he repeats himself a lot, in effect writing a book that is not so much too long or too short as it is inefficient--prolix.
Diamond states the same ideas over and over again, and he always articulates BOTH the affirmative and the negative formulations, seldom omitting words that really could be ommitted without interfering with itelligibility: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people's environments, NOT because of biological differences among peoples themselves" (25); "the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia AND later, or not at all, on other continents" (92); "the reason for the failure of Native Americans to domesticate North American apples by the time Europeans arrived lay neither with the people nor with the apples....INSTEAD, the reason Native Americans did not domesticate apples lay with the entire suite of wild plant and animal species available to Native Americans" (156). While I agree that such a writing style is very clear and understandable (readable), surely after the first articulation of each idea and component, bolstering idea, Diamond could speed things up a bit?
But no, in fact, his 18th chapter (the penultimate chapter, not including epilogue, and entitled "Hemispheres Colliding") is an entirely redundant reformulation of ideas previously articulated, often referencing the exact same examples already referenced. This is evidenced by Diamond's tendency to include phrases like "in Chapter 9 we encountered," "as I explained in Chapter 11," and "as we saw in Chapters 5 and 10..." This, along with his tendency to provide overview (as in the Prologue: "Part 4...applies the lessons of Parts 2 and 3") as well as suggestions like "if we begin by comparing Figure 19.2 with Figure 19.1..." that contribute to the unfortunate impression on the part of the reader that he/she is reading the incomplete novelization of a textbook--a hitherto unknown literary hybrid.
This is not to say that Diamond has not ultimately provided a service to humanity by writing "Guns, Germs, and Steel" or that his arguments are unconvincing or that he never provides us with an arresting phrase or that the book is devoid of colorful and illustrative anecdotes. The very basis for the book rests in a personal experience of Diamond's in New Guinea in 1972 ("Yali's Question"); and I especially like the phraseology of the final sentence of Chapter 19, "...the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate." And one certainly cannot fail to be struck by the originality of some of his ideas, such as the orientation of the continents' major axes (East-West vs. North-South) having played a greater role in the differences between human societies than we have previously recognized. Overall, this book is very accomplished and worth reading.
However, Diamond gradually chips away at the various misconceptions, errors, and prejudgments that cloud our understanding of human prehistory and history in the manner of a slow-moving stream or a very patient archaeologist. Maybe he imagines that this gradual approach is necessary for changing slow-moving or simply out-of-touch minds in which repetition might accomplish what erudition might not, though I really can't imagine such individuals, let alone the genuine racists whose views Diamond is avowedly rebutting making it through the book. But really (to borrow a page out of Diamond's intellectual repertoire), I believe this book could be intellectually stronger, aesthetically superior, and ultimately more influential if Diamond repeated himself less while articulating more....more
If you, like me, read and consider children's books important (and sometimes stunning works of art in their own right) primarily for the way they weavIf you, like me, read and consider children's books important (and sometimes stunning works of art in their own right) primarily for the way they weave together the verbal and the visual, then this book is for you.
I feel like with picture books, not all that much gets past me, but I was about four illustrations into this one before I realized I didn't know what was going on and halfway through the book when I finally figured out how the pictures matched up to the words. When I finished the book, my first urge was to read it again from the beginning, knowing from the start what took me one read-through of the book to figure out.
This book, for me, falls short of the slightly akin amazingness of a truly great picture book like "Weslandia," primarily because it's short on story (it's more about the concept than plot), and I (along with most kiddies, I deem) like plot. However, this book does pique my interest in the author (Mem Fox) and illustrator (Vladimir Radunsky)....more
At first I thought this was a book of one idea: the rather kitschy personification of cities into individuals evocative of the city's original namers.At first I thought this was a book of one idea: the rather kitschy personification of cities into individuals evocative of the city's original namers. Hence, "New York" becomes an English duke and "Minneapolis" becomes a Sioux maiden. Clever, yes. But I was unconvinced this was really that great a book.
However, all that changed when New York, who is English, decided to throw a party for all his friends......more
Okay, so it looks like I read "Love and Roast Chicken," but what I really read was "Amor y Pollo Asado: Un Cuento Andino deA question of translation:
Okay, so it looks like I read "Love and Roast Chicken," but what I really read was "Amor y Pollo Asado: Un Cuento Andino de Enredos y Engaños," a Spanish translation of Barbara Knutson's story by Judy Goldman and Wendy A. Luft--which, I think, is really the best way to read this story since it's of Andean origin. According to Knutson, "He oído y leído este cuento muchas veces en español: en un bello y antiguo libro boliviano, de la boca de un guía peruano en un pueblo en la montaña, en una revista boliviana para niños y de nuestro amigo Edwin Sulca, un tejedor peruano. ¡Nunca lo contaron de la misma forma dos veces!" (I have heard and read this story in Spanish many times: in an old and beautiful Bolivian book, from the mouth of a Peruvian guide in a mountain town, in a Bolivian children's magazine, and from my friend, Edwin Sulca, a Peruvian weaver. I never encountered the same version twice!")
Far be it from me to decry the translation of such a story (a story from the oral tradition, a story already comprising multiple variants and adequately preserved in Spanish in a variety of locations) into English, but for all of those same reasons, I believe reading this story in Spanish preserves something of the integrity of this tale. Nuance, cultural geography, and untranslatable aspects of language like rhythm are all preserved in the Spanish version and serve to, in a way, transport the reader more fully to the Andes. (The fact that Knutson chose to write this story in English and leave the translation of it "back" into Spanish to others is rather unfathomable to me. Clearly she meant to make at least the plot of the story accessible to English-speakers. My point is that in my opinion some non-plot-related but nevertheless integral aspects of the story--especially since it is oral, easily changed, and culturally rich--do not fully translate.)
I believe that translation and cross-pollination are generally good things; however, learning another language aids cross-cultural-pollination rather than hindering it. If you don't read Spanish, by all means pick up "Love and Roast Chicken," but if you do, I would recommend this version more....more