Before we had federal wiretaps, the Académie Française, or Club Libby Lu, we had to figure out what plants to grow in what combinations to provide nou...moreBefore we had federal wiretaps, the Académie Française, or Club Libby Lu, we had to figure out what plants to grow in what combinations to provide nourishment, what animals we could domesticate without getting trampled, and how to organize ourselves to make life safe and fulfilling--achievements that are not less interesting and probably more so for being invisible to us today.
At length I have finished the last piece of reading material I picked up for (during, actually) my trip to Oregon: Jared Diamond's most recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I believe I read his last book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies before I started this journal (!), so I'll start with a word on that. The purpose of that book was to furnish a nonracist explanation of why some peoples seem to have a lot of complicated culture, technology, and, for lack of a better word, booty, while others don't. Diamond concludes that this has much to do with the environments these societies started in: what plants and animals they had available for attempted domestication, what terrain and climate they had to contend with, what political structures and religions eventually grew up, and so forth. Diamond is about 70 years old and seems to have spent his entire life reading and traveling at a frantic pace, which makes him able to synthesize information and themes at a much higher level than most responsibly cautious historians or scientists. It seems unlikely, but he manages to make topics like paleoethnobotany and livestock diseases fascinating.
In Collapse, he takes the muted environmental themes of the first book and gives them a more current spin. He describes a series of societies that have experienced collapse (complete depopulation, ruinous collapse of social order, or the flight of most inhabitants) and ties their fates to the degradation of their environment. For example, the Norse arrived in Greenland and commenced farming, logging, and livestock herding, not realizing until it was too late that Greenland's soil productivity and rate of timber growth were much lower than in Norway, and that they'd spent down most of their environmental capital in just a few short years. Their settlement clung to the coast, at a subsistence level, for about five hundred years until things got so bad they resorted to eating their dogs and dismantling homes for firewood--then they disappeared. He also talks about modern societies like Rwanda, showing how genocide appeared there even in ethnically homogeneous areas as the result of overpopulation and resulting feuds over land scarcity. Near the end of the book, two maps are presented, "Political trouble spots of the modern world" and "Environmental trouble spots of the modern world": the same map printed twice with different titles.
Diamond is somewhat better at writing about history thousands of years old than he is writing about the present, and given the short history (so far) of our present environmental problems, he has a lot less to work with than when he's writing about thousands of years of history at once. It's not surprising that this book is a bit less persuasive. Still, there are some points that score, such as his theme of societies needing to decide which of their core values they can afford to keep. The Greenland Norse clung to their identities as European Christians, expending lots of effort and material goods on supporting a bishop and church and refusing to emulate successful Inuit hunting practices. One might ask whether Americans' self-image as mobile, independent people who love their cars is one that we ought to cling to.
In both books, Diamond displays a contagious love and respect for the places and people he has studied. It's hard to come away from his work without feeling awed by the achievements of ancient peoples or wanting to visit Australia, Japan, Montana, Polynesia, Greenland, or numerous other places. In addition to being works of history, his books feel like travel books or memoirs. (less)
Under the Banner of Heaven is a book about Mormon fundamentalists by someone who appears to have no particular qualification to write about them—Jon K...moreUnder the Banner of Heaven is a book about Mormon fundamentalists by someone who appears to have no particular qualification to write about them—Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air. Since that was a good read, I decided to read his other well-known book without knowing in advance what it was about.
Krakauer looks at the history of Mormonism and its splinter groups. He anchors the book around the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, who killed their sister-in-law and baby niece in cold blood after Ron received what he believed was a revelation from God. Although Krakauer meticulously separates current mainstream LDS practice from fundamentalist belief in polygamy, his historical sketch aims to show how the Laffertys’ bizarre beliefs were an organic outgrowth of 19th century Mormonism.
It is difficult to tell whether Krakauer would subscribe to Sam Harris’s assertion than religious moderation creates an atmosphere in which fundamentalism can never be adequately opposed. (This is a paraphrase.) At times, Krakauer seems almost to admire the Mormons for their plucky American eccentricity. But in one key chapter, about the well-known case of Elizabeth Smart, he seems to take Harris’s view almost overtly. First, he asserts that Smart would never have accepted her kidnappers’ control and stuck mutely by their side for so long had she not been raised in a religion that preached submission to authority. Second, he compares Smart to another girl of the same age who was raised in a polygamous community and also “married” against her will at age 14. Although the second girl’s sister had left the community and attempted to find and rescue her, this girl effectively vanished. The situation raises the troubling question: why is Smart’s experience worth charges of kidnapping and sexual assault, when the other girl’s experience is not? Did the second girl meaningfully choose to live in a polygamous community?
Krakauer obviously isn’t a theologian or a historian, but he is a pretty good writer and reporter, and he weaves the historical sections and present-day interviews together well. I wouldn’t use this book as a source for a research paper, but it makes for thought-provoking light reading.(less)
The general outlines of the story were familiar to me from having watched a Frontline episode about the disaster a while back. It was a good, fast rea...moreThe general outlines of the story were familiar to me from having watched a Frontline episode about the disaster a while back. It was a good, fast read, and I thought Krakauer did an especially good job at showing how an accumulation of small mistakes leads to an unsalvageable situation. He also addressed the question of his own bias and what effect his presence, as a journalist, might have had on the events. That said, it seems like there is still a lot of recrimination and disagreement about what really happened, and it was difficult to parse the differences between the book and my recollection of the Frontline episode. The story was exciting but it is still hard to feel confident that I really understand what happened. (less)
This book, hinging on the relationship between a Catholic priest and a girl he first met when she was ten, reads differently in 2012 than when it was...moreThis book, hinging on the relationship between a Catholic priest and a girl he first met when she was ten, reads differently in 2012 than when it was first published in 1977. The priest is meant to be irresistibly attractive--apparently the world swooned when he was played in the TV miniseries by Richard Chamberlain--but when the author broached the topic of a priest being sexual at all, it was hard for me not to picture a repellent abuser: say, John Geoghan or even Jerry Sandusky. Shockingly, (view spoiler)[ the priest and the heroine do eventually consummate their relationship, but it's played to the hilt as an abrogation of his vows, and this really didn't resonate with me as a nonreligious person. Every character is Catholic and their religion is taken at face value. While it strikes me as an obvious solution that the priest might somehow resign, this apparently doesn't occur to him or the heroine. In short, the characters go through a lot of heartbreak for principles that I couldn't relate to at all (hide spoiler)].
Luckily many pages of the book involve other characters and relationships; overall it's one of those absorbing, guilty-pleasure '70s or '80s bestsellers like the work of James Clavell or Ken Follett. Or, you could compare it to an earlier sprawling epic, Gone With the Wind, since the estate of Drogheda functions here like Tara--less unreservedly beloved, perhaps, but still the North Star for the family. The hinge character is Meggie but the author also devotes a lot of attention to her parents and her children. I liked the early sections about Meggie's spartan childhood in New Zealand and the family's hard times in the Australian Outback best. There's a particularly good set piece with a wildfire. If Meggie becomes duller in middle age, and the settings in London and Rome are less well done, at least her bristly daughter Justine livens up the end of the book.
In some ways, the novel didn't really resonate with me, but I was never bored reading it, and it's written in a simple yet descriptive voice that's too rare these days.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)