What is there to add to the universal praise for Rachel Carson? This book isn't a walk in the park, and it's crammed with (accesible) Scientific data,...moreWhat is there to add to the universal praise for Rachel Carson? This book isn't a walk in the park, and it's crammed with (accesible) Scientific data, but it changed the world.
I was more fascinated by Carson's rhetoric than in her findings, which are now more than 45 years old. I read this book to learn how she built a case that challenged every major scientific, political and corporate institution in the country. And she did it by connecting with the shared values of average Americans. Bravo, Rachel!(less)
I've read Walden many times now since that first time in high school. I will always love this book, and it reveals itself anew with each reading.
When...moreI've read Walden many times now since that first time in high school. I will always love this book, and it reveals itself anew with each reading.
When I first encountered Thoreau in high school, his words rang in my soul like a prophet's manifesto. I admired what seemed to be his unique courage and absolute integrity. He inspired me to want to "live deliberately," but I knew that a solitary life in a cabin was beyond my abilities. His will seemed so much more resolute than anything I could ever be capable of.
That was a couple of decades ago. What struck on this latest recent reading is just how much this is a young man's book. The voice is that of an idealist, a passionate and lonely misfit who longs for a better way to live and for more authentic relationships with others as well as with himself. I know now that Thoreau lived more like an energetic slacker than a true renunciate. He was too principled to work as a schoolmaster (he refused to beat his charges), and there wasn't much he cared to do apart from reading, writing, and observing nature closely. He didn't have a family to take care of, and his parents were indulgent of his wishes.
His life at Walden was bracing, but it wasn't filled with hardships. His cabin was just a short walk from Concord, and Thoreau went home for Sunday dinners and stayed at the Emersons' place when it got too cold. His folks took care of his laundry. His life of simplicity was strictly voluntary, and he had numerous safety nets. While these facts make Henry David a bit less intimidating, they also make him more recognizable as a human being.
I like this young man, with his snobbery and his idealism, but I know that as a flesh-and-blood person he would have been hard to get to know, and even harder to love. He was probably afraid of intimacy, and even more afraid of failing to live up to his exacting standards. Thoreau was fascinated with purity. His disgust for "brute" appetites is something that we now think we understand as related to a fear of sexuality. He was deeply interested in Hindu dietary laws, and had an aversion to all forms of consumption. For him, the ideal was to become so pure that a few drops of nectar would be sufficient sustenance. Like Thoreau, I'm an ethical vegetarian, so I understand somewhat that urge toward purity. But my appetites are huge, and my life is in many ways a big, sloppy, comfortable mess. In contrast, Thoreau wanted to be free of all social constraints, free of the taint of commerce, free to be "wild." But his vision of wildness was of a clean, solitary life. He didn't want to merge or mingle with anything or anyone.
The descriptions of Walden and the surrounding landscapes are sublime. They will never get stale, and I enjoy them even more now that I live a few miles from Concord and have visited the pond in different seasons.
I look forward to reading this beautiful book again in a few years. I wonder what I'll notice next time?
What an amazing book! I first head about Philip Pullman in a review of the Narnia books several years ago. The writer compared the "His Dark Materials...moreWhat an amazing book! I first head about Philip Pullman in a review of the Narnia books several years ago. The writer compared the "His Dark Materials" trilogy favorably to C.S. Lewis's works. In contrast to Lewis' Christian ideology, Pullman's fictional world was said to be feminist, sex-positive, and deeply concerned with navigating the dangers and blessings of "experience" -- in other words, celebrating a child's passage into awareness and adulthood.
Because of the review I actually gave these books to several friends as gifts before I started to to read them myself. I'm sorry I waited so long. The Golden Compass is a beautiful, magical story with original and vivid fantasy elements. But what makes it so powerful is the way it formulates real-world concerns about religion and theocracy and deeper questions about the nature of knowledge and its relation to the human soul. The novel ends with fascinating and open-ended questions about original sin -- whether it exists, and if so, whether the concept is actually a misinterpretation of natural and desirable condition. It's an amazing set of questions to stumble across in a children's book.
I'm looking forward to the film adaptation this Christmas, and I'm now reading the second novel in the series, The Subtle Knife. Highly recommended! (less)
This book probably isn't for everyone -- it's long and the editor wasn't especially ruthless in her pruning (she is the grand-daughter of Carson's cor...moreThis book probably isn't for everyone -- it's long and the editor wasn't especially ruthless in her pruning (she is the grand-daughter of Carson's correspondent and trustee of the letters, so she can be forgiven). This bulky volume is worth the extra time, for the letters between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, her dearest friend, are deeply moving.
For anyone who appreciates Carson's solitary work as a female scientist and whistle blower, in addition to being a beloved nature writer, these letters will be very rewarding. Carson has long been one of my heroes, but she was a notoriously private person. So I was fascinated by the story behind the publication of Silent Spring, and at least as fascinated by a glimpse into Carson's personal life.
Her letters to Freeman are unexpectedly tender and intimate, and her commitment to caring for several sick or disabled family members is inspiring (if not outright humbling). Carson's letters show her to be loving almost to a fault, but she's also consistently noble and strong, even toward the end of her struggle with breast cancer. I found myself wishing for her to find a deep, lasting connection with someone who could lighten her burdens even for a little while, but instead she managed to be satisfied with fleeting moments of joy and to find her true companion in nature.
This was a fascinating read. Gandhi's writing is oddly simple, even almast naive in places. He faithfully records small personal struggles, giving the...moreThis was a fascinating read. Gandhi's writing is oddly simple, even almast naive in places. He faithfully records small personal struggles, giving them the same wieght as major political battles. Gandhi's zeal and idealism comes across powerfully, as does his lifelong concern with self-discipline and purity (bramacharya).
I was especially interested in his evolving understanding of satyagraha and his increasingly strict vegetarianism. His ascetism increased in direct proportion to his growing political power.
The autobiography ends in 1920, right around the time Gandhi became an international figure. The major historical events leading up to Independence are outside the scope of the book, but it's fascinating to watch Gandhi become Gandhi during the first half of his life.
Like all autobiographies, this one leaves out much helpful background information about people, places, and evets, so I frequently put down the book to Googgle. Next I would love to read a third person biography to fill in some more of the gaps.(less)
Why did I wait so long to read Thomas Merton? I've known so many fans of his work and had so many opportuniti...more(from notes in my journal, Nov. 9, 2007)
Why did I wait so long to read Thomas Merton? I've known so many fans of his work and had so many opportunities to get to know him. In my mid-twenties I lived for a few years in Lexington, Kentucky, just about an hour from Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery where Merton spent the second half of his life. I had a lover who made regular pilgrimages and once brought me seeds from Merton's garden, carefully folded inside a dollar bill. But I never visited Gethesmani myself, and in all these years I'd never even opened one of Merton's books.
Tonight I started "The Seven-Storey Mountain," because it was assigned for class next week. Merton is a philosopher as well as a damn good writer, and his reflections are vivid, complex, and rich.
Why did I wait so long to read Thomas Merton? I've known so many fans of his work and had so many opportunities to get to know him. In my mid-twenties I lived for a few years in Lexington, Kentucky, just about an hour from Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery where Merton spent the second half of his life. I had a lover who made regular pilgrimages and brought me seeds from Merton's garden, carefully folded inside a dollar bill. But I never visited Gethesmani myself, and in all these years I'd never even opened one of Merton's books.
Tonight I started "The Seven-Storey Mountain," because it was assigned for class next week. We've gone through several major spiritual autobiographies (Thoreau, King, Gandhi, Day) They've all been fascinating, but none were written with such skill and power as this one. Merton is a philosopher as well as a damn good writer, and his reflections are vivid, complex, and rich.
I was a bit disappointed that young the Merton in this work is not much like the older ecumenist and peace activist of the 1960s. I'm perplexed by any spiritual quest (and there are so many) that lead through renunciation or retreat from the world. I'm also not able to wrap my brain around the ideas of original sin and the need for salvation. But if I try to empathize with Merton and understand his journey within his world-view, there's a lot to be gained from this early autobiography.
A passage that hit me with particular force is Merton's adult explanation of his youthful scorn for his adoring little brother, who followed him everywhere only to be dismissed and rejected.
"And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us purely for the arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We will to separate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation." (p. 26, Harcourt Brace ed.)
I'm no Christian, and certainly no monastic, but I do recognize myself in this description. By this definition, I'm a huge sinner. I've had a long habit of refusing love, perhaps more often when I was younger, but I still do it now. Simply because it does not please me to be loved. And probably even more because of my aversion to that "obscure kind of humiliation."
Recently I've been treated to the terrifying experience of loving deeply and fearing that I will be rejected. In a way it would be only fair. But so far my love has been welcomed and returned. It's a kind of beautiful agony to be suspended in mutual love, feeling joyful and vulnerable at the same time. It's a profound form of dependence, but rather than leaving one impoverished, it is immensely enriching.
This series is so amazing to me, mainly because of the theological questions raised. I could be extra susceptible because I'm not at all current with...moreThis series is so amazing to me, mainly because of the theological questions raised. I could be extra susceptible because I'm not at all current with young adult fiction, and I have almost no experience with the fantasy genre as a whole.
For whatever reason, the "His Dark Materials" books have been so much fun to read. This second of the trilogy is a bit more satisfying character-wise, although it lacks the wonder of the new world introduced in "The Golden Compass." There's also a lot of patchy plot stuff happening here designed to get characters to run into each other that feels kind of flimsy. I don't think that would be a problem for the primary audience, however. I enjoyed getting to know the second protagonist, but now the plot is forking off in many directions. I hope the third volume brings it all aback together in a satisfying way.
A few passages from the text that struck me as pure Pullman, and purely wonderful:
(About a witch on a mission, following angels into a new world, and reveling in incarnation)
"Tirelessly they flew on and on, and tirelessly she kept pace. She felt a fierce joy with these immortal presences. And she rejoiced in her blood and flesh, in the rough pine bark she felt next to her skin, in the beat of her heart and the life of all her senses, and in the hunger she was feeling now, and in the presence of her sweet-voiced bluethroat deamon, and in the earth below her and the lives of every creature, plant and animal both; and she delighted in being of the same substance as them, and in knowing that when she died her flesh would nourish other lives as they had nourished her." (pp. 141-142, Yearling paper ed.)
"There are two great powers," the man said, "and they've been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit." (p. 320)
This is a warm and very human story. I loved getting to know the main character, Sabine, and watching her come to terms with the choices she's made as...moreThis is a warm and very human story. I loved getting to know the main character, Sabine, and watching her come to terms with the choices she's made as she struggles to build a new life after losing her magician. All the characters in this story are so multi-dimensional that I found myself simply engaging with them at a human level and losing the critical distance I usually maintain when I read fiction.
My only real complaint with the novel involves the pacing. Some of the narrative changes were a bit abrupt and, on the other hand, the Nebraska sections drag on with lots of detail about Walmart and kitchens tables, but overall the novel is very satisfying.
Finding love in unexpected places and learning to love in unexpected ways are the two themes that stayed with me after this novel. Sometimes we manage to see behind the illusions, to step out from behind the masks, and to claim something beautiful from the mistakes we make. (less)
This novel fascinated me. It's a great example of the power of a good story. The author was a rookie, and he didn't yet have a solid command of the cr...moreThis novel fascinated me. It's a great example of the power of a good story. The author was a rookie, and he didn't yet have a solid command of the craft, but he certainly had something important to say. There are some big spoilers ahead, so if you're planning to read this one, you might want to stop here.
I enjoyed the rich portrait of Afghani culture, both at home and in exile in the US. The story's time-frame before and after the Soviet invasion lets an American reader understand better what's been happening behind the headlines of the past thirty years, and I appreciated a glimpse into a world I know little about.
The strongest and most memorable part of the book is the character of the narrator's father, Baba. He's a rich, stubborn, secular Afghani who swigs whiskey and makes his own rules. His strengths and flaws propel the entire acr of the story and dominate the narrator's life. What a complex and vivid force! I would teach this book for no other reason than to share Baba with my students. Beyond the father-son relationship, the story is built upon several other important and complicated male relationships. These involve deep, tangled emotional bonds of a sort rarely explored in contemporary American novels.
But this is where the story's strength becomes a weakness. The first two-thirds of the novel reads as realism, but in the final act, when the protagonist returns to war-torn Afghanistan, the narrative demands quickly dominate what had been a character-driven story. There are too many coincidences, too many mirrored events, too many father-son doublings, and the bad guys from childhood return as grown-up forces of evil that can only be read allegorically. The symbolic load becomes too heavy for the individual characters to support.
I was especially disturbed by the time I was presented with a second victim of child sexual abuse -- the son whose father had been brutally assaulted in the early part of the book. At that point I realized that the story had shifted into a fable of a country/people who had been systematically raped over two generations. This is a valid story and an important one to tell, but within the aesthetic parameters of this particular novel, the allegorical demands at the end almost crush the carefully constructed story about personal atonement. It doesn't help that the author shouts out to the reader several times, "See! The sins of the fathers are visited on the sons!" In the hands of a more experienced writer, realistic and allegorical threads can strengthen one another, but the human story should be primary, with the symbolic motifs worked into the fabric of the story rather than slapped on top.
Where are the damn editors these days? I keep stumbling over fiction that is almost, but not quite, done. Half-baked novels are either exposed on mountainsides or rushed to market with massive promotional expense, and the decisions seem completely arbitrary. Why not spend a little more time and money polishing these works first? This fine book from a first-time novelist would have been far more powerful if the final section had been carefully revised. That said, I still think it's well worth reading, and I'm looking forward to watching the film adaptation.
This book is a great example of the power of a compelling story. Azar Nafisi is a literary critic rather than a trained fiction writer. Her inexperien...moreThis book is a great example of the power of a compelling story. Azar Nafisi is a literary critic rather than a trained fiction writer. Her inexperience shows in many rookie mistakes, the kinds of awkward mis-steps that are beaten out of novelists in writing workshops -- occasional self-conscious narrative intrusions (a la George Eliot), jarring word choices in descriptive passages, and unconvincingly heavy "in scene" detail from older memories (stuff that feels imported in order to make the memories feel more immediate). I'm still baffled by Random House's failure to edit this work with a firmer hand. But the writing is fluent and moving in the passages where Nafisi does what she's best at -- sharing her insights into writers like James, Fitzgerald and Austen.
Nafisi is aware of her strengths. She writes, "I am too much of an academic: I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narrative without pontificating. Although that is in fact my urge -- to narrate, to reinvent myself..." (p. 266)
The flaws in craft, which would be fatal to many stories, become minor blemishes here, because Nafisi's story is such a powerful one. The painful and often shocking details of daily life in the Islamic Republic of Iran are absolutely fascinating. The students draw amazing connections between the themes in classic Western novels and their lives under a brutal theocracy.
The story is somewhat hampered by the author's obligation to obscure the identities of her female students. In many ways this is a hybrid book -- it's a fictionalized memoir with a heavy dose of literary criticism. I enjoyed the portraits of the seven compelling students, but what I valued most was the passion these women shared for literature.
"Austen's theme is cruelty not under extraordinary circumstances, but ordinary ones, committed by people like us. Surely that's more frightening? And that's why I like Bellow....Bellow's novels are about private cruelties, about the ordeal of freedom, the burden of choice -- so are James', for that matter. It's frightening to be free, to take responsibility for your decisions. Yes, he said, to have no Islamic Republic of Iran to blame. " (p. 312)
This book is a welcome reminder that good teachers touch lives and even "conservative" works of great fiction can transform readers. (less)
Well, I thoroughly enjoyed the series, but this last one was a bit of a mess. New worlds and new characters kept streaming in, and the metaphysical un...moreWell, I thoroughly enjoyed the series, but this last one was a bit of a mess. New worlds and new characters kept streaming in, and the metaphysical underpinnings seemed to get more baroque and incomprehensible whenever there was a gap in the plot that needed bridging. The ideas all along are surprising and provocative, but the execution falls short in the final installment. Somehow this book feels both too long and rushed -- there's just too much going on for any of it to have enough space to develop satisfactorily. The pod-tree world and culture sapped a lot of energy out of the main story, and since it didn't connect to th main story until the final pages, I feel it could have been better developed as an independent book.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Passages I especially enjoyed were the relationship between the angels Baruch and Balthamos. I love how Pullman's angels are flawed beings that envy and long for human flesh. There's something so tender and wistful about that craving, and it illustrates Pullman's pro-incarnation theology perfectly.
The scenes in the underworld with the ghosts are very unsatisfying. And where did the idea of ghosts come from, anyway? Pullman already had Daemons (souls), so to introduce a new incorporeal substance in order to make human nature a trinity seemed unnecessary and kind of a philosophical cop-out. How do souls and ghosts relate to one another in this cosmology? And where did those once-human angels come from? I have no idea. I guess you have to be fourteen to understand this Byzantine system.
On the other hand, I liked that the ghosts were ultimately released by a joyful dissolution into nature. Death dies and so does God, but almost in passing, and while his demise is witnessed by Lyra, she doesn't understand what she sees. Somehow that's oddly appropriate. But the scenes with Metatron were just plain clunky and anti-climactic, and the stuff with Mrs. Coulter's constantly confounding sexuality started to feel forced and cliche.
This one could have been trimmed with no great loss. The momentum of the first two books hurtles toward increasing expansion -- of the cast, settings, and ideas. The third novel really needed to be more disciplined in pulling together characters and themes into more meaningful and emotionally satisfying conclusions. Still, it was a most enjoyable ride.