Books Read 2012 - December 31, 2012 (latest on top)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot - 2010 - Broadway Paperbacks

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman from Maryland and Virginia who died of an aggressive cervical cancer in 1951.  Before she died and without her consent, doctors at John's Hopkins in Baltimore harvested cancer cells to use in research.  Unlike most other human cells that do not grow long in vitro, Henrietta's cells (called HeLa) proved to be prolific.  Later research determined that her cancer was caused by HPV virus (identified using her cells as a research tool) and that her DNA in combination with the virus switched off the otherwise built in cell program that limits the life of a human cell to about 50 divisions.  The HeLa cell line was widely distributed and used in many research projects.  Producing and distributing it became a lucrative industry.  The book is both about the science story and the life of the woman whose cells were used.  Skloot is a science writer but the book is really a work of ethnography as she comes to know the members of the Lacks family.  This is quite an accomplishment since by the time she became interested in the story a whole industry of opportunistic and sensationalist journalists had pounced on Henrietta's story and made the family justifiably suspicious of outsiders, particularly a middle class white woman.  Through being gentle, cautious and respectful, she eventually gained their trust and became particularly close to Henrietta's daughter Deborah.  Both the science story and the personal one are fascinating.  Many of the researchers were arrogant and completely disrespectful of the human beings behind the cells they studied.  Some of the science was seriously flawed.  For instance, the HeLa cells were widely distributed and not at all treated as potential contaminants and even biohazards.  As a result, HeLa cells got loose in labs all over the world and contaminated other cells, ultimately invalidating millions of dollars of research.  The story touches on issues of ethics and ownership of biological materials and many significant cases were disputed and litigated over issues having to do with HeLa.  As the science controversies developed, the woman behind the cell line was almost lost.  Many references to the line incorrectly gave her name as Helen Lake or some variant thereof.  When the actual name became public, the Lacks family was subjected to a barrage of media attention, most of which was exploitative and harmful.  It was only after years of bad feeling that Skloot became interested in the story and was finally able to win the family's trust.  Her research into the Lacks family history going back to slave days is particularly interesting.  The area of rural Virginia where Henrietta grew up has populations of white Lacks' and black Lacks', both descended from the original Lack brothers who were slave owners.  These men had both black and white families and according to the American Jim Crow system, led separate lives with separate cultures.  This is a sensitive and carefully researched piece of ethnographic and science writing as well as being a compelling read. 


The Autobiography of Charles Darwin - Charles Darwin - Edited by his son Francis Darwin - 1881

Darwin was a prolific writer despite a sometimes debilitating condition that caused periods of vomiting, dizziness and lethargy.  It may have been a genetic defect of mitochrondial DNA known as CVS, chronic vomiting syndrome.  Despite his bouts of illness, Darwin was a keen observer of nature, and a meticulous experimenter.  He was also one of the great figures of English literature, although he would have been the first to deny it.  He modestly notes that maybe some of his writing will still be read after he's gone.  Indeed!  Nearing the end of his life, Darwin thought to set down some brief thoughts about his career, largely for friends and family.  The book is mostly about his life's work and how it (yes) evolved.  He didn't write about his personal life, perhaps because the intended audience was family and friends who already knew that side of him.  His only comment on his marriage is a description of writing pros and cons on two scraps of paper before proposing to his cousin Emma Wedgewood; to wit, "Advantages included constant companion and a friend in old age ... better than a dog anyhow" vs. "terrible loss of time."  Darwin shows himself to be modest without being self-depricating.  He describes the events that led to his major works and gives us an insight into his thought process as well as his writing methods.  He usually drafted his first thoughts on a subject quickly, sometimes in an abbreviated form that only he could interpret.  These he would later rework into finished pieces which he sometimes would let sit for a considerable length of time before completing the editing process and proceeding to publication.  The autobiography is a complement to his major works as well as to his lesser known but dear to him books such as the monumental study of Cirrapedia (barnacles) and the surprisingly readable one on earthworms and vegetable mold.  This e-reader edition has extensive contributions from later writers about how his work has been received over the years. 

Balthazar - Lawrence Durrell - 1958

Balthazar is a sort of palimpsest of Justine, or maybe just the work of a (fictitious) editor, the eponymous Balthazar.  The as yet unnamed author (later this book revealed as Darley and later on as L.Cl Darley (Lawrence George Durrell) has retired to an isolated Greek island (Corfu) with his dead lover Melissa's and Nessim's (also unnamed) daughter.  He receives a quick visit from the psychiatrist and caabbalist Balthazar, who gives him the ms. of Justine with extensive interlinear notes, many of which contradict both the author's facts and his assumptions.  Justine never loved him, for one, and just used him.  We learn more about Pursewarden, who writes about writing and explains his (and presumably Durrell's) attempt to avoid "he said, she said" as a narrative device.  Perhaps because I was expecting more neuresthenic pullulation, mordant and crepitating, I was pleased that some of the writing is lyrical and evocative of place.  Nessim's account of his visit to his brother in the desert and their ride to the Bedouin camps is a joy to read.  We learn more about Nessim's soul and can forget his jealousy and his fate.  I'm still only about 1/3 of the way through and quite enjoying it.  If it wasn't Christmas Eve day (and strangely cloudy for Maui), I'd be happy to take Balthazar to the beach.  Well, I've finished as of Dec 28 and discovered that Durrell reverts to form as the novel progreses.  There are some good lines, though, as in describing Scobie he writes, "These gestures reminded me in a feable way of the heroes of domestic English fiction who stand before a Tudor fireplace, impressively whacking their riding-boots with a bull's pizzle."  Also some more good words besides pizzle: sumpters, chokey, truckle, gonfalons, plangent, kemengeh, mephetic, chines, Brocken, Eblis, cachinnation, subfusc.  Words of profundity from the delphic Pursewarden: "You see, Justine, I believe that Gods are men and men Gods; they intrude on each others' lives, trying to express themselves through each other - hence such apparent confusion in our human states of mind, our intimations of powers within or beyond us ... And then (listen) I think that very few people realize that sex is a psychic and not a physical act."  Whew!  Pursewarden's book was called, God is a Humorist.  He's right about Gods & men at least in Durrell.  Justine is a torrid Aphrodite for sure and in Durrell's mysogynistic pantheon a bitch goddess.  Again from the pen of Pursewarden, ""Truth has no heart.  Truth is a woman.  That is why it is enigmatic.  Of women, the most we can say, not being Frenchmen, is that are burrowing animals."  Justine's antithesis is her onetime lover and ice queen Clea as Diana.  The male Gods are are more ambiguous.  Perhaps Balthazar is a lofty Zeus and the narrator, Darley, a sort of Mercurial communicator.  Pursewarden could be Saturnine.  I'm not sure where Nessim would fit in, perhaps the jealous Hephestus, or perhaps he and his brother with the hare-lip together fullfill that role.  But I'm getting too sophomoric here.  Then there's the woman of the carnival who is a vampire:

    Lips not on lips, but on each others' wounds, must suck the envenomed bodies of the loved

    and through the tideless blood draw nourishment to feed the love that feeds upon their deaths.

And this of Justine; "It is astonishing now for me to realize, as I record this scene, that she was carrying  within her (invisible as the already conceived foetus of a child) Pursewarden's death; that her kisses were, for all I know, falling upon the graven image of my friend, the death-mask of the writer who himself did not love her, indeed regarded her with derision.  But such a demon is love that I would not be surprised if in a queer sort of way his death actually enriched our own love-making, filling it with the deceits on which the minds of women feed -- the compost of secret pleasures and treacheries which are in inseparable part of every human relation."  Yes, these books are warm and fuzzy indeed.  I'm already reading the autobiography of Charles Darwin as an antidote. 

Murder on the Links - Agatha Christia - 1923 - Bodley Head (read on Nook)

Another classic with Poirier and Hastings as his foil.  Poirier takes his lead from the similarity between this murder and one that happened decades before.  In that one, the person who actually carried out the deed was not charged and disappeared.  The one who put him up to it and was charged talked her way out of it and also disappeared.  The murder that Poirier investigates is too similar to be a coincidence.  He reasons that even, perhaps especially, a master criminal will follow familiar moves and patterns.  With the reader attempting to be smarter than Hastings, Poirier and Christie maintain at least one step ahead.  There is also an arrogant and obnoxious French police detective who gets it all wrong. Poirier gets it right.  Another subplot is Hastings falling in love with a young acrobat/performer he knows first as Cinderella when he meets her on a train.  She turns out, of course, to be central to the mystery and ultimately to its resolution.  Her real name is Dulcie Duveen and Hastings goes on to marry her in later books.  The ending is a surprise but it is obvious that the mother and daughter Christie describes as vipers are in the thick of it. 

Do I dare trying to read another Lawrence Durrell after such a wonderfully crafted mystery?  Maybe, or maybe I'll find something in between.  Christie is a masterful writer and I'm thoroughly hooked now.  She is sometimes described as the most widely read author in history (the authorship of The Bible being presumably  multiple and not an inerrant monolithic God).  She may write to formula but it's largely a formula of her own creation.  (NB I'm reading Balthazar and enjoying it, so there!)


A Moveable Feast - Earnest Hemingway - (The Restored Edition) - 1964 (2009 Patrice and Sean Hemingway - Scribner

This is a beautiful and generous book and very much a tribute to Hadley and the great love and precious secrets they shared when they lived in Paris and skied in the alps.  Although he hints at his love of Pauline being a new beginning, his feelings about the whole affair are those of remorse.  Pauline, although she figures only as a wraith and not a character, is portrayed as a ruthless predator.  Hemingway views himself a helpless victim, which is probably another ingenuous excuse for remorse.  The book is also an honest and sometimes revealing description of the writers Hemingway knew in Paris.  Ford Maddox Ford doesn't come out any better than he did as a fictitious character in Sun.  Pauline only appears as a shadow and perhaps even a nemisis.  The closest portrait is of Fitzgerald, who is described as intolerant, neurotic and prejudiced as well as being an alcoholic and in thrall to his insane wife Zelda.  Most of all, the book is about writing.  Unlike Jake in Sun, who probably drinks more than he writes, Hemingway's focus is always on writing.  His discussion of it is one of the best, perhaps the only one to come from a major writer.  The out-takes in this restored edition are revealing.  He said that a writer's worth is measured by the quality of the passages he cuts.  The cut passages here are very good.  Given that Hemingway wrote this when he was physically challenged and had undergone electro-convulsive treatments that wiped parts of his memory, the writing is clear and spare and in a sense more confident than his first major work.  It's obvious where Paula McLain got a lot of her material for The Paris Wife.  Some of her passages are almost direct quotes from Feast.  As Hemingway writes, Hadley is the book's heroine.  He concludes, "This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart.  Even if the one has been tampered with ahd the other does not exist."  At the end, this book shows both extraordinary memory and heart. 

The Sun Also Rises - 1926 - Earnest Hemingway - Scribners

After reading The Paris Wife it was obvious I needed to read Hemingway again.  I probably read him in college or maybe even before that so I have a different perspective now.  My first thought was, "How on earth did he get something so full of words like nice and good ever get published in 1926?"  Hemingway is the absolute antithesis of Henry James, who Hadley liked to read. Hemingway really did invent a fresh new style with simple declarative sentences and a flurry of adjectival cliches.  Somebody's probably already counted up the number of times "nice" appears and used it in a PhD thesis.  Most of that language is the characters themselves speaking.  For a group of writers and intellectuals, their everyday speech is, well, Hemingwayesque.  What a difference between them and Durrell's characters. No dictionary required here except perhaps for words in French or Spanish.  Hemingway's characters are truly are a lost generation (a phrase coined by Gertrude Stein's garageman).  Just reading about the prodigious amount of alcohol they consumed made my head spin.  The book is narrated by a writer, Jake, and in addition to drinking, he tells about trout fishing, bull fighting and the flawed characters of Lady Brett Ashley and the sad ex-Princeton boxer, Robert Cohn.  While not exactly anti-semitic, Jake (Hemingway) certainly endows Robert with stereotypical "Jewish" attributes and even at one point calls him a kike.  Jake lost his genitals in the war, which helps explain his obsession with Bulls and the plight of steers who are sent in with them and are often gored.  There's one relentless passage where Brett's very drunken fiance goes on and on about steers.  The book is a nice read.  It was good to pick it up again. 

Tse-Loh-Ne: The People at the End of the Rocks - Journey Down the Davie Trail - Keith Billington

2012 - Caitlin Press

I was asked to review this book for BC Studies by the editor, Richard MackieMy review may be a little more academically oriented as a result, although I'll probably excerpt the review to be published from what I write here.  Billington has had a long career as a nurse in BC and the Yukon as well as being Band Manager for the Fort Ware Sekani/Kaska band (later known as Kwadacha Nation).  The first part of the book is a frank, sometimes humorous but unvarnished account of his experiences as band manager.  He describes both the amazing bush skills of the people as well as the failings of some due to alcohol, isolation and the trauma of residential school.  Billington provides a thorough review of the sometimes confusing history of the former Fort Graham and Fort Ware communities following the disruptions and dislocations caused by the Bennett Dam.  Fort Graham, now under water, was initially relocated near Mackenzie until a determined group of Sekani took it into their own hands to find a more suitable site at the mouth of the Finlay River.  The band was finally recognized as Tse Keh Dene (which for some reason Billington spells Tse Keh Dena as in Kaska Dena) with help in litigation from Tribal Chief Ed John.  Billington has spent a lot of time on the land and is familiar with traveling by dog team and on foot.  That experience prepared him as well as possible for the trek along the 460 kilometers of the Davie Trail through the Rocky Mountain Trench.  Atse Davie was a Sekani leader in the early 20th century who was the patriarch of a strongly independent band.  Diamond Jenness has a photograph of him in his 1930 ethnography.  The trail named for him passes through the Rocky Mountain trench, a corridor once thought to have commercial potential but now one of the most isolated areas in the province.  Many Kwadacha band members were familiar with portions of the trail from their winter trapping but few had walked it in the summertime.  Two of these were Charlie Boya and his wife Hazel, who had a trapping cabin at Terminus Mountain about halfway between Kwadacha and Lower Post, the trail's southern and northern ends.  The expedition began as a way of showing continued use of a traditional hunting & trapping area further to land claims negotiations.  It went on to be an adventure as well.  Billington describes the country they encountered in a detail that is only available by traveling through it on foot.  There were creeks and rivers to cross, once by raft, and more than one encounter with bears. 

The book is well illustrated with archival and contemporary photographs of the people mentioned as well as a map showing Sekani territory.  Caitlin Press has a distinguished record of publishing authors with intimate knowledge of people and places in BC although an index would have been of value.  The book is a good read as well as an important contribution to BC First Nations history. 


The Paris Wife - Paula McLain - 2011 - Ballentine


The Paris wife is Hadley Richardson Hemingway.  It is a novel told largely in Hadley's voice although not using any actual quotes from the extensive correspondence available.  There have been several biographies of Hadley in addition to Hemingway's own A Moveable Feast that describes the Paris years many years later.  At first I was skeptical about the possibility of creating Hadley as a character in a novel rather than as a real person whose letters certainly represent her own voice.  She is depicted as being a good writer, but there is no concrete evidence of it.  Maybe there are copyright issues about using the letters, but I can imagine a better book that incorporated writing in her own voice.  As the book progressed, though, McLain won me over despite these reservations.  By the time I had finished I was dreaming of the characters and events described.  McLain is careful not to take liberties with the facts as we know them.  Perhaps because we do know an enormous amount about Hadley, Earnest, and their time together in Paris, Pamplona and Austria, the events described are well documented.  Unlike Annabel Lyons' The Sweet Girl, which I didn't think worked very well, this ends up being captivating and authentic.  I read it in e-pub format and have now downloaded The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, books I read in college and not since.  Some reviewers have complained that there is a lot of name dropping, but how could you possibly write about that scene without mentioning Fitzgerald, Pound, Anderson, Dos Passos, Stein, and others less well known.  I didn't find anything that seemed out of place or out of character.  Perhaps most amazing for me is that I became totally involved in the experience of a woman as subject.  McLain brings the reader into her joys and sorrows, her love making and her loss.  She must be doing something right to engage a male reader in this way. 


Sisters of Grass - Theresa Kishkan - 2000 - Goose Lane Editions


Ethnographer James Teit wrote, "The country of souls is underneath us, towards the sunset."  The book's prologue is a prose poem on that theme, with cattle and grass revealing stories of the Nicola Valley.  The stories come to Anna, the narrator, from box of photographs and letters that once belonged to Margaret Stuart, who lived in the valley in the early years of the 20th century.  The valley, as Kishkan relates, is a place dear to Anna and her family.  They have spent enough time there together to feel a part of the valley's stories going back to the First Nations, the Nicola Athapaskans and later the Nlaka'pamux , who still make their home there.  The valley is important to the author and her own family.  Anna is curating a museum exhibit on textiles and comes across Margaret's box of letters and photographs, at the bottom of which is her certificate of death from influenza, still not 20.  Margaret's mother is Native and her father, a descendent of Stuart royalty.  Margaret's maternal grandmother Jackson is an important figure in her life.  She teaches Margaret about the land and its plants as well as how to make baskets.  As in The Age of Waterlilies, the book alternates between chapters in the voices of women whose lives are separated by many decades but united by the love of places they both know and love.  The third person in this story is an unknown young First Nations girl whose grave and bone drinking tube Margaret discovers.  Grandmother Jackson tells her about a girl's puberty ceremony and the use of a drinking tube during her seclusion.  If a girl dies young, the tube is buried with her.  Through her grandmother, she meets and falls in love with Nicholas Byrne, a student of Boas working with James Teit on his ethnographic projects.  She becomes an accomplished photographer of landscapes and ethnographic subjects including her own relatives and her grandmother's baskets.  The three young women are the title's sisters of grass, with Anna being the one who tells the story, Margaret the author of letters and photographs and the girl with the drinking tube providing a very literal link to the earth.  Margaret's life turns out to have been a short one and the reader (this one at least) is brought to tears that her story does not go on to describe adventures in New York, children of her own and more wonderful photographs.  The story feels very much like the lives of real people.  A subplot tells about Margaret seeing the capture of suspected train robbers on one of her rides through the valley.  In another novel, this might have been developed into something dangerous momentous in Margaret's life, but as in a real life story, it is simply one of the powerful events to which she was witness.  There's a lot about horses here, obviously a love the three women share with the author.  Perhaps the shadow  partner is Kishkan herself with Anna as her avatar.  As with all of Kishkan's novels, this one is beautifully written and can be read as a narrative prose poem.  I'm looking forward to visiting the valley sometime in the coming year to visit Westley, Jen and great-granddaughter Ayla who live in Merritt. 


Inishbream - Theresa Kishkan - 1999 - Barbarian Press (2001 Goose Land Editions)


This is an 80 page novella.  Really it's a prose poem about the adventure of a young woman who lives for a time on the fictional isolated Irish island of Inishbream, perhaps one of the Aran islands.  Like Kishkan's other writing, it brings together the places she has lived in and loved, Atlantic and Pacific, Nova Scotia, BC and here Ireland.  I'm still reading but started the review in order to jot down thoughts about her thoughts as they wash over me here in Maui, a warmer Pacific than the BC Coast being battered by the Pineapple Express this week. The language is poetic in part because it gives voice to the people living in a way soon to be obliterated by modernity.  It is poignant for Kishkan to have experienced the last days of a peat fired fishing life that persisted through adversity over many hundreds of years.  The men still fished in currachs, formerly skin covered but not done with canvas and tar.  No fiberglass and Yamaha outboards then and there.  It was hard but its roots were deep, an odd metaphor (mine) for life on a thinly covered rock. 

The first person narrator does not give herself a name but the author is an obvious candidate.  She appears on the island sharing the work of rowing a currach and fishing with its owner Sean, with whom she soon shares a house and bed, although not much in the way of conversation.  They are married, but her relationship is as much to the sea as to her husband.  Her own lines are short, declarative and often not grammatically complete non-sentences.  I.E - In other writers, maybe annoying but in Kishkan, poetry.  Some of the lines are ethnographic, loving lists of names and places.  As an exchange, the people of Inishbream ask for stories of her own country; "Have ye a story to tell us, then, woman of Sean?"  And more names; Nootka Sound, Kyoquot Channel, Carmanah Point, and an island with ferries that run every hour during the day.  No currach's there.  Black bear, the salmon poacher, whitetail, the bark eater, elk, the star catcher; and then miles away from any ocean, haunted fossils of another time.  The book ends with the narrator leaving just before a relocation of the people to Ireland proper and an end to the way of life that goes back centuries.  Through her writing, we hear their voices and feel the salt spray of the Atlantic.  

The Secret Adversary - Agatha Christie - 1922

This is a complete departure from the usual mystery set in an isolated country mansion, and there are no seasoned detectives.  Indeed, the only murder that happens is incidental to the plot.  This is a rousing spy story with the fate of England at stake and two young people, Tommy and Tuppence, embarked on a career of private investigation that leads them beyond their wildest imagination.  They are childhood friends and later knew each other when Tommy was recovering from a WW I war wound and Tuppence was a hospital nurse. The evil mastermind is the mysterious and nondescript Mr. Brown.  The case starts off with a chance encounter in which Tommy overhears two men talking about someone named Jane Finn and mentions this to Tuppence.  Later, on an impulse, she  gives that name to a prospective client, Mr. Whittington, who is more than a little astonished and chagrined to hear that name.  And so we embark on a rollicking adventure with many a close scrape.  There is an American millionaire cousin of Jane's who is also looking for her and of course, concluding love matches involving the two couples.  I'm not giving anything away here.  I won't say who Mr. Brown turns out to be, although I did figure it out fairly early on.  No matter.  It's the yarn that counts in this book.  You can find a complete plot synopsis on Wikopedia. 


Louise Erdrich - The Round House - 2012 - Harper Collins

This is a tribal mystery novel and a story of Windigo possession.  The protagonist is 13 year old Joe, son of Bazil, a tribal court judge and Geraldine, a tribal genealogist.  Geraldine receives a disturbing call about a file she has been working on and drives to meet the caller at the Roundhouse, a former ceremonial building.  There, she is assaulted, beaten and raped.  She makes a miraculous escape but is unwilling or unable to talk about the experience or identify her assailant.  Joe feels an obligation to discover that person's identity and bring him to justice.  One of Joe's relatives is the ancient Mooshum, who talks in his sleep and thus, over several nights, recounts the story of Nanapush, buffalo woman and the windigo.  Joe's best friend is Cappy who becomes a kind of guardian angel.  A subtext is the bizarre historical mishmash of tribal, State and Federal jurisdictions that have made it difficult to prosecute cases involving the rape of Indian women by white men.  Tribal justice takes into account the spirit possession that turns a person into the windigo monster.  The western legal system does not.  Joe, who later marries Margaret Nanapush, descendent of an earlier Margaret Nanapush, familiar to readers of Erdrich's other novels, follows in his fathers footsteps to become a tribal court judge.  But in the book he is 13 and looking to find a just resolution to what happened to his mother.  I won't divulge more except to say there are many other interesting characters and turns of plot, including a large sum of money hidden in a doll submerged in the lake.  This is an intricate and marvellous book.  A worthy addition to the Erdrich collection. 


Agatha Christie - The Mysterious Affair at Styles - 1916


Where Durrell verges on Seinfeld in lack of plot, Agatha Christie is all plot and less about setting and character development than P.D. James.  Her work is meticulous and clinical in its attention to detail.  The book introduces her "little Belgian" detective Hercule Poirot who lies somewhere between Holmes and Dalgliesh.  Poirot has the murder scene to himself for two full days before Scotland Yard is ever involved.  The local police don't even make an appearance.  In this novel, the Watson role is played by Poirot's friend Hastings, visiting his friend John Cavendish after being wounded in the war (WW I).  Poirot is masterful in pointing out that all the facts are usually in plain sight.  It's only the theories that are obscure.  I won't even begin to disclose the turns and twists following the murder by poisoning of John's stepmother, recently remarried Mrs. Inglethorp.  It has all the elements of a genre Christie pioneered; an isolated manor house, bewildering and misleading clues, lies and motives, and a complex cast of characters.  This is a fine break from Durrell, to whom I shall return anon.


Justine - Lawrence Durrell - 1957 (First of Alexandria Quartet)

What a change from the witty repartee of Rules of Civility.  To say that Durrell's novels are overwritten is an understatement.  They are righteously overly magnificently overwritten and of course suffused with the palimpsest of other writers of the author's creation; the doppleganger, Pursewarden, another biographer of Justine, Jacob Arnauti, author of Moeurs, and of course, de Sade.  There is no dialogue; only turgid soliloquary manifestos of Freudian despair on the themes of love and pain.  Durrell writes as a post pre-pubescent sophisticate overflowing and overwriting with ennui and vocabulary.  His writing is pergamoid, voluptuary without being sensuous, a syllogism in search of its missing partner, autistic, exigent, engorged with itself, self-consciously banausic, a succubus of nymphomania and cabbalistic obfuscation, fumbling to delight its own expiring dottle, while striving but failing to achieve a literary boustrophedon.  Perhaps that will come at the conclusion of Cleo.  The characters are neurasthenic in their coitus or lack thereof and suffused with a pullulation that fails to achieve refecundation; They are mordant and crepitating.  The women are goddesses and the men mentally flacidifying while at the same time priapic acolytes.  I read Durrell when the books first appeared.  Justine was published in 1957, the year I entered Swarthmore College. I was sophomoric, indeed a genuine sophomore when I read it, and Durrell provided endless topics of earnest conversation over beers at the local hangout.  Before going on to Balthazar, I'm reading an Agatha Christie mystery.  Beach reading!


Rules of Civility - Amor Towles - 2011 - Penguin


This is the author's first novel and a good one.  It begins with a quote from Matthew 22:8-14 that ends with with the line, For many are called, but few are chosen.  Set in 1938-39, it tells the story of Katey Kontent, a bright, witty young woman from an immigrant family in Brighton Beach and her equally intelligent but more independent minded roommate and friend Eve Ross from Indiana.  The book begins with Katey's recollection of those days thirty years later when she sees photographs of their old friend and lover, Tinker Grey in an exhibition of candid subway portraits by Walker Evens.  Selections of these portraits introduce each section of the book.  The title, Rules of Civility, comes from a self help book owned by the young George Washington that Tinker Grey used as his own way of preparing for a role in wealthy upper class New York society.  Towles tells his story in Katey's voice, which is smart and modern in the 1930s sense of the term.  She's a master of the bon mot as in:

-- Bucky dear, his wife warned, you're slurring your words.

-- Slurring is the cursive of speech, I observed.

Towes obviously loves language and particularly loves the language of that period at the end of the depression and just before WWII.  He does it exceptionally well and as a male author, has the female voice well in hand.  I can't help reflect on the deterioration of language among 20 somethings of the twitter-Facebook age.  His characters are the age of my parents so there is a kind of familiarity to me even though they led much more sedate lives and certainly didn't smoke and drink the way these young people do.  The book is quintessentially about New York and Towes is a New Yorker through and through.  Indeed, in his day job he's "a principal at an investment firm in Manhattan" according to the blurb. 

Katey and Eve first share a small room with a single bed in a boarding house and work in an office typing pool.  After an accidental meeting with Tinker Grey, they move into his circle of wealthy and well born friends.  They educate Tinker with their knowledge of the New York jazz scene and more than hold their own, largely through their ability to speak well and come up with the appropriately snappy turn of phrase.  A trueblood friend of Tinker's is Wallace Wolcott who becomes Katey's friend and teaches her the noble art of shooting.  Perhaps as a rebellion against his class, he enlists for service in the Spanish Civil War.  Katey becomes an editor at a smart new New York gossip magazine and Eve eventually finds her way to the West Coast.  There's lots more but I leave that to the reader to discover.

I look forward to reading more from Amor Towes.  He's a gifted writer.


Juan de Fuca's Strait: Voyages in the Waterway of Forgotton Dreams - 2012 - Barry Gough


Gough is a maritime historian and in this book works over multiple stories in the complex history of NWC exploration.  He starts with a semi-legendary 1596 meeting in Venice between the Greek pilot, Apostolas Valerionos (Juan de Fuca) and the English entrepreneur, Michael LokThe stories weave in and out as Gough brings together multiple histories.  He gives a worthy tribute to Dionesio Alcala Galiano who first circumnavigated Vancouver Island and George Vancouver, whose charts are amazingly detailed and accurate to this day.  Galiano died at Trafalgar and Vancouver died at the age of 40 in England.  While not as detailed as Stephen Brown's portrait of Vancouver, Gough pays tribute to his skills as a navigator and cartographer.  The book is replete with illustrations of the principal characters, places and ships.  It is indeed amazing in this age of GPS, radar and or course motors, that these square rigged sailing ships found their way into and through some of the most complex as yet uncharted waters with virtually no serious misadventures.  History and consequently this book remains inconclusive as to whether Juan de Fuca actually discovered the strait that bears his name.  Gough is emphatically more conclusive in refuting Sam Balwf's claim that Frances Drake actually sailed in NWC waters. 


Dead Cold - Louise Penny -2006 - Headline (Sphere PB in Canada)


Another wonderful Armand Gamache mystery set again in Three Pines, Quebec.  The familiar characters are there and of course, they are not really suspects.  The victim in this case is a thoroughly odious character who has named herself C.C. de Poitiers although that is not her real name.  She thinks of herself as Eleanor of Aquitaine.  An apparently unrelated murder is that of an alcoholic bag lady in Montreal.  Of course, we learn, they are quite literally related.  As with my other reviews of mysteries, I won't say anything more about the plot.  It's enough to say that like Penny's other mysteries, this one has poetry, philosophy and lots of good food and wine.  It was a nice change from plowing through The Sweet Girl. 


The Sweet Girl - Annabel Lyon - 2012 - Random House


This book has been critically acclaimed and even listed for a Giller  prize.  I just don't see the hype.  I don't usually like to pan a book, but this one is really terribly crafted and replete with errors of fact for which both the author and the copy editors should be held responsible.  First the small stuff, which would be forgivable if the overall book was compelling.  Lyon calls the strait of Euripus that separates Euboeia (Evia) from the mainland an isthmus.  How could she ever make such an error?  She has the 5th century BC Greeks eating from plates on a table when they didn't.  Yes, they had tables, but only platters for the main dishes.  They ate from cloths and pieces of bread, much as Arabs do today.  Beyond these and some other problematic anachronisms and inaccuracies, the voices of the characters just don't sound true.  Perhaps in an attempt to make the ancients sound modern, Lyon gives Pythia, Aristotle's daughter, the voice of a contemporary teenager.  It's hard to say just why the voice doesn't work, but for me it didn't.  She speaks in short declarative sentences in the present tense.  A good historical novel explains the culture of the time and brings it to life for the reader.  Although Lyon makes an attempt, bringing in lots of cultural references (including spurious ones), it just doesn't convey a feeling for living in 5th BC century Greece.  Then there's the confusing plot line.  It's really hard to figure out what is happening from page to page.  This is not done intentionally as far as I can see.  Lyon just isn't very good at making events hang together.  The family is exiled from Athens and moves into someone else's house in a way that is never adequately explained.  When Aristotle dies, he leaves a room of furniture to his ex-slave wife.  This doesn't make sense, since he doesn't own the house.  Is this furniture from his house in Athens?  It is never explained.  The plot is confusing and not in a creatively Joycean way.  It's really hard to figure out what is going on from one scene to the next.  Why is she carrying around a speculum?  Would a woman of her class really become a prostitute and then go on to marry her cousin?  How come she never got pregnant as a whore but did as soon as she was married?  Is one of her refuges a brothel or a house of midwives?  Are they really getting women pregnant just so they can practice their craft?  None of this makes sense.  The ending is even more muddled.  I never did figure out how it ends; how she got from the brothel to marriage to her cousin Nicanor and restored wealth.  I don't want to belabor what is my personal reaction to the book, but having recently read Theresa Kishkan and Lorna Crozier, this book falls short.  I really had a hard time plowing through it, even though it is a relatively slight novel.  Rather than becoming engaged with the characters and their lives, I kept thinking, "This is a terrible book.  It's terribly written."  I've heard several interviews on CBC with the author and she strikes me as someone who has a higher opinion of herself than her work merits.  She teaches creative writing at UBC and I get the feeling that she can be dominating and opinionated to her students.  I'm glad I'm a humble ethnographer. 


The Murder Room - P.D. James - 2004


This is yet another of her masterfully crafted mysteries.  There are familiar situations; an institution (in this case a museum of culture between the wars), murky involvement of MI5, a wise but somewhat lonely older woman and a troubled boy she befriends, and of course, Dalgleish and Kate.  This one is important in the story of AD's life in that it ends with his proposal to Emma and her joyous acceptance.  Finally, they are going to be happily married.  As usual, the murder does not take place until the characters and their situation are firmly established.  In this case, the issue is whether or not to continue the Dupayne museum or liquidate the holdings and sell the property.  There are three trustees (children of the founder) and the decision must be unanimous.  Two want to maintain the museum, one is against it.  Like all of James' mysteries, it's the character development and their tangled relationships rather than who actually done it.  I won't divulge even who the victims are, let alone the murderer.  It's a deliciously crafted book and a joy to pick up and keep on reading.


Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir - Lorna Crozier - 2009 - Greystone Books

 

Crozier is a wonderful poet and this a wonderfully poetic narrative of her early life in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.  The central characters are the prairie landscape itself and the bond between Lorna and her mother, who endured a bleak and abusive childhood and marriage to a man who allowed his love for drink to eclipse his love for her.  Crozier has a precise memory of events in her early life.  Her descriptions of what is like to be a child are among the very best I have ever encountered.  Reading about grade one, grade school cafeterias and high school proms brought out memories of my own childhood and adolescence that have probably been buried for well over half a century.  Crozier is nine years younger than me but the worlds of our childhoods are similar in things like remembering orange crush bottles for a dime with a two cent deposit or movies for a quarter (20 cents for me).  Of course, my childhood in Westminster Maryland brought up by academic parents was culturally quite different from hers.  Her evocation of those times, though, resonates for me and will probably evoke distant times for a younger generation in the same way that the jazz age and before did for me.  The book begins with prose poems on first causes of prairie life (inspired by Aristotle): Light, Dust, Wind.  And later in the book, there are Mom & Dad, Rain, Snow, Sky, Insects, Grass, Gravel, and Horizon.  Each chapter is in itself a prose poem without the pretension of using that label.  Poetry is at its best story telling and Crozier is the best there is.  I started the book late last night and finished it by early evening today.  It's that good.  I almost want to start all over just to savor the language.  Not only is the book lovely and accessible poetry; it also captures a time and place in Canadian cultural history that has gone forever.  Reading Crozier right after Schreiber's Old Lives leaves me with visions of the way things were; hard and gritty like gravel having status as a first cause, but also triumphant, like Crozier's indomitable mother. 


Old Lives - John Schreiber - 2011 - Caitlin Press

 

While not exactly a sequel to Stranger Wycott's Place, this book is based on Schreiber's travels in the Chilcotin plateau area of BC's interior.  As the title implies, it is the braided stories of First Nations and settlers who have lived and died there.  Schreiber writes, "In those old slow days, time was flexible and distance was not.  Now, internal combustion technology has largely overcome distance if you've got the cash for gas, the roads are clear and your truck motor is tuned up enough to get you home again."  Schreiber travels with a trusty 4WD pathfinder and also by foot.  There's a lovely picture of him hiking on the Potato Mountain ridge with the ground lightly covered in early winter snow.  The book is also replete with photos, some of them from years ago, of the Chilcotin residents whose lives he chronacles.  When one of them, Percy Rosette, asked what the book would be called and John said, Old Lives, Percy immediately performed a trickster shift by coming back with, "Old Lies."  At a deep level, the book really is about the multiple realities of mythic time in relation to the real time of life lived in this challenging land.  Schreiber's travels take him into the homes of people living on the land today and to the old cabins and graveyards of those who have passed on.  There's a beautiful description of visiting one of these well tended graveyards and seeing a family of grizzly bears up close.  The encounter ended amicably. 

 

I'm at least casually familiar with the eastern Fraser River part of it since we often drive to Beaverland via the Pavilion Mountain road, Jesmond Road and Doig Creek Road, passing through Canoe Creek, Dog Creek and Alkalai Lake on the way back to the highway at William's Lake.  Our daughter Amber has done archaeology in the western part and took us to visit some pit house sites on the Chilko River.  Two of our grandchildren are named Nyckeija Chilko Moon Ridington and Leif Taseko Ridington.  I suggested Waddington Ridington but somehow didn't receive a positive response.  I can't imagine why. 

 

The book is replete with the names and stories of hardy pioneers and First Nations people, often blended into the same family.  I suspect it will become a treasure for these families to see themselves and their stories lovingly remembered.  For an outsider it is enough to take in the outlines of their lives without having to keep all the interwoven genealogical relationships straight.  The book is as much a meditation as it is a history or an ethnography.  Schreiber chose to use his own experience as a documentary tool, rather than collecting oral histories as recorded actualities.  Above all, it is beautifully and lovingly written.  "Myth happens," he writes.  "Transformations occur.  The genius of myth is that its context can only be greater than us;  it is at essence wild and mercifully beyond our control.  We cannot choose to tell or write a new myth no matter how determined our intentions.  Rather, it is myth that tells (or write) us, and likely always will."  Schreiber leaves the reader with a sense of hope; that myth will continue to tells us what is meangful and beautiful, even in a world swirling with over-produced electronic clutter.  People will still be reading Old Lives long after Gangnam Style has passed into oblivion.  


Theresa Kishkan - A Man In A Distant Field - 2004 - Simon & Pierre Fiction, Dundurn Press


A man in a distant field, no hearthfires near,

will hide a fresh brand in his bed of embers

to keep a spark alive for the next day:

so in the leaves Odysseus hid himself,

while over him Athena showered sleep

that his distress should end, and soon, soon.

In quiet sleep she sealed his cherished eyes.

(The Odyssey - Robert Fitzgerald Translation)


The story takes place in Ireland and near Pender Harbour on the BC coast, but it also happens against the backdrop of Homer's Odyssey.  Because of this, I have been reading the two books together (The Odyssey in Fitzgerald's luminous blank verse setting).  The last time I read The Odyssey it was the Fagels prose translation, which is very good, but it's also a treat to return to Fitzgerald who makes his blank verse narrative work for a modern audience.  Iambic pentameter works very well in English and I use it often in sonnetry.  I am also pleased to be reading Homer from my mother's copy with some of the margin notes she used in teaching. 


Kishkan's novel, like her The Age of Waterlilies, reads like a story of real peoples' lives.  If the dialogue sometimes sounds a bit old fashioned, that is because people speak differently now from the early 20th century.  I can't imagine a person from that time saying, as my granddaughter Undine once told me affectionally, "Robin, get a life!"  Declan O'Malley has suffered the devastating loss of his wife and two young daughters at the hands of the black & tans, (English WWI veterans who have been recruited to terrorize people with Irish Republican sympathies) and found a simple cabin in Oyster Bay on the Sechelt Peninsula of British Columbia far away from the troubles.   He was a schoolteacher at home and farmed his family's land in County Mayo.  He has brought with him a copy of The Odyssey in ancient Greek, which he is slowly translating into English.  His neighbors on the coast have given him an abandoned cabin and an old rowing boat in which he fishes for salmon, then abundant in the waters of Georgia Strait.  This setting is where Kishkin lives with her poet husband, John Pass.  It is where they raised their three children, one of whom is a student of classical language and literature.  It is also a place familiar to us from our 40 years of cruising this coast.  Declan makes friends with Rose, a neighbor's girl who reminds him of his lost daughters.  He offers to teach her to read and write, despite the objections of a rigid and overbearing father.  He tells her stories from The Odyssey as he works on his translation.  He also discovers the remains of a canoe burial that Rose's father has plowed up.  He drags it to an open place and often lies in it, thinking and dreaming about the life of the man who was buried in it.  He also makes friends with the local First Nations people, who are in the process of building a beautiful dugout canoe.  When the canoe is completed, he travels with them up Agamemnon Channel and around Nelson Island (places whose names honour the battle of Trafalgar, not the people who have lived there for millennia). 

Bad feelings between Declan and Rose's father eventually lead him to return home to Ireland, where he gradually takes up life on his family's land and rebuilds the house destroyed by fire.  He also restores an Irish harp played by his daughter Grainne.  Eventually he meets and falls in love with Una Fitzgerald from an old landowning family.  Una teaches him about the local plants and introduces him to botany and ecology.  That's enough to say about the plot.  Passages describing Declan's life are intercut with passages from Homer, presented in both the original Greek and English translation.  Declan's dream voyages in the spirit canoe parallel those of Odysseus in his long voyage home.  Declan adopts a puppy from Rose's mother and of course, names her Argo.  To add to the classical theme, Declan's home village in Ireland is called Delphi. 


My mother's favorite passage from The Odyssey comes from the meeting between Nausikaa and Odysseus.  She used these words in the memorial service for my father.  Although Odysseus is naked and salt-drenched, he speaks with nobility to the young woman and ends his address with these words (Fitzgerald translation):

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband and harmonious
converse with him - the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies,
joy to their friends!


Declan in Oyster Bay has a moment resonant with this one when he sees Rose swimming nude and is reminded both of his daughters and of his own sexuality.  He remembers how Odysseus greeted the young princess with dignity and thinks about the power (and danger) of glimpsing "the virgin goddess."  This encounter marks a turning point in his healing and eventual return to find a new love of his native land and a new lover.  Unlike The Odyssey, which ends with the slaughter of the suitors and hanging the servant women who went with them, Declan's odyssey ends in peace and the beginning of new life, despite skirmishes from the troubles which are still ongoing.  


The feasting in Homer is prodigious and the descriptions are lavish.  Gold and silver abound.  Cattle, sheep, goats and swine are killed in large numbers, burnt offerings made to the gods, and then spitted on the fire to eat with wine, mixed with water.  Minus the excessive amount of meat, the lavish descriptions resonate strangely with L. Frank Baum's descriptions of Oz; The Emerald City, The Yellow Brick Road etc.  I don't want to accuse Homer of plagarism, but the similarities are sometimes striking.  He probably wouldn't keep a job at the New York Times or the Globe & Mail.  For all that, Homer remains divine and his adventures continue to enthrall readers/listeners.  One gets a glimpse of Homer himself in the person of the blind harper, Demodicus.  Formulaic lines are warps against whick the stories narrative weft is woven.  The goddesses address Odysseus as, "Son of Laertes and the gods of old, Odysseus, master mariner and soldier."  One of the most dear is Odysseus address to his faithful servant, "Eumaios - O my swineherd!" as he recounts their adventures to him in later years.  You can even get a teeshirt with this greeting on it. 


I've just finished this reading and have the familiar lines ringing in my head.  For gentle ease of narrative I'll take Kishkan's and Homer's Odysseus over Joyce's any day. 


The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms - Amy Stewart - 2004 - Algonquin Books


Stewart takes off where Darwin left off in his remarkable last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Agency of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits.  Darwin slyly used his study of worms to reassert how small incremental events can cause enormous changes over time.  In the case of worms, it was the very creation of soil in massive quantities over time.  He also set up original experiments to show that earthworms are capable of rational decision making based on their assessment of environmental context.  They're not really that dumb and certainly not automatons.  Stewart cites research done in the more than a century since Darwin's book as well as her own observations as a small scale worm farmer.  It is now known, she reports, that most of the worms found in North America are European imports.  While some of these like the red wigglers (Eisentia fetida) and night crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) that in Maryland we called night walkers have enormous beneficial effects in agriculture, they also create havoc with native forest ecosystems.  The understory plants in northern deciduous forest have disappeared because their sees need several years in leaf litter to germinate and the worms eat it all up in a single season.  Despite these caveats, Stewart obviously loves worms and ends the book with an affirmation that they are among the most rewarding and useful of pets.  They are fun to watch and they produce an abundance of castings that enrich her garden beds.  This book is certainly a guide to anyone wishing to start a worm colony, but even for those who don't or can't (as in our case because we aren't in one place long enough), the book is vicariously engaging.  The book is cleverly designed with a faux foxed dust jacket imprint on the paperback cover.  Let's hear it for worms!!

Still Life - Louise Penny - St Martin's Minotaur - 2007

This one precedes The Cruelest Month so in a way I already knew who didn't commit the murder since they appear as viable characters later on.  It's the first of the Armand Gamache series.  As with any good mystery, it isn't who done it that is of greatest interest.  It's the characters, the setting, the turns of plot.  This is also set in Three Pines and involves the murder of a much beloved elder, Jane Neal.  The method is unusual.  She was felled by a hunting arrow.  A subtext of the book is her artwork and her unwillingness to share it or even the interior of her home with villagers, even her best friends.  Armand Gamache is intuitive, compassionate and tough when he has to be.  The artist couple, Clara and Peter, are important characters, as they are in the later book.  We meet Agent Nichol who is insecure, sometimes arrogant and sometimes careless.  Gamache and his associate, Beauvoire, deal with her and do everything possible to bring her around.  We find out more in the later book. 


The Wave Watcher's Companion: Ocean Waves, Stadium Waves, and All The Rest Of Life's Undulations - Gavin Pretor-Pinney - 2012 Penguin Perigee


Although this is a work of popular science and takes a somewhat breezy (wavy) tone, the science is solid and informative.  At heart, the unifying nature of waves remains something of a mystery.  This is particularly true of electromagnetic waves, which are also particles and do not need a physical medium in which to propagate.  In 1951 Einstein, who first proposed the quantum theory of light, wrote,  "All the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, 'What are light quanta?'  Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself."  As the book's subtitle indicates, it takes on the entire variety of wave behavior.  Ocean waves and sound waves are easiest for us to comprehend, although even these have their surprises.  Pretor-Pinney explains clearly how differences in temperature influence the propagation of sound and how differences in wave length effect our perceptions.  The book is almost encyclopedic in its comprehensive coverage of all these different wave phenomena.  One piece of trivia is his revelation that water does not go down a drain in different directions in the southern and northern hemispheres.  The book even goes into the dynamics of stadium waves.  The most difficult chapters had to do with the quantum world, and it was a relief to hear that even Einstein didn't really understand them.  The book is richly illustrated with diagrams and photographs. 


The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje - 2011 - Vintage Canada


An eleven year old boy is sent on the liner Oronsay from Ceylon to England where he will be reunited with his mother and go to school.  Halfway through the book, we learn that the boy's name is Michael, although his nickname on board is Mynah.  Of course, there are elements of autobiograhy here but it is clearly also a work of fiction.  The cat's table is the one farthest away from the captain's table.  It is here Michael meets two other boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, as well as some other interesting characters, Mr. Fonseca the musician, Mr Mazappa, who introduces the boys to Sidney Bechet, the Baron C , a sly thief, Mr. Daniels, curator of a garden deep within the ship, Mr. Nevil, who used to dismantle ships, Mr. Gunsekera, a tailor who is apparently mute, and Miss Lasqueti, once an olympic champion shooter who is carrying pigeons on board.  Then there is the mysterious prisoner, Mr. Niemeier who is led out at night in chains.  Michael's aunt, Flavia Prins is supposed to be his guardian but it is his 17 year old cousin Emily he is closest to.  Just to round off this completely mundane list of characters, there is the Jankla Troop of Ceylonese circus performers led by "The Hyderabad Mind" and also containing a deaf girl, Asuntha.  And oh yes, there's Sir Hector de Silva and his attending Moratuwa ayurvedic en route to seek medical attention for rabies contracted from a bite from his pet dog after an unfortunate incident when Sir Hector joked about the name of a passing holy man, punning that his name sounded like "urinating dog."  The holy man cast a spell on Sir H and from there he was doomed. 


That's just a bit of the passenger list.  Their stories become more and more intertwined and the three boys become both participants and observers.  They manage to obtain the run of the ship, hiding in lifeboats and deep in the hold.  They overhear conversations not meant for them.  The book also flashes forward to Michael's life after the voyage and particularly his later relationship with Ramadihn and his sister, who he meets in England.  The story is fantastic but not at all magical realism.  It all could have happened and in the embrace of Ondaatje's beautiful prose, it indeed does.  I won't reveal any more of this intricate plot except to say that this is a beautiful book and beautifully written. 


The Age of Water Lilies - Theresa Kishkan- 2009 - Brindle & Glass

Mnemonic was a wonderful and thoughtful work of non-fiction.  This book is a novel and equally wonderful, although in some ways more like a personal narrative than a novel with intricate turns of plot.  It reads like the stories of real people.  The voice is the author's as omniscient narrator but the voices of the characters come through clearly.  One is Flora who moves from England to the Thompson River region with her brother, a younger son sent to Canada to seek his fortune.  Flora loves riding and when in England loved her father's cherished water lilies.  At the ranch near Walhachin, Flora meets and falls in love with a young man named Agustus, Gus.  Their love affair blossoms as they meet and make love in a secret box canyon.  Everything changes when WW I breaks out.  Both Gus and her brother enlist and  both lose their lives overseas, as does Flora's older brother who was to inherit the family home in England.  Flora is left with a new life growing inside her.  She moves to Victoria and is befriended by a widow of the Boer war named Ann who invites her into her home and her life. 


Flora's story alternates with that of a girl named Tessa who lives in the Fairfield neighborhood of Victoria and comes to know Flora in 1962 as an older woman.  She and Flora share a love of nature and of Flora's garden.  The two stories are simple and simply told.  Reading them is like hearing real people talk about real lives.  We never meet Grace, Flora's daughter, who has gone to study art in Paris by the time Tessa enters the picture.  Tessa must, of course, resonate with Theresa, who also grew up in Fairfield.  Despite the tragedies of war and prejudice against an unmarried mother, the stories are of strong women who are triumphant.  Flora (and Ann) develop their respective creativities.  Flora designs ceramic tiles and Ann is a singer.  They also stage a production ot The Trojan Woman, in part as a protest against the tragedy and folly of war.  As in Mnemonic, Dido's lament from Purcell's opera makes an appearance.  There's a lot about places - Walhachin and Victoria, some of which are familiar to me.  Flora has a friend Jane, who lives at Hat Creek Ranch.  There are beautiful descriptions of this as well as of Victoria as both Flora and Tessa know it. 


Another wonderful book.  Keep them coming, Theresa!!
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River in the Desert": A Modern Traveller in Ancient Egypt - Paul William Roberts - 1993 Random House of Canada (2006 edition Raincoast Books) 

 

This is certainly a form of travel writing, but Roberts has a wry and less than reverant perspective on life in contemporary Egypt.  While he wrote when Mubarak still reigned supreme, he foresaw a democratic uprising not unlike the one that actually happened, with the Muslim Brotherhood gaining a strong position in government.  Egyptian bureauocracy, though, is like that of many third world countries.  His encounters with "guides" and advertisements for hotels are sometimes hilarous.  A sustantial part of the book is devoted to the remarkable legacy of ancient dynastic Egypt.  He writes with wonder at their achievements.  His descriptions of the temple and carvings at Karnak are particularly powerful.  The narrative becomes dicey though when he writes about the theories of John Anthony West, who argues for the existence of a huge pre-dynastic civilization that existed perhaps tens of thousands of years ago and was the source of the dynastic tradition.  Of course, I am in no position to evaluate the supposed evidence he cites, but I do have a good bullshit detector and an understanding of the dating of the transition from hunting & gathering to agriculture everywhere else.  The claims just don't fit in.  I must admit I skimmed these somewhat new-agey chapters and went on to more believable first hand accounts of his further adventures in contemporary Egypt.  His travels in Nubia and the oases east of the Nile are actually idyllic.  By contrast, his interview with Dr. Ahmad Shalaby, head of the Department of Islamic History and Civilization at Cairo University, is devastating.  Shalaby showed the worst of contemporary Egypt's talent for self deception and total ignorance of fundamental facts of history.  He manifests the finest example of the Egyptian Peter Principle, a published scholar who is hopelessly biased and stunningly uninformed.  By contrast, his interview with Dr. Mamdouh Beltagi and expecially with Boutros Boutros-Galli, show that Egyptian leaders can be well informed with an international perspective. 

 

Mnemonic: A Book of Trees - Theresa Kishkan - 2011 - Goose Lane Editions

 

Jillian and I met Theresa and her husband John Pass at the wonderful Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival.   We bought John's latest book of poetry, Crawlspace as well as two novels and two non-fiction books by Theresa. With the festival only over yesterday afternoon, I have already devoured Mnemonic the first book by Theresa I picked up.  I don't mean to imply being a gluttonous reader and indeed this book deserves a reflective reading, which is to say I'll go back to it again.  It's just such a good read I couldn't put it down.  We first bought it as a present for Diana but once I had started the first chapter on Garry Oaks I knew we had to have it for our own.  It's about trees, as the subtitle intimates, but it is also stories of the author's life.  Kishkan is able to write about her life without being narcissistic.  It works because she describes places and experiences in a mindful way.  She writes with intellect and deep feeling in the same way that Frances Mayes (who I read recently) uses her experiences in Tuscany as a vehicle for thinking about things like truth and beauty and the precious gift of life.  The book's chapters are named for trees, but a number of themes run throughout.  One is music, especially vocal music and particularly the haunting lament of Dido in Handel's opera (especially sung by David Daniels and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson).  Another and related theme is classical antiquity, literature, mythology and natural history.   The book is erudite with footnotes and bibliography and these augment the text rather than detracting from it.  There's a lot about places we know; Fairfield and Dallas Road in Victoria and yes, the MacDonalds in Merritt and the drive up through the Cariboo.  Also Venice, where we spent 3 weeks last fall.  Then there are the Garry Oaks and Arbutus.  Our home on Retreat Island is a healthy Garry Oak habitat, with erythronium and fritellaria in the spring.  We're not sure whether it is a parkland or scrub oak ecosystem.  The soils are shallow and the trees not as large as those in Victoria, and we have erythronium but not camas.  We hosted a visiting plant geneticist who took samples and compared their DNA with those of other Garry Oak communities.  As I recall, they matched those from the upper Fraser Valley.  Not long after buying Retreat Island, we subdivided and gave half to the Galiano Conservancy Association, with a covenant being held by the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society of Victoria.  I could write more about this wonderful book but instead I urge you to read it for yourself. 

 

Eva Gruber, editor - Thomas King: Works and Impact - Camden House - 2012

 

Gruber is an ambitious editor and blessedly uninfected by lit-crit bafflegab, although several of the chapters indulge heavily in using made-up nouns to describe sometimes simple ideas.  Gruber encountered King when her home university of Constance, Germany had an exchange program with the biology department at Guelph, where she researched the antibiotic properties of fish mucus.  I'm not making this up.  Looking for something different, she ended up in Helen Hoy's class on Native literature, which led her to write her MA & PhD theses in that subject and eventually to the idea of contacting "King scholars" for contributions to a book about Thomas King.  I came into this movie with an e-mail from Eva inviting me to contribute, which I did with a piece on King's storytelling as a form of First Nations theorizing, "Turtles All The Way Down: Literary and Cultural Criticism Coyote Style."  My favorite chapters are the ones that are easy to read, which does not at all mean simplistic.  These include Gruber's own contributions, particularly a long obviously sympatico interview with King, Helen Hoy's "The Truth About Thomas," and Carter Meland's mischevous "Misdirection Is Still a Direction: Thomas King as a Teacher."  There's a certain amount of overlap in some of the chapters but that is inevitable since they are writing about the same body of work.  There's lots to like about this collection.  Congratulations to Eva Gruber for bringing it into being at the same time as bringing a new life into the world. 

 

Louise Penny - The Cruelest Month - Headline Publishing - 2007 (Sphere reprint 2011)

 

Penny is a mystery writer in the mold of P.D. James in that she sets up complex sets of characters and relationships.  Her detective is Armand Gamache of the Surite de Quebec and the story is set in the idyllic Quebec village of Three Pines.  There is also a complex plot within the plot having to do with deep divisions, corruption and rivalries within the Surite.  The two plots converge on the theme of friendship turning into jealousy, hate and betrayal.  The name one of the characters, Myrna, the antiquarian bookstore owner, gives for this is the near enemy.  "There are thre couplings.  Attachment masquerades as love, Pity as Compassion and Indifference as Equinimity" (287-88). 

 

Kurt Vonnegut - Sirens of Titan - 1959

I first read this book shortly after it was published, probably the early 60s, complete with lurid cover art.  It was a book that stuck with me ever since, so it seemed time to have another read, now that it has been recognized as one of the two seminal works of 20th century epistemology (the other being L Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz.  It's the book that introduces the world to the Trafalmadorians, or at least the robots that survived their extinction.  The entire evolutionary history of earth, it turns out, was engineered by a robot named Salo sent with a message to the outermost extent of the universe.  Near earth his spacecraft broke down and hecreated human civilization to make him a new part.  Along the way Vonnegut creates a savage indictment of human religion and other follies.  Malachi Constant is the son of a man who became fabulously wealthy picking stocks by reference to passages in the Bible.  Winston Niles Rumfoord, the evil mastermind of everything, has gone into space and passed through the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibula which dematerializes him so that he and his dog only appear on earth once a month.  I could go on but won't.  According to the Harvard Crimson, Vonnegut dictated the book to a friend in one night.  A good story anyway.  Read the book.  

 

PD James - A Taste For Death

This is about the muder of a priminant MP and minister, Paul Berowne, and his disfunctional family.  Like every other PD James mystery, it is about interesting characters rather than whodonit.  In this case Dalgliesh had met the victim who asked his help in something to do with a poison pen letter.  They also spent several plesant hours together in conversation on a train. 

 

Douglas Hunter - Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of the New World - 2009 - Bloomsbury Press

 

Henry Hudson was a maverick who managed to sail up the river which bears his name as far as Albany.  The Half Moon was a tiny ship, less than 80 feet long with a crew of only 16.  Small even for its time.  Like many captains in the age of sail, he was not a nice man.  He was also typically late Elizabethan in his devious political machinations.  The ship was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1609 to survey north of Novaya Zemlya for a possible northern passage to the East.  Hudson knew it was futile but followed orders until he found a solid wall of ice.  Then, instead of heading back to Amsterdam, he turned West for the coast of North America and the rich fishing grounds of Georges Bank, hoping to find the NW Passage and make his fame and fortune.   Passing Cape Cod, he sailed south to the Chesepeake Bay and then on to Deleware Bay, grounding off Cape May on August 29.  Again afloat on a rising tide, he proceeded to Sandy Hook and Verrazzano Narrows.  Thus began his remarkable passage up the river that bears his name to the head of navigation at Albany.  The lower Hudson is entirely tidal and really an enormous estuary with a river at its head.  His pilotage was a combination of skill and luck.  The book devotes several chapters to his progress upriver returning safely to England and belatedly to Amsterdam, where the VOC reluctantly gave him command of another ship, the Discovery, for his final voyage in 1610-11.   Although the Discovery returned safely, Hudson was not aboard.  His increasingly rebellious Dutch crew set him, his son and the other Englishmen aboard the ship's launch in Hudson's Bay, and he was never heard from again.  The book is well researched and contains an amazing amount of detail.  Hunter is himself an experienced sailor and author of a book on yacht design. 

 

Frances Mayes - Bella Tuscany - 1999 - Broadway Books

 

This is more than a travel book or even a light hearted book about her adventures in Italy, although it has elements of both.  Mayes is an amazingly good writer.  Her work is thoughtful, poetic and even philosophical.  The beauty and whimsey she finds in Tuscany (and Sicily & Venice) are balanced by a fine sense of life's finite nature.  It's not at all morbid but more  a celebration of life.  Her voice is vivid, as are the voices of her Italian friends & acquaintenances, whose words are quoted liberally.  An easy read but not a frivolous one.

 

Stephen R. Brown - Madness, Betrayal and the Lash:  The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver - 2008 - Douglas & McIntyre

 

George Vancouver was an obsessively meticulous surveyor who accomplished the astounding feat of charting the entire Pacific coast from central California to Alaska.  His work in the north coast of British Columbia is particularly amazing, given that it is one of the most complex waterways in the world but also subject to lots of fog and rain.  His typical plan was to anchor the two ships under his command, the Discovery and the Chatham, and proceed under oar and sail in a launch.  By this means, he and his lieutenants, Whidbey and Puget, covered 10,000 miles of intricate coastline over three long years.  As the title suggests, his accomplishments were tainted by illness, and a violent temper verging on madness.  He also had the misfortune to have as a midshipman Thomas Pitt, a nephew of the PM and later a baron.  Pitt was a young upper class twit and probably even more unbalanced than Vancouver.  The conflict between them arose because of the ambiguity of his status as a midshipman and thus subject to naval discipline and his upper chall credentials and connections to invfluential men.  On several occasions Vancouver ordered him lashed for infractions such as falling asleep on watch and minor pilfering.  Pitt never forgot and upon their return to England managed to ruin his reputation.  Another problem was Menzies, a botanist and surgeon and protoge of Joseph Banks.  There was constant conflict between the two over Menzies greenhouse on the quarterdeck.  Other captains might have found diplomatic wals to resolve these conflicts, but Vancouver was not good at human relations.  He reacted with violence and intolerance.  His relations with his crew were not good either and he caused great animosity by refusing shore leave in Hawaii.

 

On a more positive note, Vancouver acted with discretion in his dealings with the gentlemanly Bodega y Quadra who pressed him for a concession granting Spain the entire Pacific coast as far as Cape Flattery.  Vancouver rightly told Quadra that he simply didn't have the authority to make such an agreement on behalf of Britain. 

 

Amy McKay - The Virgin Cure - Vintage Canada 2012 (hardcover 2011)

 

Set in NYC in just after the Civil War, this is the story of a Christie Street waif named Moth (or Ada).  Her mother is a gypsy and her father is long gone.  Her mother is addicted to a patent medicine and when Moth is 12 sends her off to be a ladies maid to Mrs. Wentworth, who turns out to be sadistic and insane.  She escapes with the help of the butler and is befriended by a slightly older girl who is being prepared to be a prostitute.  Moth joins the madam's household and has various adventures, eventually encountering Mr. Wentworth.  I won't divulge any more of the plot except to say that it describes a Dickensian world, although in a much more contemporary language.  Moth is a survivor and the story ends happily, although it leaves her at only 19, with the rest of her life ahead of her.  

 



Elizabeth Hay - Alone in the Classroom - 2011 - M & S


I can't exactly say why this novel captivated me, but it did and I finished it in 24 hours.  Hay is an excellent evocative writer and the work is certainly in part autobiographical.  The characters are strong, and although there are several violent deaths, it is not at all an ominous tale, nor is it a mystery.  In neither of the deaths do we really learn what happened except that a schoolmaster, Parley Burns, is implicated in both.  The strongest and central character is Connie, who we meet as an 18 year old schoolteacher in the tiny town of Jewel, Saskatchewan, where Parley Burns is her principal.  The other main character, or perhaps just a strong presence throughout, is Michael, Connie's pupil in Jewel and later her lover.  He is also, as a man in his 60s and 70s, the lover of her niece, Annie, who is the book's narrator.  Sounds like chick-lit but if so, then I'm all for it.  The book is a delicate and sensitive portrait of a family that is in some ways flawed but in others strong and creative.  I suspect that's how Elizabeth Hay sees herself. 


Dava Sobel - The Planets - 2005 Viking


Sobel is a science writer who is also a storyteller.  We are, of course, an integral part of the story, although the ancients did not count our own planet among the wanderers.  From earth it is they who appear to move and we who are a fixed center.  That changed only when computations of their orbits turned out to be impossible without recognizing that we, too, move around a common center.  Increasingly complex epicycles simply didn't account economically for observation.  Sobel's book ties together stories from mythology and stories from scientific discovery, including the ongoing saga of interplanetary exploration by unmanned spacecraft.  Now we know them as real places, at least the ones that have surfaces we can compare with our own.  Jupiter and Saturn, of course, are different creatures.  We have photographed Mercury, Mars, Venus and Luna, and have actually landed on Mars and (briefly) Venus, as well as Saturn's moon Titan.  Sobel even gives a nod to Asstrology and includes information about the charts of scientists (and astrologers) like Galileo and Newton.  The book is a good read and a reliable reference, with excellent notes and bibliography.  Inspired by reading The Planets, I have written some sonnets about them.  See Planets page under Some Sonnets 2012 on this website. 


Isabel Allende - My Invented Country - 2003 - Harper Collins Perennial

    Allende is a wonderful writer and in this memoir she reflects back upon the Chile that she knew as a child and young woman; a country that changed irrevocably with the dictatorship of Pinochet.  The fact that she has the same name as the president who was murdered in the coup is not all that important.  He was her father's cousin, but her father was never part of her life.  Her mother, stepfather, and above all her grandfather and the memory of her grandmother are the significant figures who shaped her.  The book is as much a cultural ethnography as it is a memoir.  The title comes from a comment by her grandchild who asked why she always makes up countries in her mind.  She admits that although she now visits her homeland once or twice a year, she considers America and San Francisco home, largely due to her second marriage to an American man.  The book has been gracefully translated by Margareet Sayers Peden.  Reading this makes me want to read her novels. 


The Black Tower - P.D. James - 1975 - Penguin

 

This is another one when Dangliesh is not the official investigator but a visitor to an institution for younger disabled people.  The occasions is a letter from his father's curate who he knew as a boy.  Father Braddeley wrote that he wanted to consult on something concerning his professional expertise.  By the time Dalgliesh arrives, Braddley has died and been creamted and buried.  Dalgliesh has suspicians about the cause of death but nothing concrete to go on.  Then several other suspicious deaths at the institution occur.  The denoument is a violent struggle between Dalgliesh and the person who turns out to be the murderer.  No need to say more about who that might be.  As in other James mysteries, there is a full cast of characters that almost require pencil and paper to keep straight.  The book is carefully crafted and as usual, a good read.  The black tower is a tower by the sea in Dorset, where the novel is set.  It is here that a mad ancestor locked himself up and starved to death. 


Earth: An Intimate History - Richard Fortey - 2005

Fortey is a geologist and paleontologist, whose previous book was about trilobites.  This book is quite weighty, dealing as it does, with the entire geological history of the earth and a human history of how it was discovered.  Geology turns out to be a three or perhaps four dimensional jigsaw puzzle.  Early on in the book Fortey explains the complex overlays of strata in the alps in the context of nineteenth century debates about how older strata can overlie younger ones.  It wasn't until the mid twentieth century that the idea of plate tectonics was proved by scientific observation.  Alfred Wegner was the first to suggest the idea but for decades was considered a madman.  The key to proof was understanding the behaviour of the oceanic crust and the "conveyor belt" model of upwelling and ultimate subsidence as oceanic plates collide with continental ones.  The book literally spans the entire geological history of earth, beginning with the time when it was a undergoing massive bombardment from space.  Fortey visits the few places where rocks from the earliest period of crust consolidation can be found; Australia and the Canadian shield among others.  He uses a series of case studies from areas he is particularly familiar with: the alps, southern Italy, Wales and Newfoundland.  This is a complex place where we live.  Crystals and gemstones share a common history with living things.  We're all here in interaction with the same geological upwellings from the realm of pluto.  Species come and go as do continents.  Places now at high latitudes were once on the equator and tropical places were once at the poles. 


The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury - 1950

Bradbury passed away this week at the age of 92.  Good on you, Ray for being our conscience all these years.  He wrote The Martian Chronicles when he was in his late 20s.  Originally published as a series of related short stories in SF and fantasy magazines in the late '40s, they come together as a coherent portrait, not of earth, but of earth at the time Bradbury was writing.  Nuclear war was already a terror looming over the banality of a complacent post-war America.  Bradbury captures the vernacular of middle America in short oblique sentences.  Passion and principle are there, but unstated.  The Martians, to the extent they ever existed, are complex mirrors of human experience and emotions.  The colonists, all Americans, are gum chewing hot dog selling mid-westerners who recreate what is familiar in an unfamiliar world once (and residually) inhabited by telepathic creatures who are their antithesis - sensitive, aesthetic, materially advanced but non-materialistic. 

 

It's interesting to note that the book appeared in the same year as Orwell's 1984, although Bradbury sets his story in the early 20th century.   The great wars that destroyed civilization on earth took place only a few years before Bradbury's own death.  The last episodes are set in 2026, so we still have a way to go in real time.  Bradbury's diaglogs resonate with the characters in Tom King's novels.  I wonder if there's an influence.  Whatever, Bradbury came first and is a master of the understated flat deadpan mid-western facade of normality, no matter what is actually happening.  One of the stories, a study for Farenheit 451, is about book burning and features a rebel named Stendahl who reveres Poe and Lovecraft and others of that genre.  Nobody talks about burning Jane Austen. 

 

Very much like today, Bradbury's Americans are armed and prone to shoot first and ask questions later.  They destroy their share of Martians as well as one another.  Bradbury seems to have woven together Hemingway's short sentences and understated emotions with Poe and Lovecraft.  The result is uniquely his own.  No doubt many of PhD theses have already been committed to the vaults of academe. I probably read the book sometime in the 1950s so it is residually familiar, but in light of what is happening today it is quite a different experience. 



Through Black Spruce - Joseph Boyden - 2008 - Viking Canada
(June 6)

    The story is set in the Cree community of Moosonee at the southern end of James Bay, but also goes to Toronto, Montreal and New York City.  It is told in two voices, Will Bird, a bush pilot, trapper, hunter and serious drinker, and his niece Annie, who is on a quest to find her lost sister Suzanne who has a successful career as a fashion model but also gets involved with biker drug gang members.  Will is also a character in Boyden's first novel, Three Day Road.  Annie finds her way to Toronto, Montreal and NYC and has something of a career herself, finding clues about Suzanne but also becoming a target of the biker goons who are looking for Suzanne and her boyfriend Gus, whose family are pushers at Moosonee.  When Gus and Suzanne disappear, Gus' relative Marius Netmaker thinks Will has ratted on him and begins a vendetta of violent attacks on Will.  Will eventually takes revenge on Marius and escapes in his old plane to an isolated island further up James Bay.  Annie's story unfolds when she tells her uncle Will what has happened to her as he is lying in hospital in a coma.  Only at the end of the book do we learn exactly what brought him there.  Along the way there are some other powerful characters, including Painted Tongue (Gordon) who despite being unable to talk, becomes Annie's protector in Toronto and then follows her to NY and back to Moosonee.  Boydon's language perfectly captures the cadence of Cree conversations and storytelling.  He portrays the world of high fashion and high crime as vividly as the world of Cree hunters and trappers.  This is an engrossing story and despite many bumps along the way, has a happy ending.  The central theme really is about family and kinship in this very Indian community.  While fabulous at times, it also feels authentic. 

To Rule The Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World - Arthur Herman - 2004 - Harper Perennial

From Henry VIII to the Falklands war, Herman traces how British maritime power warded off invasion and led to the famous British Empire.  This is a work of military history and as such, chronicles centuries of brutal conflict that took many thousands of lives.  There is glory for sure, but the price of glory has always been paid in blood and treasure.  Herman does not disguise the ugly reality of European warfare from the 15th through the 20th centuries.  While popular history likes to mythologize figures like Drake and Nelson, Herman is not afraid to reveal their brutality.  Drake was essentially a pirate, and Nelson was a megalomaniac addicted to annhilation of his enemies.  What is most striking about this history is the almost continuous state of warfare in Europe throughout the period.  Among other things, Herman provides a British perspective on the American revolution.  From a global perspective, they won independence largely because of other events in the complex web of alliances.  It simply wasn't worth England's while to put any more effort into the fight since America was probably a net drain on their resources.  Better to let them go and then develop healthy trading relations.  As the book grinds its way into the 20th century the absurdity and banality of war becomes ever starker as Herman is quick to point out.  By WWI thousands of men can die from a single torpedo or gunshot.  Immensely valuable assets are wagered and squandered and lost in a game in which there are no winners.  The carnage at Trafalgar was horrendous, but the senseless battle of Jutland was even worse and more absolute, with no glory to be claimed by either side.  The environmental costs of navies in the age of sail were frightful, as forests of Europe and North America were savaged to build even larger ships, most of which did not last as long as 20 years.  It is a fluke of history that Nelson's Victory is still around as a museum/monument in Portsmith Harbour.  Not so with the dreadnaughts of WWI, most of which went to the bottom within months or a few years of their construction.  The arms race seems to be exponential and continues to this day. 

Let The Great World Turn - Colum McCann - 2009 - Random House (
May 24)

This is a remarkable series of interconnected stories set in New York city.  In a sense, it is the city itself that is the principal character although it begins in Ireland with brothers Corrigan and Ciaran.  Corrigan wants to be a radical priest and takes vows although is not officially a member of an order.  He moves to New York, lives in a  tenement in The Bronx and ministers to sex trade workers who live in his building and neighborhood.  Other characters enter the lives of these people and become characters in the story.  Tying it all together is the story of a tightrope walker who paraded between the twin towers.  Philippe Petit actually did this on August 7, 1974.  In the book, his walk is a central event that brings many of the characters together, although he never becomes an actual character.  McCann is a beautiful and evocative writer whose words are sometimes works of philosophy without being pretentious or smarmy.  It's sometimes a sad story, but always sensitive and capable of seeing the beauty even in bad things that happen. 

Before The Poison - Peter Robinson - 2011 - M & S

This is non an inspector Banks mystery.  In fact, it is not really a mystery at all in that there is actually no murder.  The book begins, though, with the state sanctioned execution of an innocent woman essentially on the grounds of malicious gossip and very weak circumstantial evidence.  The detective who investigates the case is a Hollywood composer Christopher Lowndes, originally from Leeds.  The book is set near there, in the Yorkshire Dales.  Following his wife's death a year before from cancer, he buys Kilnsgate House, sight unseen through an agent, Heather Barlow.  The house turns out to have been the home of Grace Fox, the woman accused of poisoning her physician husband in 1953.  Chris becomes almost obsessed with the mystery of what really happened on a snowy Christmas season night in 1953 and sets out to follow every possible lead.  The quest takes him to Paris to visit her former lover and to South Africa to see Billy Strang who had been evacuated from the city to Kilnsgate during the war.  Interspersed with Chris' narrative is Grace's diary from when she was a nurse during the war.  What she lived through there was as terrible as anything gets.  Once she came upon the bodies of prisoners who had been given sarin and other bioligical weapons as part of the Nazi war effort.  This experience turns out to play a key role in what may or may not have happened the night her husband died. 
    Robinson is a good writer and the story moves along with even a bit of love interest.  I won't say more except that it's a good read and somewhere between a mystery and a novel.

The Cannibal Spirit - Harry Whitehead - 2011 - Penguin

   
Whitehead is an English writer with a background in anthropology & creative writing.  This is his first novel.  It is a work of fiction but based loosely on the life of George Hunt, the son of a Tlingit mother and English father who married into the Kwakwakawakw (Kwakiutl) and became the chief informant and recorder for Franz Boas.  In fact, the bulk of Boas' Kwakiutl books were largely written by Hunt.  The novel centers around the mystery of the Hamatsa ceremony and a trial in which Hunt is accused of participating in cannibal acts.  As far as I know, Hunt was never so accused, but a Kwakiutl man was tried (and acquitted) of cannibalism in 1900.  In addition to Hunt, the book's central characters are his American son-in-law, Harry and a
Kwakwakawakw man named Charlie Seaweed.  The Indian Agent Halliday makes the accusation following Hunt's ritual dismemberment of his dead son's body in accordance with his mother's Tlingit practices.  He takes his son's head in a Tlingit ceremonial box with a long story behind it back to the place where Hunt himself had received shamanic power as a young man.  Meanwhile, Halliday engages Harry and Charlie to find him and bring him back on Harry's sloop, the Hesperus.  What ensues is a strange, sometimes violent and mysterious blend of myth and reality in which George does battle with a half human Dreamer working for a Chief from Blunden Harbour whose brother Harry killed when he attempted to steal liquor aboard the Hesperus.  This section of the book uses a kind of magical realism in which the spirit world plays an important role.  For a time it is unclear whether cannibal acts actually have taken place (although not by George).  This is a powerful and  thoughtful book.  I'll be curious to know how it is received by the Kwakwakawakw community.  Whitehead thanks Gloria Cranmer Webster in the credits but it's not clear whether she actually saw the manuscript.  It's a bold endeavor in an age when First Nations are super sensitive about cultural appropriation and NWC people in particular guard stories as family property.  George Hunt has some distinguished descendents among whom is master carver Tony Hunt. 

Bring Me One Of Everything - Leslie Hall Pinder - 2012 - Grey Swan Press, Marblehead (May 6)

 

This is a novel, and I think Leslie Pinder's best, although the previous ones have been compelling.  While clearly a work of fiction, the book resonates with her personal biography and with the life and work of my former colleague, anthropologist Wilson Duff.  The title comes from the rapacious attitude of 19th century collectors whose attitude was, "Bring me one of everything."  Duff's story alone makes it remarkable, not so much for the mystery of why he took his own life as for the even greater mystery of his startling insights into the meaning of Haida art and philosophy. 

 

It's important to remember, though, that this is a novel with its own dynamic.  The characters have independent lives of their own.  The story unfolds in the voice of the principal character, Alicia (Alix) Purcell, who recounts her past and present relationship with her mother, Sophia (Greek for Wisdom), and with the legacy, perhaps even the spirit of the anthropologist, Austin Hart.  She has been asked by composer Brett Morris to write the libretto for an opera about Hart's life, centering on the time when he led an expedition to the abandoned Haida village of Ninstints to recover a series of remarkable mortuary poles for the museum in Victoria.  Also on the expedition was Tom Price (who resonates with Bill Reid, for those who care about such things).  Price, like Reid, later went on to rediscover his Haida ancestry and become the foremost Haida carver of his time.   The name is significant, since Tom Price was the actual English name of Chief Ninstints, for whom the village has been named by anthropologists. 

 

Leslie Pinder herself was asked to write the libretto for an opera about Wilson Duff by composer Bruce Ruddell some years ago.  She immersed herself in Duff's published and unpublished work and interviewed many of the people who were closest to him.  At that time, Leslie and I had a long conversation that I documented on tape.  For whatever reason, the collaboration with Ruddell never came to fruition and he ended up realizing a "musical" in 2010, starring John Mann and Tom Jackson, directed by Dennis Garnhum and Bill Henderson, Music Director. 


Other characters in Leslie's novel include Hart's daughter, Paige, his friend and lover Claire, and a Salish medical doctor and spirit dancer, Miles George, inspired by Leslie's colleague in law, Steven Point, who is at present Lieutenant Governor of BC.  One chapter is devoted to his taking her to a Salish Spirit Dance on the Capilano reserve in order to heal her spirit sickness.  Pinder's description of the "work" is by far the best I have read.  Jillian and I attended a dance there when I taught at UBC, on the invitation of a First Nations student in one of my classes.  It was a truly transformative experience for us; it was even more so for Alix.  

 

Beyond the characters, their lives, and the plot (the image in Wilson's terms) there is the level of meaning.  As in Haida culture, the central image is Raven bringing light, acting as the transformer between light and dark, being and non-being.  And as in Wilson's work, the twin stone masks, one whose eyes never open, the other whose eyes never close, hold a key to the great mystery.  She writes, "A shaman could travel between the visible and invisible worlds, and in this sense the twin masks were the very essence of the shamanic, moving between being sighted and being blind.  I wondered if this was a darker, more personal reason he wanted to keep the masks together ...  It may have been he was trying to acquire a power in some illegitimate way" (94). 

 

A question in Duff's life (and in that of Austin), is whether he believed himself to be the reincarnation of the famous Haida carver, Edward Shawcroft (Charles Edenshaw).  Duff hinted that he believed this, but it is not clear if this was a literal belief or simply a description of the intensity of his engagement with Edenshaw's powerfully shamanic images of transformation.  In the novel, the twin stone masks are Haida, but in fact they were found on the mainland in Tsimshian territory.  A review of The World Is As Sharp As A Knife, a volume in honour of Wilson (to which I contributed) describes finding that the masks were a pair.

 

The sightless mask was lifted carefully and placed over the face of its seeing twin,” [Hillary] Stewart recalled. “...the two nested together in a close, snug fit. It was a deeply moving moment as the two masks came together again for the first time in a hundred years or more.” The mask from Ottawa had been collected by I.W. Powell at the Tsimshian village of Kitkatla in 1879; the “open-eye” mask was donated to the French Museum of Man by Alphonse Pinart. It was said to have been collected at Metlakatla or on the Nass River. After consulting with Musqueam [elder] Della Kew, Duff brought the stone masks together, one cradled by the other, each an equal part of a whole. He later wrote, “Life is a pair of twin stone masks which are the very same but have opposite eyes.” The masks represented the “living paradoxes in myth and life” that he believed were near the source of Northwest Coast aboriginal art.

 

The novel is faithful to the spirit of Wilson's discovery and the symbolic meaning he revealed in these and other NWC works of art.  The novel makes much of a "last lecture" Hart gave where an audience of thousands walked out upon hearing him talk about sexual imagery in the art.  In real life Wilson was a well known academic but not a superstar of the lecture circuit.  The last lecture took place at a Northwest Coast studies conference held at Simon Fraser University the year he took his life.  The audience, which included virtually every important scholar in the field as well as artists like Bill Reid and Bill Holm, was polite but condescending.  I was there and was distressed to hear people like archaeologist Roy Carlson mocking what they thought was Wilson's obsession with sex.  Although his long-term friends and colleagues did not participate in this gossip, I don't recall any of them really standing up for him either.  I knew that Wilson had discovered something true and beautiful, but I was a junior anthropologist and not a NWC specialist.  The big shots didn't know who I was and wouldn't have listened if I tried to say anything. 

 

Again, this is a novel and is really owing to Wilson only the searing intensity of his insight into Haida thought and symbolism.  Transformations from biography to novel serve to emphasize the themes of universal meaning and to lead the reader back into the author's powerful story line, in which Alix's relationship with her mother and her yearning for knowledge about an unknown father are front and center.  I won't divulge any of this, since it's a story that tells itself.  I don't know how much Leslie has embedded subtle references to other works.  The Tom Price reference is obvious.  I did get many of the quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins (Leslie brought these to the Arts One course she, Jillian and I taught together at UBC) and in her brief endnotes, she gives credit.  There are probably more that I didn't pick up on like the reference to Frank Hamilton Cushing.  I'm familiar with Cushing's work but will have to go back to Duff's writing to see if he referred to him.  At the time I knew Wilson I was less familiar with Cushing than I was later when I did an unpublished re-setting of Zuni Fetiches.  

 

This a book to return to and dream into.  It's probably best not to know much about the "real" people, since in the novel the characters assume their own compelling reality which is different from those of Duff's biography.  Leslie's writing is poetic, in the best sense of the word.  You don't have to be an anthropologist to understand it.  It does help to be human, and Leslie Pinder surely is that.  


May 8, 2012


Leslie invited us to the launch of the book at the Waldorf in Vancouver (the hideaway lounge, how appropriate) - an amazing and enthusiastic group of friends and admirers including Steven Point, the LG, my former student, Ron Ignace, our daughter Amber and my former colleague Julie Cruikshank.  There were readings from the book by Columpa Bobb (Lee Maracle's daughter, with Lee drumming) and Leslie herself.  The opening chapter describing the poles being cut down is a wonderful piece of narrative poetry that, as Leslie acknowledges, has Gerard Manley Hopkins as muse.  Compared to the vapid, self-centered and decontextualized prose indulgences masquerading as poetry in The New Yorker, this is the real thing.  Thanks again for inviting us, Leslie, and may "Bring Me One Of Everything" reach out to many readers here and elsewhere. 



PS, Leslie sent me a stupid review in the Georgia Straight by Alexander Varty.  Here is my response in a letter to the editor.


For a different and positive opinion, see John Hulcoop's review in The Vancouver Sun

http://goo.gl/qt7uA


I have to take issue with Alexander Varty's review of Leslie Hall Pinder's new novel, Bring Me One Of Everything.  First and foremost, this is a novel, not an ethnographic biography.  The characters have their own lives independent of the lives of "real people."  The dynamics between Alix Purcell and her mother, Sophia, are powerful and authentic.  They worked for me and I can't imagine what Varty was thinking when he wrote, "as fiction it's only intermittently successful."  I was literally in tears when I finished reading the novel.  The debt it owes to my late colleague, Wilson Duff, is its conveyance of his remarkable insight into the symbolism and deep meaning of Northwest Coast First Nations art and oral tradition.  Varty's phrase, "considerable speculation about First Nations spirituality," sounds to me like the fearful and timid response of many colleagues to Wilson Duff's last major paper, presented at the 1976 Northwest Coast Studies conference at SFU.  In the intervening years, Duff has been generally accepted as having insights far in advance of his generation of scholars. 

 

Varty faults the book for, "repeating as it does the libel that white traders intentionally gave smallpox-infected blankets to West Coast aboriginals during the 19th century."  These are strong words to say in the context of Europeans having done everything possible to destroy the integrity of First Nations societies.  Whether the blanket incident actually happened, it is an important part of oral history and at the very least serves as a metaphor for the destruction that actually did take place.  To call the victims of such destruction or those who repeat their story libelous is cruel and thoughtless.  Furthermore, the alleged "libel" is by a fictitious character.  What was this guy thinking? 

 

To me the strengths of the book are the dynamic and independent personae of its characters and the representation of fundamental truths of Northwest Coast society that Wilson Duff had the courage to articulate.  I can't do anything about Varty not particularly liking the book, but I can say that his opinion will not be shared by many readers.  This is an important and powerful work of fiction. 

 

Robin Ridington

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, UBC


Beastly Things - Donna Leon - 2012

Yes, another Brunetti mystery.  In this one he actually catches the murderer.  As usual, there's lots about food and wine and places.  Having been to Venice recently, we know what he means about the evening commotion in Campo Santa Margherita, although we couldn't hear it from our apartment which was one row of houses off the campo.  The murder took place in an apartment on a small canal just off San Basilio.  It could be one of the ones across from Palazzo Zenobio.  This is a quick read and although about a tragic murder, is also graced with redemption.  Animals have the last word. 


The Expansive Halo: A Fable Without Moral - Josephene Tey - 1931  (under pseudonym of Gordon Daviot)


This not a mystery novel.  As some reviewers have noted, it is more like a play, with dualities, misunderstandings, love interests and a more of less happy ending.  It is also about class in England.  The protaganists are from two families, one upper class idle noble rich, and the other working class with a tyrannical father who preaches hell fire and brimstone.  Within these families there are matching siblings.  The Ellis family has Sara, a talented dressmaker, and Gareth, a talented violinist.  The siblings of the upper class family of Lord and Lady Wilmington are Chitterne, who falls in love with Sara and Ursula Deane, who falls in love with Gareth.  Gareth is engaged to Molly, a solid, attractive and thoroughly sensible woman he has known since they were children.  Ursula is a spoiled but passionate rich girl who falls for Gareth in a way that is out of character for someone as cynical and bored as she has been all her life.  I won't give the plot away except to say, don't expect a murder. 


Madeline Miller - The Song of Achilles - 2012 - Harper Collins

Miller is a classicist who teaches Latin and Greek at Brown University.  It is an Illiadic tragedy with a very human face.  The book is narrated by Patroclus, the friend/lover of Achilles.  Unlike The Iliad which begins with the wrath of Achilles, Miller's story begins when Achilles and Patroclus were boys together and went on to be educated by the Centaur, Chiron.  Patroclus is the son of a king, Menoitius and a feeble minded mother.  As a boy he is exiled to the court of Peleus after mistakenly killing a boy who attempted to bully him.  There, he met Achilles, son of Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis.  They became best friends, companions, and as they matured, lovers.  Their honeymoon was in the cave of Chiron, who taught Achilles the arts of combat and Patroclus the arts of healing.  Together, they completed a sort of Jungian union of opposites, animus and anima.  This idyllic life comes to an end when the crafty Odysseus tricks Achilles, who has disguised himself as a woman in the court of Lycomedes, king of Scyros and father of Deidameia, with whom Achilles reluctantly fathers a child, Pyrrhus.  Odysseus is recuiting warriors for the siege of Troy and the return of Helen to Menelaeus.  Achilles has no choice to join the other Greeks, and Patroclus accompanies him.  Although he is still in his teens, he is recognized as a super-hero and given the title, Aristos Achaion, Lord of the Greeks.  The rest of the story is familiar to readers of The Iliad, but with a human face.  Briseis, the trophy wife taken by Achilles and later claimed by Agamemnon, is developed as a real person who would like to fall in love with Patroclus and have a child by him.  Of course, the fates know that it is not to be, but there are tender moments between them.  The central love, though, is between Achilles and Patroclus.  There are a few steamy sex scenes and the book is suffused with their enduring love for one another. 

Miller has taken an ancient and familiar story and given it a human dimension.  The fate of Achilles is the gift of combat that he is powerless to deny, even when his real self is a loving and compassionate companion to his life partner.  As in The Iliad, honour rules over all other emotions and values.  Agamemnon is an arrogant bully who fully deserves the fate that befell him at the hands of Clytemnestra upon returning home. 

While being very human at the level of emotions and loyalties, the book also accepts completely the Homeric world in which the Gods are real and have close contacts with mortals.  Achilles' mother, Thetis, is a constant and menacing presence, who resents and is jealous of Patroclus.  As in The Iliad, the other Gods play out the dynamics of their immortal lives in the lives and fates of mortals.  Miller takes the reader into that world with ease and grace.  This is more than an historical novel.  It is an extension of the classical canon into our own time. 

 

 

P.D. James - Death of an Expert Witness - 1977 - Seal Books, Random House

Here's another masterfully crafted portrait of peoples' lives.  Discovering who did it is not as important as experiencing the complex tangled web of relationships that surround a forensic lab housed in a heritage house.  There are some themes that repeat in later novels; the business housed in an ancient home, the body discovered by a bright young secretary, and of course, Adam Dalgliesh.  A few pieces of trivia.  The detectives arrive by helicopter, an Enstrom F28 and Dangliesh remarks on the din of the motors.  The F28 is actually a light single engine piston machine.  Another bit of fun is a nod to Josephene Tey.  Some of the village characters are named Gotobed, which, of course, is the name of the rotten brother in A Shilling for Candles.  There are probably some other foxy bits I didn't get.  I haven't checked on this, but Dalgliesh quotes Plutarch to the effect that boys kill frogs for sport but for the frogs it's in earnest.  Maybe that's where Shakespeare got the line in King Lear, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport."
  All the characters either work in the forensics lab or are related to those who do.  The book starts with a murder that turns out simply to be routine business and is never a mystery.  The mystery happens when Dr. Lorrimer, who virtually everyone hates, turns up bludgeoned to death.  As in many of her novels, there's also a second murder, but I won't say who, how or why.  I've been reading this while Jillian is in hospital, carrying it with me to her room and taking it home with me.  She's better and at home with Diana.  I finished reading on Swanstar at anchor in Princess Cove, Wallace Island.   Curious how unraveling fictional tragic events is comfort food for the brain.


Wade Davis - Into The Silence - 2011 - Alfred Knopf


Wade Davis is a well known ethnobotanist who has researched tribal people in the Amazon and elsewhere.  In this book, he takes on the task of writing a complete history/ethnography of the 1921-1924 British Everest expeditions.  As Davis points out, the man for whom the mountain was named, Sir George Everest, who died in 1865, was a remarkable geographer but "a miserable man, venomous and cantankerous."  Furthermore, he pronounced his name Eave-rest.  The events described took place in the waning days of the Raj and most of the principal players are members of the British educated establishment.  Before getting into the story of the mountain, Davis goes through the terrible years of WWI in which ignorant and hopelessly class-ridden factotums of The Empire sent literally millions of boys and young men to their deaths in a war that trandscended any previous conflicts in its utter pointless absurdity.  Only a few of the beautiful young men of the early 20th century survived.  One of these was George Mallory.  His climbing companion on the last attempt, Alexander (Sandy) Irvine, was too young to have served.  The British climbers meticulously documented their every move in journal entries, letters home and reports to the Everest Committee.  That in itself seems remarkable in the age of e-mail & twitter.  The record is articulate and detailed.  Davis is able to reconstruct their movements day by day and even hour by hour through the three arduous expeditions.  On the first, their initial challenge was simply to map the area around EVerest (Chomolungma) and discover a possible approach to a viable route from the Tibetan side.  At that time, Nepal was entirely closed to outsiders.  In its 573 pages, the book takes the reader almost step by step through the first, second and third expeditions.  Sometimes it's hard slogging, in keeping with the effort the climbers made simply to put one foot after another at altitudes today normally occupied by jet airliners.  The photos are engrossing and it is still a shock to see mountaineers climbing at such high altitudes in tweeds and plus fours more appropriate to rock climbing on Welsh crags.  There's one of Mallory at a base camp wearing a tweed jacket and wool pants that would have been standard issue for a dinner at Oxford or Cambridge. The end papers have maps of the Everest area but the book would have benifitted from a map of the climbing route and approaches to the mountain.  

The real focus of the book, other than the mountain itself, is George Mallory.  He was a product of the English public school system and was friends (and at least once a lover of) notable intellectuals of the immediate pre-war period.  He was not constitutionally "gay" as we would put it today, but simply came of age in a society of men and boys where passions, infatuations and sexuality played out within this all male world.  During the war years, in which he saw as much action as anyone, he married a beautiful young woman named Ruth and was evidently devoted to her throughout the rest of his life with little sense of sexual ambiguity.  The men and boys culture of pre-war Britain is foreign to us in the same way as the culture that created The Great War.  Mallory was a natural climber and probably the best of his generation.  He was not perfect, though.  He was notoriously absent minded and abysmal with mechanical things.  It was George Finch, always considered an outsider on the expeditions, who pioneered the use of oxygen at altitude and designed the first down clothing.  It was discovered that Mallory had forgotten to take his torch on the final attempt, which may have been a fatal error since there is every reason to believe that he and Irvine perished descending to the last camp.  Davis concludes that despite the myth-making, the pair probably did not get beyond the second step and did not reach the summit.  That would take another thirty years to accomplish. 



Leslie Marmon Silko - The Turquoise Ledge - 2008

This is a memoir and also a portrait of the artist's life in the Sonoran desert outside of Tuscon.  Silko is really different from any other novelist I know of, even Native American ones.  While she is dedicated to writing and to painting, her identity is simply not that of a literary celebrity.  There's an astonishing hiatus between her writing here and the thousands of lit-crit papers written about her work.  What is real to her are the living creatures and spirit beings that surround her.  The Sky Persons, the Lords of the Rain and the spirits of rocks and features of the land speak to her constantly.  She lives with a large number of animals, some wild and some domesticated.  In her menagerie are 5 English Mastiffs and a varying number of Cockatoos.  In the past, there have been horses in her family as well.  First place among the wild creatures is a variety of rattlesnakes who live under and around her home.  There's a whole chapter dedicated to them and they reoccur throughout.  There is also a Lord who manifests himself in the form of grasshoppers, and there are assorted lizards, Gila Monsters, Great Horned Owls, hawks and a variety of smaller birds.  She briefly mentions the names of two men to whom she had been married but they seem to be long since gone.  Almost as briefly she mentions the names of two sons who live with her or nearby, but they do not really figure as characters in the story.  Rattlesnakes seem to be more important than her own children.  Then there is turquoise.  Throughout the book, Silko keeps her eyes to the ground, not only to see artfully camouflaged rattlers coiled in the sand of her local arroyo, but more importantly to find bits of turquoise.  Turquoise, she says, was a principal trade item between New Mexico and Arizona and the Mesoamerican empires to the south.  

The style of this book is distinctively Silko.  Her affinities seem closer to the Nauhua traditions of Mexico than to her own Laguna Pueblo.  She says that Nahuatl may someday replace Spanish as the language of Mexico.  Reading this memoir helps one understand how the underworld characters in The Almanac of the Dead are very real to her.  If she weren't a Native American one might be tempted to accuse her of being a new age seeker (giving credance to extraterrestrials, for instance), but in the context of deeply rooted spiritual traditions, she retains a solid integrity  reinforced by the passion and dedication with which she lives her life in the desert.  She has been in her home for 30 years but development and the wild west attitude of Tuscon are encroaching ever closer.  One such influence is a close neighbor she calls "the man and his machine," who is constantly excavating sand and moving boulders in the arroyo (supposedly a protected area adjacent to the Saguaro National Forest) in order to create places for his buildings.  Finally, out of desperation, she paints all the boulders with star signs representing the star beings, the theory being that if he messes with them he will surely pay the price one way or another.  Some locals interpret these as 'gang graffiti" but she keeps quiet in order to let nature take its course.  The book ends with this anticipation.  From references to nearby features like the Gila Monster mine and the parking lot for the park trail, I was pretty certain I had found both her home and that of the machine man on Google Earth.  It truly is a starkly beautiful place; Saguaros but no trees, and a distinctive arroyo just between her house and his.  I wonder how long it will be before some lit-crit type will write a paper about this book (with words like contested discourse or site of contestation).  Not me. 

Edward Bellamy - Looking Backward: 2000-1887 - 1887

    This is a utopian science fiction novel that is really a social, economic and political critique of the author's own era.  It was immensely popular in its time and sparked a number of utopian movements.  From the perspective of hindsight, the modern reader is struck by Bellamy's complete lack of imagination about technological transformations, focusing instead on the fixed idea of a society in which the economy is entirely regulated by the state for the benefit of its citizens.  Having known the terrors of totalitarian statism, it is a hard sell.  Of course, one can't expect Bellamy to have anticipated world wars, computers or space flight, but such things were not really his objective.  Rather, the book is a somewhat sanctimonious criticism of late 19th century capitalism.  In a curious way it reminds me of that other highly influential treatise on social engineering, L Frank Baum's
The Patchwork Girl of Oz. 
In Oz, a benevolent monarch, Ozma, determines every person's employment and is responsible for "re-education" of any people who fall into errant ways.  Bellamy's late 20th century society is entirely collective, with each person willingly fulfilling his destiny. 


Josephene Tey - 1936 - A Shilling for Candles


    After reading P D James, Tey is quite different.  She is casual almost to the point of flippancy and there's less psychological depth.  Getting into the book, though, worked for me.  The murder victim is a famous screen actress who rose from working in a factory.  The title comes from her will which bequeathed to her brother a shilling for candles.  Although a cad, he turns out not to be the murderer.  Despite this being a murder mystery, there is a certain lightness to it.  The characters are strongly drawn but not fully developed.  As a murder mystery, it moves along as it should. 



Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afthanistan - Ahmed Rashid - Viking Penguin


    This is the third in a trilogy by Rashid.  The previous two are Taliban and Descent into ChaosIn this book Rashid continues his piercing and critical look at the failure of Pakistan to become a prosperous democracy or even prosperous under military rule.  He is equally critical of American governments, including the present one which he regards as indecisive and too much focused on saving some sort of face while getting out of Afghanistan.  Rashid is a brave man, knowing as he does a number of journalists who have been eliminated by the ISI and continuing to write from Lahore.  Pakistan, he argues, could be and should be a key regional player and a hub of commerce and trade.  Unlike India, that has developed an educated middle class and an agressive business elite, Pakistan continues to be dominated by corrupt military and government officials propped up by outside interests and relying on a failed strategy of proxy mujahadeen, aka terrorists, despite the blowback they are now suffering.  "All the parties to the conflict in Afghanistan and to the deterioration in Pakistan have made terrible mistakes.  Almost all the major players have shown arrogance, hubris, rigidity, and stubbornness; all have,,  to some degree, lived in the past and been unable to change their thinking."  Despite this, Rashid remains optimistic that at least the possibility remains of a positive outcome.  The book starts with the dramatic events of May 1, 2011, when US Navy SEAL commandos entered Pakistani territory and killed public enemy number one, Osama Bin Laden.  While successful, the raid triggered a paranoid and defensive reaction from Pakistan essentially denying the embarrassment of having sheltered Bin Laden and focusing on the issue of America having entered Pakistani territory to carry out the mission.  Amazingly, Rashid remains guardedly optimistic despite his frank evaluation of the corrupt regimes in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the vacillating and sometimes delusional Americans.  Hope he's right.  He's a must read for anyone wanting to understand the complex world of Pakistan & Afghanistan. 


Original Sin - P D James - 1994


    Another I got from Friends of the Library.  Here's a review I found online.

""Original Sin" is more than a metaphorical reference to the Bible. Author P.D. James is at her compelling best in this Adam Dalgleish thriller.   Henry Peverell,the surviving partner and chairman of an established and respected publishing house has recently died and now the son of his late partner, Gerard Etienne, has taken over. And he has some major changes he plans to institute, much to the alarm to the other share holders of the company. He is so ruthless in his demands and plans, that when he is found dead, few mourn him; however, it is murder and Dalgleish of Scotland Yard comes in to investigate. Dalgleish's intellect and and professionalism rise to the front, as he and assistants Kate Miskin and Daniel Aaron meet the challenges of this bizarre murder. Yet, the body count does rise and Dalgleish realizes it is more than just a disgruntled author seeking revenge. He learns he must look to history for the vital clues and motive, and once those puzzles are solved, he knows he can close the covers on this case.


    My comment:  The book ends with an unusual twist which I won't reveal.  A clue, though,  Old poets never die but sometimes they kill.  On the the next one. 


Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life  - Scott Sampson - 2009 - University of California Press

    Scott Sampson was a student of mine in anthropology at UBC in the mid 1980s.  He was fascinated by the story of human evolution and would have liked to become a hominid paleontologist, but the field seemed too fraught with politics and personalities.  He also liked dinosaurs a lot and the more he learned about dinosaur paleontology the more he realized that there was a great deal more to be learned.  He went on to graduate school at Toronto and from there became a professional paleontologist.  He has emerged, 25 years later, as a truly gifted writer and communicator as well as a first rate field researcher.  This book is about dinosaurs, but it is also and more profoundly about evolving ecological relationships, "the web of life."


       Sampson emphasizes that in order to understand any species, past or present, one must understand the complex ecological community of which it is a part.  Understanding mesozoic geography, climate, soils, decomposers, insects and of course plants, is essential to understanding the giant animals of that time.  The book is organized into chapters that deal sequentially and cumulatively with every important aspect of dinosaur life.  Evolution and ecology are themes that connect them all.  Sampson comes down strongly in favor of cladogenesis, speciation by splitting through reproductive isolation as a primary mechanism, and is less sympathetic to anagenesis, speciation by succession. 


       In chapters about the times when North America was divided by a seaway into western and eastern land masses, he compares northern and southern populations of the western area to examine mechanisms for speciation.  Other chapters discuss the obvious question of why some dinosaurs became so much larger  than any other land animals past or present.  He suggests they may have been "mesothermic," i.e. neither fully cold blooded or fully warm blooded.  Being "Goldilocks" creatures may have allowed them to achieve a trophic balance between herbivores and carnivores  that allowed both to grow to huge proportions.  Contrary to popular images of T Rex fiercely taking on much larger herbivores, he suggests that a primary prey may in fact have been juveniles of these species.  Being oviparous, dinosaurs could afford to produce and lose a certain percentage of their offspring.  Like juveniles of the marine world, young dinosaurs were important consumers and also important prey. 


       Of course, many if not all did engage in caring for egg clutches and sometimes even feeding hatchlings in the same way that birds do today.  Feathers on dinosaurs may indeed have been adaptive for brooding eggs as well as for sexual display and only later reconfigured as an adaptation for flying.  Sampson makes it clear that birds were simply one specialized group among the many mesozoic dinosaurs.  Perhaps because they flew and never grew to enormous proportions, they were the only dinosaurs to survive the K-T extinction event.  Regarding this event, Sampson reviews all the possible causes but cautiously supports the Alvarez hypothesis of a catastrophic impact event. 
   
    Back to the question of speciation, Sampson argues convincingly that many species of herbivorous dinosaurs can be distinguished only by the differences in their horns and other embellishments, suggesting a history of geographical isolation followed by sufficient genetic drift to cause reproductive isolation even if populations are reunited.  While dinosaurs (including birds) are notoriously particular about the sexual clues that determine mating, humans are notoriously pan-amorous (to coin a term).  Captain Cook's sailors had no problem identifying polynesian women as members of their own species.  Today, with a rapid mixing of populations globally, it seems unlikely that either geographical or behavioral isolation will create sufficient reproductive isolation to cause speciation.  Thus, if we are to evolve, it must be by succession.  Sampson touches on this in his epilogue, which passionately presents a case for cultural evolution.  He writes, "If we are to avoid a calamitous future, we need a dramatic course change in this century, and almost certainly within the next generation."  He argues for "ecoliteracy" and "evoliteracy" as essential for this change.  We need to embrace "the Great Story ... that begins with the big bang and traces our sinuous path to the present day." 


       Perhaps because of fundamentalist Christianity's abhorrence of what they call "Godless humanism," he suggests that "dinosaurs offer a superb vehicle for teaching science through a combined eco-evolutionary approach."  He doesn't get into the murky waters of if and how to integrate God into this story.  As far as I'm concerned, a deity is not necessary, but humans seem to have a built in need for what Hitchins provocatively called "the God delusion."  Sadly, close to a majority of Americans do not "believe" in evolution, even though it's as much a matter of belief as would be a "belief" in gravity.  Sampson ends the book on a positive note with the story of the "Madagascar Ankizy Fund," a non-profit organization founded by fellow paleontologist David Krause to help with the education and health care of people in the Berivotra area of Madagaskar where both Krause and Sampson have worked. 

    Sampson manages to combine a nuanced and detailed account of Mesozoic life with a narrative style that furthers "the Great Story."  It would make an excellent textbook but is also a good read and accessible to a generally literate audience.  I plan to try it out on my ten-year old grandson in a couple of years. 

    Finally, the former professor in me cannot resist putting one red mark on the text when he talks about casting "dispersions," rather than aspersions.  The copyeditor at UC Press should have caught that.  It's hard to get good help these days.  That being said, I give it an A+. 


P.D. James - Devices & Desires - 1989 - Knopf

   
This is an intricately crafted mystery in which Dalgliesh is not actually the detective but rather, the person who discovers the body of the principal (although not the only) victim.  Dalgliesh has come to take possession of his aunt's property in Morfolk, Larksoken Mill.  Larksoken is also the site of a large nuclear power plant.  James cleverly says in her author's note, "In this novel only the past and the future are real; the present, like the people and the setting, exists only in the imagination of the writer and her readers."  So meticulously detailed are the characters and their lives that they become more than imaginary, at least to the reader and perhaps to the author who created them.  There is the director of the nuclear plant, Alex Mair and his sister Alice, with whom he lives in a historic home known as Martyr's Cottage after the former resident who had been burned as a witch in the 16th century.  The victim is his second in command and one time mistress, Hilary Robarts, who is beautiful and crafty and much despised by those who have had contact with her.  One of these is Neil Pascoe, an anti-nuclear activist and a young homeless woman with a son who he has befriended.   Robarts has sued him for libel and perhaps as a reaction, he has painted a stunningly evil portrait of her.  Another is a local artist Ryan Blaney, a widower with 4 young children who rents a cottage Robarts owns and is being threatened with eviction in order for her to sell the property.  There are also the usual contingent of locals, the pub owner, an elderly retired clergyman and his wife, the woman who lives with them and looks after them, and, of course, the local police inspector and his sergeant.  The plot is complex and I won't attempt to divulge except to say that toward the end James introduces a thinly developed subplot about terrorism.  Altogether, a satisfying mystery. 

Captain Cook - Frank McLynn - 2011 - Yale University Press

   
McLynn has written biographies of many famous people including Napoleon and Stanley.  Here he attempts to essentially update Beaglehole's classic biography in a new biography.  At least according to the pages of notes, the book is meticulously researched and provides an almost day-by-day account of Cook's life and voyages.  Surprisingly for a major press, I found a number of typos and copy-editing errors.  Some are computer generated glitches and others are somehow the wrong word in a sentence, as in p.192 "only intermittent sightings of the sea and moon," which surely should be sun rather than sea.  The copy editor either had a very limited general knowledge and common sense or was simply employed on the cheap,  unconscionable for a major university press.  In addition, McLynn reveals that he doesn't really know much about maritime history and that his language sometimes sounds quite dated and racist, as when he talks about a "dusky beauty" and "dusky lovely" or even "houris" of Tahiti and a male polynesian as a "brave."  Other howlers are referring to Cook taking command of the bridge, when of course command from a bridge only appeared with the advent of steam.  The equivalent term would probably have been quarterdeck.  He also makes the common error of referring to any fishing boat as a trawler, reporting trawlers fishing on the Grand Banks in the late 18th century.  Trawlers are draggers and although a few specialized vessels in Dutch waters dragged under sail, the type really didn't appear until the advent of powered vessels.  When referring to the Resolution as a sloop, he should have explained that the "sloop of war" was a very different vessel than the single masted fore-and-aft rigged vessel we now call a sloop.  Cook himself calls the Endeavor a Bark.  When I first saw his reference to the ship as a sloop I thought he was misusing the term and I still doubt that he really understood different rigs of sailing vessels.  At the very least he should have explained the complex history of the term.  In another instance he quotes from a translated source that describes swings of the tiller throwing the man at the wheel across the deck.  The original surely referred to the rudder rather than the tiller, which didn't exist ever on larger vessels.  He should have put in a [sic] and explained that the meaning was rudder.  McLynn is also annoying in his uncritical description of native people as handsome and well-formed with long faces or squat and ugly.  He uncritically describes people as being more or less primitive.  While Cook can perhaps be excused as not having the benefit of anthropology, McLynn has no such excuse.  One final note of frustration.  There is no overall bibliography, making it difficult if not impossible to locate a source in the welter of footnotes, where titles and citations appear only on the first instance of a source being cited.  I guess this is MLA style but its chief purpose seems to be to preserve the esoteric knowledge of professional scholars to the exclusion of the general reader. 

    So much for what amount to minor irritations.  Overall, the book is thoroughly researched and provides an almost day to day account of Cook's remarkable voyages.  He was particularly in his glory on the first and second voyages.  By the time of the third, according to McLynn, he was not in terribly good health and seems to have suffered from violent swings of mood.  Always a stern commander who had no hesitation using the lash, these tendencies accelerated on the third and final voyage.  His discovery of Hawaii was in a strange way the result of his superior navigation skills, that allowed him to sail in areas outside of the tried and true Spanish Galleon routes from Asia to the Americas.  After discovering Kauai, he sailed on to the primary mission of the voyage, which was to search for the NW passage.  Upon reaching 70 degrees north and extensive sea ice, he concluded that whatever passage might exist would not be navigable.  In this he was correct, and only with the advent of powered vessels (and more recently of icebreakers and global warming) have passages been possible, if still not routine.  Cook was always a better navigator than an anthropologist and never fully understood the nature of the Polynesian societies he encountered.  From his extensive time spent in Tahiti and to a lesser extent in Tonga, he came to believe that a show of armed, sometimes lethal force, would subdue the populations and their leaders.  To a certain extent this, as well as diplomacy and alliances with local factions, worked well enough.  However, Hawaii was entirely different.  Here was extreme social stratification and an equally extreme subjugation of woman, particularly those of the lower classes.  In addition, the power structure was divided between priests and chiefs.  Secular authority and the rights of the common people were strongest during Makihiki, presided over by Lono.  After that, the priests and the cult of Ku took precedence, and warfare commenced, sometimes on a large scale.  All of this was unknown to Cook, who happened to appear during Makahiki on his first and second visits.  When he reached Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, he was greeted as an avatar of Lono.  When he was forced to return for additional repairs after Makahiki was over, it was seen as a betrayal and set the stage for increasingly violent confrontations which Cook did not handle well, leading ultimately to his own demise.  Much ink has been spilled about the Hawaiians' views of Cook in relation to their religious and social system, but McLynn gives at least a fair summary of the arguments.  He presents a good case for Cook becoming more irrational and prone to intemperate violence during his third and final voyage.  The book includes a number of interesting charts and pictures of Cook and other notables in the story.  It's worth reading despite my caveats about bias and misunderstanding of nautical terms. 

The Hare With Amber Eyes - Edmund De Waal - 2010 - Farrar Strauss

   
This is a lovingly written family history of de Waal's ancestors, the Ephrussi family of Odyessa, Paris, Vienna and the diaspora.  De Waal is a well known ceramicist who originally studied in Japan and became familiar with Japanese language and culture.  An important later influence was his grandmother's brother, Iggie Efrussi who after escaping from Vienna at the time of the anschluss became a dress designer in California, a member of the US military in France and then for many years an expat resident of Tokyo with his companion, a Japanese man named Jiro.  The thread that holds all the stories together is a collection of netsuke, Japanese miniature carvings, that Iggie's uncle Charles collected in Paris.  Charles was an art historian, collector and friends with the impressionists as well as Proust, whose character Swann was in part modeled on him.  Charles gave the netsuke to his cousin, Izzie's father, as a wedding present and they took up their new residence at the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna where Izzie and Edmund's grandmother Elizabeth grew up.  When the Nazis plundered the homes and collections of European Jews the netsuke were miraculously saved by a faithful (gentile) family servant, Anna, who hid a few each day in her apron pocket and hid them under her mattress.  Elizabeth later took back possession of them and then passed them on to her brother, who left them to Edmund.  The story is fascinating and combines Jewish history with Japanese tradition.  Each episode tells the story of people and places in the family history and in the history of the netsuke themselves.  This is a poignant and beautifully written story. 

Mark Twain - A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court - 1889 - Barnes & Noble Samizdat Express

   
While ostensibly a novel, this is really a diatribe against the Catholic Church, Monarchy, Romantic Chivalry, Southern manners, slavery and of course, Sir Walter Scott.  I had to read this after slogging through Ivanhoe with all its fake pseudo Shakespearean language and contrived chivalry.  Twain takes it all on in the person of Hank Morgan who becomes, "The Boss."  Twain makes sure we understand the difference beween definite and indefinite article here.  The Boss becomes a friend (sort of) of King Arthur.  He brings the blessings of nineteenth century industry, democracy, capitalism and advertising to the sixth century and sets himself up as a powerful magician in combat with Merlin, who turns out to be a deceitful charlatan.  Written more than a century ago, Twain gets away with a far more radical social critique than is possible today, at least in the main stream.  Even John Stewart and Stephen Colbert stay away from criticizing religion.  At the level of national politics, of course, Twain would be writhing at the antics of Republican pretenders.  So, for that matter, would Lincoln who was more of a free thinker than has been allowed in public life for most of the 20th century and increasingly so in the 21st.  There are some wonderfully ridiculous scenes like Sir Lancelot and 500 Knights coming to rescue The King and The Boss on bicycles.  It's a quick romp very much in Twain's voice.  One can almost hear him reading aloud from it.  Indeed, thanks to Hal Holbrook, modern audiences have been treated to the Twain experience. 

P.D. James - The Private Patient: An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery - 2008 - Faber & Faber - Knopf

   
This is another carefully crafted complex mystery set in Cheverell Manor, a Dorset Elizabethan manor that has been converted into a private clinic for wealthy cosmetic surgery patients by Dr. Chandler-Powell.  In the first sentence we are introduced to the victim (one of two it turns out), an investigative journalist named Rhoda Gradwyn, and informed that she is to die.  From there, stories of the many characters unfold and intertwine in complex ways that James masterfully constructs.  There are interesting names like Mogworthy, an old retainer at Cheverell Manor and Mrs. Skeffington, a wealthy patient whose husband's political connections are responsible for Dalgliesh being called into the case.  A review of a mystery should probably be short so as not to give anything away, so I'll leave the rest to you.

P.D. James  Death Comes to Pemberley - 2011 - Knopf

    James is a grand master of mystery writing but also a lifelong Austenian.  In this book she departs from the usual tightly constructed web of clues, coincidences and revelations to write, in vivid detail, events at Pemberley a few years after Darcy and Elizabeth have wed.  Of course, it involves the reprobate Wickham and his flighty wife Lydia, Elizabeth's sister, who Darcy rescued from dishonour by enabling her shotgun wedding to Wickham (as told in Pride and Prejudice).  I won't reveal too much of the plot except that it involves the violent death of Wickham's friend Captain Denny.  The death is deemed to be a murder and Wickham is charged on the grounds that when the body was discovered by Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, near the gamekeeper's cottage he was very drunk and was heard to say, "I have killed him.  It is my fault.  He was my friend, my only friend, and I have killed him."  The plot unfolds quite slowly since the charm of the book is its portrayal of life at Pemberley in a style faithful to Austen.  In this she succeeds admirably.  Unlike some disappointing attempts to continue much loved classics, this one is seamless.  I think Austen would have approved.

Captain Woodes Rogers - Life Aboard a British Privateer in The Time of Queen Anne - with notes and illustrations by Robert C. Leslie - 1893

    This is the logical choice to read after Searching for Crusoe.  Woodes Rogers was the privateer who rescued Alexander Selkirk in 1709.  Selkirk then joined his expedition and took command of one of his prizes.  Rogers managed to circumnavigate the globe in search of prizes, often simply taking ships or even towns like Guiaquil Peru for ransom.  Leslie's book is an edited version of Rogers own journals.  Rogers, of course, paints himself in the best possible light as a man of honor who treated women and members of the clergy with respect.  He considered privateering to be an honorable profession, unlike piracy.  Nonetheless, the primary method was armed conflict and often hand to hand combat.  The passages describing Selkirk's rescue are particularly interesting.  They created a sensation at the time he wrote them and inspired Defoe's novel.  Descriptions of his other ports and passages are also fascinating.  Rogers was a tough character and on one of his last escapades received a grievous gunshot to the face that shattered one side of his jaw.  From this he eventually recovered and maintained command even when he was virtually incabable of speaking.  Most of the text is actually written by Leslie, with excerpts from Rogers included.  There is enough, though, to get a sense of his voice.  To a modern sailor his ability to navigate successfully with limited charts or instruments is remarkable.  The amount of labor involved in manning these ships is also amazing.  Whenever possible he took to shore and careened them to clean the bottoms.  Sometimes he even did this at sea by tying down the mast of one to another ship.  Just hauling the anchors and maintaining the cordage was a phenomenal accomplishment.  Running anchor rodes through the hawes pipes created such friction that water had to be applied constantly to prevent them catching fire.  It's a relatively short book but well worth reading.  At 91, James is still in her prime. 

Thurston Clarke - Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands - 2001 Ballentine

 
Now more than a decade old, some of the information here is already dated.  However, the places remain and the history Clarke recounts is the same.  He travels the world's oceans looking for islands of interest culturally, historically and geographically.  I have looked at each of them closely thanks to Google Earth, which didn't exist when the book appeared.  The first, of course is Juan Fernandez where Alexander Selkirk was marooned between 1704 and 1709.  The Chilean government has renamed it "Isla Robinson Crusoe" and the inhabitants have almost come to believe that Crusoe was a real person who actually lived there.  The island is isolated and inhospitable although it is large and has a temperate climate.  The second, Banda Neira, is so tiny I had a hard time finding it on Google Earth.  It 4 degrees north, tiny, and only 1,l00' at its highest point.  Thanks to the benevolence of "Rajah" Des Alwi, it has preserved much of its Dutch colonial splendor dating from the time when it was a wealthy spice island.  Unlike many of the smaller atoll islands in the mid Pacific, Banda Neira with its relatively high population has no airport and is only accessible by boat.  I won't go into all the other islands Clarke visited.  One of the most shocking is Male in the Maldives, a tiny island entirely covered by buildings.  The highest point is 25' and that may actually be measured to the tops of the buildings rather than ground level.  These islands know they will be the first victims of rising sea levels and the government is seeking an alternative place to live.  Clarke visits places as diverse as Campobello and Niihau.  Other islands include Bali Ha'i Espirito Santo, Eigg and Svalbard, and the "unspoiled" Honduran island of Utila, which actually corresponds better to Defoe's description of Crusoe's island than the forbidding Juan Fernandez.  I guess the book falls somewhere between travel writing and pop anthropology. 

Linda McCulloch Decker - Edward Bailey of Maui - 2011

    This was a labor of love from Linda Decker.  She has done amazing job of assembling letters and period documents relating to Bailey's life and producing a book that is lavishly illustrated with reproductions of Bailey's paintings of Maui.  Edward and Caroline Bailey were in the Eighth Company of missionaries sent from New England to Hawaii.  After an unusually easy transit of Cape Horn they found themselves in a land still ruled by the family of Kamehama I.  They spent several years on the east coast of Hawaii and then were assigned to Wailuku, Maui where they made their home.  Edward was not an ordained minister, although he was a fervent believer all his life.  He was also a Yankee with many practical skills that stood him in good stead in Maui.  His mission was to be a teacher, a profession he loved, and he taught at the Wailuku Female Seminary until the board of missions decided to close the school.  After that Edward, Caroline and their growing family (eventually five sons) were on their own.  Edward taught in an English language school, was a surveyor and with his oldest son started a sugar mill.  He built the beautiful stone home where he lived with his family.  It is now the home of the Maui Historical Society's Bailey House Museum. 

Malcolm Gladwell - Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking - 2005 Little Brown

   
This is a work of pop psychology but interesting nontheless.  Gladwell describes incidents of rapid judgment both anecdotally and experimentally.  He begins with the case of a Kouros the Getty museum wanted to buy.  Their panel of experts, after exhaustive scientific test, declared it authentic.  A variety of art history experts including Thomas Hoving, however, instantly declared it to be a fake.  It turned out they were right and the scientists wrong.  To them it just seemed too fresh and indeed it was.  There were also subtle stylistic clues that they took in within the blink of an eye.  Hence the book's title.  Gladwell describes a number of experiments which both substantiate the accuracy of our capacity for almost instantaneous decisions and also reveal the ways in which prior assumptions can make these decisions absolutely wrong.  He describes the racial and gender bias that prevail in a multitude of day-to-day decisions.  Audition teams for the Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, selected a candidate for French horn in a blind test only discover what had seemed to them impossible, that their choice was a woman and a small one at that.  Knowing the gender of a candidate in advance instantly corrupts their critical faculties.  Gladwell that even knowing the objective of a test set up to reveal bias in judgment, he found himself unconsciously influenced by the experimenter's introduction of suggestions.  Some of Gladwell's examples of horrendously erroneous judgments come from politics.  Warren Harding, probably the worst president ever despite only serving half his term, got there simply because he was tall and looked presidential to an ambitious handler.  Astonishingly, stature (and gender) seem to be overwhelmingly strong predictors of being CEO of a large corporation.  Consumer preference is another example where image trumps experience.  So the blink phenomenon is both a powerful tool with deep evolutionary roots and a potential instrument of blatant manipulation.  As Gladwell says, you can judge a book by its cover.  I read this one from beginning to end after my first (positive) reaction. 

Malcom Gladwell - The Tipping Point: Little Things That Can Make a Big Difference - 2000 - Little Brown

    I read this after Blink and found that the two are written to almost exactly the same formula; a series of striking example strange group behavior from social psychology, development of some ideas that summarize common elements and citation of various psychological studies.  I had hoped that the book might also deal with tipping points in the natural sciences, but Gladwin's focus is entirely psychological.  The initial example is the sudden popularity of Hush Puppy shoes and their subsequent decline.  The keys to these social phenomena are people he identifies as connectors, mavens and salesmen, as well as factors like what he calls, "the law of the few,," "the stickiness factor," and 'the power of context."  Together, these individual characteristics and social forces create the conditions for tipping points in public behavior.  As in Blink, this book emphasizes how strongly context influences individuals.  His conclusions are much those of Milgrim's famous social pressure experiment.  I found some of the experimental situations he describes quite reprehensible in that they involved elaborate deceptions of the experimental subjects.  I wonder if these would pass today's criteria for ethical use of human subjects.  It is perhaps instructive that most of his examples come from the 1960s and 70s.  The book is necessarily dated in that it was written before 911, before google, before facebook and twitter.  Perhaps we'll see another in the series based on these new social media.  Overall I had to skim over a lot of the description of social psych experiments.  I also wonder if his identification of clear types would really hold up.  There is no doubt a psychological literature critiquing his kind of pop-psych. 

The Circumfrence of Home - 2010 - Kurt Hoelting De Capo Press


Home for Hoelting is the southern end of Whidbey Island, Washington.  In 2008 he decided to relinquish the use of a car for a year and confine his travels to a circle of 100 km (62 miles).  It is an experiment rather than a permanent commitment, but for a year he travels within his home circle on foot, bicycle and kayak, although he allows himself to take a bus to a part time job in Seattle working with PTSD soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The book is about a different sense of time and place made possible by modes of travel that have been typical of human experience until recently.  He also talks about his intense involvement in Zen practice and meditation.  As Jillian says in her comment to me, "It's one of those books that really makes you think."  Hoelting is keenly aware, as many of us are, of the progress of anthropogenic climate change.  While acknowledging that a single person's decisions will not change things, he also knows that it is a social rather than a technical problem.  Traveling slowly, as he does, imparts an entirely different sense of time and place, one that has been at the core of human experience for most of our time on earth.  I found the last chapters describing a trip by kayak from Port Angeles to Cowichan Bay for a gathering of First Nations traditional canoes.  I followed his journey on the marine charts and remembered having been through some of these waters recently when we brought Swanstar back to BC.  What took us a day took him a week, but he was in far more intimate contact with the islands, channels, currents and weather than we were.  Chapter 15, "Riding the Long Wave," is also engrossing for its discussion of how we experience waves of various lengths and amplitudes in our lives.  Longer waves "stir quieter, more contemplattive wave patterns in the mind itself," (212).  By contrast with the frenetic "short-wave tendencies that are the building story of our contemporary culture."  He points out that the media exploit our adaptive "establishing reflex" with their "five second rule" that dominates TV, film and video games.  Because of this addiction, "we have hardly noticed the long-wave storm of astonishing magnitude that have been gathering on the horizon" (213).  These are profound observations and ones that demand our attention.  The Circumfrance of Home is provocative precisely because it diverts our attention from the chatter and clatter of a speed addicted society toward the very real swells of the natural systems within which we must survive. 






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