Aug 132012

Prior to Columbus’s blundering into the Caribbean, there was negligible interchange of plants, animals, or humans between continents.  Shortly thereafter the onset of large-scale globalization was underway.  Spain brought silver, Indians, new vegetables, and Spaniards from South America to the Philippines and China.  Potatoes, tobacco, and corn from the Americasbecame main staples in Europe and Africa.  The forced importation of Africans to the New World became one of the largest human transplantations in history.  At many times, and in most places, the number of Africans in the Americas outnumbered whites by more than four to one, making the real history of the Americas a story of the interplay of Africans and Indians, rather than just a story of developing European supremacy.  After reading 1493 and Mann’s first book, 1491, I’m more convinced than ever that the history I was taught — white, male, Eurocentric — overlooked 90 percent of what was important.

Apr 172012

Girl meets boy.  Girl loses boy.  Girl and boy are reunited, but with issues.  That part seems straightforward enough, but this telling of the simultaneously heartrending and heart warming version of a traditional tale is unlike any other.  The structure of the relationship of Dodola and Zam is constructed on legends from the Holy Quran.  Their tribulations unfold in a graphic novel bursting with images of Middle Eastern cultures, both historic and contemporary, Islamic designs, and Arabic lettering.  The more you know about Islam before entering the text, the more you will gain, but even with limited knowledge, Craig Thompson’s retelling of Old Testament stories (also part of the Quran) are fascinating.  His drawings are warm and thoughtful, his main characters respectable and real, and the plot is part 1,001 Arabian Nights and part Quran lesson.  As a package the book flies by.

Nov 222011

Summary:  Everybody poops.  Nobody talks about it.  It’s a big problem everywhere.  In the First World disposing of sewage consumes too much water and generates unimaginable quantities of industrially and pharmaceutically contaminated waste.  In the Second World, sewage isn’t treated; just dumped in the local river.  In developing countries, 2.6 billion people crap in the open in close proximity to their drinking water.  Poop is one of those topics nobody wants to talk, write, or read about, but the author, Rose George, makes it seem like the most important environmental issue on the planet.  She runs out of steam toward the end of the book.  There’s a little too much focus on India and not enough on Africa, but those are minor quibbles.  Kudos to her for discussing the unmentionable.

Nov 202011

An old man lies in his bed surrounded by family and his memories as his life winds down like the clocks he used to fix.  He once drove a horse-drawn cart of household items to sell to rural, early-nineteenth century, New England homesteads.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and somehow I missed the point.  The book was half plot and half romantic depictions of people in nature in a part of American history that probably only ever existed in the minds of contemporary American fiction writers.  The poetry of Harding’s language didn’t hold my interest and it opened gaps in the narrative that became too long before returning to story.  Obviously, the critics and most readers loved this book.  Feh.

Sep 302011

One of those intriguing books about an animal I knew surprisingly little of and a part of the world, eastern Siberia, about which I was completely ignorant.  The Tiger is the tale of a singular animal at the end of the 20th century that searches far and wide for one hunter that has done him wrong so he can eat him.  In addition to learning how tigers can distinguish and track one human from another for the purpose of avenging past injustices it was equally fascinating to discover eastern Siberia.  Here in the forest with winter temperatures routinely forty degrees below zero live both tigers and people abandoned following the demise of the Soviet Union.  Survival in the forest is not much different in the year 2000 than it must have been 300 years prior:  hunting, gathering wild mushrooms and pine nuts, log huts, and vodka.

May 012011

It had great promise.  An A to Z series of essays on the most numerous, weighty, and least talked about organisms on earth chronicled by a gifted writer.  I wish I could have read the whole thing, but Raffles is an anthropologist, not an entomologist.  He would begin an essay with an insect story, divert to a person or people pertinent to those insects, say, China’s trained crickets, and then get lost in his own beautiful sentence constructions.  In the end this book will probably appeal to those people that like the kind of nature writers who wax poetic and philosophical, but only occasionally remember to tell good stories.  It felt like a book written for writers, not readers.

Jul 142010

About the three days before Mount Vesuvius blew its top and decimated the city of Pompeii as seen through the eyes of a conscientious aquarius in charge of trying to figure out why the Roman aqueducts have stopped flowing. An interesting novel since you know how it is going to end, but watching how the Romans begin to uncover the signs of the impending explosion is fascinating.

Jul 142010

Vintage Hiassen. The murderers and bad guys are Florida tele-evangelists and unscrupulous land developers, assisted by rednecks with brains the size of ‘possums. The good guys are a black cop, a cuban detective, an anti-development woodsman with a log cabin full of great books who lives on roasted roadkill animals, and a photographer with a bad temper, but a good heart. It’s like many of Hiassen’s other books. Wonderful parody of Florida’s hucksters. In the end bad things happen to bad people and the reader cares a little bit more about the environment and the victims of racism, sexism, or classism. He’ll make you laugh aloud. October 2006.

Jun 212010

Norman Maclean is like Roger Angell: an old school Master of wordsmithing. His command of English and of writing is simply superior. Maclean’s first great book, A River Runs Through It, about trout fishing took decades to write. Young Men and Fire is the story of smoke jumpers who get caught in a western canyon fire when the fire reverses and flies up a hill at them with the speed of a tornado. Maclean died before he finished the book so you can tell the last 70 pages aren’t as polished as the first four-fifths of the book. Still, it’s an outstanding read filled with excellent detail presented compellingly.

Jun 212010

At the age of 29, Bass forsakes his worldly belongings, save for his broken down truck, and leaves Houston for the very limit of the United States, a remote, sparsely inhabited valley in Montana on the edge of the Canadian border.  His goal is to explore Yaak, learn about himself, become a writer, and above all else, survive winter.  At times he is overcome by self-importance and the self-consciousness of recapitulating Thoreau’s Walden, and at others, he is so observant and elegiac that he can make individual snowflakes or the crack of split wood so important we cannot believe we have never before taken notice.  The book’s shining message is the imperative to slow down, escape the drive of modern American life, even if all we do is read his book.  January 2007.