Poetry

Book Review: Throwing the house from the window by Joshua William Booth

Poems that occasionally challenge readers…the “trigger warning” excuses can begin in 3…2…1….

Throwing the House From the Window by Joshua William Booth

A couple of things will become obvious quickly for readers of this review. The first is that the reviewer has the same last name as the author being reviewed. That would be because we are related. Put that aside. If writers from Sophocles to Turgenev to Steinbeck have taught us anything, it’s that father to son assessments should be read with…a critical mind, let’s say.

The second is that the author of this volume of poetry is a working poet as well as the poetry editor at Scholars & Rogues. So I admit freely there’s a bit of insider trading going on here. But I challenge the reader to find a publication that does not tout works by its own staff. For those who’ve taken that challenge – well, they’ll be gone awhile, so let’s move on, shall we?

Throwing the house from the window is Booth’s third book and second book of poetry. A brief look at his first two works is probably apropos to set this third work in context.

His second book, Danger! God Particles, is a series of what would commonly be called “flash fictions” these days, though Booth, an admirer of Donald Barthelme (and arguer with this reviewer on multiple occasions about the author’s merits) would point the reader towards Sixty Stories as an influence.  Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Austen through the looking glass…

This novel will make one at least toy with the idea that Anne Bronte may have been the most talented of the Brontë sisters…

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (image courtesy Goodreads)

When I wrote about Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey for the 2013 reading list, I mentioned her magnum opus, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. As I said then, in adding Agnes Grey to my reading list I was aiming to complete the “Brontë trifecta”: by reading that book I’d have read novels by all the sisters. Of course Emily wrote only Wuthering Heights, a masterpiece, to be sure, but, well, there’s only the one book (plus some poetry and juvenilia). Charlotte, the Brontë sister who lived the longest, also wrote more – four novels, with Jane Eyre by far the most estimable and well known.

And then there’s Anne. Her two novels show both her own rapid growth as a writer and the influence of her talented sisters. But they also show that, while, like Charlotte and Emily, she was willing to tackle what Elizabeth Gaskill would call difficult topics, she continued on her path – and she found the domestic sphere of Jane Austen’s novels more congenial to her writerly interests. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The oyster climbs the Great Chain of Being: Eleanor Clark’s Locmariaquer

“…But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster….” – Geoffrey Chaucer

The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark (image courtesy Goodreads)

Anyone who reads Eleanor Clark’s classic The Oysters of Locmariaquer will come away from the book convinced of two things: 1) cultivating oysters is a complex and difficult task that might well suck the life out of one foolish enough to try to do so; 2) if the people from any place are up to the task of cultivating oysters, it is the Bretons. Clark’s book falls into that interesting category of nonfiction made famous by the great John McPhee. That is, Eleanor Clark, like McPhee, combines meticulous research (there is more in this book than anyone this side of an ichthyologist would want to know about the biology of oysters and the history of human/oyster relations) with personal narrative (there are stories of the lives of Breton villagers who are tied to the oyster industry – or to Brittany – that can move even the most jaded soul).

Of course, Clark antedates McPhee, and perhaps he owes her a debt for combining the scientific and historical with the personal in ways that can engross the reader and make one learn in spite of oneself. After all, Clark won the National Book Award for Nonfiction with this tale of Belon oysters and the Breton people who raise them in 1965, the same year McPhee published his first significant workContinue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Nature in Focus: Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson

Once upon a time readers actually wanted to learn from books…

Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson (image courtesy Goodreads)

After a spate of book reviews for new found writer friends, this essay takes a look at a book from the 2014 reading list Sharp Eyes: A Rambler’s Calendar of Fifty-two Weeks Among Insects, Birds, and Flowers  is a series of descriptions and discussions of weekly nature walks. It’s one of those wonderful late 19th century “educational” works that does its best to disguise itself as entertainment.

The book is an interesting relic of the late 19th century’s “naturalist” movement inspired, in part at least, by Henry David Thoreau. Naturalist, illustrator, and writer William Hamilton Gibson offers his observations of the New England woods around his Connecticut home. Sharp Eyes is heavy with mini-lectures in botany and entomology (one wishes for more about birds since those are for this reader the most interesting chapters) but Gibson writes in the literary journalist style of late 19th century American magazine work, so even the most tedious science lessons are larded with references to poetry and philosophy that leaven the scientific descriptions and explanations…. Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell

C.D. Mitchell understands the “Dirty South” better than many who trumpet their knowledge of it…

Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell (image courtesy Goodreads)

In my recent essay on Richard Ford as an influence on my own writing I wrote about  dirty realism, a style associated with a group of authors, several of them Southern. Besides Ford, I mentioned Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff. (One might also include Jayne Anne Phillips, though her West Virginia roots might lead some to question her Southern bonafides.) The characteristics that distinguish writers who work this side of the literary street (including this guy, though his interest seems to incline to turning the style of dirty realism on rather different sorts of characters) are also characteristics of C.D. Mitchell’s work. In Alligator Stew, however, Mitchell, like any good artist, takes the dirty realistic style and runs with it, making it his own and linking it to classic Southern storytelling.

Mitchell’s collection of stories focuses on the small town of Delbert, Arkansas, a town very near one of the major North American fault lines, the New Madrid. Continue reading

Book-Review

Richard Ford’s Rock Springs and the Light it Provides…

“We have to keep civilization alive somehow.” – Richard Ford, “Communist”

Rock Springs by Richard Ford (image courtesy Goodreads)

Aspiring writers choose role models for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, as with those who’d emulate Byron or Baudelaire, it’s the attraction of the daring or Bohemian (or both) lifestyle as much as (in most cases, more than) the work. Sometimes, as with Hemingway or Salinger or Vonnegut, it’s the self-delusion that one can write (stylistically) as they do easily. If an aspiring writer sticks with it and develops a personal voice, the role model takes on another role: that of fondly remembered (and, perhaps, regularly returned to) mentor.

That is how it is for me with Richard Ford. I first encountered his work shortly after I’d completed my doctoral studies in writing. That was through his “breakout” work (as Wikipedia terms it) The Sportswriter. While that book was wonderful and led me to seek out more of Ford’s work, its most important function in my life was that it led me to the Ford book that I treasure most, his collection of stories called Rock Springs. Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: The Honduran Plot by Horton Prather

Sometimes heroism is an act of faith…

The Honduran Plot by Horton Prather

Horton Prather’s The Honduran Plot is a political thriller that violates many of the conventions of the genre. The hero, Jake Grayson, is a college kid, a computer geek who has none of the usual “tough guy/superhuman killing machine” characteristics of the typical protagonist of this kind of thriller. The motivations for the plot’s action are those that one might associate more with a work such as the classic Costa-Gavras film Missing: idealistic young man disappears in a Latin American country and friend tries to find him. And the elements of the story that are reminiscent of political thrillers – corrupt politicians and military leaders in a Central American country attempting a coup designed to allow them to enrich themselves by using their country’s geography and facilities as a conduit for powerful drug cartels – lead not only to fast paced action and thrills, but to insights into self and belief for several of the characters.

Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Review: The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, by Teresa Milbrodt

A cyclops and an odyssey reveal that life and coffee turn out to be better when richer and more exotic…

Teresa Milbrodt writes in a genre that a fellow author calls “Midwestern Mythic.” Her recent novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, certainly fits her genre well. We meet multiple cyclops (maybe cyclopes), go on an odyssey, find a miracle, and even visit a pub with the all too weightily Homeric name The Three-Headed Dog. As in her first book, Bearded Women, Teresa Milbrodt’s The Patron Saint of Unattractive Women explores the discovery of what it means to be “different” – and to accept being different as normal.

The unnamed protagonist, a woman of 37 who is a cyclops by birth and a coffee barista by – well, maybe by birth, too. An only child, she lives with her difficult parents – her father is an especially adamant sort who has largely lost his sight to glaucoma and yet is sure he sees things clearly (yeah, he’s a sort of an anti-Tiresias) and her mother is – I guess you wouldn’t be wrong to call her a hybrid of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s spouse. The protagonist, like any good cyclops, spends a lot of her time thinking she’d just like to be left alone. Continue reading

Mapping Utah by Denny Wilkins

How we find our way: Denny Wilkins’ Mapping Utah – a Review

Knowing where you’re going takes all the fun out of getting there…

Mapping Utah by Denny Wilkins (image courtesy deadlines amuse me)

Kara McAllister is lost and she knows it. That’s why she is drawn to a strange Rand- McNally map of the Inter-mountain West that she finds in a Powell’s Bookstore in Portland as she is running away from a failed relationship, a successful career – and herself. How she comes to find a new relationship, a new career, and, ultimately, herself, is the central narrative of Denny Wilkins’ first novel, Mapping Utah.

It’s Kara who is the protagonist of this work. That must be understood before the novel’s achievement reveals itself. There are plenty of antagonists: bad guys who would ruin delicate wilderness areas for their petty amusements, corrupt police and politicians who sell the public trust, bad lovers who see their relationships as conveniences.

But there’s only one Kara. And it’s her deconstruction and reconstruction that drives Wilkins’ novel and makes Mapping Utah more than a ripping good yarn – which it is, by the way.

This is a book with romance, geology, action, botany, suspense, technology, politics, weightlifting. There’s a way in for almost any reader, in other words, no matter how escapist or academic or transactional (think “how to”) his/her tastes might be. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

More light! More light! Reviewing Fred Chappell’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are

Cover, Brighten the Corner Where You Are (courtesy, Goodreads)

In an earlier review of books from my 2013 reading list, I looked at poetry by one of North Carolina’s best writers, Fred Chappell. This next installment looks at one of his finest novels, the poetic and (one guesses) semi-autobiographical Brighten the Corner Where You Are.

In a way, to call this work a novel is to debase it. Chappell is clearly a meistersinger (in the best, literal meaning of that word). This work of fiction/prose-poetry reads in the same way that any epic or, as in this case, mock-epic does to a knowledgeable reader: as if the tales (and make no mistake; these are tales in the same sense that the various episodes of The Odyssey are individual tales that tell a greater story) are being chanted to the accompaniment of a strummed lyre – though in this case a strummed dulcimer would be more appropriate.

The story itself is a sort of odyssey and no doubt Chappell was also thinking of another great odyssey, that of Leopold Bloom, as he has his main character wander through a day full of heroic adventure, self deception, and eventual self discovery. Much of what Joe Robert Kirkman (a “renaming” that is a subtle nod to that other great NC novelist, Thomas Wolfe, perhaps) experiences with his students (as a teacher and devout believer in Socratic method), his friend Sandy Slater (what a name for a teacher – epic, indeed!), the school janitor in his secret hideaway, and the goat on the roof of the school is both Homeric and Rabeliasian.

But the backbone of this novel is not these literary allusions, as rich and rewarding as they are for thoughtful readers. The real tension in Brighten the Corner Where You Are comes from the conflict between science and religion, between reason and faith. Chappell cloaks much of this in mythic or literary experience (and gives Homer, Alexander Pope, Francois Rabelais, and James Joyce a run for their money); but Joe Robert, unlike his son Jess (Chappell’s alter ego in the book, a peripheral character but a powerful force in the protagonist’s life) is a man of science – the driving conflict that arches over the entire novel is his impending appearance before the school board for teaching evolution. Joe Robert’s rich inner life, well examined in the novel, allows Chappell both to explain and expound on the problems faced by a thinking man in an unthinking culture (though Chappell does not treat this disdainfully – rather, his main character accepts the biases of a culture that values faith more than reason as valid for that culture as much as his own classical philosophy based ratiocination is valid for him).

Joe Robert’s imagination is rich and he imagines multiple scenarios for how that meeting will play out – all of them leading him to some heroic act or another (resignation, winning of the school board to his view through his rhetorical skill, to name a couple). What he ends up doing is so anti-heroic, so perfectly mock-epic, that it seems sure the novel will end dissolved in laughter even as we understand that meaningful social/moral/philosophical issues have been posed and attended to.

Except that it doesn’t.

The novel ends with a dream – a dream of Darwin on trial with Joe Robert Kirkman as his defense counsel and that school board, arrayed more like judges at the Inquisition, determining Darwin’s fate (and, ostensibly, the fate of reason’s light against the darkness of ignorant faith – and fear of demonstrable truth). Joe Robert starts well, and seems to be winning this panoplia of the unlearned to his (and Darwin’s) side by appealing both to their better angels – and to their smug self-satisfaction that they “know enough.”

But then he can’t help himself – he has an epiphany that he must share:

The more favorably I speak of our species, the more its history gives me the lie. The briefest glance at our record shows us to be steeped in blood and reveling in it. We have enjoyed naming compassion weakness and have murdered with full public assent the wisest and most humane of our teachers; we have imagined a monstrous God who regrets that he must torture certain numbers of us during the whole compass of eternity; we have embraced an idea of justice that glories in bloody retribution. We choose war as the final arbiter among political philosophies and wage it against our civilian populations, our children, and our parents. The best of our ideals we have made into excuses to kill our own kind and other animals along with ourselves.

And so the truth is out: in his own letter from the earth, Joe Robert strikes at the heart of bigoted and benighted religions everywhere that hold back, hold down, and hold fast against any attempts to elevate humanity towards truth and light. He continues:

The fact is that Dr. Darwin was mistaken. We did not begin as blobs of simple slime and work up to higher states. We began as innocent germs and added to our original nature cunning, deceit, self-loathing, treachery, betrayal, murder, and blasphemy. We began slowly and have fallen from even that humble estate. It is the nature of the human animal to subject its earnest seekers and most passionate thinkers to humiliation, degradation, imprisonment, and execution. If you condemn this great man to death, you shall be guilty of nothing more than your own most ordinary humanity.

The novel ends with Darwin’s condemnation and drop into the bowels of the earth (a ironic nod to Dryden?) and with Joe Robert giggling and nudging his wife in his sleep and wondering if she got the joke….

The wise reader does. “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” from whence Chappell takes his title, is a famous hymn – by a school teacher who had hoped to be an evangelist. In his novel, Chappell shows us an evangelist of another sort: a proselytizer of knowledge as vehicle for truth.

“More light! More light!” it is claimed Goethe said at the last (though his motivations may be arguable). Joe Robert Kirkman’s light burns bright throughout this novel – and will enlighten any thinking reader.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

CATEGORY: WordsDay

WordsDay: Don’t panic, it’s 42…uh, what was the question…?

Douglas Adams (courtesy Wikimedia)

I am no fan of science fiction. When I was in college I had a bandmate who loved the stuff – he pushed Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Herbert’s Dune on me. I waded though all this stuff diligently (one of my neuroses is that once I begin a book I have to finish it – as best I remember, the only two times I have consciously decided not to do so were with Dickens’ Bleak House– which I completed the second time I took it on – and John Grisham’s The Firm – which I will never complete, because I just don’t like the guy’s writing). I have read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I’ve not felt compelled to read anything else by him. Due diligence performed, thank you and good night.

My taste when I’ve read sci-fi voluntarily (a short period in junior high was the peak) has tended towards classic stuff like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, creaky old literati compared to the bloated, techno-geek omni-volumes of more recent vintage. The two writers I mention when people begin talking about their favorite sci-fi authors, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, get me, usually, “those guys aren’t real sci-fi writers” looks. I once read a Donald Wandrei story (part of an anthology my mom had and gave me when I was a kid edited by Dashiell Hammett) and at least one book by Phillip K. Dick (you can guess which one based on the brilliant Ridley Scott film created from it). I met the science fiction author Samuel R. Delany when I was in grad school – but when I tried to read his work I found it asininedly over-complex for my taste. I know little or nothing of some of the current lions of the genre such as Neal Stephenson. I’ve put in my time wading through Pynchon and De Lillo – I don’t owe the PostModerns and their gimmicks another moment of my time.

In fact, just to tick off lots of people I know (and some I don’t), I’ll apply that critique of S.R. Delany’s work to pretty much all the science fiction I’ve mentioned above except for those authors I have specifically stated I admire: it’s all too asininedly complex for my taste. Some of it reads (to me) like tech manuals. Where’s the fun in that?

So there’s some guilt in what I’ll be saying next. Bear with me. This is about the next book on my 2013 reading list, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A science fiction work. A work I took on despite my lack of affection for the genre because of – well, because of multiple layers of guilt.

First level of guilt: my sons Josh and Trevor gave me an omnibus edition of the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide series for my birthday some years ago. How many, you ask? Enough many that Adams was still living when I received the gift. Both boys raved about the books; they’d read the entire series and told me I’d love them despite my protestations of indifference, even dislike, of sci-fi. My son Josh, a writer himself, said, “Dad, you’ll love these books. Douglas Adams’ books are ‘Monty Python does science fiction.’”  (As it turns out, Adams co-wrote a skit for Monty Python and appeared in it, too.)

I smiled and nodded. And a few weeks after my birthday dutifully started the book. Maybe 10-15 pages in, I laid it aside, fully intending to continue. I made no conscious decision not to finish the book as I did with those mentioned above. I just didn’t get back to it. I somehow wandered off to other books.

Probably 15 years worth of books. My bad. There’s the second level of guilt.

So as I was making up the 2013 reading list, that big old volume of Hitchhiker books peered out at me from the bookcase and, in a moment of contrition, I added it to the list.

And now I’ve read it. And I loved it.

The major characters – Arthur Dent, the accidental galactic hitchhiker, Ford Prefect, his friend who turns out to be an alien from a planet near Betelgeuse and who saves Arthur from destruction, Zaphod Beeblebrox, playboy-outaw (and galaxy president), his girlfriend (stolen from Arthur) Trillian – are characters from Monty Python skits. And several of the scenes in the novel – the Vogon poetry fest, the argument over the answer to the question “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” (which features a pair of philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, who do a dead-on riff on Python’s Spanish Inquisition bit), and the meeting with the mice who are the super-intelligent masters of the galaxy (and whose sense of ethics rivals that of Goldman Sachs management) – are more like Python skits than the stuff of sci-fi novels.  And that’s a very good thing for this reader.

But it’s this kind of stuff that makes the novel laugh out loud funny – and the best science fiction I’ve ever read. From the introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide (the fake book that gives its name to the real one): “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space….”

Kurt Vonnegut once described his writing process as writing a joke, then rewriting and rewriting it until he’d got it just right – then writing another joke…and another…and eventually getting a book out of the procedure.

Vonnegut was half-kidding in his explanation of his process, of course. But one gets the sense while reading his work that Douglas Adams saw Vonnegut’s explanation and decided to apply it as diligently as possible to his own writing process – writing joke after joke after joke until he had a book.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just such a book. A book funny enough to kill you faster than the poetry of Grunthos the Flatulent.

Well, all this writing  has made me hungry. I’ll see you at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

ArtSunday: About a book…

Nick Hornby (courtesy Wikimedia)

“Will was beginning to come to the conclusion that he was not, as he had always previously thought, a good liar. He was an enthusiastic liar, certainly, but enthusiasm was not the same thing as efficacy, and he was now constantly finding himself in a situation whereby, having lied through his teeth for minutes or days or weeks, he was obliged to articulate the humiliating truth. Good liars would never do that.” – Nick Hornby, About a Boy

I assiduously avoided reading Nick Hornby’s work for some years. So I approached this next book on my 2013 reading list, the above quoted About a Boy, with predictable reluctance.

First, both he and I like to write about rock music (or use rock music as thematic/symbolic material in our work), and I didn’t want to read something of his and discover that he’d beaten me to an insight about The Music© – or, worse yet, that he’d had insights I’d never think of having.

There’s sense in this, trust me. The Rock Era, as I’ve called it before, was, in some ways the incubation period for the Know-It-All Culture© we currently endure daily via social media: during that time everybody you knew became a critic, an expert on the genius/crappiness of The Beatles, R.E.M., Grand Funk Railroad, or (insert band/musician name here). Couldn’t bear to find out that a guy who’s a much more famous writer than I also understood music and its uses better than I.

Second, I’ve seen two of Hornby’s books in “film form.” Both High Fidelity (despite its “Americanization”) and About a Boy (a pretty faithful adaptation I can say now) are films I like a lot and have watched more than once. My own biases being as strong as they are about books and films and the poverty of success the latter medium has had adapting the former, though I wanted to read Hornby I’d already seen Hornby, and I worried that one of the following would be true: a) I’d discover that the film had made a hash of the book; b) I’d discover that the film had achieved things the book didn’t; c) I’d really like both and have to expand my list of “good” film adaptations of books to include another member, thus doubling it in size. (Let me not leave you in suspense – Horton Foote’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is my entire list – ’til now.)

Third, and I can’t stress this one enough, Nick Hornby is a popular and respected author writing about The Music©, the thing which I love best. His other writing interests – sports, for example – may make other writers jealous, and I’m okay with that. His writing about rock, though – his connections of music to the ways we live our lives – to our lives – pisses me off. I don’t mind so much that he does it; it’s that he does it so well.

CATEGORY: ArtSundayAll this blather is but prologue. About a Boy is an excellent novel that explores two main themes: growing up (at whatever age it happens) and connecting to others (whether through love, friendship, or some combination of these). The “boys” of the title are 12 and 36, respectively. The older, Will Freeman, is the beneficiary of his father’s one successful song: a holiday tune with the kitschy title “Santa’s Super Sleigh” who drifts through life trying to avoid entanglements while enjoying maximum benefits from his relationships – especially those with women. The younger, known only by his first name, Marcus, lives with his mother, a self-absorbed music therapist with suicidal tendencies, and is trying to navigate the perils of adolescence. Will and Marcus are brought together by chance, by near-tragedy – and by Kurt Cobain. Marcus is a dweeb with nerd tendencies and a sincere desire to have a “real” family and friends – Will is an aging hipster who knows how to have friends but needs to learn what it means to be one – and a guy who, despite his constant protestations to the contrary, wants a family, too.

The relationship between these two – which Hornby orchestrates through the music of Nirvana – and the struggles and perils they both encounter and overcome – which Hornby contrasts to the troubled final months of rock icon Cobain’s life – merge The Music© and life in a completely believable way.

Marcus – and readers – learn the secrets – and significance – of connecting with others, of building support systems, of accepting friends for who they are and knowing how to tell friends from possible romantic interests. Will – and readers – learn that, as Donne reminded us long ago, no one is an island.

About a Boy, the film, is a delight – full of charm, heart, and intelligence. About a Boy, the book, is even more filled with these qualities.

Despite his tramping on my turf, I look forward to reading more Nick Hornby soon.

Oh – all those “copyrighted” terms? I’m counting on those to provide a hedge fund in case Hornby continues to be more famous than I. Now, gotta get them copyrighted….

CROSS POST: The New Southern Gentleman

CATEGORY: ScienceTechnology2

Unsolicited book review: Spillover, by David Quammen

This is a damn scary book. Quammen is perhaps our best science writer, and his subjects in the past have ranged widely, from island biogeography to large predators to whatever he fancies in his excellent collections of essays. And this time he’s picked something topical, timely and thoroughly terrifying. It’s zoonosis—the phenomenon of diseases that are directly transferable from animals to humans. You know, AIDS, Marberg, Ebola, SARS, and a bunch you’ve probably never heard of. Oh, and the massive influenza following the first World War that killed more people than the war did. These are all zoonosis, and a spillover has occurred with each one—that moment when the virus (which it usually is) jumps from one species to another. And Quammen has written a page-turner about them. To say that it’s wonderfully written almost seems out of place, but it is.

We all think we know what these diseases are capable of, but we’re wrong. It’s much worse. Not that Quammen is out to scare us—rather, he wants to put all of it in some perspective, and lay a few popular myths to rest. But still, you finish the book feeling that we’ve been damn lucky, and like much of the community of scientists and health professionals profiled in the book, we’re nervous. But we now know what can happen, why it will be difficult to stop, and what the potential damage might be—I say potential because only with AIDS have we so far seen a true global epidemic. With the rest of it, we’ve gotten off easy, so to speak.

Quammen has integrated a number of detective stories here. First, why are there suddenly a whole new raft of terrifying diseases? Second, where do they come from? Third, what can we do about them? The answers here are not particularly comforting. They relate to a wide range of factors—population growth, population expansion into areas inhabited by primates and bats, the phenomenal mobility of human beings in the late 20th and early 21st century, the critical population size required for an epidemic to take root, and the fact that most of these diseases are viruses, and therefore can’t be treated by antibiotics. This is quite a list, and if it seems that they have all converged in the past two or three decades, that’s because they have. Quammen seems to cover it all.

There are several diseases that Quammen investigates in considerable detail—Marburg, Ebola, Hendra, SARS, and, of course, AIDS, which occupies the largest section of the book. AIDS has been by far the largest killer, and is still not under complete control, but appears to have reached some sort of stasis. But they’re all lurking out there. And then, of course, there is the NBO—the Next Big One. Which everyone in the field appears to be resigned to, kind of like seismologists. This is not comforting, but it’s necessary knowledge. Quammen even covers Lyme disease, and it turns out that nearly everything I thought I knew about it was wrong. For one thing, it has almost nothing to do with deer.

And Quammen doesn’t skimp on the science, I’m glad to say. We learn a lot about viruses and how and why they can be so dangerous—for one thing, there are different kinds of viruses. And we learn even more about how difficult it is to track these things down. There’s an art of assessment getting profiled here—the people who have to make decisions about these things are almost always operating with incomplete knowledge—what is the reservoir (the incubator for the disease that seems itself to be resistant)? How can we determine what it is (hint—it’s probably a primate or a bat)? This turns out to be insanely complicated, and much of the book follows Quammen’s investigation of this search for the reservoir of several recent zoonotic outbreaks. This is both chilling and thrilling, and Quammen is an informed guide.

Quammen devotes a substantial amount of the book—pretty much the last 100 pages or so—to theorizing how AIDS got started—over a century ago. Yes, that’s how long AIDS has been around for. So far as we can tell, AIDS got it start in humans in 1908 as the result of what Quammen describes as “a single bloody encounter between a human and a chimpanzee” in Southeastern Cameroon. Bad for both, obviously. In fact, another thing we learn is how some of the primate populations in Africa are being decimated as well. So what made AIDS take off when it did, after remaining relatively dormant for decades? Quammen devotes considerable discussion to the various theories about this—it’s a complicated story, and Quammen does it justice.

The heroes are many—generally healthcare professionals, many no longer with us because of exposure to something; scientists roaming the rivers of Africa, or wherever some new strain of something really communicable and often of unknown origin has shown up; Public Health officials, whose decision-making is often bedeviled by vastly incomplete and rapidly evolving knowledge. This book is, among other things, humbling for those of us not involved in these various, and often noble, pursuits.

Quammen ends on a hopeful note. We’ve managed to avoid several potential disasters, and with each one, we get better at spotting these spillover outbreaks. But I can’t decide if he’s just telling us that to make us feel better, or if he really believes it. Because there’s no question that there’s the potential for massive global disaster here, and that our penetration into more and more previously sparsely inhabited regions just worsens the odds.

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology – love letters to a place…

Mountain Memoirs (cover photo courtesy mountain-memoirs.com, Main Street Rag Publishing, Ashe County Wordkeepers)

Back to the 2013 reading list with this entry – an anthology put together by the local writer’s group, the Wordkeepers, where I live: Ashe County, North Carolina. The book, Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology is just that – an anthology. So first we’ll talk about what that is, then we’ll talk a bit about the book.

Truth is, now that I think about it, Mountain Memoirs is something more than a mere anthology, something at the same time more intriguing and  more discombobulating: an olio. Its eclectic nature makes it both enjoyable – and a little challenging – for the reader.

I came to this book expecting a wide variety of material – and I was not disappointed. There is poetry, experimental fiction, personal essay, anecdote, local history, and, certainly, memoir. The collection is bracketed by pieces by well known authors Lee Smith (short fiction) and Clyde Edgerton (a poem). And there is a collection of anecdotes by well known NC public television host D.G. Martin in the middle.

But it is the lesser known writers who deserve special note here. An essay by Ron Joyner, a “heritage fruit” apple farmer (and philosopher of sorts) could hold its own with the likes of Wendell Berry. A memoir by Rebecca Gummere on a her short sojourn in Ashe County during a failing marriage is better than any memoir you’ll have recommended to you by Oprah – and more honest, too. These are well written pieces that shine.

There are other pieces (recollections by Edith Pierce Jones, Sam Shumate, Fran Cook) that offer the flavor of growing up in the mountains – being, as one writer terms them, one of the “Olds.” There are explanations from former “flatlanders” (Julie Townsend, Becky Stragand, Barbara Lawing) of what drew them to chuck life elsewhere and come to the place once known by the name “The Lost Province.” And there are attempts at rhapsodizing the experience of what the world’s oldest mountains most powerful allure is – nature (essays by Scot Pope, Kimberly Perzel, Janice Pittard). Local history comes in the form of poetry (Mikael Goss), biographical sketch (Diana Renfro) and historical essay (Gene Hafer).

There’s even some reflection on what it means to live in such a place – through gentle, mostly humorous anecdote (D.G. Martin), but also through clear-eyed if forgiving critique (Chris Arvidson) and even some wishful thinking (Nicole Osborne).

It is, for anyone interested in western North Carolina (or life in the Appalachians generally), an enjoyable read. Some of the writing is uneven, but the sincerity and bigheartedness of the writers shine through.

This is clearly a group of love letters to a place. And love letters always deserve reading.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

ArtsWeek: Where can you go for free e-books?

CATEGORY: ArtsWeekA question arose in a comment thread on an earlier post. To wit: I love reading, and Kindle is cool, but books are expensive. (Okay, that’s really more of a statement than a question. You get my point.)

It’s true. Now granted, the average e-book is a lot cheaper than even a paperback, but still, if you read a lot you can run up a hefty tab in a hurry. Amazon is thriving for a reason.

The good news is that there are a lot of sources for free Kindle and e-book content. Here are a few:

You can also get Kindle books on loan. There are e-book lending libraries. Here are some more. Apparently, the whole e-book loan idea is a hit, at least with some folks.

Another thing to note: if you find e-books that aren’t in Kindle format and you’d like to convert them, Calibre is straightforward and easy (and free).

So there you go. Get to reading, and happy ArtsWeek.

CATEGORY: ArtsWeek

ArtsWeek: Dinosaurs, dodo birds, books and novelists

CATEGORY: ArtsWeekAfter my first novel was published, I was invited to be on a panel at writing convention. In response to a question, I said that books and novels were endangered species. I was about to say the very act of reading might be as well, but I didn’t get to, because at that point the professor who’d organized the conference jumped to her feet, ran down the aisle, snatched the microphone from my hand and explained that I hadn’t really meant what I’d said and people would always want the smell of a new book and the tactile experience, blah, blah blah. She then pointedly handed the microphone to Robert Greer, who sat next to me.

This was seven or eight years before Kindle, so I’m sure my predictions seemed pretty outlandish at the time. But they’re not so outlandish now. Let’s take a look.

Prediction: Paper books will become obsolete.

How good does that prediction look today? Very probable.

Reasoning: Look around you in any airport at the number of people using electronic rather than paper media. Everyone, it seems, has a Kindle. Will paper books disappear completely? Maybe not. We forget that paper is pretty handy stuff and paper books handy things. They’re cheap, relatively portable, and can be reused over and over again. They resist impact and moisture which would destroy an electronic device. Having said that, while paper is good, it’s not really better than e-books, so unless The Today Show says that e-books cause boils to pop up on your forehead, I think this one is a lock. I suspect a generation from now, someone reading a paper book in an airport will be as much of an oddity as someone reading a scroll.

Prediction: Novels will become obsolete.

How does that prediction look today? Probable.

Reasoning: There is a trend away from reading and toward watching. Movies and TV shows are quickly taking share from novels. Nor are they the only alternative crowding out books. There’s also gaming, which will grow even more as characters, plots and graphics become more sophisticated. There will probably continue to be some novels written, but that will likely be for niche markets like listening-while-driving. When the Google driverless car takes off, even that will go away. Maybe novels will survive in the same way other forms of obsolete entertainment survive, like kabuki and opera, as niche interests more used to show off erudition than to actually entertain.

Update to original prediction: Even if novels survive, novelists won’t.

Reasoning: All the growing forms of entertainment, movies, games, audio books and indeed even some forms of the novel, like graphic novels or those series of books that are branded by author (James Patterson) or character (James Bond), are collaborative efforts. Teams of people write and create movies, games, audio books, graphic novels and Patterson books. Over time, all forms of entertainment will become team endeavors. There will still be writers, but they will be Hollywood-style five-guys-around-a-table writers. The one-to-one days, where a solo writer working in isolation writes a novel and a solo reader sitting in isolation reads it, will no longer exist. As a novelist, I don’t much like this prediction.

Prediction: The act of reading itself will become obsolete.

How does that prediction look today? Too early to tell.

Reasoning: Just as well the professor grabbed the mike before I managed to get this prediction out, because this probably would have made her head explode. Look. Step back and think about it: Why do humans read? Basically, because we can’t draw fast enough. Our ancestors started communicating by drawing pictures on cave walls, which in turn evolved into hieroglyphics and pictographs, which eventually became alphabets, which lead to reading and writing. And what a phenomenal advance of civilization that was. The problem is, reading is a really hard skill to pick up. It takes at least five years of almost constant study to get any facility at all, from ten to fifteen years to become adept, and some people never get very good at (as measured by speed and comprehension.)

But now we don’t need reading because we can draw fast enough, more or less, because of programs that facilitate drawing, like Powerpoint. Even better, we can clip art and cut and paste to create visual representations of what we mean without drawing. Even better than that, we don’t have to draw at all because we can take a picture and ship it instantly because of improvements in technology such as smartphones and broadband.

We are now seeing the first signs of that. What used to be a fifty page prose report is now a fifty slide Powerpoint presentation. What used to be five hundred word letters describing that summer vacation is now a photo album with a handful of captions. What used to be a how to manual is now a link to a YouTube video. Handwriting has already bitten the dust. Some of us grew up when penmanship was an integral part of the school day. It’s barely taught anymore. Writing (in the non-mechanical sense) is also disappearing as schools replace term papers with video projects. Even those don’t use scripts, but rather storyboards. Grammar and spelling are on the way out, replaced by phonetic abbreviations.

It’s just a matter of time for reading. If reading survives at all, it will be in the same way computer languages exist today, as something experts learn.

Of course, as I learned when I was on the corporate speaking circuit talking about trends, it’s not particularly hard to predict a trend. What’s hard is to predict the timing. One day life on earth will be wiped out by an asteroid, but it makes a big difference if that occurs in ten millennia or next Thursday. People were predicting smartphones (they called them UPC’s then) in the mid-eighties, but multiple companies including Apple (Newton) and Palm lost a fortune because they were too early, and some of the current crop of wannabe’s (Samsung? Nokia?) will surely be too late.

So when will all this occur? Hard to say. There’s a lot of institutional momentum that will have to grind to a halt first—the publishing industry, schools, etc, and a lot of habits to be broken. And of course, a lot of us old book-reading dinosaurs will have to die out.

Telling History vs. Making Art: An upcoming series at S&R

Introduction to a series

As part of my doctoral work, I recently did some work that focused on Civil War literature. I use “literature” in a broad sense to cover fiction, nonfiction, and film.

My interest in the topic stems from my work as a historian for Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Visitors come to the battlefields for many reasons—frequently because they’ve read a book or watched a movie. Therefore, such texts serve an important function in inspiring visitors to actually visit. However, those texts also serve to influence the way those visitors understand history. Seldom do visitors make the distinction between “history” and “art”–and fewer things seem to aggravate some of my colleagues more!  Continue reading

Jim Booth guest commentary over at Southern Creatives

If you’ve been paying attention you know that our boy Jim Booth recently published a novel. And that it’s really good. And that it presents us with the opportunity to consider fame and substance at war over the soul of an artist.

He has now authored a guest essay on “Southern Rock Stardom, Postmodernism, and the Persistence of Memory” over at Melinda McGuire’s outstanding Southern lit-focused site, concluding, appropriately enough that:

Here in the South, rock stars respect memory as all good Southerners do and, after all their wanderings, come back home where memory matters, Thomas Wolfe and postmodernism be damned.

Hear, hear. Give it a read.

Unsolicited movie review: "Liberal Arts"

Our oldest daughter went to Kenyon College in Ohio, and we’ve always loved the place. Its campus is one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the earth, especially early on a summer morning with the morning mist burning off, which is what it was like the first time we visited. We’ve always had warm feelings about the place, and about the importance of the kind of liberal arts education it offers. So, apparently, does Kenyon alum Josh Radnor, whose movie, “Liberal Arts,” is a love letter to Kenyon, to this education, and, more broadly, to the arts themselves. Especially books. This is a movie about books, of all things, about the transformative power of literature, a love letter to books. How on earth did this move even get made?
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Just why do nations fail, anyway?

Way back in 2002, when George W. Bush was trying to muster an international military force to take out the Taliban from Afghanistan—how’d that work out, by the way?—one of the arguments he used was that Afghanistan was a “failed state.” As I recall, he tried to use that argument for Iraq as well, although he used others that had a bit more persuasion at the time—WMD. We do know how that turned out. But he was was actually on more solid ground with his failed state argument—Afghanistan, by any number of measures, has not been a state worth emulating for some time. It was a classic failed state by any measure—economic, political, legal, educational.
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