Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley

This contemplative and sometimes dreamlike book, a combination of nature writing, spirituality, and science writing, was first published in 1946. It is the work of Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist with an extensive career. Eiseley did a great deal of fieldwork, as can be expected, and held several academic posts, including head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. I read the 1957 edition published by Random House.

Eiseley has a great ability of starting each chapter with a compelling statement. Here are three examples:

“I am middle-aged now, but in the autumn I always seek for it again hopefully” (p. 195).
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water” (p. 15).
“Today, as never before, the sky is menacing” (p. 143).

Several of the chapters kept me engaged from this first sentence, but I lost focus and interest in others. The language found here is definitely of an earlier period and will appeal greatly to some, but not all. Eiseley’s chapters on the human brain and evolution I found particularly difficult to wade through. I am happy for having read the book, however, because two chapters near the end are simply great. These chapters are “The Judgment of the Birds” and “The Bird and the Machine.”

In “The Bird and the Machine,” definitely my favorite, Eiseley describes capturing a sparrow hawk: “a fine young male in the prime of life” (p. 189). The hawk is one of a pair, but due to a violent struggle between Eiseley and the birds, he is not able to capture the female. Eiseley captures the bird for a zoo, a task he is charged with and explains as “one of those reciprocal matters in which science involves itself” (p. 186). The day following the capture, Eiseley decides to take a look at the bird in the box. He writes, “I could feel his heart pound under the feathers but he only looked beyond me and up” (p. 191).

Eiseley makes a decision, after noticing how the hawk is gazing into the sky, that he will release him. He does so and shortly after hears a commotion as the hawk joins his companion in cries of happiness. The female was likely waiting for her mate in the shadows of a tree throughout the night. The way this event is described is magical and was like a treasure after toughing it out in the middle of the book. It really makes you think about keeping birds in cages and pulling them out of their natural habitat for our pleasure and entertainment.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The World According to Garp by John Irving

Here is a popular book I missed until now. I picked it up on a whim when browsing at a bookstore. I was somewhat familiar with the plot before reading it, but realized early on that I did not really imagine this novel the way it truly is. I found it to be very humorous at times, but overall dark. The distance I experienced from the characters was also rather unnerving. Still, the layers to this novel are just incredible and waiting for discussion/interpretation.

Since many have read this book already and one can easily find a plot summary, I will avoid giving the basic details here. Some elements I found worthy of consideration include the violence against women, the issue of violence or threat of violence in general, and the meaning of the feminist nurse character. Beyond this, the Ellen Jamesians, women who have silenced themselves by cutting out their tongues in protest and communion of rape victim Ellen James (although Ellen James does not want their support), are intriguing and open to various interpretations. Just consider that there are all these women walking around in this novel who cannot talk, due to self-mutilation. Pretty dark, but thought-provoking as well.

I’ll end by saying that the character name Jillsy Sloper is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. How perfect and ridiculous is that name? I laughed all day about it.

I think I’ll watch the movie now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer

Peter Singer believes we can end world poverty. This can be accomplished if those of us in the affluent countries donate a portion of our income to the poorest of the poor. Singer’s focus is primarily on those in the upper income brackets, but everyone, no matter your economic class, will find this book compelling. A website for the book is here.

Singer refutes many of the reasons that people will not give. One concept is the notion of “Fair Share.” For example, if I know others are not going to donate their money to help the poor, why should I? He also constructs several hypothetical situations that are quite interesting and thought-provoking. Singer can be seen discussing one of these hypothetical situations on the Amazon page for the book (just scroll down a bit to the video).

Singer is also calling on us to rethink our consumer culture and where we place value. Early on he tells the reader that if he or she is drinking bottled water then the reader has extra income that could be put to better use. Of course, he views the bottled water as far from a necessity, which is a point I agree with, although I am guilty of similar purchases (for me – it’s coffee).

Those who find the bottled water example too harsh should know that most of his criticism is on items that are considerably more extravagant, such as incredibly expensive watches, yachts, etc. In reality, many of us in the U.S. cannot afford these items, but the point is that many can. Still, it has made me think about what I spend money on and how much of my income is really spent on things I don’t need. This is not a first for me to reflect on this, but Singer forced me to consider it more deeply.

Highly recommended!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Sorcerer's Apprentice:Tales and Conjurations by Charles Johnson

I found this collection of stories randomly at a used book sale at a cafe. It was a real find!

Johnson opens his stories in such a matter-of-fact way that I had to read on. In "Menagerie, A Child's Fable," he begins, "Among watchdogs in Seattle, Berkeley was known generally as one of the best" (p. 43). "China" begins, "Evelyn's problems with her husband, Rudolph, began one evening in early March..." (p. 63). "Popper's Disease" starts out, "I visit my patients frequently, particularly those on farms like Anna Montgomery" (p. 127).

What are the stories about? Race is an issue, but they are all so different thematically. For example, "China" focuses on a late middle-aged husband's discovery and then pure devotion to martial arts and meditation, to the dismay and fear of his wife. It is incredibly well done. "Menagerie, A Child's Fable" examines the animals in a pet store who are left unattended when the owner fails to return. The conversations amongst the animals are comic and tragic, mirroring those of humanity.

Some of the stories left me a bit perplexed, particularly "Popper's Disease" and even the final one, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." A second reading may help to decipher more.

What a great discovery this was!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan

June Jordan was an amazing poet, essayist, activist, and teacher. She was the recipient of a Special United States Congressional Recognition for "outstanding contributions to literature, the civil rights movement, and in recognition of outstanding and invaluable service to the community." How great is that?

This volume is primarily a collection of political essays, but it also includes a short and beautiful piece on T'ang poetry titled "A Far Stretch Well Worth the Effort." Writings in the first section are new and most recent. At least three appear to be unpublished before their inclusion here. This includes one of the most powerful and brilliantly written (although they are all well written) essays titled "Hunting for Jews?" where Jordan interweaves an arrest of an Aryan Nation member for murder with her experience of showing solidarity by attending a Jewish religious service in Berkeley. She concludes this essay with "I'm saying, 'Are you hunting for Jews? You're looking for me!'" (p. 31). This final statement gets to the essence of Jordan; she was committed to justice and freedom for all people and was able to identify with victims of persecution across religious, racial, or any other lines.

It would be difficult to point out other important essays here, because the reality is that each one is important. If you have never heard of June Jordan, I recommend reading this book or any of her writings today. You can hear her voice reading one of her poems here:

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Mysterious Life of the Heart: Writing from The Sun about Passion, Longing, and Love

This book is so fabulous. There is no other way to describe it. Found here are short stories, essays, and poems dealing, in some way, with relationships. All of the selections were initially published in The Sun magazine. Be warned that the content is tipped toward longing, lost love, and even tragedy. If you are only looking for romance and “happily-ever-after” scenarios, you will want to pass some of the stories.

Besides the amazing writing, this book is also beautiful. From the front cover photograph to the page layout and overall design, it is a wondrous thing to carry around. I often sat the book on my desk while at work, so I could admire it and look forward to reading it on my lunch break or during the bus ride going home. Highly recommended!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti

Yes - the Francesca Duranti celebration continues! This is the third novel of hers I've read recently. Here, unlike the others, we follow a male character.

Fabrizio Garrone is a translator of little acclaim who moves through his life with few celebrations. By chance he discovers the mention of a lost Viennese novel titled The House on Moon Lake. This, he thinks, could be his claim to fame.

Fabrizio travels to Vienna to track down a copy of the novel and begin work on the translation. When he is offered the opportunity to write a biography of the lost novelist to accompany the publication of the discovered novel, Fabrizio invents portions of the novelist's life that the reading public, believing all is true, falls in love with.

Duranti continues her theme of a quest, as well as the examination of male/female relationships. The novel ends rather strangely in a dreamlike and bizarre world that did not quite match the rest of the work, but this is still a novel I would recommend.