Top Ten Reasons to Destroy Mount Doom

I’m currently under a book-buying interdict until such time as the mountain of unread books in my bedroom no longer attracts selfie-taking tourists wearing North Face jackets.   As incentive to hastening my conquest of said mountain, though, I’m using today’s TT freebie to list ‘reward books’, those I’ll read once I’ve made significant progress. I’m thinking one of these books every ten TBR titles read.   These are mostly ‘fun’ books..

BUT FIRST! Teaser Tuesday, from Sean Dietrich’s The South’s Okayest Writer.

Nothing lasts. Not hateful things, not good things. Not ugliness, not beauty. Not football games, back pain, or kidney stones. Not newspaper-delivery jobs. Not life. Not death. Not childhood wheelchairs. Not the dirt beneath you. There is one thing that will outlive this cotton-picking universe. You already know what it is. So find a person who needs some. And give it away.

I don’t care what the suits on television say, kid. Don’t believe them. The sod cabins, the longleaf forests, the farmland of our granddaddies. The nurses, EMT’s, teachers, janitors. That’s us.
America doesn’t suck.
Your television does.

And now, the books!

1)  Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni

2)  Best. Movie. Year.  Ever:  How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, Brian Raftery

3) The Sopranos Sessions: A Conversation with David Chase, Matt Zoller Seitz

4) Scatterling of Africa: My Early Years, Johnny Clegg.  The autobiography of one of my favorite musicians, a man who broke color lines in South Africa to create several illegal mixed-race bands. Unfortunately Clegg perished in 2019. 

5) All the Wild that Remains:  Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and  the American West, David Gessner 

6) The Boy Crisis, Warren Ferrell. A study on why boys and young men are declining in health,  prospects, etc. 

7) Sea Lab: America’s Forgotten  Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor,  Ben Hellwarth.  One of the Mercury 7 astronauts, Scott Carpenter, was involved with this project. 

8) Roads to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Paris Marx

9) The Life We’re Looking For:  Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, Andy Crouch

10) A Brief History of Motion, from the Wheel to the Car to What Comes Next, Tom Standage

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The South’s Okayest Writer

The South’s Okayest Writer: The Adventures of a Boy Columnist
© 2018 Sean Dietrich
241 pages

There is a Japanese art, kintsugi, of putting broken pieces of pottery back together again with gilded paint, with the result that the repaired object is more resplendent than the original. If offered the choice between hardship and ease, between health and pain, most of us would presumably choose ease and health – and yet, there’s something all the more beautiful about a human life that flourishes amid adversity, that endures the bludgeonings of chance and rises to face life once more, head on. Sean Dietrich, in his writing, looks for the beauty that not only remains in broken and disrupted lives, but the beauty that is created in people’s endurance, in their support of one another, in their refusal to bow to that brokenness . In The South’s Okayest Writer, Dietrich collects a few score of his short articles (the kind that appear on his website) , and each strikes the heart in a different way. This is a slim volume to be read with a tissue box at the ready, though in the case of male readers it’s obviously understood that the tissues are there for spontaneous sneezing attacks. (There are three occasions on which a man may shed a tear: when he buries his mama, when he marries off his daughter, or when he loses his dog. Those scenarios all exist here, reader be warned.)   Most of the stories are about the travails and triumphs of ordinary people whom Sean has met throughout Alabama and the Florida panhandle: a coach who changed the lives of the boys he mentored, despite the enormous pain he carried for the loss of his children; a young woman killed in a car wreck, whose organs gave life to another young lady who later invited her donor’s parents to come to her wedding; young people who created lives for themselves despite physical adversities or bad upbringings; and community after community of people who rallied around one another when one of their own had a loss. We find men baking cakes to raise money, or football heroes dedicating their every touchdown to a young baby stricken with leukemia. We find beauty and love amid the suffering, the storm creating the opportunity for such beauty to make itself known. We find ordinary people practicing resurrection. Forget the poison on TV, Dietrich urges – the constant torrent of bad news, of impending doomsday, of the constant assault on your mind that creates cynicism and despair. Look to your neighbors — invest in the stories around you, and play your part in them. These are deeply personal stories, including Dietrich’s own as he and his mother struggled in the wake of his father’s unexpected suicide, when he walked into the woods with a firearm and a troubled soul. They are engaging and powerful, though, pulling me into them completely. I’m very glad to have found Dietrich last year. 

Kindle Highlights:

Nothing lasts. Not hateful things, not good things. Not ugliness, not beauty. Not football games, back pain, or kidney stones. Not newspaper-delivery jobs. Not life. Not death. Not childhood wheelchairs. Not the dirt beneath you. There is one thing that will outlive this cotton-picking universe. You already know what it is. So find a person who needs some. And give it away.

Somewhere south of Montgomery—a girl sings on a barroom stage. She’s college-age. Brunette. Her family plays backup. Her daddy is on bass. Brother plays guitar. She doesn’t do the American Idol act—no vocal gymnastics, no hair flinging. This girl sings Patsy Cline with her eyes closed. A loudmouth in the crowd makes a gross remark. Her daddy stops playing. A man who weighs as much as a Pontiac. I’ve never visited this place before, but I’ve been to hundreds like it. There’s a spot like this on every American rural route. A glowing sign. Trucks parked around a cinderblock building. Broken cigarette machines. My fellow Baptists hate this kind of den. But it’s a good place to find honest lyrics.

I don’t care what the suits on television say, kid. Don’t believe them. The sod cabins, the longleaf forests, the farmland of our granddaddies. The nurses, EMT’s, teachers, janitors. That’s us. America doesn’t suck. Your television does.

She tried out for the school play. I attended her audition. She was nervous, and the smug drama teacher told her she had no talent. I’m a quiet man, but I wasn’t that day. I called the teacher a greasy communist who didn’t love the Lord.

I read the newspaper today. The outlook was bleak. Murders, mass-shootings, nuclear warheads, and bacteria capable of eating a person’s face off. And the nightly-news anchor still has the audacity to wish me a good evening. It’s too bad. Because this old world is more than explosions, cussing congressmen, and BOTOX bodies in dental-floss bathing suits. It’s high-school culinary teachers who give a damn. It’s neighborhood barbecues. It’s animal shelters. Old folks. It’s volunteer uncles who live in spare bedrooms. It’s guitars in rehab homes. It’s singing “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s making someone happy, by God. Even when skies are gray.

More by Sean Dietrich:
You are my Sunshine
The Incredible Winston Browne

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Laughing all the Way to the Mosque

Laughing all the Way to the Mosque: The Misadventures of a Muslim Woman
© 2016 Zarqa Nawaz
240 pages

‘A hit religious comedy show about Muslims worshipping in a broken-down mosque, within a broken-down church, living in a tiny town in the Canadian Midwest?’ said the reporter. ‘I can guarantee you, no one saw that coming.’

In 2007 I stumbled upon a Canadian TV show called Little Mosque on the Prairie, about a small Muslim community in a Saskatchewan town. I found the show delightful on every level, with wonderful character drama, frequent laughs, and interesting shows exploring conflicts within Islam, and between Islam and what passes for western culture these days. Think Vicar of Dibley, but with more religion and fewer allusions to bestiality. I recently found its creator’s memoir, and picked it up hoping for information about the making of the show. While there’s very little about that, Laughing all the Way is entertaining in its own right, being the memoir of a second-generation immigrant who grew up in Canada but within a largely West Asian Muslim community, working to find a fusion between ‘her’ culture and her parents’. These conflicts often informed the storytelling of Little Mosque, though, so fans of the show should find it especially rewarding to read. It’s a coming of age story, as she begins a child and by the end, is taking on serious adult obligations like the washing of the dead.

Nawaz opens up with the usual child-of-immigrants conflicts: young Zarqa wants to fit in with the rest of the kids and wear something other than traditional Punjabi clothes, but her parents resist; she wants to shave her legs and cut her hair, but her parents object. She takes a right turn, however, when she sees someone wearing a hijab for the first time and realizes the potential that Islam has for the perennial struggle between kids and their parents: she can out-Muslim mom and dad! The memoir jumps quite a bit, so we met find her as a young adult guiding the programming of a Muslim summer camp, and already displaying a mix of piety and irreverence. Although her heart’s desire was to become a doctor, Nawaz’ horror of blood and her poor performance in the sciences steered her instead toward journalism, where amid growing Mideastern & Central Asian immigration to the west, and concerns about terrorism, she hoped to tell stories that would otherwise go overlooked. After becoming a mother and taking the Hajj (a full account of which is rendered here), she switches to filmmaking — creating movies that explore issues within Islam, particularly the attempted enforcement of foreign mores onto more westernized Muslim congregations by imported imams. Many of the issues that her own congregation addressed in her young adulthood, like the creation of literal barriers between men and women, were explored in Little Mosque, as well as through Nawaz’ documentary Me and the Mosque. Nawaz touches on differences between West Asian & Arabic expressions of Islam that weren’t addressed during the show, despite its characters including Arab, Nigerian, and Pakistani Muslims. Although touching on many serious topics, this is largely a comic memoir, and thoroughly entertaining. It suffers a bit in its jumping around, and the lack of a general narrative that could tie the excerpts together.

Kindle Highlights:

Again I put the kids into mixed-gender teams and let each team debate the issue. Ibrahim was clearly uncomfortable with this sort of arrangement. ‘I doubt they’ll have sex while debating,’ I assured him.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘But we take the secret of the origins of this marshmallow bag with us to the grave.’ ‘To the grave,’ he said. ‘Pinkie swear,’ I said, holding out my hand. ‘That’s too forward,’ he said.

The hospital recommended Dr Weiner, who was one of the best circumcision men in the city. As soon as we entered the office, his secretary pounced. ‘The doctor’s name is pronounced “Wayner”, not “Weener”,’ she told me helpfully. Wayner, wayner, wayner.

[T]he girls were young and I felt we had to compete with Christmas, the grandaddy of all religious holidays. Muslims don’t have holiday icons like Santa Claus or Frosty the Snowman, because we have a hysterical fear of worshipping things other than God and our holidays centre around themes like starvation and near-child sacrifice. Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his son is much harder to celebrate with papier mâché than you might think, so I improvised.

Related:
Funny in Farsi & Laughing Without an Accent, Firoozeh Dumas
Rebel without a Green Card, Sara Saedi

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Eating on Mars, Cap’n Mal, and organic gardening on steroids

Since twelve men left their mark on the Moon,  humanity has wondered about the prospects of venturing further out, to the Red Planet.  It’s a daunting undertaking, from the journey itself to the prospects for sustaining life on a planet with a marginal atmosphere. Dinner on Mars addresses the prospects for feeding human life on Mars,   using known and novel technologies to bring life from Mars’ red dust.  The author presents the information in the form of an extended discussion between two people,  with some needed narration between the conversation.  The conversation begins with the initial practicalities of carving out room for human life on Mars – literally,  as their scenario sees humans tunneling into Martian mountains to create spaces sheltered from the sun – before moving to the main course,  food.  Shipping enormous quantities of food from Earth to Mars is obviously impractical, given the fuel needed to lift anything off the surface of the Earth.  The authors place much hope in using bacteria and algae as bioengineers and agricultural tools, though they also look to genetic modification and synthetic meat & dairy.   Interesting and engaging enough, though reading this in tandem with Wendell Berry’s critique of industrial food made these prognostications depressing despite the authors’ optimism.   I have no interest in meat that grew somewhere else other than a cow pasture, nor will soy milk ever cross my lips – but knowing how we might feed ourselves far from Earth is a key part of any attempts to explore and use the resources of the solar system. 

I stumbled upon this Firefly graphic novel a year or so ago in a comic book shop. Written by Joss Whedon,   it’s an enjoyable story that captures the spirit and dialogue of the show well. The art is very well done: I’m not a graphic novel reader, but I liked the style and though it depicted the characters especially well. The story concerns the gang being set up so that an Alliance spec-ops man with a lust for revenge can destroy one of the Serenity’s former browncoats.   As good as the art was, I much prefer the more substantial novel series that’s come out in the last few years.

Lastly, Think Like an Ecosystem was one of my first science-y books this year. I say science-y because while it’s deeply informed by ecological thinking, it’s not quite a proper  ‘science’ books. (I’m still claiming it for the Survey, though, in the wildcard category.)   The book is an introduction to permaculture, which  has been on my radar for a while after stumbling upon a podcaster who practices and teaches it. I’d hear him mention principles that were unfamiliar to me from time to time,   and eventually figured out that they were part of an integrated system he employed on its land – but this book introduces everything properly. Permaculture is an intensive approach to the land that has the aim of replicating the results of a natural ecosystem, wherein nothing is waste but instead contributes to the greater growth of the whole.  A given area’s expression of permaculture principles will vary on the area itself, on what natural resources and cycles it’s already exposed to:  permaculture begins with a close, patient, and prolonged study of the area and what is happening.   The book helped me fit together a lot of the odds and ends I heard about on the show, but I’m going to look for some videos to try and better understand how these systems might look.

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Revolutionary Characters

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different
© 2006 Gordon S. Woods
352 pages

Revolutionary Characters reviews the lives of several of the United States’ founding fathers to examine how the personal strengths and ambitions of these men allowed them to play uniquely essential roles in a pivotal time.   The men so detailed are George Washington, Benjamin Franklin,  Thomas Jefferson, James Madison,  Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and (interestingly) Aaron Burr – the latter included more  for comparison’s sake, as he had many of their advantages but failed to distinguish himself for anything more than shooting Hamilton, praiseworthy as that was.  Wood opens with a review of how the Founders have been alternately venerated and dismissed throughout American history, and his conclusion that Americans need the story of the Founders and the Founding to tie us together as a nation,   since the United States was and remains  a novel country, one based on ideas rather than blood.

Revolutionary Characters is not a collection of minihagiographies, nor is it a train of tedious, unimaginative debunkin hit pieces. Wood examines  the unique lives of each of these men, assaying their strengths and the part they played.   Woods sticks most closely to conventional Founding-Father writing in his opening chapter on Washington, but Washington forces the author’s hand by consciously playing the part of the noble, disinterested leader, and avoiding anything that diminish the icon he was creating of himself.  Most of the founding fathers, bar Burr, were recent arrivals to the ranks of the gentry – and they compensated for their lack of breeding by cultivating themselves,   both their minds and their characters. They took this especially serious as they realized they were driving the creation of something  new in the world, and would be held to especially strict scrutiny.  None was more serious about his study than Washington,  and Woods argues that Aaron Burr’s real treason lay not in trying to create a new republic in the west, but by ignoring all convention of moral responsibility and behaving like a decadent European aristocrat – never giving any  heed to how posterity might regard him, but only to the material gains he could realize and the favors he could call in.  Burr’s inclusion in this book is odd, even though his vices make the others’ virtues more obvious – and so is Thomas Paine’s, for while he was a master propagandist and writer,  he loved not America but revolution,  never taking onto his narrow shoulders the lightest mantle of responsibility.  The chapter on Thomas Jefferson examines him as the strange sphinx that he was, a man who preached liberty and maintained slaves, who idolized agrarianism but created a factory on his own plantation, a man who every iteration of American political thought appears to claim.  In Madison’s chapter, we review his balancing act between the Federalists and the Republicans,  his exercise in moderation overshadowed only by that of John Adams – who threaded a very narrow line between the  Federalists and the Republicans,  and between his rivals Jefferson and Hamilton.  (Adams gets very short shrift in this book, being pushed  towards the end between Paine and Burr, and addressed in a chapter called “The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams”.)   Perhaps the most interesting chapter is “The Invention of Benjamin Franklin”, in which Woods argues that Franklin, for all his diplomatic importance,  was  not regarded with favor by most Americans during his life, was almost ignored in his death, and was only uplifted into the pantheon of The Founding Fathers afterwards, when an increasingly commercial class saw in him a figure worth celebrating –  the self-made man. 

Woods writes that the founding fathers were not only relatively new to the gentry and accordingly obsessed with the idea of being proper Gentlemen — sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan — but who had come to manhood at a time when they could do something truly unique. In an ordinary time they would have lived perfectly admirable lives, but the times presented them an opportunity to be extraordinary. They believed, with varying degrees of optimism and reserve (Jefferson and Adams presiding over those wings), that the creation of the United States would change not only the world, but humanity itself — that the creation of a genuine Republic would usher in a new stage of human development. That faith was tested and sometimes lost as these men grew older, as succeeding generations replaced them, as they realized that the human heart does not shrug off the stamp of Eden lost simply because governmental structures change. However short reality fell from their expectations, though, they were a fascinating bunch of men. I found the book quite interesting, and the author fair-minded in general. I dislike the inclusion of Burr, though, especially since John Adams is pushed into the rear with his company. Adams deserves better!

Related:
Any and all works by Joseph Ellis, including Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, The Quartet, His Excellency: George Washington, American Creation, and Founding Brothers.
John Adams, David McCullough
The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government. Fergus Bordewich.
Alexander Hamilton, Rob Chernow
American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, Brad Birzer
Founding Rivals: Madison vs Monroe, Chris DeRose

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Top Ten New-to-Me Authors from 2022

This week’s top ten Tuesday is “Favorite new-to-me-authors from 2022”. I encountered a lot of authors, but how many will I revisit? Let’s see…

(1) Sean Dietrich. Sean of the South visited my library in December, and I was gifted an autographed copy of his You are my Sunshine. I enjoyed the book well enough, but what sold me on Sean were his blog posts and his podcasts, the latter of which mixes storytelling and southern folk music. I’ve since read one of his novels (The Incredible Winston Browne) and loved it.

And on that note, TUESDAY TEASER INTERRUPTION! featuring a sheriff trying to teach a young man to dance, so he can summon up the nerve to ask the girl he keeps drooling over.

“C’mon,” beckoned the sheriff. “I’m a beautiful woman, Buz.”
Buz squinted and tried to imagine the sheriff as an attractive woman, but it wasn’t working. He wandered toward the sheriff like a pig going to the processing plant. “Okay,” said the sheriff, guiding Buz’s arm. “Now, put this arm around my waist and this one holds my hand.”
“This feels ridiculous,” said Buz. Tommy hollered,
“You should see it from where I’m sitting!”

The Incredible Winston Browne

(2) Damien Lewis. I read a couple of Lewis’ WW2 histories — very pop history stuff, about the derring-do of commandos and the like — and can definitely imagine visiting him again for fun, light reads.

(3) Gore Vidal. Vidal has long been recommended to me by Bill Kauffman as a sharp critic of DC’s empire, and of its treatment of not just the people of the world, but the subjects of the long-fallen American republic.

(4) Blake Crouch (pictured). Holy cow, do I like this guy’s SF. I read three of his titles last year and each of them was on my top ten list.

(5) David Brooks. His The Second Mountain was one of my favorite books for the year, about finding one’s purpose in life.

(6) H.W. Crocker II. I tried Crocker first via his alt-history novel of George Custer, who in Crocker’s book survived Little Bighorn and became a gun for hire in the old west. Quite fun.

(7) Ben Shapiro. Back in….2021, a friend lent me a couple of Shapiro’s works. I was only vaguely aware of him, as I generally avoid TV political commentators as authors, but in the middle of the coronadystopia I was intrigued by the title, The Authoritarian Moment. I’ve since read two more of his works.

(8) Fr. Charles Connor. Connor did a history of Catholicism in colonial America, and it’s part of a trilogy in Catholic-American history that I’ll probably continue when Mount TBR doesn’t loom so high.

(9) J.M. Berger. His Optimal was my first SF read of 2022, and one of the most memorable books I read all year — featuring a comfortable dystopia where human lives are essentially managed by predictive AI. Berger has nonfiction works on extremism, so he’s definitely of further interest.

(10) Peter Kreeft, pictured. Kreeft is a Catholic author I’ve been wanting to try for a while now, and having read his Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, a dialogue between C.S. Lewis, JFK, and Aldous Huxley around Christmas, I’m game for trying him again.

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The Incredible Winston Browne

The Incredible Winston Browne
© Sean Dietrich 2021
352 pages

In a little place called Moab,  a man is dying. His name is Winston Browne, and he’s a man who lives with regrets, memories of a love gone awry, of an envisioned life not fulfilled.  Yet he’s found a place for himself in Moab, not just as the sheriff but as a pillar of the community: he’s Moab’s baseball coach, its official deliverer-of-groceries to shut-ins, its very rock who mentors little boys and listens to the grievances of old women.  Soon he will be gone, but his work is not yet done. A little girl has just stumbled into town, a little girl who grown men want to kill,  a little girl for whom  one woman has already sacrificed  her liberty and possibly her life.    The Incredible Winston Browne   is a moving story of life refound – and of the incredible season of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers,  who the entire town is obsessed with. 

The Incredible Winston Browne begins as several apparently unrelated character stories that converge into one before the book’s first third is reached. Several of those stories are intertwined by nature of this being set in a small town of the 1950s, where no one is an island and everyone’s life is tangled up with everyone else’s –   with all the comfort and occasional irritation that entails.    Jessie,  though, is an outlier.  The reader meets her as a little  girl being smuggled out of a strange religious sect, chased by men of violence who have a singular obsession with finding her and punishing her for some crime unknown –    and when she arrives in Moab, alone and terrified, she becomes part of its story when the Sheriff  and another adult living with regrets – Eleanor, master of the church social scene –  take responsibility for her.  There are more stories interwoven with theirs, like that of a young boy who loses his grandfather and who is struggling to make his place in the world.   Winston Browne  takes several very different kinds of stories – a man burdened with the knowledge of his death, a woman struggling with the death of her own romance, the drama of the girl hiding from homicidal cultists, and of course the baseball action – and mixes them to excellent effect.  There’s enormous charm in the setting, of course — a Mayberry-on-the-Panhandle, where the postmaster also runs the general store, where the local newspaper is more concerned with local gossip than international affair, and little boys and girls grow to adulthood working alongside adults who care about them — but the deft mix of stories. and the general theme of how we can grow through the challenges and tragedies of life, makes this first fiction read of 2023 a high mark to beat.

Related:
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher. On the intense meaning to be found in strong ties to a local community, even as one prepares to ‘inherit their Eternal Reward’, as Moab’s paper so frequently put it.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg. Small-town southern drama. 1920s/30s
Cold Sassy Tree, Olivia Ann Burns. Ditto.
Wendell Berry’s Port Williams books. Ditto, but ranging from late 19th century to 1970s.

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Unread Shelf Assignment #3: TBR Priorities

The first Unread shelf assignment for this year was to list all unread titles and move them into one location; the second was to purge The Unwanted. I did the first but a sudden outbreak of tornadoes in my area interrupted my plans for the second. This week’s assignment is to list the ten books we’re most interested/exciting in reading this year, or those that will — once read or otherwise dispatched — mark the year as a successful one.

(1) Merchants and Moneymen: The Commercial Revolution, Joseph and Frances Gies. I love the Gies’ medieval social histories, and I’ve had this book for ten years.

(2) The War of 1812, John K. Mahon. I bought this in 2020 during an obsession with the Creek war, and the overlapping and very-much-related War of 1812; this particular volume is older but was recommended to me as a title that integrates the study of both conflicts. In addition to continuing to fill in a gap in my American history, and informing my future explorations to colonial spots on the Gulf Coast, this is a big ol’ book that contributes significantly to Mount Doom’s sheer height.

(3) Copenhaganize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Infrastructure, Mikaeel Colville-Andersen. Bikes! Cities! Bikes in cities!

(4) Ida Elizabeth, Sigrid Undset. Undset comes highly recommended to me, and this one is a Classics Club title to boot.

(5) The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are,  Robert Wright
(6)The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories,  J.L. Heilbron. Both of these titles have been ‘potential science reads’ for the last three years. Time to round ’em up and move ’em out.

(7) Roads to Liberty, F. Van Wyck Mason. A collection of 4 novellas set in Revolutionary America. Another girthy title, this one will take priority because it was lent to me by someone who now wants it back. To be fair, I have had it for a year and a half. (Don’t lend me books without a firm timeline…)

(8) The Essential Russell Kirk, Russell Kirk.

(9) Purgatorio, Dante. Trans. Anthony Esolen
(10) Paradiso, Dante. Trans. Anthony Esolen. I’m long overdue to finish reading the Commedia. These double as Classics Club reads.

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Of galaxy and creeply-crawlies

Origins is a history of life, the universe, and everything. (Sort of).  It’s an odd book, in that  it begins in an expected fashion: Tyson and Goldsmith look first to the origin of matter, delving into the first seconds of the Big Bang and exploring the world of particle physics.  We move next to the origin of cosmological order, of galaxies, our solar system, and life on Earth.  From here things derail, as the authors move into the possibilities of life elsewhere in our solar system and beyond, ending with a chapter on SETI and the like.  This section on extraterrestrial life is surprisingly long,  almost as much as the cosmology that opens the book.  It’s unquestionably easier to read & parse than the section on quarks and quasars, but felt like a prolonged distraction. 

Bugs. Even our common name for insects bears witness for our acrimonious relationship with them – they’re something to be squished, squashed, eradicated, gotten rid of. They’re irritants, pests,   etc.   And yet….they constitute a majority of animal life on Earth,  as far as sheer biomass goes, and  our global ecosystem is wholly dependent on them.  In Buzz Sting Bite: Why We Need Insects,  Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson first reviews the basics of bug biology –  what distinguishes them from other creepy-crawlers like arachnids – and how they’re built – before  reviewing their place in Earth’s complicated ballet, and human civilization.Bugs are a diverse enough group that chances are there are those you’re fond of, even if you dislike most of the rest.  Ladybugs and butterflies enjoy a wide popularity, for instance,   whereas mosquitos are universally despised.   They all have their place, though –  if only to feed the birds!  Although some gardeners may believe that the optimum number of insects in their garden is Absolutely None, the truth is more complicated – and   it should be considered before turning one’s food plots into a chemical biohazard.  Insects are not stock villains: they prey on one another, for instance,  and form symbiotic relationships with many ‘higher’ animals. Tree sloths, for instance,   harbor moths in their fur that create a substance the sloths rely on for nutritional value This is why sloths risk their lives and ‘waste’ their time climbing down to poop, instead of letting the ol’ feces fly airplane style.In addition to the rather important role of holding up the entire food web,  civilization relies on insects directly for many invaluable products. Silk, for instance, is produced by silkworms and honey by bees;  the study of insect parts has also informed human technology. Quite entertaining, wholly interesting, and definitely oriented toward a popular/mass audience.

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One Life at a Time, Please

One Life at a Time, Please
© 1988 Ed Abbey
204 pages

Ed Abbey’s final few years were spent in obsessive work, as he knew he was dying and wanted to make provisions for his family.  The Fool’s Progress and One Life at a Time, Please, were published in the hopes of supporting his young wife Clarke and their two children after his death. One Life is a motley collection of essays and other short nonfiction pieces, divided into three sections – Politics, Travel, and Books & Art.  “Travel” is stock Abbey – reminiscences of various hikes and river jaunts – with the exception of a memoir of his time spent in and around San Francisco, one of the few cities he doesn’t loathe entirely.  (He generally refers to them as termite-mounds, the ultimate in collectivism.) Abbey opens the  collection with three of his more controversial pieces, one denouncing western ranchers who abused public lands to range their cattle, one imploring the government to close the southern border, and another espousing his personal theory of anarchism.  Abbey was if nothing else a passionate defender of the west,  despising the distortions that rapid expansion was creating there during his forty-year tenure in Arizona and Utah.  He saw the diversion of rivers to  water the golf courses of Las Vegas,  and the damming  of beautiful spaces like Glen Canyon, and was moved to literal (if not particularly effective) violence.  His anti-immigrant stance was similarly motivated, as Abbey saw the United States as teeming with too many people as it was,   and in no need of newcomers whose treatment of the land was even more severe than the Anglos. The last section closes the book with a bang, especially his tribute to the freelance writer, who by virtue of being independent carried the obligation to speak his mind freely, without deference to either authority or public opinion.  He was evidently an enormous fan of Solzhenitsyn, referring to him as a personal hero — along with Thoreau and Tolstoy. Although the collection as a whole is not one of Abbey’s strongest (Desert Solitaire wins there), some of the pieces are so particularly interesting that it’s well worth seeking out.

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