Monthly Archives: August 2013

How many shades?!

I read Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Gray three years ago. At the time, all I wrote about it was that I didn’t want to live in the strange dystopia Fforde created. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? But I did look forward to the promised second book in the series, Shades of Gray 2: Painting by Numbers. It didn’t materialize, so I wasn’t able to further follow the amusing characters from Shades of Gray.

Instead, along came Fifty Shades of Gray by E L James. What’s an author to do? This book, promoted as the first of a trilogy, attracted more attention, and of a different sort, than Fforde’s fantasy novel. It is listed as being for “mature audiences” and was dubbed “Mommy porn”, whatever that means. No, I didn’t read it…

THEN what turns up (in the entertainment section of my local paper) but “Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody”! It is described as a sharp witted, satirical musical comedy which includes strip tease and audience interaction. A little web surfing revealed that it is “unauthorized” and has a cast of three. Most reviews say its funny and, like Fifty Shades of Gray, appeals mostly to women. 

I would imagine E L James is peeved, though perhaps any publicity is good publicity. I wonder if Jasper Fforde would like a parody of Shades of Grey to be produced? I certainly would! Musical comedy dashes off in all sorts of strange directions (consider “Urinetown”). 

Whatever next?!

Mr. Fforde, please release the next volume of Shades of Grey. I promise to buy it, in hardcover no less!


“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 2.

Yes, I finished this book! See my first review, dated August 9, 2013.

Hollis believes cities are more likely to save us from environmental destruction/climate change than rural approaches. I agree with him on this. Living out in the country and “off the grid” either involves a standard of living most of us wouldn’t accept, or use of all kinds of high tech gadgetry (solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, etc.) that are produced elsewhere, always at some environmental cost. And you have to own a car. Cities allow for many efficiencies, most notably that one may have a well developed social life close at hand, just because there are so many people around.

(Memory… When I went to college, I was surprised how much I enjoyed living in a dorm, and having friends – both close and casual – nearby. As a child in suburbia, I found it hard to get together with friends. A college campus is often more like a city than a suburb, despite all that grass.)

That said, I should make it clear that Hollis is ambivalent about cities, frequently citing situations gone wrong (riots, slums…) as well as examples of smart growth and strong communities. But he considers it inevitable that the human future will be largely urban. He can’t decide if cities are “organic” and sometimes self correcting, or if they must (at least some of the time) be organized from the top down.

Hollis cites so many other authors that you could spend months checking them all out. Two who intrigued me were Colin Beavan (No Impact Man) and Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking).

Beavan (and family) tried to live city life with “no impact”. He even turned off the electricity in his apartment. Ridiculous… Candles are too dangerous. He charged his computer elsewhere. How did he do laundry? And this was a one year experiment! Interesting, but not significant (to me). Doesn’t mean I won’t read it…

Shoup’s book about parking interests me much more! Hollis says he argues that parking should never be free. This issue is close to my heart. I work on a college campus. I know what parking costs – it is not free, ANYWHERE. Free parking on a college campus sends the wrong message – use your car, don’t worry about the impact. I feel like I’m seeing (once again) something I remember from the early days of recycling. Why was the “container industry” allowed to introduce the aluminum can without taking responsibility for its disposal?? Individuals and municipalities and campuses struggled so hard to deal with single use cans, while the “container industry” got rich. Whether we talk about solid waste or parking, each technology needs to be viewed as a whole process, not a one-way dash towards profit and convenience. 

However did Hollis miss John Francis (Planetwalker)??

Hollis suggests that cities (especially megacities like London or NYC or Hong Kong) will soon be more important than countries. Might this decrease the likelihood of war? In this case, what will global citizenship mean? Do I want to live in a megacity? NO! But what about my sons?

I recommend this book to people interested in the near future, climate change and planning/development. With all the talk currently heard about resilience and adaptation, that’s a lot of people.

“The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature” by D G Haskell – new environmental classic?

Is there a name for the genre of books based on deciding to do something every day for a year? Like Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell… Could we call this the “journal format”? Sometimes it’s clever, but sometimes I think the author didn’t want to make the effort of choosing a structure. I’ll give Haskell the benefit of the doubt, and say it makes sense to organize a nature book by the cycle of seasons.

Haskell decided to visit a very small, defined forest site regularly for a year. He frames this as a form of meditation and begins with a discussion of the mandala, a Hindu/Buddhist symbol representing the universe. A mandala is highly geometric and regular. Sometimes it is intentionally destroyed after a period of contemplation.

Haskell’s little patch of woods was anything but geometrical. He had access to a bit of publicly owned, old growth forest in Tennessee. Few readers would be able to find such a place. Haskell writes about what he sees and how he feels. In an extreme attempt at “participatory observation”, he sheds his clothing to experience the extreme cold of winter. I think he was surprised at how fast hypothermia set in.

So what do we learn from Haskell? He wrote three or four entries per month, discussing the plants and animals and their relationships to the larger world. It’s entertaining, but, finally, faced with a November chapter entitled “Twigs”, I gave up. I skipped to the epilogue, where he expresses his opinion that ours is a good time for naturalists, supported as they are by technology and (sometimes) public interest.

Is this book a classic? Probably not. I liked Crow Planet (L L Haupt, see my entry dated June 7, 2013) better. The city dwelling Haupt decided to take binoculars with her everywhere, in order not to miss the wildlife that is, in fact, all over the cityscape. Many of us could emulate this! I would recommend it more strongly than Haskell’s approach.

Haskell is a good read for a temperate zone nature lover who wants to brush up on forest ecology. His bibliography would support anyone who wishes to study more deeply. 

Lillian Beckwith – an English woman writes about Scotland

I was browsing my shelves, desperate to find something that could be discarded. We have too many books! We part with them very reluctantly… 

This week I am taking care of cats and house for vacationing neighbors, who have even more books than we do. I looked at their shelves and wondered – what if I moved some of my books into their house? would they notice? Probably not… A silly idea!

So maybe I will buy another bookshelf.

I found three books to consider for disposal, paperbacks from Lillian Beckwith’s seven book “Skye” series. These are almost fictional memoirs from the author’s time in the West of Scotland, where she went for rest after an illness. She was so taken by the quiet life of a croft village  that she moved in and did some farming. Her accounts of the people, agriculture and landscape are vivid and often amusing. These books have been in and out of print and I don’t think Kindle editions are available.

If in a quibblesome frame of mind, one might feel that Beckwith took advantage of her (generous and eccentric) neighbors by writing about them. However, these memoirs were written two generations ago, and I think we can assume they were innocently written and published.

These memoirs are notable because they describe “croft” farming, a land use system found only in Scotland. Crofters raise some “private” crops but pasture cattle on commonly owned land. A primary landowner (laird) carries some responsibility for the community. This is a way to use land that is too steep, too rocky and too poor for conventional farming. In the past, crofting provided a meager living. The system has evolved and is still practiced in Scotland.

Beckwith also wrote an equal number of novels, some children’s books and a cookbook. I hope to read the novels at some point. I encountered a review describing her work as a “comfort read”. Yes! Now, does anyone want these three books?

Have Kindle, will travel!

Right now I do about half my reading on my Kindle. I couldn’t do without it.

1. It can’t be beat for travel! This is most important. This summer I took two trips, one week each, to Colorado and Maine. I was under pressure to “pack light” which always seems like some weird joke, when you know you need rain gear and clothes for a wide temperature range. What a relief to load ten books onto my Kindle instead of agonizing over which to bring! I felt positively smug jumping on Amtrak with a little of every genre, romance, sci fi, etc.

2. If I get a book on Kindle, I don’t have to find shelf space for it at home. I also don’t have to get it back to the Library. 

3. My Kindle fits into my handbag. Many books are too big.

4. Kindle is light, which is great for anyone who is bed bound or has arthritic wrists.

Yes, I still love the “feel” of a book. There will always be a few special books I really must own.

I know I read “differently” on a Kindle, but for recreational reading, that’s OK. The worst drawback is the poor quality (or complete lack) of illustrations and maps. I had problems with Into the Silence by Wade Davis, which is about exploration in the Himalayas after World War I. Also, I couldn’t read the genealogy chart that came with the Anya Seton novel about which I posted on August 5.

Sometimes the Kindle books are expensive, (say $15 for a new best seller) so it’s not the best way to get the latest Janet Ivanovich novel. On the other hand, my husband and I have linked accounts, so two can read for the price of one. Classics are free or very cheap, and that includes Jane Austen! I tried getting free downloads at the Library, but the system seemed impossibly clunky. I may have asked the wrong librarian. Placed under the “hobby” category, my Kindle use is not a big expense.

My Kindle is here to stay.

“Tepper Isn’t Going Out” by Calvin Trillin – urban fiction at its very best!

Reading about cities (see previous post) caused me to grab this old favorite off the shelf. This short novel is a paean to New York City and its residents. The hero is a mild mannered businessman who develops an eccentric hobby. He hunts for and occupies parking spaces even though he rents space in a garage to avoid the endless business of moving the car from one legal spot to another. Unintentionally, he attracts attention and polarizes public opinion. In this novel, Trillin pokes fun at almost everyone. My kind of humor. Read it when you want to cheer up.

My first exposure to Trillin was his book Alice, Let’s Eat, which left me weak with laughter. Now he writes satirical political verse for The Nation. Thank you, Calvin Trillin, for years of wonderful writing!

“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 1.

I’ve read 4 of 11 chapters in this book. Both my sons live in cities, and here I sit in the countryside… I’ve never lived in an American city. I remember my months in Berlin (inside the Wall) with special fondness. I know the arguments in favor of higher density living, but cities make me nervous.

One of Hollis’s opening arguments pertains to “second tier” friends. He says city and country people have about the same number of “first tier” friends and relatives, the people with whom we work, play and live. But he asserts that city folks have more “second tier” friends – former colleagues, acquaintances, casual contacts, slightly known neighbors – and these people improve the quality of life. Evidently this can be documented in the job search arena. 

Hollis moves on to discuss the city as a hive, and there, I think, violates logic. He references ant biologist E O Wilson (again! see my post of August 1) in a discussion (over my head) of complexity theory. A few pages later, Hollis casually informs us that a bee hive is a “democracy”. What?! The concept of “democracy” is so saturated with political and sociological assumptions that applying it to an insect (no bones, not much brain, etc.) is just wacko. It’s like hearing someone announce that they are going out to milk the cow, then seeing them walk off with a full set of welding tools. It’s not going to work…

So, who else turns up in Hollis’s book? He disliked Robert Moses, who so shaped (deformed?) New York City. I agree with him, but that’s based only on the Robert Caro biography of Moses. (New York City makes me particularly anxious…)

Hollis is uncritically approving of Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, NJ. I am reserving my opinion on Booker, and Newark for that matter. (I’ve been there just once.) I wonder if Hollis was surprised at Booker’s Senate candidacy.

Hollis devotes an interesting chapter to creativity, using that term to apply broadly, to arts, technology and innovation in general. He discusses, with many examples, how cities re-invent themselves, which often seems to involve arts or information science. When it works, is it because someone made and implemented a good plan, or is it because the right number of bright, high energy people were in the same place at the same time? Does it happen from the bottom up, or the top down? Do professional planners and architects help or hinder? I know some artists with whom I want to discuss this.

I decided to take a break from reading and write about this book now, because it’s so full of ideas I may not be able to keep them all straight. More to follow…

“Katherine” by Anya Seton

This historical novel was published in 1954. Many other writers of historical fiction followed in Seton’s footsteps. Philippa Gregory comes to mind. 

The “Katherine” in question was Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John Of Gaunt,  Duke of Lancaster, late 1300s. John was the third son of England’s Edward III and ancestor of future kings and other nobility. His wealth and influence were staggering.

Katherine came from a much more modest background, and the fact that her children, born illegitimate, scaled the heights of nobility and power was surprising. Seton added interest to her fictional account by including real historical figures like Geoffrey Chaucer and Julian of Norwich.

So what’s the point of historical fiction, aside from keeping me entertained on rainy days? Seton tries hard to convey life in a highly stratified, pre-scientific society. The role of the church was crucial. Omens, astrology. folk wisdom and superstition made for a heady mix.

Seton takes her time developing characters. I enjoyed this book and recommend to reader’s of romance novels who are ready for a little more depth.


Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences by Richard Pryor with Todd Gold

This is a sad book. Pryor was lucky to have survived his childhood. He was never educated in a way that took advantage of his high intelligence. And he made the same mistakes (about substance abuse and relationships) over and over and over.

One of the most positive events in Pryor’s life was his trip to Kenya in 1979, instigated by a psychiatrist who wanted him to see Africa, “the origin of the world’s beauty”. He was bowled over by the people, the landscape, the wildlife. 

“I left enlightened…I also left regretting ever having uttered the word ‘nigger’ on stage or off it. …Its connotations weren’t funny, even when people laughed. To this day I wish I’d never said the word…And so I vowed never to say it again.”

This change was misunderstood and rejected, to the extent that he became the target of death threats. Only a year later, Pryor set himself on fire in a grisly suicide attempt.

I recommend this book to those who study addiction, to anyone seeking insight about race in America and to people interested in comedy and comedians.


Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

This is a “big” book – it covers Chagnon’s long career and deals with big ideas – including culture, science and professional standards. It’s also a long book, but it held my interest. I remember seeing one of the early popular articles based on Chagnon’s field work when I was a teenager. Was it in National Geographic? I was intrigued.

So why, 35 or 40 years later, did my friends seem so surprised that I was reading a book about anthropology? After all, I took an anthropology course in college (just one). Didn’t we all read Margaret Meed and fantasize about running off to Samoa? 

So much can be said about this book. First, Chagnon asserts his identity as a scientist and rejects “advocacy” as the proper role of the field anthropologist. 

I’m struck by the fact that the Yanomamo culture was/is so “successful”. These people, who only rather recently came into contact with the wider world, lived lives we might consider violent and “dirty” (I simplify here), but they fed themselves, were possessed of language, myths and goods, and their population was slowly increasing. Chagnon spent time recording genealogies and observing changes that occurred as group size increases.

The Yanomamo had no particular reason to help or even tolerate anthropologists. In some sense, all information was “purchased” with trade goods, ranging from fish hooks to machetes. Chagnon formed friendships that ranged beyond the mercenary, in some cases extending for decades. He worked under rigorous and often dangerous conditions.

The possibility for trouble during contact between staggeringly different cultures always looms. Chagnon explores and documents two deadly issues – firearms and measles. 

Chagnon’s difficulties in getting along with others in his profession provide an interesting window on growth and change in the social sciences. He describes the extent to which his colleagues clung to preconceptions. Many were unwilling to accept his assertion (based on years of observation) that the Yanomamo fought over WOMEN (not over resources needed for subsistence). They considered his characterization of the Yanomamo as “fierce” to be inaccurate and prejudicial, although he was quite certain they would have felt complimented.

I was surprised to find extensive discussion of E O Wilson’s Sociobiology, which burst on the academic scene while Chagnon was fighting with his fellow anthropologists. Chagnon and Wilson both use the scientific method and evolutionary theory to investigate what it means to be “social”. 

If you are interested in how social sciences are taught in American colleges, you should read this book. If you like lively autobiography, don’t miss it.