Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Ship Fever” – stories by Andrea Barrett

Ship Fever: Stories

This is a collection. I’ve read about half the stories. Excellent! I’m postponing the title story, the longest in this anthology, until I’m ready to deal with disease and woe. Not today…

The back cover says the stories are “set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century”, but at least two are contemporary. The cover also says “…they illuminate the secret passions of those driven by a devotion to, and an intimate acquaintance with, the natural world.” Yes.

Barrett’s writing is concise to the point of compression.

“The Littoral Zone” is contemporary, it’s setting very much like a place where I have vacationed, offshore from Portsmouth, NJ. It tells the story of two scientists falling in love and dismantling their families in order to marry. It reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I appreciated its brevity.

I also especially liked “The English Pupil”, about Carl Linnaeus (creator of the binomial nomenclature we use to identify living organisms) in his old age, around the year 1775.

I read Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal: A Novel several years ago. Loved it!

I plan to read further among Barrett’s books and other short story collections.

“Cocaine Blues” – Book 1 of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (aka A Phryne Fisher Mystery) by Kerry Greenwood, 2006

This book is the first in a series of mysteries. The tone is madcap. Phryne Fischer sometimes (annoyingly) reminds me of Catherine Hepburn in the early scenes of the movie “Bringing up Baby”. A real bitch. Entitled, as we say in the year 2020. A queen of conspicuous consumption. Fortunately, there’s more to Phryne.

The book takes place in Australia during the 1920s. Two prominent themes are drugs (cocaine, mostly) and illegal abortion. Fischer tackles both, and manages to get the better of some nasty bad guys.

A great book to read when you’re in the mood for a sassy heroine.

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer

Less

I had a little trouble getting into this book, because the protagonist (Arthur Less) was agonizing over turning 50. Been there, done that, LONG ago! Fortunately there’s lots of other stuff going on. Less undertakes a journey, a literal trip around the world, to get away from a romantic break up.

One stop is Berlin, my city of dreams! Not as I knew it, but recognizable. Less thinks he speaks serviceable German, but in fact he makes all kinds of mistakes. With confidence and hand waving, he gets by. He teaches for 5 weeks at an institution that sounds like the Free University of my memories.

Greer cheerfully critiques the American gay scene. A friend tells Less that the reason he (usually) doesn’t win literary awards is not that he is a bad writer but that he is a “bad gay”. Too reflective. Not sufficiently upbeat! Less accepts the advice and gamely starts to transform his recently rejected novel into a comedy.

Returning from his trip, Less finds his old love waiting for him. Happy ending! I’m glad I found this book.

“All Hell Breaking Loose – The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change” by Michael T. Klare

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change

237 pages plus notes (69 pages) and index, 2019.

I had some difficulty reading this book, despite my very strong interest in the topic. The author, for good reasons, relies heavily on government generated reports full of acronyms and unfamiliar terminology. Maybe this is why to me, the writing seemed “flat” and dull. I was determined to read it anyway. It took me around 6 weeks. I need to return to the last chapter, “Going Green – The Pentagon as Change Agent”. I’m glad I persevered.

All Hell Breaking Loose is organized around increasing severity of military challenges, moving from humanitarian emergencies, which the military is excellently equipped (and quite willing) to handle, through three more categories of conflict (unstable states, global shocks and, most dangerous of all, great power clashes) up to domestic climate disasters and climate change threat to US military facilities. I had trouble focusing until I got to domestic climate disasters. Then I was reading about Hurricane Sandy and other storms that menaced ME and the people and places I love.

To me, the message about the future presented by this book can be summarized by one word – HARDSHIP. It will be difficult to live in a changed and changing world. Setting priorities will be challenging. Providing for human needs will be complicated. The only thing that will become easier is exploiting the resources of the far north, and already the Great Powers are bristling uneasily in the Arctic.

Complicating our understanding of the impacts of climate change is the fact that other things are changing at the same time. Two of the big things are globalization and urbanization. Globalization means America’s concept of “our interests” reaches further than before. How close are we to saying that “everything” that happens “everywhere” is America’s business?

I’m also trying to figure out how to factor in demography, the study of population, and the concept of a “demographic transition” that may be a one way street. See Empty Planet, which I wrote about on August 15, 2019. Another book I need to go back to! Recent news articles analyze the demographic transition in Japan and China.

All Hell Breaking Loose provides valuable perspective on the American military and its role in our culture. As an institution, it seems to me to be more far sighted than some other institutions, like our legislative system with its emphasis on the election cycle. Klare describes what he calls the “military’s strategic predicament”. Their job (described above as winning “great power clashes”) is to protect the US against foreign enemies by use of arms. What will happen when “too much” of the military is occupied with humanitarian emergencies and propping up failed states? What will happen when a concatenation of disasters prevents response to a serious military threat?

This book was published in 2019 but doesn’t take into account  the changes associated with the Trump presidency. Klare points out that the military has not backed off from dealing with climate change – they have simply changed their language, referring now to “extreme events”. How long will they be able to stay on this course?

Recent news articles detail a meeting held on July 20, 2017 at which US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other high officials attempted to tutor President Trump on the role of the military in foreign affairs. (See Washington Post, January 17, 2020.) The attempt failed. Trump angrily called the country’s highest military officers “dopes and babies”. “You’re all losers”, he told the generals. The meeting so shocked the participants that they agreed not to discuss it publicly, but (inevitably) information was ultimately released.

I wonder what would have happened if the meeting had been organized by Ash Carter, whose book I reviewed (twice) on November 11, 2019. I was impressed by Carter’s description of how he “managed” the announcement that all military restrictions by gender on positions and job titles were at an end. Could he have found a way to speak so that Trump would listen? I wonder what he would have recommended to the high officials who failed in “educating” the President?

As usual, I looked up author Michael Klare. He’s an emeritus professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who has written an impressive number of books and articles. Neither his Wikipedia entry or his Hampshire College website is particularly up to date. He writes for The Nation and other periodicals. He’s covered a topic I’m interested in, the issue of undeclared wars. Before All Hell Breaking Loose, he published The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources in 2012.

I recommend this book and this author to those seeking insight into our current dilemmas, both political and environmental.

“UPSTREAM – Selected Essays” by Mary Oliver

Upstream: Selected Essays

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” A friend of mine has this message tattooed on her back. It’s a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”.

When poet Mary Oliver died in January of 2019 (at the age of 83), my Facebook feed was flooded with tributes.

For Christmas this year, I asked for “UPSTREAM – Selected Essays” (2016), since I’m not a good (comfortable?) reader of poetry. In the first (title) essay, she describes wandering away from her family as a young child, wading up a stream and finding delight after delight, beauty and joy, “lost” but ecstatically happy. “I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.” Oliver’s biography describes a difficult childhood, and nature was a refuge.

Another refuge was reading. In “My Friend Walt Whitman” and “Some Thoughts on Whitman” she describes how she loved “his certainty, and his bravado” and his willingness to write about experiences that cannot be described in words, that are mystical. She also writes about Emerson and Poe.

Oliver’s reflections on “nature” emphasize relationship. In the essay “Bird” she talks about saving the life of an injured blackback gull. She knows the creature is doomed, but she keeps it alive and becomes attached to it. It is responsive. It even plays. But over time, it’s life slips away.

Some of Oliver’s work reminds me of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“The Summer Day” ends with a line that echoes in my mind. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Today I spent two hours out of doors. Not a summer day, but still good.

Climate Up Close – A New Organization

Screen Shot 2019-05-26 at 12.07.09 PM.pn

Climate Up Close is a very small, recently formed organization trying to bridge the gap between scientists and concerned citizens. It consists of 4 young scientists (two PhDs and two grad students) and a communications strategist. They’ve generated an event which they offer to community organizations. Judging from their website, I think they’ve presented their program about a dozen times. They volunteer their time and accept contributions to cover travel expenses.

I attended a presentation on January 4. It was sponsored by a religious congregation in central Philadelphia. Publicity was scanty but the turnout was high, with about 80 people in attendance. By way of introduction, comments by three prominent non-scientists (2 politicians and an author) were shown. Each was judged to be WRONG based on the best currently available science. Climate Up Close wants to improve the quality of public discourse on this topic.

In the first 45 minutes, four topics were covered:

  • The state of climate science. What’s “settled”? What’s open to question? Levels of confidence.
  • Climate Context – history
  • Climate Change – what contributes?
  • Impacts, projections and modeling – sea level rise, storm intensity, heat waves, etc. “Tipping points” and instabilities.

After this fast moving lecture, questions were solicited. The Q/A format was to collect questions, group them and then let the scientists respond. Inevitably, some concepts came up that may have strained non-scientists, like “signal-to-noise ratio” and the distinction between water vapor and water in the gas phase (atmosphere). By and large, I felt the explanations were admirably clear. The speakers resisted the temptation to branch out beyond their expertise, into fields like economics. (I wanted to ask demographic questions.)

I didn’t blow my cover, keeping my Masters level background in atmospheric chemistry to myself. Regrettably, I was unable to stay for informal discussion afterwards. I had plenty of questions.

I was accompanied by a non-scientist friend. I think she followed much of the science, but her primary reaction was enjoyment of the energy and confidence shown by the presenters.

Climate Up Close has a excellent web site, but I couldn’t find them on Facebook.

Climate Up Close is a wonderful example of how people can reach out in the public interest without a big budget or lots of organizational structure. I’m very grateful that these highly educated specialists are making the effort to talk to ALL of us.

Mary Caroline Reed Hopkins, 1928-2019

thumb

Mary Hopkins died last November. We were friends in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Two organizations were important to us. One was the Women’s Traveling Meeting, a regional Quaker group. The other was the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology, an independent Quaker group for those interested in Jungian psychology.

Both Quakerism and feminism were extensively discussed at Mary’s memorial service. Later, I remembered something about Mary that was NOT mentioned in her obituary or at the service.

For years, Mary sought to explore the nature of female identity by focusing exclusively on women.

  • She did not SPEAK TO men, other than from necessity.
  • She did not SPEAK ABOUT men. When they were the subject of conversation, she remained silent.
  • She read ONLY works by women, listened only to women’s music, studied women’s artwork.

I don’t know how long Mary immersed herself in womankind. I think I remember her saying she expected to focus on women for ten years. I never heard her reflect on it afterwards.

What an interesting and radical personal experiment!

I’ve known people who focused on a racial, ethnic or other identity group, often for the duration of a college course, or even to the extent of earning a related academic degree. What I don’t know is whether they took measures to reduce their exposure to and consumption of “mainstream” culture (which Mary regarded as wholly masculinized) while they concentrated on their chosen area of study. Some people chose to live in an identity enclave, like Little Italy or the Gayborhood. Mary lived exclusively among women for short periods, at conferences which she often spoke of as “peak experiences”. I shared in some of these wonderful events.

A social movement that arose towards the end of Mary’s life was intersectionalism. I first encountered it when African American feminists began to challenge their white feminist counterparts to examine their racial prejudices. Other populations now making their presence known include gender identity groups, handicapped advocacy groups and the elderly. I don’t know how (or if) Mary embraced these challenges.

Here is a quotation from Mary’s video Woman and Her Symbols.

“The male god of law and order, tempered by the unconditional love, nurture and creativity of the female goddess, may return us to a bountiful, beautiful and peaceful world, in which we may all fully realize that of the divine within ourselves and each other.”

Rest in Peace, Mary Hopkins. May we have the grace to listen to your advice.