Tag Archives: books

Literary Flu

The highest compliment I can give a book is to say it gave me a case of “literary flu”. You know the ailment, right? You start reading a book, and its time to go to work, but you just don’t feel good. Something aches… or twitches. Getting dressed just seems like too much effort. You might be coming down with something! YOU don’t want to be the bad guy who brings Chicken flu or whatever to the office… Better stay home!

So you make tea, call out sick and nestle up with that book… And somehow, next day, you’re fine!

What books have had this kind of impact on me? Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier. Anathem by Neal Stephenson. A good friend succumbed to Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. And the last book in the Harry Potter series.

I’m reading such a book right now. Watch for details in a few days! And leave a comment if you want to recommend a book that gave you a case of LITERARY FLU!

“Ceremonial Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

I don’t often read two works by the same author back to back. After reading Living at the End of Time, I wondered why John Mitchell’s earlier book Ceremonial Time (1984) was described as a “cult classic”. It didn’t take me long to figure it out.

At its most obvious, Mitchell’s description of his Native American friends and their ritual dance was intriguing and, to me, unexpected. He develops a definition of “ceremonial time” as a condition when people or things from different eras can in some fashion coincide or overlap, and discusses his experiences of this.

In more prosaic historical terms, Mitchell describes the ecological and human conditions on his chosen square mile of Massachusetts from the end of the last Ice Age to the present. Although he resists much of the contemporary change he describes (highways, shopping malls, businesses and the loss of farmland), he gradually accepts them as a small glitch in a long pattern.

It’s when Mitchell discusses “the future” that I really accepted that this book is thirty years old. Much of “the future” he spoke of has arrived. And no doubt Mitchell has adapted to the internet, cell phones and social media.

Mitchell posits several fates for his beloved neighborhood of Scratch Flats – nuclear annihilation (odd that we don’t think about that much in 2014), the asphalt apocalypse (my term, not his), tribalism with a modern twist, and the return of the Ice Age. After all, geologic history suggests that this in an interglacial era. In 1984, he had not apprehended the threat of global warming.

Would he have considered global warming if he had written in 1994? In 2004? I don’t know. When did I “pick up” on it? I often claim foreknowledge based on having watched the movie “Our Mister Sun” in 1960. I studied atmospheric chemistry in the 1970s, but that was oriented towards protecting the ozone layer and understanding photochemical smog. The climate impact of carbon dioxide was not on our agenda.

When did I BELIEVE that global warming would hit hard in my lifetime? Some time between five and ten years ago. And I am, after a fashion, both a scientist and an environmentalist.

Mitchell is an environmentalist and a story teller. He has important things to say in either idiom.

Book Source – Paul Dry Books

I don’t normally select books according to their publishers – indeed, I could rarely tell you who published a book I am reading. I met Paul Dry (of Philadelphia) a decade ago, shortly after he founded Paul Dry Books (PDB). PDB is a very small publishing firm that puts out whatever books strike Paul Dry’s fancy, at the rate of ten or a dozen per year.

Some of Dry’s selections are interesting, relatively obscure books that have gone “out of print”, a status that may be diminishing as the reach of Amazon.com and other mega-suppliers extends. Others are translations. The author list is eclectic in the extreme. The most published author is the very prolific Eva Brann, whose books are so scholarly that I have not actually finished even one of them.

I’ve fared much better with Paul Dry’s fiction selections, like His Monkey Wife and The Summer House – a Trilogy. I also enjoyed Nat Hentoff’s memoir, Boston Boy.

In a world of mega-corporations, bookstore chains, electronic publishing and giant publishing “houses”, it’s refreshing to come across a company as independent and quirky as Paul Dry Books. I’m putting several of his books onto my Christmas list and struggling with my conscience over the possibility of downloading some of his authors onto my Kindle (from Amazon).

Book Source – Recent History (Mine!)

I just recognized an important category of books for me! These are books about the “history” of my lifetime.

Insight: Just because I lived through something, that doesn’t mean I understand it in any depth. Yes, I may have memories, but they are fragmentary and I should be careful of using them as a basis for conclusions. I was a child in the fifties, a teenager and college student in the sixties, etc.

This insight was triggered by reading Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides, about the manhunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King in 1968. I’ll post a review shortly, with some comments on my (personal) memories of that terrible event.

Here are some reviews in this blog that cover history I “experienced” first hand:

  • “The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America” by James Peterson. Blog post dated June 3, 2013. Current commentators treat the sixties as some kind of joke! But serious things happened.
  • The John F Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, in which I saw the exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that scared me half to death. Blog post dated January 1, 2014
  • “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel and “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer (posts dated November 15 and November 21, 2013). I’m trying to understand the wars we have been (and are) fighting in the Middle East.

Now that I’ve recognized this need, I will be watching for books that explain the world I lived in, and which (for better or worse) I leave to my children.

“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.

My Kindle Died

My Kindle died! Maybe I killed it. I took it almost everywhere, and that included camping on Memorial Day weekend. A thundershower was closing in and we tossed everything under a convenient canopy before taking shelter in my brother-in-law’s Jeep.

My Kindle did NOT get wet! Damp, perhaps… But more likely it got torqued. It was in a bag full of miscellaneous food items… Do not pack your Kindle with canned goods. Half the screen was frozen with black streaks. Turning it off and back on and other interventions accomplished no improvement.

I shouldn’t complain. My Kindle was showing wear. I bought it three years ago, and found it wonderful for travel. Yes, I need six books for a week at the beach. Maybe more. I also appreciated the instant gratification of shopping in the Kindle store and the convenience of not having to remember to drive to a library. (I patronize several, none actually in my daily orbit.)

I was just plain shocked to be interrupted mid-book. For two or three days I compensated by writing in my journal. It’s not as if my house is short of books, but many fall into some inconvenient category –

  • already been read
  • reflecting someone else’s interests
  • I’m supposed to be interested but I’m not
  • purchased by mistake
  • given by someone with good intentions…

You know what I mean. Finally I yanked down a copy of Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith. Great for bedtime or the odd moment when eating lunch. Pratchett’s wacky humor stands up pretty well. I wish I had a copy of The Wee Free Men.

After a week or so, I snapped out of my funk and ordered a new Kindle, a Paperwhite, the kind that lights up. I also found a stack of relatively new, unread books, and settled down with some good journalistic non-fiction. Stay tuned for a blog entry shortly. And a connoisseur’s evaluation of the Kindle Paperwhite!

“Rosemary Cottage” by Colleen Coble

Beach reading… you know, the not-quite-trashy romantic novels you read to relax…

This book had the advantage of a beach setting, a town called Hope Beach, much like Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  A man and a woman have died a few weeks apart, apparently accidentally. But a relative believes there was foul play, and the fun begins. The story pivots around a baby, a pretty year-old girl named Raine, daughter of the deceased woman. Raine is kidnapped, and the tension rises. Ultimately, Raine survives and her uncle/guardian finds the woman of his dreams to complete their family.

If you dislike politicians, you will savor the downfall of the bad guy, who fathered Raine and would not acknowledge her. Add blackmail and the plot thickens.

Good fun, when you are in the right mood.

When I want to read fiction set in North Carolina, I usually turn to Margaret Maron, whose “Bootlegger’s Daughter” series, less “romantic” and more oriented towards criminal mysteries, has kept my attention for years.