Book Review: Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer

Book Review: Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer

Nonfiction: Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer

This is a delightful, funny, and soon-to-become indispensable guide to writing in American English. Benjamin Dreyer has been a copy editor for Random House for more than 20 years. He has worked with numerous authors during that time, authors who appreciate both his attention to detail and his care for their voices being heard through their prose. Dreyer’s English finds that precarious balance as well: it advocates boldly for correct usage and grammar, while also recognizing that style and voice can occasionally transcend the “rules” of English.

 

Dreyer has a delightful sense of humor. I have long suspected that “only godless savages eschew the series comma;” he proudly calls out this travesty of omission. Many of the funnier statements are found in the footnotes which festoon almost every page, and which are required reading to fully appreciate the wonders of this book.

 

Dreyer’s English is divided into two sections. “The Stuff in the Front” includes “Rules and Nonrules,” “67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation,” and “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing.” This is where the meat and potatoes of improving writing can be found. Not all of his rules and suggestions will be universally acclaimed, a fact which he sometimes gleefully admits himself. He also looks at the numerous differences between British and American styles of writing and punctuation. A British author might write, ‘the book says, “quotes work thusly”’. In America we would argue, “the book says, ‘quotes work thusly.’” (The tendentious word “thusly,” punctuated in true American style, is my own example) Dreyer is not arguing that one is better than the other. He is simply acknowledging they are different, and those of us who occasionally read books from the other side of the pond may sometimes find ourselves mixing our styles capriciously. These and many other warnings can help the careful writer avoid simple mistakes that would distract a reader from the heart of the text.

 

“The Stuff in the Back” includes lengthy lists of misspelled words, “Peeves and Crotchets,” and other things that occasionally catch even the best writers off guard (and occasionally pass by even the most circumspect of copy editors). This section can be read through, but might also be seen as more of a reference companion. It continues with his delightfully unabashed approach to language as something that is fun and should be enjoyed, and not at all as a list of reasons that show you really should have stopped writing after Remedial English 001. (Though randomly popping in the word “really” is one of the no-nos he warns against, so maybe I need to revisit that class myself.)

 

In fact, nothing in this book is meant to brow-beat the aspiring author. Dreyer enjoys English. And he wants you to enjoy it, too. He rails against rules that choke creative writing, such as the rule against starting a sentence with the word “and” as I did the one before this. Dreyer cautions against usages that confuse or belabor; he encourages tight and taut sentences that communicate well. He supports the use of semicolons. Nowhere, though, does he belittle or demean authors who struggle with the applications of these rules. They are the reason copy-editors are necessary, right?

 

Dreyer’s English is a book every aspiring author should buy. It has a place on your desk and will find a place in your heart. You will use it, you will refer back to it again and again, and you will wish that Benjamin Dreyer could be your copy editor when that day comes for you to publish your own work. My hope is that I will find someone who has a copy of this book on her desk.

Also see the book review:

The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English, Lynne Murphy

 

Book Review: Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer

The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

Book Review: The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

Nonfiction: The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

When Matt Ridley titled his book The Evolution of Everything, he really wasn’t kidding. From the scientific to the social to the technological, Ridley examines how things develop from the bottom up rather than the top down. His arguments are compelling, his research is exhaustive, and his language is sharp. I cannot say he fully persuaded me in every particular, but his writing is worth reading and deserves serious consideration.

 

Evolution obviously refers to the Darwinian model of species origin and development, but as a word, “evolution” is much broader. Things “evolve” when they come to pass gradually, organically, without an external mechanism guiding and shaping the development. That is, of course, both the power and the controversy behind Darwin’s theory, that life arose and developed on this planet without divine origin or explanation. But many other things have also evolved in this broader definition, things that may not always first seem to have done so.

 

Language may be the best example. When students are taught a foreign language, emphasis is on learning “the rules” of the language and memorizing vocabulary. As I can attest from my own attempts to study other languages, this method has limitations. But that is neither how languages developed, nor is it how they are best learned. Toddlers learn languages naturally and almost intuitively. My granddaughters do not know nouns from verbs, they cannot give you the forms of “to be,” they are not ready for the NY Times crossword puzzles (I’ll get them there someday, I hope!). But they are learning English to communicate. They can tell us when they are hungry and thirsty and happy and sad and sick and silly. Their vocabularies are growing almost daily (they are ages 1 and 3 as I write this) and they love to have things read to them. This is an evolutionary process, and it is working with them as it works with toddlers around the world in their own languages. Someday they may sit in a classroom and stare at a book trying to sort der, die, und das. But the process will never be as natural as the one they are involved with right now.

 

I am not as libertarian as Ridley is, so some of his statements ran counter to my own deeply held beliefs. His thoughts on government run health systems were interesting to me as an American. I am not certain all of his fellow countrymen are as skeptical of the UHS as he is, and I am absolutely certain that most Americans are not as enamored with our own system as he seems to be. I will certainly grant, though, that we have no consensus on what we should do differently, but there are not a lot of Americans whom I know that would argue our decentralized system works well for the poor. Similarly his statements on education seem to give much more credence to private education working for all than what seems likely, although he does cite many examples. But those philosophical differences do not change my admiration for his intellect or his research. I am simply not convinced that there is no place for government in assuring that the poorest among us get access to health care, education, and other benefits of society.

 

I also do not think his lumping global warming/climate change in with religious belief is warranted. I get the point he was making, that there can be a kind of messianic fervor among those who are concerned by the changes we are making to the earth, but when 97% of those who have studied the subject directly are in broad agreement with the science and its conclusions, then the counter views of those who are not climate scientists should be met with skepticism. In his chapter on the origins of life, Ridley mocks those who are not biologists, paleontologists, etc. who question the evolution of life, yet in his chapter on religion(?) he lends support to those who are not climate scientists who question the views of climate science. That seems inconsistent to me.

 

I will freely admit, though, that I am a blogger, not a scientist. And Ridley’s arguments throughout the book are researched, compelling, well written, and thoughtful. I thoroughly recommend the book, not because I agree with everything in it, but because it made me think and to reevaluate my own opinions. I never want to just hold an opinion because that’s what I’ve always believed, or that’s what the last person I read thought about something. Ridley does not let thoughts go unexamined. If you want a book that makes you think, The Evolution of Everything is a great place to start.

Book Review: The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine; Emily Bernard

Book Review: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard

Nonfiction: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard

Black Is the Body is an extraordinary book. It is a collection of first-person essays by Emily Bernard, essays that tell a story of being black in America. It is as close to perfect as any book I have ever read. Bernard exquisitely describes her experience of being black in a white world. Her prose is both beautiful and painful, compelling and chilling and heartwarming. After reading it, I have a better appreciation for both how much we have in common through our shared humanity, and how distant we are because of the experiences our skin color creates.

 

Emily Bernard is a writer and professor at the University of Vermont. She has brown skin. She is what we Americans in our racial fixation deem to be “black.” Vermont is the second whitest state in the US. She is married to a white man, and together they have twin daughters, adopted from Ethiopia. Growing up in the south, educated at Yale, living in Vermont, Bernard is perhaps uniquely positioned to comment on race in America. In this collection of essays, functionally a memoir, she does so with wisdom and compassion and grace and fire.

 

Bernard starts with an essay about being stabbed. She was one of six victims in a coffee shop assault while studying at Yale University. She was not singled out, she was not stabbed because she was black. She was simply there and was one of the victims of a man whose mind was sick. The physical effects of the stabbing have stayed with her for years and have required subsequent surgeries to deal with scar tissue and other issues. In some ways, the emotional effects have never left. The event became a watershed for her, an opportunity to deal with physical trauma and pain openly. This allowed her to deal with other emotional traumas, traumas more common than being a victim of violence. Some of these traumas relate specifically to being black in America.

 

Her husband was driving her parents’ car during a family trip in the south. One of the tires went flat. Her father wanted to continue along until they reached a gas station in the next town. Her husband insisted on pulling over to the side of the road and replacing the tire with the spare himself. Neither of them was wrong. The difference in opinion on what to do had everything to do with race. Her husband recognized the danger of driving on a flat tire. Her father recognized the danger of being a black family stranded on the side of the road. Both dangers were equally real. The tire was fixed and the trip continued, but the experience deeply affected all of them.

 

Bernard teaches at a university that has mostly white students in a state that has a mostly white population. In her classes she sometimes addresses the use of what we euphemistically call “the ‘n’ word.” Most of her white students cannot bring themselves to say the word aloud, either omitting it even while reading text where it’s used or substituting that clunky phrase: “the ‘n’ word.” (Nor will I write it here.) The power that word has is both revealing and concealing. Do we (whites) refuse to use it because we are not racist? Do some of us at least refuse to use it because we are racist but try to hide that behind our woke vocabulary?

 

Bernard’s children live in a town with few other children who look like them. She expresses pride, amazement, and fear that they have no fear of white people. A friend tells her, that’s because they live in a home where a white person loves them. Another friend tells her, you are my only black friend. These are experiences that I will never have. They are feelings I can only experience vicariously. Bernard has given her readers a gift: seeing the world from a different perspective. This is not a memoir of rage or a call to overthrow existing power structures. This is an invitation to walk with her, to see the world through different eyes, to know what it’s like to receive hate mail because you’re different, to have people stare at you in the grocery store, to hear a friend comment at the dark ring a young black man left in her bathtub and wonder whether she thought it was dirt or whether she thought it was something else.

 

Read this book. Whatever race you identify with, Black Is the Body will speak to you. There is pain, there is hope, there is tolerance and understanding and anger and brilliant writing. Emily Bernard has given us the gift of herself, of her memories, of her stories, of her life. It is a precious gift indeed.

Book Review: Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine; Emily Bernard

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

Nonfiction: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

 

I have read books that deeply affected me, books that I believe changed the way I saw the world, that gave me insight into myself or society, that taught me new words and concepts and facts. Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane did all of that for me, but also did something that no other book has inspired me to do.

 

I wrote poems.

 

I have written poetry for awhile, though I don’t flatter myself that publishing houses are waiting breathlessly for my submissions. But I have never read a book that made me put it down and write out a poem inspired by the thoughts and images of the book. Landmarks did this to me, twice.

 

Landmarks is a unique, special book that is a love letter to Britain, to the land, to the English (and related) languages, and to the people of the land. It is a review of books, a celebration of authors, a review of landscapes, a celebration of life. It is a collection of words, a “word-hoard,” a series of glossaries, and a resurrection of dead and dying words. MacFarlane has worked with authors and others around the country to gather words that describe places and (yes) landmarks, words that are falling into disuse in our increasingly urban and indoor culture. Even children’s books and dictionaries are dropping words like “dandelion” and “kingfisher” in favor of words reflecting online and networked realities. This loss of language comes with other, more ineffable losses.

 

My city condo backs up to a park which has some wildlife, including woodchucks (large rodents also called groundhogs). One wandered into our road when I was driving home, but decided upon seeing my car that it wanted to go back to the park. I had never noticed the small gap in the shrubbery, but the woodchuck dove through it with alacrity and familiarity. A few days later, reading Landmarks, MacFarlane introduced the word “smeuse,” which is defined as a small gap in a hedge or wall used by animals. Now, I cannot drive along that section of road without looking at the smeuse and thinking of my visitor. I did not know that word was missing from my life; now I am thrilled to have it and the accompanying memories.

 

Each chapter introduces one or more authors who wrote elegiacally about the land and its inhabitants, flora, fauna, and features. Some of the authors are deceased, some are living, some are (or were) friends of MacFarlane, others are known to him only through their words. Each chapter also includes a lengthy glossary of terms related to the chapter, words relating to moors, to highlands, to water, etc.

 

Landmarks is a beautiful book that dances lyrically with language and with the landscapes. It is one that is inspiring, lovely, and one that I hope to return to again and again when I am looking for new ways to see familiar things.

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

The Library Book

Nonfiction: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

I read The Library Book without knowing a lot about it. For instance, I had no idea that author Susan Orlean was such a wonderful observer of humanity. She describes a patron in “one of the carrels in history, a man in a pin-striped suit who had books on his desk but wasn’t reading held a bag of Doritos under the lip of the table. He pretended to muffle a cough each time he ate a chip.”

 

I did not realize how passionate she was for libraries in general. She describes them as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality, in the library, we can live forever.”

 

The Library Book focuses on a singular event in the life of one library. The 1986 fire in the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library destroyed literally millions of books, microfiche, photographs, magazines, and other documents and records. Much of the damage was irreplaceable. The event itself did not get the national publicity warranted for a simple reason: it occurred on the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Still, it was the largest library fire in US history.

 

Orlean spends a lot of time looking at the possible cause of the fire, the effects, the aftermath, and the person ultimately blamed for starting the fire (he was never formally charged due to a lack of evidence). But she also looks at the history of the library and of libraries in general, and brings the story to the present and the future of libraries.

 

I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I am a sucker for libraries, and the library branch she mentions early in the book, Studio City, is very few miles from the North Hollywood branch we patronized during our brief sojourn in Los Angeles. Even though we lived in LA while they were rebuilding the main branch after the fire, I do not recall being fully aware of the devastation of the fire, so this book taught me a lot about a library in a town I lived in during the time frame when I lived there.

 

More than libraries, though, I am a sucker for a great book. This is a wonderful, amazing book. Susan Orlean’s choice of characters, her spot-on descriptions, and her engaging storytelling style makes this read more like a novel than a nonfiction narrative. I could read this book again and again, and probably get more out of it each time I started.

 

Some of the characters are the leaders of the LA Public Library. One of the leaders literally walked to Los Angeles from Ohio! After becoming the head of the library, he became known for his passionate advocacy for the library, his zeal in expanding the library’s collection and services…and his messy affairs which led to his divorce. In the early 1900s, this made news headlines, even in LA. A future librarian was so keen on reading that she advised people to fib their way out of social engagements so they could instead stay home and read a novel in a single gulp “like a boa constrictor.”

 

Apparently in Senegal the polite way to refer to someone’s passing is to say, “his or her library has burned.” Their stories have ended, their chapters are closed. What a beautiful and appropriate metaphor! The Library Book is full of bon mots like that. Not many nonfiction books can make you laugh and cry and sigh and feel better about life after reading them. Susan Orlean has accomplished all of that and more.

 

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We of www.scintilla.info LOVE libraries, especially our local library, www.schlowlibrary.org. Almost every book we’ve reviewed has been borrowed from Schlow and is part of their collection. Like every library we’ve ever visited, they have helpful friendly people, they know almost everything, and they can put their hands on any book you would ever need or want.

 

Read more books about books and libraries:

Booklist: Books about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Book Series Review: The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 

Book Review: The Mortal Word (Book 5 of The Invisible Library Series), Genevieve Cogman

Quote: The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library. Albert Einstein

Quote: Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. Walter Cronkite

Quote: Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future. Ray Bradbury

 

The Library Book

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Book Review: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

Book Review: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

Nonfiction Natural Sciences: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

 

“A turkey vulture is a perfect creature.” The opening line of the main text captures the entire premise of the book. The subtitle to Vulture is a bit misleading: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Katie Fallon herself belies it. She loves vultures. Turkey vultures, black vultures, old world, new world, condors and gryphons and buzzards and any other name you care to give them.

 

That is not to say they are the easiest birds to love. Although their colors can be beautiful, their habit of eating by plunging their heads into open carcasses can be off-putting. And although there are no documented cases of vultures harming humans and very few credible stories of vultures going after live prey at all, birds which attack aggressors by hissing and projectile vomiting at them are less highly regarded than those which simply tweet assertively.

 

None of these things dissuades Fallon, though, who has a vulture friend named “Lew,” and who buys vulture onesies for her daughters, and who has traveled extensively studying vultures around the US and beyond. Fallon unabashedly loves vultures, and after reading this book, maybe I do, too.

 

Vulture was chosen for the Centre County (PA) Reads program, an effort to have as many people as possible in our county read the same book. I will admit, I was not entirely sure why the book was chosen before reading it. Now, I can see the choice was inspired. Katie Fallon has local roots. A Pennsylvania resident for much of her life (now living in next-door West Virginia), Fallon is a Penn State University graduate. Apart from the local connections, the book itself is beautifully written and deeply thoughtful. Each chapter starts with a short essay written from the perspective of a vulture. These are done without anthropomorphizing the animals. She does not attempt to interpret their emotions. Rather, she writes about more basic feelings: hunger, cold, wind. After these short essays come chapters that go into depth on the vultures themselves, on her life as a birder, on her work with her husband in caring and rehabilitating injured birds, and on her family’s fascination with these creatures. She includes carefully worded essays that are very pro-hunting but anti-lead-ammunition, explorations of the dangers posed by chemicals in mammals to the birds which eat their carcasses, and celebrations of the work being done by scientists who are studying the migratory patterns and other behaviors of these birds.

 

Although turkey vultures are doing very well right now, other vulture species around the world are threatened and endangered. Most notably, the California condor population had fallen to 27 individuals before unprecedented species recovery efforts began. The population is now up to several hundred, but that is still an extremely small number of birds and there are no guarantees it is a sustainably stable population. Without human help, the condor population would quickly die. Of course, without humans they would not have almost gone extinct to begin with, so there is an argument to be made that we bear responsibility to fix what we’ve broken.

 

Fallon includes a number of personal and family anecdotes in the book, some of which are quite funny. Her efforts to see a vulture named “Jennie” take her to an elementary school and to the edge of an Air Force bombing range, where she ultimately decides that jumping the fence and dodging rattlesnakes and unexploded ordnance might not be the best course of action. Part of this decision was the potential for the headline, “Mother arrested…,” which fortunately remains unwritten outside of her book (and now this review). She does not actually cross the fence.

 

Fallon concludes her book with a number of steps that individuals can take to help preserve and protect vultures. Most importantly is a decision by hunters to eschew lead ammunition. Katie Fallon is pro-hunting and pro-gun. However, lead bullet fragments are poisonous to vultures. “Gut piles” are a valuable and vital source of food for wild vultures, but when they are contaminated by lead, they become deadly, especially to their chicks. Although I am not a hunter, this seems like a reasonable and doable request, and I would hope that hunters would take this concern seriously.

 

Vulture is a very good book for any independent readers who love animal stories, though the youngest readers might find some of the scientific vocabulary challenging. Anyone who enjoys animals and natural history stories will appreciate the personal and scientific approach Katie Fallon uses to tell the story of a bird that may be underappreciated, but thanks to her cannot truly be called unloved.

Book Review: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Poetry Resource: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The subtitle of this book is telling: “How Poetry Can Teach Us about the Things in Life which Really Matter.” Joe Nutt’s book The Point of Poetry is not necessarily meant to be a textbook, but if it were, it is the textbook we all wish we had back when poetry was being taught–or so often assaulted or inflicted–back in high school or college.

 

Joe Nutt has taught poetry, and I hope he makes a second career teaching teachers how to teach poetry. He is not afraid to poke fun at poets and poetry. He says about William Blake’s “The Tyger,” “To a child just about coping with the difference between advice and advise or even have and of, spelling Tyger with a ‘y’ is just confirmation that any poet’s main mission is to sow confusion and doubt.” I wish more of my poetry classes, books, and teachers had expressed that kind of self awareness.

 

Poetry should always be taken seriously–seriously enough that we should be able to laugh at it and with it. Nutt does just that. He can laugh at the thought of “tyger” being spelled with a “y,” and in the same chapter express the wonder captured by the author of the poem. Nutt may not share Blake’s faith or mysticism, but he does share Blake’s awe of the power of the large striped cat and his wonder at the forces–natural or divine–that brought both that creature and its prey into being. No matter how one spells the beastie’s name.

 

Ultimately it is that power behind the poems that Nutt loves, and he shares his love for this power in chapter after chapter of analysis of famous and not-so-famous poems. Nutt never takes himself too seriously. He never takes poets too seriously either. If “the Bard” cannot survive a few well-aimed barbs, he is not who we think he is. But Nutt takes poetry very seriously. The power of the words is in the power of the ideas they express: love, eternity, faith, endurance, the very ordinariness of life. When a poem succeeds in taking these grand themes of life and compressing them into a few words that encapsulate those ideas, it is a magical and sensual thing worth celebrating and sharing.

 

The book does what it seeks to do very well. It is fair to point out what it does not do. It is not intended to introduce a lot of modern or new poets. Most (not all) of the writers are fairly described as dead white English guys. There are a few dead white English gals as well. Rita Dove is a notable exception, and there are others, but it is predominately English poets, and a lot of the familiar names from the canon. No book can do everything, but I would love to see a follow-up book that addresses newer poetry from poets who are more representative of other races and cultures. If you are looking for a  book that addresses the subject of poetry and provides insight into the poems featured, though, this book does that extraordinarily well.

 

April in America is National Poetry Month, and I cannot think of a better way to introduce that month than with this book. If you don’t “get” the point of poetry, read this book. If you do get the point of poetry, you will also thoroughly enjoy this book.

 

The format of the book lends itself to taking it a chapter at a time. If you wanted to skip around to see what he says about a favorite (or least favorite) poem, this is a good book for that. Reading the entire book will likely introduce you to poems and poets you’ve never known before, but even if they are all familiar Nutt’s insights will help you read them with fresh eyes. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves poetry–and to anyone who hates poetry! Read a couple of chapters at random, and I dare anyone who has not seen the beauty of poetry before to tell me they still hate it. I am sure some still would, but anyone with a brain and a heart will see the power and beauty and humor that Nutt finds in The Point of Poetry.

Joe Nutt, Author
Joe Nutt, Author

I do want to thank Joe Nutt, his publisher, and Anne Cater for an advanced copy of The Point of Poetry. I am privileged to be part of the blog tour for the launch of the book, and the only request I was given for receiving the ARC was an honest review. Since I honestly loved the book, this was a treat and a pleasure for me.

2019 Blog Tour Poetry Poster
Check out our fellow bloggers on this tour.

 

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Nonfiction: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

According to the foreword of this book, Ryan North did not write it. He found it, encased in preCambrian rock. He merely transcribed it. It looks to be a companion journal to the FC3000™ Time Machine, in the unlikely (and certainly not legally liable) circumstance of its failure, stranding the renter sometime in the deep past. Unfortunately, How to Invent Everything does not actually tell you how to invent the time machine itself–presumably for patent reasons. It does, however, provide a tongue-in-cheek guide to creating civilization from scratch whenever you find yourself. (It does help, though, to have other humans available when trying to create a society.)

 

North’s tone is breezy and conversational. How to Invent Everything is heavily footnoted and endnoted. The footnotes are often quite humorous, and are worth reading. The endnotes provide actual research and additional resources (which are not really useful if you are stuck in a time period before they were written, but they are provided just in case). Don’t let the tone of the book fool you: this is a well-documented and well-researched book that breaks down the pieces of civilization and modernity and gives at least a basic framework for replacing them.

 

The longest chapter by far, essentially a book within the book, is chapter 10: Common Human Complaints that Can Be Solved by Technology. (Reviewer’s interpretation: humans complain a lot which is why the chapter is so long.) In this chapter North gives basic details on inventing a number of technologies that would be extremely useful: water purification, plows, prophylactics, batteries, airplanes, and many, many more. Other chapters give insights into useful plants and animals, farming, basic nutrition, developing language, first aid, music, and art. The chapter on music even contains some public domain music that you can “invent” yourself and take credit for, including that timeless classic that plays during Tetris.

 

The appendices include a number of things that would be very handy for any civilization just starting out–though as he points out, many of these things actually did not develop until hundreds or thousands of years after they could have been discovered or developed. These include the periodic table, useful chemicals and how to make them, trigonometric tables, helpful numbers (e.g. pi), and the pitches of musical notes. The technology tree is fascinating–I never would have suspected that the invention of paper led directly to the stethoscope (he covers this in the book as well).

 

All in all, this is an amusing and quirky look at how the modern world came to be. He constantly pokes fun at the vagaries of invention: buttons, for example, were around for hundreds of years as decorative items before anyone thought of using them as fasteners. Some things were invented or discovered, then lost, then reinvented or rediscovered centuries later. Forceps, used to help reposition babies for birth, were kept secret for 150 years by a family of doctors who wanted to corner the market on them!

 

Somehow, despite everything, we’ve managed to get to this point in technology and communication–and apparently at some future point we will have access to a time machine and arguably could do the whole thing over again and hopefully better. If so, Ryan North’s “find” will be of immeasurable value. Until then, it is a fun and fascinating look at the building blocks of civilization.

 

If, all of a sudden, book reviews on Scintilla end and your milk is “marvinized” instead of “pasteurized,” you’ll know that I brought this book along with me using the FC3000™ Time Machine, and I used it. I hope you also enjoy “Marvin’s” Eine Kleine Nachtmusic. It should be a classic!

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Book Review: Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot

Book Review: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Memoir: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Terese Marie Mailhot is many things. A writer. A member of a First Nation who grew up on a reservation. A survivor of sexual abuse. A single parent. A foster child. Someone who has lived with mental illness, including hospitalization, pharmacological treatments, and therapy. MFA graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts. All of these things and more are told in sometimes harsh, grim, painful, honest, and raw detail in her memoir Heart Berries. This is not a memoir of triumph and conquest, “How I Overcame My Issues (And You Can, Too!).” This is a memoir of survival, a story of endurance, bereft of hope beyond making it through today.

 

Much of the book is written as a series of letters to “Casey.” Casey is revealed through these letters to be her lover, boyfriend, and father of her third child. During the course of these letters we learn about the author’s childhood, including reflections on being Indian, revelations of sexual abuse by her father, and later fleeing into a teenage marriage that produced two children and a world of heartache. The letters start when she is in the hospital for mental illness, struggling with the nature of her relationship to Casey, to the son who still lives with her, to the son who lives with his father, to her own parents, and to the world as a Native American woman.

 

As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think he may be selling both types of families short, but there is a measure of truth in the observation. Mailhot’s unhappiness stems from so many sources. Like many of us broken people, there is a degree of longing to be fixed: through medicine, through therapy, through relationships, through motherhood, through forgiveness. She recognizes, though, that some things cannot be fixed. You cannot fix sexual abuse. You cannot fix betrayal. You cannot fix failures with future successes. Time inexorably continues, and there’s no reversing course to undo the violence done to us or done by us.

 

What can be done, and what Mailhot seems to be doing, is choose to proceed. You cannot fix abuse. You can decide not to be defined by it. You cannot fix betrayal. You can decide whether or not to stay. You can decide whether or not to move forward. You cannot fix failure. You can decide to succeed in your academic pursuits, to publish groundbreaking work, to insist that your voice is worth hearing and speak your truth–however painful–into a world that too often ignores female and Native voices.

 

Heart Berries is not a book to read for comfort or solutions. There are none to be found here. This is a book, though, for honesty, for endurance, for anyone who has suffered. You’re not alone, your pain is real. Heart Berries does not offer a cheap grace or an easy victory. Instead it screams into the void, “I’m here and I matter!” The power of her voice eloquently testifies that Terese Marie Mailhot indeed is here, and matters.

Book Review: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Book Review: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Rise of the Necrofauna

Science: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Several months prior to starting Scintilla.Info, I encountered a brilliant book exploring the possibilities of restoring extinct species. When my wife proposed and began Scintilla, I immediately knew that I wanted to share this book with other readers. It has taken me a few months to get back to it, but having reread Rise of the Necrofauna I am impressed again at the depth and insight Britt Wray brings to the subject.

 

There may be two immediate reactions to the thought of restoring extinct species. The first one is, “We’ve seen this movie five times now, and it always ends badly.” Jurassic Park and its sequels is the stuff of science fiction and does not reflect the actual scientific progress undergirding the possibility of restoring more recently extinct species, but the cautionary lessons in the movies may give some people pause at the entire idea. The other immediate reaction is, “Cool! I want my own pet wooly mammoth!” Which opens up the entire question of ethics and responsibility to the process.

 

Wray’s book is quite thorough. She examines the science, and indeed the technology is getting closer to creating something that is potentially like de-extinction. Wray makes the point repeatedly that regardless of the name we may give it, we can never simply recreate extinct species. The wooly mammoth is a good example of this. Partial DNA has been recovered from frozen carcasses found in the arctic. That DNA has been degraded and corrupted, though, so any replicated DNA would necessarily require augmentation and hybridization with existing animals, most likely Indian elephants. Passenger pigeon DNA could be similarly recreated using living pigeons. But in both cases scientists are not restoring the extinct species. They are (potentially) creating new species that are very similar to the old species but not identical.

 

The other aspect to this is that a species is more than simply its DNA. Elephants are highly intelligent, with culture and behaviors passed from mother to child. Would an elephant mother reject a mammoth calf? Could a sub-tropical elephant teach a mammoth calf the behaviors needed to survive in the forests of Canada or Siberia? If not, who would?

 

Passenger pigeons used to flock in the millions, even the billions, across North America. WIthin a few years, the population collapsed and the species disappeared. There is some evidence that the passenger pigeons required a huge population to flourish, and once the population fell below that critical mass (due largely to overhunting) then the remaining birds could not longer function effectively to feed, breed, migrate, or even survive. Restoring a passenger pigeon doppelganger cannot be done in the millions; any new version of the bird would have to be able to survive with a much smaller population. Recreations might look like passenger pigeons, but they cannot fundamentally act like passenger pigeons or they would be susceptible to the same population collapse that destroyed their predecessors.

 

Numerous ethical, legal, and logistical questions would accompany any restoration. Laws differ from country to country; an animal protected as endangered in one country might be considered an illegal GMO creation in a neighboring country. What happens if that animal crosses the border? Animals shape their environment. Once they go extinct, the ecosystem adapts to the new reality. Can the new environment support the old organism? When people are involved, other questions arise. If wooly mammoths were reintroduced, for example, who would pay when they knocked over a fence? Or a truck?

 

Wray seems to have a generally skeptical view of the likelihood of de-extinction. She has serious reservations about the wisdom and morality of the effort. But she also has some very positive suggestions on ways that the technologies can be used to help save animals that are on the brink of extinction, possibly by adding diversity to small populations using DNA from preserved samples of stored carcasses, or by adding disease resistant genes to vulnerable populations. And she allows that in an age of anthropogenic mass extinction, a strong case can be made that humans have a moral obligation to try to undo some of the harm we have done.

 

Rise of the Necrofauna is not the impending arrival of Jurassic Park. Britt Wray makes it clear that there are significant limitations to what science can do, and maybe what it should do. But it might not be all bad to see thylacines roaming Tasmania again, or possibly a return of great auks to the North Atlantic.

Rise of the Necrofauna

Book Review: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray