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, Susan Orlean

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

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

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

Quote: At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good. Barack Obama

 

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

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

Book Review: Invisible,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Nonfiction History/Biography: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is a novelist and a law professor at Yale. That is quite impressive all by itself. But he comes from a family with multiple luminaries, perhaps none that shone brighter than his grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter. In his biography of his grandmother, Invisible, Carter tells the story of a woman who should never be forgotten.

 

Eunice Hunton was born to remarkable parents. Her father was revered for his work with the YMCA, loved so deeply that upon his passing young men across the country lit candles and met together to mourn his loss. Her mother traveled through Klan areas in the south to organize black women. It is little wonder that Eunice grew up with a strong sense of purpose and confidence.

 

She grew up in a time, though, when opportunities for African Americans were scarce and for women were even scarcer. Still, she earned her law degree and began working for Thomas Dewey in the NYC District Attorney’s office during the 1930s. Dewey had 20 assistants working with him to take down infamous mob leader “Lucky Luciano.” Nineteen of them were white males. The other was Eunice Hunton Carter.

 

Luciano was the chief mob boss in NYC after the murder of Dutch Schultz, a murder that quite probably was ordered by Luciano himself. Almost any organized crime in the city tied back to him one way or another. Eunice Carter realized that this included prostitution. Years before, prostitution was not organized. Then, some people began “booking” the prostitutes. This helped keep the “girls” out of jail by moving them around from place to place, and because these “bookers” were responsible for more women they could spend more to buy lawyers and pay bribes to police and judges. Eunice had become aware of this growing trend during her work with the Women’s Court prior to joining the DA’s office, and she requested permission from Dewey to look further into it to determine whether the Combination (as the prostitution conspiracy ring was known) reached all the way to Luciano. Dewey was skeptical and reluctant at first, but Carter was persistent. He finally agreed, and Carter began to make the case. At first she was alone in her work. She soon found enough evidence that a second attorney joined her. Eventually, almost the entire team was working the Combination angle, and eventually Luciano was brought up on prostitution related charges. He was found guilty.

 

The most powerful mobster in America was brought to trial and convicted because of the persistence and acute legal mind of one person. An African-American woman. In the 1930s.

 

Carter continued working in the DA’s office for many more years, and also became active in Republican politics. She campaigned vigorously for her mentor, Dewey, in his rise within New York and the US political scene. She held multiple leadership positions in both US and international groups advocating for expanded rights for women and for people of color. She was friends with leaders in politics, entertainment, sports, and advocacy, especially those in the “darker” America (Stephen Carter’s term). She was also a leader of Harlem’s “sassiety,” wealthy (and according to the author, snobbish) African American women who were among the elite of New York’s black cultural and business life.

 

Carter’s biography is powerful, affectionate, but also open-eyed. He does not shy away from his grandmother’s faults. She apparently was an indifferent mother, she could be insensitive to others, her marriage suffered, she held grudges, and she was extremely driven. These very human failings, though, do not obscure the fact that she did extraordinary things during a time when blacks, and especially black women, were dismissed, demeaned, ignored, and forgotten.

 

Carter is also clear about why she was forgotten by history. There are obvious answers: she was a black woman whose heyday came in the 1930s and 1940s. Black women today still struggle to get appropriate recognition for their accomplishments, especially when those accomplishments come in areas considered the purview of white men, such as law. But there were less obvious reasons as well, which Carter gives appropriate consideration to. Eunice Hunton Carter’s brother, Alphaeus, was a known communist. It is highly possible that his communist sympathies derailed his sister’s ambitions for political advancement or a judgeship. (He was arrested and served some time in jail, and eventually fled the US and lived the rest of his life in Africa.) Eunice’s personality also led to her falling out with some other leaders, whether because of competing ambitions or simply arrogance, and those interpersonal conflicts kept her from achieving some leadership positions she had sought.

 

None of that changes what she did accomplish. She set herself against the most powerful mobster in America. And she won. Eunice Hunton Carter deserves to be remembered, and hopefully this biography by her grandson, novelist and law professor Stephen L. Carter, means that she will no longer be Invisible.

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Nonfiction:Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

 

Evan Pugh never went to college as an undergraduate, but earned a doctorate in chemistry. He never served in political office, but was a force behind the passing of the land-grant bill creating national public funding for universities across America. And although he died prematurely at the age of 36, he is remembered as one of the leading scientists of his generation. Roger L. Williams’s biography of him, Evan Pugh’s Penn State, tells the story of a remarkable life and his dedication to creating a remarkable university.

 

Pugh grew up in Pennsylvania and remained a loyal son of the state his entire life. As a young adult he founded a boys’ school in his home. Feeling the need to advance his own education, he went to Germany (although he did not know German when he left!) and studied at several institutions there, eventually earning his Ph.D. He continued on to France and then to England, where experiments he did resulted in a paper that largely created the chemical fertilizer industry and transformed agriculture worldwide.

 

While in Europe he was invited to become the first president of the Farmers’ High School in then rural Centre County, PA. He returned in 1859 to take up this post. He also taught several subjects (including chemistry) and even assisted in the construction of the main campus building and the president’s house. Along the way, he developed a plan for agriculturally focused universities that became the blueprint for land-grant institutions around the country. His scientific work was so well regarded that he was twice asked to take a position with the department of agriculture as their lead chemist. He rejected the offer to stay with Farmers’ High School–soon renamed Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, and later becoming Penn State University.

 

In 1863, Pugh was injured severely in a buggy accident. His fiancee was also injured. They recovered well enough to be married, but the effects of his injury never fully left. Weakened by his injury and stressed by fights over funding with the Pennsylvania legislature, Pugh died from typhoid in 1864. The college he led so boldly for its first years struggled in his absence until George Atherton became president 18 years later. Atherton is often called Penn State’s second founder.

 

Although I am not a Penn State graduate, I have lived in State College for 15 years. My wife and one of my sons both attended the university. It is a special place, and I have enjoyed living in the university’s neighborhood. Despite my long familiarity with the university, I never knew the story of her founder and first president.

 

Roger Williams has written an engaging and illuminating portrait of Evan Pugh. Special emphasis is given to his scientific work in Europe and to his visionary writings about the role of agricultural education in the United States. Williams is clearly a fan of his subject, and his affection shows through the book. Occasionally the professor slips through in the writing. I doubt I’ve ever seen the word “peregrination” used twice in a single book before this one! But overall the book is interesting, easy to read, and tells the story of a long-forgotten American scientific and educational leader.

 

It’s easy to play the “what if” game when someone dies at a young age. Evan Pugh was only 36 years old when he died. But imagining what he might have been can detract from what he actually did accomplish. In his brief life, Pugh transformed agriculture and founded a university that has become one of the top 100 universities in the world! I commend Roger Williams for writing a worthy book on such an interesting figure. Anyone interested in agriculture, higher education, science history or American history will appreciate adding this book to her collection.

 

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural CollegeRoger L. Williams

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

 

 The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Nonfiction: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Before I get into The Art of Logic in an Illogical Worlditself, I have to admit I am a fan of Eugenia Cheng. I do not know the first thing about the “School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” beyond its title and a quick visit to its website. It is a higher educational institution that emphasizes studies in the arts: visual and creative arts, teaching, writing, architecture, and many others. It does not offer degrees (that I can see) in mathematics, biology, physics, or other STEM types of programs. Yet, Dr. Cheng is the “Scientist in Residence” at this school. First, good for the school! And second, just how cool do you have to be to get a gig like that? Don’t misunderstand me: Eugenia Cheng is very good at what she does. Writer, concert pianist, Cambridge educated mathematician, she is elite in multiple fields. Part of her life mission is to combat math phobia. My guess is that teaching in a school of art allows her access to the front lines of math phobia, and the opportunity to influence the world with her infectious passion for her subject in very new and different ways. Which brings us back to her latest book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World.

 

Her first popular math book, How to Bake Pi, used cooking as both metaphor and analog for teaching math principles. This book is a little different. Here, she applies mathematical principles to logic. The two are actually quite intertwined. Logic and mathematics share common goals, they often use similar vocabularies, and although they appear to have differing applications, both actually seek to make the world more understandable and to give people a common frame of reference.

 

I enjoyed How to Bake Pi. I loved The Art of Logic. Cheng is a very good writer. She uses humor, clever analogies, real-life examples, and not too much complex math to help people (hopefully) become more logical. She points out how logical failures can lead to human conflict, and she devotes chapters to dealing with specific failures in logic. She forced me to reexamine some aspects of my own thinking, pointing out areas where I allowed myself to build a straw man or failed to see false analogies. (Fortunately there were not a lot of these, which may either mean I am relatively logical or that I am quite blind to my own flaws. I do rather hope it is the former!)

 

Cheng also offers some worthwhile cautions in the bid to be logical. One I will reword to say that logic does not necessarily empower one to win a Twitter war. Logic is not always compatible with brevity. One example she spends time on is the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Nice, brief, and sadly easy to manipulate negatively. Some argue that “All Lives Matter” is in some way a negation of the idea, or perhaps an improvement on it. Cheng points out that “Black Lives Matter” is really multiple ideas: 1) Black lives matter AS MUCH AS all other lives, 2) Black lives are not treated by society (in a variety of ways) as though they matter as much as all other lives, particularly the lives of those who are white, and 3) This second fact is a bad thing and we should do something to fix it. When understood in this fullness, “Black Lives Matter” is really trying to express the truth that “All Lives Matter.” They are not in opposition, or at least they should not be. If ALL lives matter, then BLACK lives matter, and in a world where too often black lives are ended prematurely, that matters. But the above paragraph, which condenses her much lengthier treatment of the topic, cannot fit into a social media posting. Logic does not necessarily fit into a tweet.

 

Which is a shame, because after reading The Art of Logic in an Illogical World I have some really great logical arguments for some annoying twitterers. Unfortunately, they just won’t fit!

 

Another caution she gives is to avoid separating logic from emotion. They may be different, but they are not incompatible. When it comes to persuasion, the two are both legs on the same stool. Few people are persuaded by only logic or only emotion (or only evidence, which is a third leg of that stool). Most of us require some combination before we are willing to change our minds. If I wish to convince someone that immigration is good for society, I will probably have to use a mixture of evidence (statistics show that immigrants add to the economy and commit fewer crimes), logic (current US birthrates are not sufficient to power the economy in the future), and some emotional appeal that connects to the person I am arguing with.

 

Of course, it may not matter. All of us have certain axioms, accepted truths, that form a bedrock for our decisions and opinions. If our axioms are in conflict, we may never be able to agree. But understanding that they are different is itself a step toward understanding each other. We may never agree on certain things, but sometimes knowing why we will never agree has its own value.

 

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World should be required reading for anyone who values thinking. (That is an opinion, but I would argue it is a logical one!) It is well written and thought out, and in a world where logic is in woefully short supply it is a delightful attempt to balance the scales.

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng