Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Biography: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

 

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to find western route to China and the Indies. As everyone knows, what he found instead was what became known as the “New World,” lands full of new people, new plants, new animals, and new opportunities for the Europeans who came. For the inhabitants of those lands the arrival of the Europeans was a disaster, bringing slavery, conquest, disease, rape, and catastrophe. For everyone involved, the world changed in 1492.

 

One thing Columbus left behind in Europe during this voyage was his young son, Hernando Colon. Colon (the Spanish version of the name Columbus) was the son of Columbus’s Spanish mistress, and although the explorer never married his mother, he always acknowledged Hernando to be his son and treated him like a son. In his book, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee tells the story of this younger son of Christopher Columbus, a man who tried for his entire life to live up to his father’s legacy. In some ways, Hernando was a man far ahead of his time. However, when you are the younger child (and not a child from a marriage) of the man who “discovered the New World,” you’re never going to quite live up to your legacy.

 

Wilson-Lee is an excellent writer, and he does a very nice job capturing Hernando from the available source material. Much of what we know about Hernando comes from what he wrote about his father. Hernando idolized his father, eventually writing a biography of him that was part legal defense of his family’s claims for land and power and part historical defense of his father’s role in discovering Hispaniola and other places. Hernando accompanied his father on one trip to the Americas, surviving a mutiny and shipwreck during the trip and watching his father become quite ill during the adventure.

 

Often forgotten in the very mixed legacy of Christopher Columbus is that his legacy was not universally accepted or respected even during his own lifetime or that of his sons. Other members of his own crew tried to diminish his accomplishments, one even racing back to Spain to claim credit for the discoveries they had made before Columbus could arrive. Columbus never received everything promised to him by the Spanish crown, both because of his own mistakes (and those of his family members) and because of European politics interfering with financial rewards and decisions. On one occasion Columbus was returned to Spain in chains–and symbolically he requested that he be buried in those chains upon his death.

 

The more questionable parts of Columbus are well known to us today. Although he himself was not as personally genocidal as he is made out to be by some, he certainly was not kind or benevolent to the natives he found. He did bring slaves back to Spain and imported African slaves to Hispaniola and other islands. He never acknowledged that he had found a “new” continent but insisted until his death that he had found the route to Asia. He greatly underestimated the circumference of the earth. Some of these issues plagued his legacy even within Hernando’s lifetime. As Hernando fought in the courts (both legal and royal) to preserve some of the promises and gifts made to his father by the crown, he glossed over some of these issues in his biography of his father in order to improve Columbus’s reputation. For this biography, he had one thing going for him that no one else did: the largest library in the world.

 

Hernando was a book collector. By the time of his death, he had over 5000 books. One of those books was his “Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books,” a list of over 1000 books of his that were lost at sea. Hernando created ways of cataloging, organizing, and indexing books that were unlike any that had been tried before. In some ways, he was trying to create things that simply could not exist until the digital age. Hernando also worked on ways to map the world, including ways to measure longitude that were not fully discovered and employed until more than a century later. It is hard to say what his legacy truly was: his library fell into disuse and disrepair after his death, his cataloging and indexing methods simply could not be fully realized until computers came along 500 years later, his tools for measuring longitude were never adopted and had to be independently created much later. What we can say is that just like DaVinci’s helicopter, Hernando had ideas that were beyond his time but which we can now appreciate as being ingenious.

 

Hernando Colon may not have been the most famous person in his family or of his time. But he was a fascinating person, not only because of his father. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books is an interesting story of an interesting man, one who largely shaped what we know about Christopher Columbus.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Nonfiction: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

John LaRoche is described by author Susan Orlean as “the most moral amoral person” she’s ever known. When she first met him he was on trial for leading an expedition into the Fakahatchee swamp to collect rare ghost orchids. LaRoche told the judge, “Frankly, Your Honor, I’m probably the smartest person I know.” Orlean’s story on him and his trial led to this book, The Orchid Thief. Orlean crafts a story that could be a novel (and did become a movie) about an eccentric character in a world that seems to breed eccentricity faster than it breeds the very orchids which attract the fascination and obsession of thousands, in a state which is known for its excesses and odd characters.

 

There was a certain logic to LaRoche’s scheme. Native Americans are allowed to gather endangered species for tribal purposes. LaRoche is not Native American, but he was acting as an agent of the Seminole nation. He worked with three young Seminole members, who did all of the actual work collecting the orchids. LaRoche guided and directed their efforts, but he himself did not even touch the orchids.

 

Furthermore, his stated goal was to clone the orchids, mass producing them so that they were no longer rare. Thus, the pressure on the wild orchids would be removed, the Seminoles would have a ghost orchid gold mine, the legislature would see they had left a hole in the endangered species act and would fix it, and LaRoche would be the hero who made it all happen. And got rich by making it all happen.

 

Things didn’t quite go according to plan, but the plan did intrigue Susan Orlean enough to spend months in Florida with LaRoche. During her time there she also got to know many of the names in the South Florida orchid business, and became very familiar with the state itself.

 

Orlean is a very evocative writer. Her descriptions of wading through the swamp looking for ghost orchids made me want to do two things: go looking for the orchid myself, and go take a shower to wash the grime off. At one point she was so hot that her fingers were sweating. That kind of detail fills the book, giving it a richness that helps you smell the funk of the Fakahatchee, the sweetness of the flowers, the loam of the potting soil in the nurseries she visited. Between the heat and humidity and bugs and water and alligators and snakes and sawgrass and cypress trees and criminals carrying machetes (Orlean confesses she does not like hiking with criminals carrying machetes, even if those machetes are strictly to dissuade snakes from approaching them), Orlean makes multiple valiant efforts to see a ghost orchid in bloom. Frankly, I admire her tenacity. I might have lost my interest somewhere between the bugs and the alligators, long before the machetes.

 

I kept my phone beside me as I read so I could look up the different orchids and bromeliads she describes in the book, and I’m glad I did. Her descriptions are vivid, but I do wish The Orchid Thief came with full-color photos. No doubt that would have made it cost prohibitive, but it still would have been a nice addition to the text. I recommend doing something similar when you read it, and I hope you do read it. Orlean is a wonderful writer, and The Orchid Thief is a wonderful book.

See similar topic: Book Review: Tulipomania, Mike Dash

See by the same author: Book Review: The Library, Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Book Review: Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, Andrea D. Pinkney

Book Review: Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, Words by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Illustrations by Brian Pinkney

Martin Rising: Requiem For a King, Andrea Davis Pinkney

Poetry:  Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, Andrea Davis Pinkney

Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Three days later, I turned two years old. I only say that to put my age into the context: Dr. King’s murder has essentially been historical fact for me my entire life. When I began reading Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney (illustrated by her husband, Brian Pinkney), I was 51 years removed from the fact of his death. I knew how the story ended.

 

And I wept. I wept for a man who died when I was a toddler. I wept for a people who lost their shining light half a century ago. I wept for a nation whose conscience was slaughtered on a motel balcony in Memphis. I wept for myself and the loss of a hero I never knew while he was alive.

 

Martin Rising is so many things. The standard words we use for poetic works all apply: powerful, elegant, majestic, etc. Pinkney’s poems capture the cadence of the best of African American preaching. They are rhythmic. They are memorable. They read like they are meant to be spoken aloud to a church.

 

I think the word I would use, though, is “unexpected.” I did not expect them to hit my heart so strongly that I cried for a man who died before I could understand death. I did not expect Henny Penny to take on the role of Greek chorus. I did not expect the metaphors of stormy weather and of chicks hatching to hit me so hard. I did not expect the illustrations of King’s children to become blurry through my tears. I did not expect to laugh at the thought of grown men having a pillow fight. From beginning to end, Martin Rising was unexpected.

 

The Pennsylvania Center for the Book 2019's Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award to Andrea Davis Pinkney for her work Martin Rising: Requiem for a King
The Pennsylvania Center for the Book 2019’s Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award to Andrea Davis Pinkney for her work Martin Rising: Requiem for a King

Martin Rising: Requiem for a King is the 2019 Lee Bennett Hopkins award winner for Children’s Poetry. I would not take away a well-deserved award, but I did not read this as a children’s book despite the exquisite illustrations. Martin Rising deserves a place on anyone’s shelf. Yes, children can appreciate the poetry and the cadence and the rhythms and the pictures. So will adults. Buy the book for your children or your grandchildren–but don’t be surprised if you end up shelving it with your more grown-up tomes.

 

Just, make sure you’ve got some tissues handy while you read.

 

Brian Pinkney and Andrea Davis Pinkney discuss Martin Rising: Requiem for a King: the Pennsylvania Center for the Book 2019's Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winner
Brian Pinkney and Andrea Davis Pinkney discuss Martin Rising: Requiem for a King: the Pennsylvania Center for the Book 2019’s Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winner

The Pinkneys will be at State College’s 2019 PA Bookfest on Saturday, July 13, 2019 to receive the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. This week we are featuring authors who will be part of the bookfest, part of an annual tradition we started last year.

Martin Rising: Requiem For a King, Andrea Davis Pinkney

Book Review: Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, Words by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Illustrations by Brian Pinkney

Book Review: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Book Review: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Nonfiction Biography: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

When America entered World War II, it did so with an aviation industry that was only the seventeenth largest industry in the US. Before the end of the war, US aviation was the largest industry in the world. Some of the credit for this increase in industrial capacity, particularly for the improvements in technology that changed the way aircraft was built and that made American planes faster and safer, belongs to the engineers, mathematicians, and “computers” (a job title which was then held largely by women) who worked at Langley, VA during that time. And among those brilliant people in segregated Virginia were a number of African American women whose stories are celebrated in the book Hidden Figures.

 

Margot Lee Shetterly has compiled their stories with detail and affection. She tells of women who grew up in the heart of a racist and sexist society and defied all the odds to get jobs as “computers” after racial discrimination was formally ended in federal government hiring in 1941 (obviously the formal end did not change everything overnight, but it did create new opportunities). Women like Dorothy Vaughan, who became the manager for the “West Computers” and shepherded the careers of many other women, perhaps at the expense of her own career. Women like Katherine Johnson, whose work was finally acknowledged by a Presidential Medal of Honor in 2012. Katherine Johnson’s work was instrumental in both the Mercury and Apollo space missions.

 

Their very presence and the high standards of their work gave the lie to the segregationists and those who asserted that blacks and women were somehow less capable than white men. More than just their presence, though, these women fought discrimination on a personal level. Miriam Mann used to take the signs from the cafeteria that labeled a specific table for “colored girls.” For awhile the signs would be replaced, but eventually they were gone for good. Through their collective insistence on excellence and accuracy and their tireless advocacy for each other, these women created new opportunities for themselves and for others. They refused to allow others to define them. In a world where blacks could not stay in hotels, could not eat in diners, could not attend school with whites, could not even be in some towns after sundown, these women pried open doors that had been closed to all but white men and proved that they belonged.

 

Shetterly’s writing is warm and brimming with love for her subject. She grew up in the Langley area and knew some of these women when she was a child. That affection gives a tenderness to her prose, but does not detract from the detail and research that informs it. I love the way she presents these women as full people. She gives details about their families, their interests, their churches, their sororities, and all the things that made them complete as humans. Spouses and children may not have plotted trajectories or measured air resistance, but they mattered to the “hidden figures” and so they matter to their story.

 

Hidden Figures is a book of hope and triumph. The challenges faced by the African American women who worked in Langley during the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were such that people of lesser character might have folded. The fact that they not only persevered but forced their way into the history books is a credit to their determination, their talent, and their will. Shetterly has given us their stories as a road map to the destinies that character and hard work can win.

Also see the Hidden Figures:  2017 movie, young readers edition, and picture book edition.

Book Review: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Booklist:  10 Books for a Reading Roadtrip Across America

Booklist:  10 Books for a Reading Roadtrip Across America

 

Scintilla.info has been proudly international from the beginning, intentionally seeking books and authors from around the world. But we are based in the United States. Given that our country celebrates her birthday on July 4th, we decided to highlight some books that we have reviewed that are American in focus. 

 

There There, Tommy Orange

Possibly the most powerful book we’ve read for Scintilla is There There by Tommy Orange. There are a lot of reasons to choose this book, but in this context our main reason is its setting. Oakland is almost an additional character within the book, a side of Oakland perhaps not obvious to tourists but rather one that locals would recognize. The characters and the powwow might be fictional, but the city is real and vibrant and essential to the story. Orange makes good use of the quote that inspired the title and shows that Oakland indeed has a there there.

 

Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz Out of the Dark, Orphan X series, Book 4, Gregg Hurwitz

Moving down the coast, pick one of Greg Hurwitz Orphan X books which are primarily set in Los Angeles. Although protagonist Evan Smoak does travel around the country, he is based in LA and much of the action takes place in the US’s second largest city. Using actual neighborhoods and streets gives the settings a strong realism. The only thing hotter than the summer temperatures is the story when Smoak goes into action.

 

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

And for some reality in your LA story, The Library Book by Susan Orlean tells the story of the LA library in a way that reads more like a novel than a history. The people and the city that the library serves are well represented, as are the characters who came to lead the library throughout its history. A fun and enlightening read.

 

Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Although many of David Baldacci’s books are set in Washington, DC, his recent book A Long Road to Mercy puts FBI agent Atlee Pine into a small town near the Four Corners region of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The landscapes and distances are almost characters themselves in this novel with a kickass heroine and a typically complex Baldacci plot.

 

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Mississippi is the setting for both of Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winning novels: Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her evocation of the heat and humidity can make you sweat on a winter’s day in Pennsylvania, and I say this from personal experience.

 

Florida, Lauren Groff

Florida by Lauren Groff takes us across the country to our 27th state, the southernmost of the 48 contiguous states. Filled with unique characters and individual stories, the state figures into every story of this book that bears its name.

 

The Tenth Justice, Brad Meltzer The Hellfire Club, Jake Tapper

Brad Meltzer’s first novel, The Tenth Justice, and Jake Tapper’s novel The Hellfire Club are both set in Washington, DC, roughly 50 years apart. Both are thrillers with intrigue, political skulduggery, and real and potential violence. If you want to escape the current political news cycle, these are two options that keep you in the Beltway without once mentioning any actual living politicians.

 

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

And finally, NYC is home to millions of people and almost as many stories, but Invisible by Stephen L. Carter is a true story of his grandmother and her battles against the mob in the 1930s. A lawyer under the famed Thomas Dewey, Carter’s grandmother tackled prejudice and gangsters using her intellect and the law.

 

Obviously there is a lot more country we could have visited…so let us know if you enjoyed this brief tour and maybe we will travel to some more places next July!

 

Booklist:  10 Books for a Reading Roadtrip Across America

Book Review: The Lost Gutenberg, Margaret Leslie Davis

Book Review: The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey, Margaret Leslie Davis

The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book's Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey, Margaret Leslie Davis

Nonfiction: The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey, Margaret Leslie Davis

On October 14, 1950, an ordinary wooden box arrives at the southern California home of Estelle Doheny. Inside the box, wrapped almost carelessly by customs officials after inspection, is one of the rarest and most valuable books in the world: a Gutenberg Bible.

 

Doheny was one of the premier book collectors of her time, although she was barred admittance to the old-boys club of book collectors. Still, she had amassed a private collection that rivaled the rare book rooms of many elite universities and museums. Twice before she had bid on a Gutenberg Bible–and lost. She had even bid once before on this specific copy and lost. This time she was determined to have it. She thus became the only woman to have ever owned a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

 

Margaret Leslie Davis traces the history of this copy through several owners, which included an Irish baron, the owner of Lea & Perrins, and Lord Amherst. This particular Bible was one of the last to remain in private ownership, finally bequeathed to a seminary library upon the death of Estelle Doheny (though that’s not the end of its story). The various owners each have their own stories, of fortunes won and lost, of collections gathered and scattered. Booksellers and brokers play their roles as well.

 

Davis is a very good writer, and the story is quite interesting. The characters could walk from her book into a novel and find a home. She includes historic and scientific data in measured doses, not too much and not too little. Her careful writing reveals some formidable research and reporting, though. For a book which has such historic significance, I was surprised at how little we know about Gutenberg himself and the process he invented. Apparently the historical record is incomplete because, as Davis notes, he never put himself into print.

 

The Bible that found its way into Estelle Doheny’s collection is now locked in a vault in Tokyo, but it continues to aid scholars. Her Bible was the first Gutenberg to be analyzed by a cyclotron, which discovered a previously unnoticed replacement page in the Bible and revealed information about the inks and paper Gutenberg used. That same Bible later became the first Gutenberg reproduced electronically, and can be seen in its entirety online at http://dcollections.lib.keio.ac.jp/en/gutenberg .

 

The Lost Gutenberg is a riveting account of a book, the people who had to own it, the history of printing and the history of book collecting. In Margaret Leslie Davis’s careful hands, it is also a wonderful read, informative and exciting.

 

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

 

The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book's Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey, Margaret Leslie Davis

Book Review: The Lost Gutenberg, Margaret Leslie Davis

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, Matt Ridley

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.

 

The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley

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