Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Monkey Wrench Gang

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang is supposed to be his best novel.  Abbey is primarily known for this novel, and his non-fiction book, Desert Solitaire.  This, unfortunately, is not an entirely successful book.  Abbey paints in a broad strokes, and often gets lost in those details.  He juggles too many characters, and in the process, we never really see much beneath their surfaces.

But Abbey is writing a comic novel, so perhaps the point is not an in depth treatment of human nature. But even the comedy falls flat after a while.  The novel is too long for its subject matter and grows repetitive. This book works as a political statement, perhaps, but not as a work of art.

Monday, June 25, 2018

White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing

In White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing by Gail Lukasik, the author tells the story of solving the long mystery of her mother’s ethnicity.  

Lukasik’s mother was a Creole (a person of mixed ethnicity) in New Orleans.  During World War Two, she married a GI and moved north, passing for white. The author discovers her mother’s secret accidentally, and in the process, learns how much of a social construct race and ethnicity actually is; especially for those people who straddle the line between two “races.”

Lukasik tells a fascinating, and distinctly American tale, which has all too often has been expunged from our history.   

Friday, June 22, 2018

Smith Woods: The Environmental History of an Old Growth Forest Remnant in Central New York State by Warren D. Allmon

Smith Woods: The Environmental History of an Old Growth Forest Remnant in Central New York State by Warren D. Allmon, takes a fascinating look at a small patch of old growth forest in my hometown.  This book explores the geographical, historical, and ecological history of the region, and how numerous changes in the human and natural world has affected this unique woodland.

In a time when we can get a “street view” of nearly any place in the world, but do not understand what we are seeing, this is a great example how a book can give you greater insights into your local world.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, by Elie Wiesel

Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, by Elie Wiesel, explores the bible from a very literal perspective.  His readings are informed by the biblical text and the Midrash, and are overwhelmingly concerned with gaps and questions about human and godly nature in the texts.  Why does Job accept G-d’s “answer” to the source of his sufferings; why is Joseph a zaddik when he is so crass and pragmatic?

Wiesel reads these stories very differently than I do.  For me, the literal elements of the biblical stories are the least interesting.  The mystical dimension is the goal; the details of the bible are only, but not exclusively, stepping stones to greater realities.

But it is informative to read Wiesel struggle with the texts.  It is certainly a deeply tradition Jewish concern.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Place No One Knew - Glen Canyon on the Colorado

The Place No One Knew - Glen Canyon on the Colorado by Eliot Porter (Photographer), Daniel P Beard (Preface), and David Brower (Foreword) is an elegy to a natural wonder buried beneath water under the auspices of so-called human progress. 

Glen Canyon was dammed in order to create Lake Powell, which generates electricity, and is a holding tank, of sorts, for Lake Mead.  Lake Mead, and other places along the Colorado River, provide water to nearly 40 million people and agriculture.

This book provides photographs of the canyon before it was lost to the depths.  Now, nature appears to be laughing at both environmentalists attempts to bring back the canyon through human effort, and those in the Bureau of Land Management to continue to exploit it. through human effort  Since 1999, when Lake Powell was last full, the area has suffered severe drought.  The canyon is emerging once more regardless of human efforts.  At times the lack has been below 30% capacity.

There is a sense of poetry and justice to all this.  Nature eventually wins - if we receive benefit or harm from this, it is entirely accidental. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Mystery of Everett Ruess, by W. L. Rusho (Author), W.L Rusho (Editor)

Mystery of Everett Ruess, by W. L. Rusho (Author), W.L Rusho (Editor), is the first full length book about the disappearance of Ruess, a young man who wandered the dessert south-west only to disappear at the age of twenty in the Escalante region of southern Utah.

Rusho wrote this book in the 80s, so he had the benefit of interviewing people who were still alive and had know Ruess.  So, there is an immediacy to this account that is lacking in the other two books about Ruess.  

This book is a pastiche . Part narrative, part explication, part mystery drama, Rusho fills in the narrative of Ruess' life with skill.

With only three books about Ruess out there, this is a necessary read.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West

Davis Gulch, a side canyon to Glen Canyon

Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West by Annette McGivney (Author) and James Kay (Photographer), is a book of photos and text when an extended drought (from 2000 to 2008) occurred in northern Arizona; parts of Glen Canyon, long covered by Lake Powell and its dam, were exposed for the first time in over 30 years.

Glen Canyon has become cautionary tale for the environmental movement in the west.  In the era of big dams following WWII, Glen Canyon received scant attention from environmental advocates.  The canyon was little visited, but contained environmental and archaeological treasures.  Once it was flooded, many realized what was lost, it became a galvanizing force to save open space in the west.

But nature is asserting herself.  It looks as if the Glen Canyon dam does not need to be destroyed to restore the canyon.  The drought continues, and has exposed more previously flooded areas, which in a few years, have restored themselves.  As of this writing, Lake Powell is below 50% capacity.  Nature will have its way.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Here in Berlin: A Novel, by Cristina Garcia

Here in Berlin: A Novel, by Cristina Garcia, is certainly a highly competent novel, with few surprises.  

Garcia’s novel is one of conversations, with an unknown author walking about Berlin, gauging the layers of this city through the tales of its often marginalized characters.  

Garcia achieves her goal; we get a long view of the city, its inhabitants, and how they have succeeded and failed in the recent history of Berlin.  Certainly a novel worth reading - even without any fireworks.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles

Many recent books, particularly memoirs, have taken aim at modern Hasidism, and with great justification.  An often hostile and insular world, many Hasidic communities stifle freedom of expression, use economic and social pressures to force conformity, abuse government social services, fail to punish sex offenders in their midst, among other things.

Certainly, this is all true.  But in The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America, by Joseph Berger, the author tries a middle road in his treatment of the many branches of Hasidism.  Unlike the recent, harsh memoirs, or the idealized portraits of Hasidism by the likes of Elie Wiesel, Berger treats Hasids as real people, warts and all.  

The biographical portraits he presents are of people who more or less "fit" into the Hasidic; for some Jews, Hasidism works.  Berger tells their stories with compassion and understanding.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Pathos & Glory: The Work of Everertt Ruess

On Desert Trails With Everett Ruess (by Gary James Bergera, Editor, Afterword, W.L Rusho, Editor), is a collection of Ruess’ letters, diary entries, poems, watercolors, and ink prints.

Ruess had a strong urge to leave civilization, and from the age of 17 until his disappearance at 20, he spent much of his time wandering southern Utah, northern Arizona, and western Colorado.  He wrote passionately about his experiences.  In 1934 he set off in Davis Gulch, in the Escalante region of southern Utah, the last area of America to be mapped, and disappeared.

His parents kept alive his memory, and this book, and its predecessors, initiated his legend and myth.  The fact that he vanished with very little evidence of his ultimate fate adds an aura of charmed mystery to his story; it punctuates his young and expressive life with pathos and glory.

Monday, June 4, 2018

To Buff or Not to Buff: The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson

As I grow older, I grow into a Civil War buff.  Why is that?  I read many books.  Will I don Union Blue at a Gettysburg reenactment?  Unlikely. 

However, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson, is a soup to nuts exploration of the social, political, economic and military elements of the war.  This book explores the antecedents to the conflict, the conflict, but not the aftermath.  That is part of another volume.

So here is one stop Civil War shopping, whether one is a buff or not.  Fold your Union Blues. If you have a Civil War itch, scratch it here.

Friday, June 1, 2018

There are No Accidents

The Hasidic Story Book, complied by Harry Rabinowicz, features some of the great tales of the early Hasidic masters, especially the Baal Shem Tov and his immediate followers.

This was the time when Hasidism was forming, and it was still a very democratic version of Judaism. Mastery of the Talmud or Jewish Law did not necessarily bring one closer to G-d as an open and honest heart.  Strict adherence to Jewish law could be foregone in the service of a fellow human in dire trouble.

This collection is filled with such stories.  Early Hasidism was a  reaction against Jewish formalism, but also against the rising surge of the Enlightenment.  As such, supernatural events are not a dominant feature in these stories.  Rather, G-d works through the nature and society to seek divine ends. The seeming coincidences in these tales are not the byproduct of an accidental universe.  Rather, it is G-d working behind the scenes.

A great book to read on Shabbat. This is old school Judaism at its best