The River at the Center of the World

This book (it’s at least the 5th one of his that I’ve read) reminds me what a wonderfully accessible, agreeable, and engaging writer Simon Winchester is. Look at his two books on the OED for proof. Or the one on William Smith and the birth of geology. Or the one that attempts, quite successfully, really, to be a full history of the Atlantic. I don’t much care for long explications of continental drift – I need to see it You Tubed on a globe — but the particularly appealing parts of The Atlantic revolve around the great cities that border it – and thrive by it. (It started me thinking about Lisbon, from which one of my forebears left for the new world some 180 years ago. Time for a visit?)

Winchester follows the Yangtze River from its mouth all 4,000-odd miles up to its source in Tibet. For him, it’s a journey backwards in time, especially after he gets upstream of the Three Gorges (just then becoming the site of the monster dam).

So much I didn’t know! So much he helps me understand! Even though his journey was 20 years ago and China has been through so many vasty changes since, the observations ring true for me. I think especially of the ceaseless and careless pollution he sees, the corruption and weary cynicism, the utter wastefulness, the stunning poverty, and the exquisite beauty of the land.

During the trip, Winchester often writes as if he were encountering people and things as a solo traveler. At other times he remembers to acknowledge his amazing guide and translator, a women who fears nothing, it seems, except loss of face. It’s a pity he couldn’t bring himself to be more considerate – and consistent. Without her, it seems as though he’s be lost much of the time. Or in jail.

Winchester’s journey has a special resonance for me: before WWII, my Uncle Percy was a captain on a Butterfield & Swire ship that traded up the Yangtze. Percy’s letters home somehow survived the vagaries of history and were the basis of a short memoir my Mother wrote about his life. I should dig it out and remind myself.

And no, that wouldn’t be available on Amazon — and anyway, why are you even thinking of getting any books at all from Amazon? http://www.indiebound.com

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Girls Don’t Fly

OK, OK, so I’m a grown up that just read a YA novel and really quite enjoyed it. In part, it’s because it’s set on and around the Great Salt Lake, in part it’s because it’s ‘about’ the Galapagos, and in part because it’s a neat story in a teen fulfillment sort of way.

I enjoyed Chandler’s alternative bird-related definitions that head each chapter. (Relict Species: birds that stink at change.) They set up the narrative nicely. I enjoyed the way Myra our heroine comes out of her small & confusing world to discover an entirely new one, the world of the Galapagos, equally confusing but mostly in an evolutionary kind of way. I enjoyed the way Chandler deals with The Utah Obvious, the LDS church, but does so without being didactic.

A great evening’s read. Get it from: http://www.kingsenglish.com They have autographed copies, in case that’s important.

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Four Seconds

I’m in a little video at Sundance. Very little, as in just over two minutes. Very little, as in my bit is perhaps 4 seconds long. The video is part of the whole festival blur where the role of the volunteers is crucial to the success of the events.

The video ran before every Sundance movie at all 24 theatres yesterday (Jan 26th) and suddenly I’m reminded of the power of the image. I was recognized on the street in Park City and then again this morning in Salt Lake.

So? Four seconds. No dialogue, just a face, and yet somehow I am briefly That Guy in the Video.

Strange sensation.

Take a look
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What’s the point of learning?

A book is new to a new reader even if, as here, the book was published 50 years ago. But this is is sci-fi and shows its age a bit. Or I do, since I would have been mesmerized had I read it when at the right age for sci-fi. It’s the (future) history of a monastery in what is now southern Utah in the many centuries after a nuclear holocaust, a holocaust the characters have learned to call Lucifer, the devil made by man. Such a holocaust destroys not only land but civility and learning in all its forms. Only the church survives as an island relatively free from the murderous impulse.

The question Miller explores is this: What is the point of preserving books if no one can read them? What is the point of preserving knowledge, even if no one can access that knowledge? Will there come a better day when that knowledge can be accessed? But then it’s the remnant of the very same knowledge that created the Lucifer destruction in the first place so how can that be good? Can it ever be retrieved and used for good and only for good?

These are the fascinating and tortured imaginings of a Catholic novelist profoundly traumatized by his WWII participation in the utterly pointless destruction of the Monte Cassino monastery by the Allied forces moving north through Italy. Pointless because the commander of the retreating German army, Field Marshal Kesselring, mindful of the monastery’s 1,400 year history, had notified both the Vatican and the advancing Allies that the buildings were not occupied. In a surge of redundancy, the Allies destroyed the monastery anyway. It didn’t help their stalled advance much at all. (Note to self: read a history of that sad battle.)

How else to account for the bleak vision of so many of the novel’s monks? How else to account for the bleakness of Miller’s future?

Read this for catholic contemplation — and to be reminded of 1950s gestalt. Oh, and to wonder why, in that era’s sci-fi, there are no women in the book, except for the mandatory crone. How does Miller imagine people make more of themselves?

Oh, and if you want to order it, go here: http://www.kingsenglish.com

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Yanyitneca

A struggle. Page after page of stuff on topics I know absolutely nothing about. Have no idea what Gnosis is, for example, and can’t honestly say I understand more after Bloom’s explanations. That’s because he’s from the school of onanistic analysis, unwilling to accept that people know less than him.

The book is 20 years old and Bloom is big on predicting a dark future for the U.S.A. Somehow the excrement still hasn’t quite hit the fan even now, these years later, and we’re not quite living in a Handmaid’s Tale world. (But that doesn’t stop the teaparty fools from trying, of course.)

For a Yanyitneca, Bloom’s research is surprisingly sloppy — but thenagain he’s tenured, so didn’t have to worry. He gets lots wrong about Mormonism, for example, having spent what appears to have been 48 hours in Salt Lake doing his deep background research. Clown.

The only redeeming part of the book is some of Bloom’s throwaway bitchy one-liners. That’s probably what he’s best at. But not a reason to read the book.

** What’s a Yanyitneca?  Yet Another New York Intellectual That Nobody Else Cares About. (You read it first here on this nascent bloggery spot.)

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My true love’s hair is the color of the longest wavelength

Who knew? Not me. Not me. The story of the clothing color most desired for generations, mostly because it was so damn tough to create. Plant-based dyes were — and remain — generally rather dull. That’s why so many generations lusted after the boldest of colors, red.

When a true and amazing red did become available, it wasn’t cheap. Hence its association with royalty and power. From a capitalist perspective, the real power of course lay with the people who controlled the supply. In the case of cochineal red, it was the Spanish who, for several hundred years (yes, really), managed to keep a tight monopoly on the prime — virtually the only — source of cochineal, Central America. So tight, in fact, that other Europeans couldn’t even figure out if cochineal was plant or animal.

Greenfield’s writing is engaging, her research is great, and her observations about the changing nature of fashion and desire quite convincing. Why is it, for example, that we now somehow associate power (political, economic, aesthetic) with black, boring black? All those dreary suits, even if touched off, as creepy politicians do, with a red tie. Makes me want to go out and find a formal red suit. (Do they even exist, do you suppose?)

Sundance Film Festival is coming up. What will they be wearing when they arrive, those filmic Easterners? The New Black, awfully like dumb ordinary black? And the Los Angelenos? Well, the furs, semi-natural in color, plus the black hat they think cowboys wear. Lord what fools these mortals be.

Act like a grownup: Get the book from here http://www.kingsenglish.com or any independent bookstore.

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What fish?

I zipped happily through Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: the future of the last wild food. It’s entertaining, well researched, and usefully informative, a powerful combination. And if you’re as serious a fishatarian as I am, it makes sobering reading. What exactly am I doing eating these four fish (they’re salmon, cod, bass, and tuna) while living so far from the ocean?

Greenberg grew up fishing, first on local rivers near his Connecticut home, then, as these rivers produced fewer and fewer fish, making his way out into Long Island Sound and finally into the ocean itself.

Life then intervened and he didn’t fish for years. When he did come back to fishing, he discovered that something had changed. Fish that had been abundant in the Sound and in the ocean weren’t. Some even seemed to be missing entirely. And every fisherman told him the same story, that things were strangely different. At the big city fish markets, he made the same discovery. By and large, each market was selling mostly the four fish of this book, even if they weren’t local fish.

This is what Greenberg sets out to investigate. Why these four fish? Why so popular? Why not others? (Barramundi, anyone? Why not whale?) What are the alternatives? What kind of fish farming — if any — is benign? What are the trade-offs in fish farming? (PCB poisoning versus coronary disease? You’ll need to decide.)

Along the way, Greenberg made me realize how little I knew about the fish I eat so often. It got me to playing a little game with myself. Try it. What one word do you associate with the four fish? Salmon, Cod, Bass, and Tuna. My words are Sacred, Useful, Inaccessible, and Casserole. You’ll find others.

Example: I can’t say precisely why I hold salmon sacred but I have learned to do so. Is it just clever marketing or simply the amazing taste of wild salmon? Greenberg’s salmon research takes him to Alaska’s Yupik Nation fisheries, to Norwegian fish farms far above the Arctic Circle, to research stations in New England, all in search of what salmon is now and what it might become.

As good as it may taste, Greenberg discovers that wild salmon is a deeply inefficient food. Perhaps you knew this. I certainly didn’t. Meanwhile, a farmed salmon grows to edible size twice as fast as a wild salmon and thanks to careful genetic selection (one doesn’t say “modification”), it needs only half as much food to get there. The fancy term for that is the feed conversion ratio and Greenberg takes you through all the steps with these once-wild fish without overwhelming with deep science. So if you eat farmed salmon, you eat a heavily-bred fish. Not yet actually a genetically modified fish, but Congress is being intensively lobbied to allow such a beast. (And the cynic in me suspects that retailers won’t be obliged to inform consumers that they’re about to eat FrankenSalmon.)

Greenberg’s skill is such that he manages to clearly explain things like the stunning difficulty of measuring populations of fish in a 3-D space, the ocean. As often as not, the specialists he talks to say of specific fish populations, “we just don’t know for sure.” Combine these vague measurements with humans innate exploitative optimism (“heck, it can’t be that bad. Let’s just keep fishing”) and you get population crashes not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Will the fish come back? Well, it depends on who you talk to. And climate change. And the demand for sushi. And random stuff like hurricanes.

If I have one quibble about Four Fish, it’s that it’s too short. Surprise, huh? In his research on each fish, I wish Greenberg had made just one more stop, talked to just one more person about the history and the future of these fish — and of all wild fish. It might have made his conclusions a bit more confident. Greenberg ends his thought provoking book by setting out some basic rules that might let “sea food” thrive even as the world eats more and more of it every year. You might find yourself arguing with his ideas but they”re born of years of experience both fishing and reporting.

Get it here http://www.indiebound.org

This review was originally published in Edible Wasatch Winter 2012. http://ediblewasatch.com

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If history teaches us anything, upper-class white guys can be exceedingly touchy about taxation.

Start with the basic: Sarah Vowell illustrates perfectly the idea of nominative determinism. Anyone with that name must be in the writing business. And in this case is really, really good at it.

The book chronicles, in a wonderfully laconic & articulate way, the missionary efforts in Hawai’i which ultimately led to its annexation (that’s the polite term, anyway) by the United States. It’s a story I’ve read before, but Vowell’s careful research, presented in a charmingly carefree manner, makes the whole story come alive, who the good guys were, who the bad, who was in between.

She has wonderful throwaways, the kind that make me hungry for more. “All missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That’s what a mission is — a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong.”

In describing the working of the first ‘modern’ Hawaiian constitution, she notes that the legislature was overwhelmingly Hawaiian but that almost all the taxes were paid by the white guys who owned the most land, and “if history teaches us anything, upper-class white guys can be exceedingly touchy about taxation.”

Ah, a fabulous read. Get it here http://www.indiebound.org/

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Society Without God

Society Without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. Phil Zuckerman.

Simple, really. The countries whose citizens are the healthiest and least corrupt and which generally top the Economist’s “Quality of Life Index” are all countries with very low rates of religious belief. If you’d like to be in a country where people are relatively content, healthy, safe (minimal murder rates), have good (& often free) end of life care, and rarely suffer from gender discrimination, then choose a place like Denmark or Sweden.

Whatever you do, don’t choose a ‘religious’ country like the USA because it’s a place where 20% of children are raised in poverty, tens of millions of people are without health insurance, end of life care is a mess, the mentally ill are often condemned to homelessness, and of course income inequality exists in wholly unjustifiable extremis. If you didn’t know any of those facts, you’ve probably been watching too much TV and reading waaay too much WSJ. (As Garrison Keillor says, “if you watch television news, you know less about the world that if you just drank gin straight from the bottle.”)

This alarming contrast is what Zuckerman explores in this book. He doesn’t say it, but in some ways the US attempts to compensate for its pathetic societal failures by relying on ‘religion’.  In the US, churches are often the only groups that provide child care, health care, and other socialist services. Of course, those services come with implicit and explicit strings, which might account for that 20% figure. Worth considering.

The first 40 pages of this book are what make it worth reading; the balance is extended reportage on Zuckerman’s research. A big skip. So get it from the library if you can.

Oh, and of course the best summary comes from the ever-reliable Robyn Blumner, columnist for what used to be the St. Pete Times but which has just become the Tampa Bay Times. Here’s her basic link: http://www.tampabay.com/writers/article379944.ece

Oddly, the best listing of her essays is somewhere else:

http://www.poconorecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110705/NEWS04/107050312/-1/NEWS049020

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