Blue Desert

Blue Desert coverBlue Desert
Charles Bowden
University of Arizona Press
October 2, 2018, 224 pages
Kindle edition $12.95, Amazon paperback $17.95

Blue Desert was originally published in 1986. The University of Arizona Press recently reprinted two of Bowden’s books from the era: this title and Frog Mountain Blues.

Bowden lived most of his life in the Arizona desert, and this book reflects his love for the region and his distaste for the sprawl and growth of the region. He prefers the out-of-the way places. Much of the book centers around Ajo, AZ, a small town west of Tucson and south and west of Phoenix. However Bowden strays as far west as Palm Springs and as far north as the Glen Canyon Dam.

The author of the introduction to this reissue takes pains to point out Bowden’s objectification of women in the book, something that is indeed obvious at points. Indeed, his neglect of his wife as he describes it in the final essay is appalling and inexcusable. The writer of the introduction points out that Bowden took a more measured approach in his writing in later years.

Nonetheless Bowden does an excellent job of painting a picture of the Sonora desert along with all the unpleasantries therein. He describes the shabby treatment Mexicans received at the hands of whites. He describes the violence that occurs. Yet his love for the region is pervasive throughout.

If you have a love for the desert and the American Southwest this is a book worth reading.


The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Tangled Tree of Life coverThe Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
David Quammen
Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, August 14, 2018
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $19.49

This book discusses two different but interrelated topics: the classification of living things and the horizontal transfer of genes.

Quammen starts by going back in time and discussing the work of Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, and others. Linnaeus, was among the first to seriously explore taxonomy, the classification of plants and animals. Darwin, of course, developed the theory of natural selection.

While the book contains an extensive history lesson, much of it focuses on the modern era. Quammen discusses the likes of Lynn Margulis (once married to Carl Sagan) and Carl Wose. Both were interested in classification and both studied horizontal gene transfer. Margulis hypothesized, and was later proven correct, that the mitochondria in cells originally came from bacteria. Wose was known for splicing RNA molecules and creating a new classification system.

Quammen’s writing is engaging and readable and frequently displays a sense of humor. He recounts his visits to many of the key players in the field, which are some of the most entertaining parts of the book.

The book does not have a satisfying conclusion. Quammen closes it by discussing the death of Carl Wose and remembrances by colleagues. But there would be no way to properly wrap up the stories of horizontal gene transfer and classification as the work is ongoing.


The Great American Read

PBS just finished its series The Great American Read. It was all about the one hundred novels that Americans found the most rewarding. That is not to say American novels (I took the American Novel class from the great Bob Vieten back in high school), but novels that Americans enjoy and recommend. The list included literature from around the world.

Great American ReadThere were no limits on which novels qualified for the list. It included serious literature such as War and Peace on one end of the spectrum and the ultimate page-turner, The Da Vinci Code on the other. Some entries on the list were rather dubious to my mind, such as the Left Behind series and Fifty Shades of Grey. Others very much belong, like Lord of the Rings and Invisible Man. There were certainly some clear omissions. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is on the list, but Huckleberry Finn is not. Every English teacher will tell you that the latter is without question the deeper and more profound book. Likewise Crime and Punishment is on the list, but the Brothers Karamazov is not.

As for me, I have read only seventeen books on the list. Not a terribly good average, I suppose, but then I have read both Huckleberry and Karamazov.

It is not perfect, but PBS is to be commended for producing and airing the series.


bargain books

I read most of my books on my iPad Kindle app these days, but I was thinking recently about how much I have enjoyed bargain books in the past. Then what should show up in the mail but a catalog from Daedalus Books: one of the leading mail order sellers of bargain books.

Daedalus Books catalog coverBargain books come in three categories:

  • Remainders: where the publisher sells its stock of a title, usually but not always hardcover, to a distributor that gets the book out to retailers at a deeply discounted price.
  • Reprints: books, generally out of copyright, that are reprinted and sold in less expensive editions.
  • Imports: books imported from elsewhere and sold at a low price.

The catalog was just too tempting. I ordered three books, two for me and one for Terry: one remainder and two imports.

I love my Kindle books, but here’s to books on paper. And to bargain books.


Northland

Northland coverNorthland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border
Porter Fox
W. W. Norton & Company (July 3, 2018), 272 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $19.86

I haven’t read a travel book in a while, so it was a pleasure to delve into this one.

The book focuses on the border between the United States and Canada. Fox writes of his own travel along the border, moving east to west. He also includes a substantial amount of history, and even current events.

He describes how long it took for the border to be agreed upon and about how errors in mapping and surveying put the border in the wrong place at various locations for extended periods of time. Political considerations played a role as well. He goes into considerable detail about his visit to the Standing Rock protest of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Fox also writes about how the events of 9/11 and how the current administration’s attitude towards immigration have made border crossings much less pleasant than they were in previous years.

Porter Fox is a skilled writer and as travel books go Northland is one of the better ones.


Joyce Maynard and me

I have had a long-term relationship with Joyce Maynard. It goes back to the 1970’s. Joyce does not know me and has no idea as to who I am. Yet she has influenced my life and thinking for over forty years.

Looking Back coverI first became acquainted with Joyce shortly after I graduated from Pitzer College in 1975. It was not long after I went to work at B. Dalton Bookseller when I read her 1973 book Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties, expanded from an essay that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I felt an immediate and deep connection with her and recognized that we shared many of the same values about growing up, leaving home, and heading out into the world. The book touched me deeply as I was leaving the sheltered world of academia and figuring out how to buy my own groceries and pay my own rent. At that time I had no clue that she was the 18-year-old who had moved in with J.D. Salinger.

I was disappointed, therefore, to hear Joyce’s commentaries for the Spectrum series on CBS radio. Back in those days CBS radio had a rotating group of commentators who offered short audio essays on current affairs. Joyce always took the conservative perspective, very much at odds with her viewpoint in Looking Back. I was further disappointed, devastated, and hurt, I felt stabbed in the back, when I read a piece of hers, I don’t remember where, in which she wrote that what she said in Looking Back was not what she really felt but what she believed readers of the era wanted to see. Joyce, how could you?

In spite of this betrayal I paid attention when I saw her name, and I was compelled to buy and read her 1998 “tell-all” book about her life with Salinger, At Home in the World. I felt sympathy for her naiveté and ineptness, but she wrote nothing to heal the original betrayal.

Joyce resurfaced recently, when I turned the page of the September 9 New York Times Book Review and saw her name on a full-page essay. She notes that twenty years have passed since the publication of At Home in the World. She reminds me that we are very close to the same age (there’s only three months difference, in fact). She writes of being ostracized by the literary community for the perceived betrayal of Salinger in her book, and about how, after all these years and after all of the novels and other books she has written over the decades, she is still most remembered, by some at least, for her brief relationship with Salinger.

I feel a certain sympathy, even some empathy for her. But Joyce, you still betrayed me more than forty years ago. I should be over all that, I know. The truth, nonetheless, is that I hardly knew ye.


Circe

Circe coverCirce
Madeline Miller
Little, Brown and Company (April 10, 2018), 400 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $17.33

I generally read books on my iPad Kindle app, and I usually only pull out my iPad in the evenings after we have read our newspapers. I read the hardcover edition of this book, as it was in the house since Terry had read it. That meant I might pick it up at any point throughout the day, which I did.

Madeline Miller has degrees in the classics, that is the study of the Greek and Latin languages and Greek and Roman literature, history and archaeology. She made superb use of that knowledge in her first novel, The Song of Achilles, as she does here. Both books are written in the first person, and both in the voice of a minor character in Greek mythology: Patroclus, companion of Achilles, in the first and the witch Circe in this book.

In both books Miller stays true to the mythology that we have while expanding, filling in, and speculating. In the Odyssey of Homer the story of Circe is one episode in the expansive epic, but Miller makes en entire novel out of the character, the daughter of the Titan Helios and Perse, a minor nymph. In this book we see many of the figures in Greek mythology including Athena, Hermes, Daedalus, the Cretan king Minos, and others.

Much of the novel involves Circe and her relationship with Odysseus. While early on the Odysseus that we see is very much the wily trickster that we know from the Odyssey and other mythology, the Odysseus she portrays after his return to Ithaca is that of a bitter, unhappy man. The end of the book is, well, a surprise and an interesting speculation on how Circe might have ended up.

If you enjoy mythology you may well find this novel engrossing.