Monday, 26 September 2011

#66 John Muir: The YNP

This is the first time I have read John Muir, and this is a short book, or a long essay on Yellowstone National Park.  Though the book is a short one, 64 pages, there is much in here that makes it an object of interest to any Yellowstone denizen, such as myself.  Written in 1901, much has changed in the park and much is still the same, and it is these differences which really makes this a worthwhile read.

This short book is thematically divided into three parts, even if the editors kept it as one long whole.  The first part is written as a prosaic idyll in the style of Theokritos, or one of the more picturesque of Virgil's Eclogues.  He wastes no time with his material, and begins his description starting with his second sentence, "[Yellowstone] is a big, wholesome wilderness on the broad summit of the Rocky Mountains, favored with abundance of rain and snow, -a place of fountains where the greatest of the American rivers take their rise" (3).  Now imagine reading sentences of similar tone for a further 20 pages, and that is the first part of the book.  Occasionally he will include a bit of tension by invoking enemies of his eden, "In pleasing contrast to  the noisy, ever changing management, or mismanagement, of blundering, plundering, money-making vote-sellers who receive their places from boss politicians as purchased goods, the soldiers do their duty so quietly that the traveler is scarce aware of their presence" (9).  Themes like this appear randomly in the book, and it seems that Muir was sensitive to any threat to what he felt should be wilderness.  At times he laments the destruction in adjacent areas (9) and sometimes the ignorant tourist.

The second part of the book focuses more on the geologic and thermal features the park has to offer.  This is more of a catalogue that describes wonders and beauty with a limited language that can only approximate the beauty.  There is one part of this section that I did find of peculiar interest, and that was questions that tourists asked in 1901.  "Where is the umbrella? What is the name of that blue flower over there? Are you sure the little bag is aboard?  Is that hollow yonder a crater?  How is your throat this morning?  How high did you say the geysers spout?  How does the elevation affect your head?" (30).  These are a nice collection of questions, some of which I've heard and others, not so much.  I mainly hear, where is a good place to see animals?  What time does the sunrise?  Do you have air conditioning, wifi, complimentary coffee, and where can I park?

At one point there is a digression on rattlesnakes and 'civilized' man's fear and hatred of them.  Muir makes a plaintive and pitiful plea to do no harm to these creatures.  He cites a common question often directed at the most noisome of pests, "What are rattlesnakes good for?" (37).  His rejoinder is, "As if nothing that does not obviously make for the benefit of man had any right to exist" (37).  His case is lacking in any scientific points, but strictly moral.  Had the question been asked today to a knowledgeable person the answer would involve the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the rattlesnakes small part to play.  I am unsure of the snakes role on the ecosystem, but removing it could have unforeseen results.

The third part of the book is more of a written tour guide as well as offering some historical anecdotes of the area.  This book, though never explicitly stated, is a voice for the wilderness trying desperately to make a case for preservation and enjoyment.  The reserve of this land for the people is an argument that has to be continually made, and Muir is doing his best to appeal to the pastoral side of his readers by invoking a place of simple soulful beauty.

Friday, 23 September 2011

#65 How the Irish Saved Civilization

218 pages.

I was recommended this book by James Hallman, the same James Hallman that did not visit me in Yellowstone.

Anyways when he mentioned the book numerous jokes swelled in my mind.  "That must be a short book."  "Is it science-fiction?"  But to my pleasant surprise it was a pleasing book on history and mostly early Irish culture and how it came about to evangelize Europe in the Dark Ages.  I kind of ruined the mystery of the book, but they saved civilization by reintroducing ancient literature and Christianity to Europe.  Many of the early monasteries were the direct result of a group of Irish monks going abroad.

The title of the book has a light case of hyperbole.  How would we be different if not for the Irish?  That is something hard to tell.  Questions like that are never posed by Thomas Cahill, instead he goes about gently elucidating certain cultural traits of the Irish that made them Europe's great redeemers.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

#64 The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois

I purchased a collection of Renaissance "Revenge Tragedies" with such notable writers as Thomas Kyd and George Chapman.  Of them, I was most eager to read George Chapman, whom is famous for translating Homer, commonly referred to as Chapman's Homer.  I was excited to see how Chapman was as a playwright, and I was dismally disappointed.  His play was the worst play I have ever read, and that list includes: The Skin of Our Teeth (Wilder), Pericles: The Prince of Tyre (Shakespeare), Oedipus (Seneca's version), and the novelization of The Phantom Menace.

I will begin with the language.  Chapman cannot write a realistic dialogue, I fear he has read too many Greek dramas.  The protagonist moralizes on everything and is constantly referencing Greeks for no reason at all.  Should I also mention that the diction was confusing, and the reader/audience has to strain to understand what the characters are talking about as their sentiments are obfuscated with unnecessary erudition.  This play is like watching a treatise by Aristotle acted onstage -- this would be both unwatchable and completely terrible.

I have a hard time criticizing the rest of the play as I found my mind drifting for too much while reading to play.  So as the the majority of the action of the play I have no idea what was happening.  I must repeat, this was the most atrociously written play I have ever read.  Chapman has failed to make a single lyrical passage in the entire play, his language was clumsy and forced.  It took me almost a week to finish this play, and I feel none the better for having reached the end of it.  I have one more play in the book of revenge tragedies and I can say confidently that it will be at least readable.

#63 The Hairy Ape

This is the fourth play by Eugene O'Neill, and I think the best I've read of him this summer.  It may be that nothing happy or optimistic happens in this play.  This play, more than the others I read, address the class system in America with the proletariat losing in a frustrated battle where the wealthy will not even take to the battlefield.  This is a short play where the frustration of the "hairy ape" climaxes near the end in an impotent rage that lands him in jail, where he is further ridiculed by the other inmates.  The ending is surreal in that the "hairy ape" meats a gorilla which crushes him and leaves him for dead.  Maybe I liked it because I can see its relevance today.  It was written in 1922, when class disparity was reaching an all-time high, and the play was an echo of the trials of millions of workers in America under an apparent plutocracy.  I'm not sure much has changed since then.

Monday, 19 September 2011

#62 Warriors of God

383 pages.

I'm reading a lot of history now.  Mainly medieval, and this is my latest and probably greatest discovery this summer.  I have to admit that my understanding of the Crusades before this summer was extremely poor.  I was under the delusion that I knew more about the Crusades than I really did, after all I did read Tasso's, Jerusalemme, but apparently epic poems on history rarely relate to facts.  Four weeks ago if you were to ask me about Saladin I could maybe say he was a part of the Crusades and that may have been it.  My lack of knowledge is embarrassing.  As I am going through the Crusades I am finding certain "pilgrimages" that contain more human drama than others, and the Third Crusade is probably one of the best dramas, if I can be so terrible as to suggest one of histories tragic events as entertaining.  The characters in this tragedy are Richard III and Saladin.  Each of them has qualities that are worth praising.  Saladin I feel has many more virtues than the warlike Richard, mainly because I feel more akin to Saladin than the intrusive Crusaders.  The struggle between the two knights is a worthwhile read, especially as James Reston does all he can to create tension, and to create a 'novellistic' narrative that reads in the penumbra between history, analysis, and novels.

Next up for history is either the Life of St. Louis or King John.

Friday, 16 September 2011

#61 Journey to the Ants

224 pages.

This is just my second book on Formica (ants) but my third on the order of Hymenoptera this summer.  I'm starting to get the feeling that Hymenoptera is the most fascinating order in the animal kingdom.  It is made all the more so by the writing of Holldobler and especially E. O. Wilson, whom I will definitely be reading more of in the future.  I'm looking forward to Sociobiology, which will be read in the winter.

Here are some fascinating facts about ants.

*One queen ant lived 29 years in a laboratory.
*In the northern latitudes ants that build mounds make the south facing slope more gradual so as to receive more sunlight.  This is also an easy way to determine which way is south in a country like Finland.
*Ants were the first agriculturalists, beating humans by around 60 million years.
*Males do no work, and their only function is to reproduce and then die.
*If you put oleac acid on a living ant the other ants will think it is dead and so throw it from the colony like trash.  If the ant doesn't clean itself enough it will get thrown out again until it is clean of the smell.
*Ants communicate mainly by pheromones, and they have a variety of different pheromones to communicate different messages, such as where food is, that the queen is still alive, and where an enemy is.  There is one pheromone which the authors called a Propaganda pheromone that gets the army excited and energized before a battle.
*Some ants rely on aphids for nourishment by eating their excrement which is sweet water.  They transport and protect the aphids like cattle.

These are some the interesting little things about ants that I gathered from this book, and this is not an exhaustive list.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

#60 Empire of the Beetle

202 pages, by Andrew Nikiforuk

       I happened upon this book in my last saunter around a Barnes and Noble.  The subject was intriguing, so I purchased it without prior knowledge of the book or having read one review.  It was about the Mountain Pine Beetles that are decimating spruce, lodgepole pines, and whitebark pines all over western North America.  This must have been the first printing, as at times the grammar was awkward, and sentence fragments appeared here and there.  For example, here is one of my favorite fragments: For some species, that includes keeping the gallery free of frass, chewed-up wood mixed with beetle shit (35).  Other places articles were missing.  At one point information was wrong, such as "the Great Yellowstone Fire of 1994" (114), which was actually in 1988.  And most grievous of all were the terrible similes throughout the book that were like a group of fatties converging on free ice cream.  The similes never stopped.  One must wonder how long the vacation was for the editor to allow such an egregious crime against literature to happen.

Despite the poor presentation, the substance of the book was quite good.  The little Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) has been destroying trees on an epic scale since the 70s, starting in Kenai, Alaska and then moving to BC, Cananda.  What I did not know is that the beetle uses certain fungi to accomplish this task.  It holds these fungi in its mouth and when the swarm finds an acceptable pine tree it uses the fungi to break down the phloem in the tree and then eats a nice little path underneath the bark.  It takes about 600 MPBs to kill one tree by effectively eating around the whole phloem and girdling the tree.

Climate change is suspected of aiding this tiny beetle (the size of a grain of rice) in becoming more voracious.  Normally there would be one mating a year, but with higher temperatures and longer seasons the MPB can mate twice a year creating bigger swarms more often.  These swarms descend on a lodgepole forest and kill everything.  Normally they act as nature's method of thinning the forest by eating mature trees whose defenses are not as robust as younger trees, but recently the MPB has been known to kill young trees as well.  This is scary as no tree is safe.  Canada and the US have tried to stop these beetles repeatedly but nothing they've done has worked, including letting logging industries come in and clear cut huge swathes of land.  The message in the book is to allow the beetle to come through and renew the forest, as this is a natural part of the forest cycle.  The main reason it is so bad now is because of fire suppression has created an unnatural old forest growth throughout the northwest area.

Yeah it is aggravating watching a beautiful whitebark pine forest getting eaten, but it will be back in another 200 years for future generations to enjoy.  This is just part of the natural cycle.

Monday, 12 September 2011

#59 In the Wake of the Plague

220 pages.  By Norman F. Cantor

So I see this Cantor name all over the medieval history section all of the time and I finally decided to buy one of his books.  I didn't wholly regret it because I did get it 35% off at the closing Borders in Billings, but it wasn't a great book.  I was expecting a book about the Black Death, but I believe the title was misleading.  It was more of a buffet of different aspects of medieval life, with no clear thesis.

He jumped from topic to topic, sometimes without warning.  I felt this book was a collection of random lectures he gave on a set of different topics.  Another troubling aspect of the book was that there were no footnotes or reference notes.  How can you read this as a book of scholarship without these certain notes.  The answer it is not a book of scholarship.  This is just another entry into the genre of popular history for those who only want to hear about some interesting things that went on back then.  I feel at this point in my learning I have progressed beyond popular history and need to read more serious fare.  Sorry Norman F. Cantor, I gave you a shot, and I can only assume your middle initial stands for FAIL.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

#58 Anna Christie

This is a four act play by Eugene O'Neill about the reformed prostitute Anna Christie.  Reading this play I started to see Anna as a strong female character that would take no crap from any man.  She seemed independent and an able person to make something strong of herself after her life as a sex object.  She was no longer going to be some pleasure object for men, and she wouldn't do what a man wanted unless she too wanted the same for herself.  And I felt that she especially wouldn't let a man control her and change her...that is until the end.  O'Neill had one of those unpredictable endings, and not in a good way.  Here is part of the exchange between Mat Burke, the man Anna loves, and Anna.

Burke: For I've a power of strength in me to lead me the way I want, and women too, maybe,  and I'm thinking I'd change you to a new woman entirely, so I'd never know,  or you either, what kind of woman you'd been in the past at all.

Anna: Yes, you could Mat! I know you could!

Burke: And II'm thinking 'twasn't your fault, maybe, but having that old ape for a father that left you to grow up alone, made you what you was.  And if I could be believing 'tis only me you-

Anna: You got to believe it, Mat!  What can I do?  I'll do anything, anything to want to prove I'm not lying!

Well so much for a strong female, this play was obviously written by a male for males.  And apparently the Pullitzer committee also thought it was a good play.  I felt the little exchange was terrible and ruined the play, but maybe it is just me.  Maybe I found more problems with how she became weak at the end of the play than the troublesome past of hers.

Up next of O'Neill's is The Hairy Ape.

#57 God Emperor of Dune

423 pages.

Its been over a week since I lost my internet and I have some catching up to do.   To begin with, Dune.  This is the fourth book in the Frank herbert written series, and so far this may be the most confusing.  I could not understand the motives of the characters.  How do you convincingly write a character that is godlike in intelligence and prescience?  The answer is: you can't.  At least not convincingly and in a comprehensible way.

Other than the batshit crazy plot, it had moments of pleasurable reading.  Here's hoping the 5h book in the series is more memorable.