Saturday, June 30, 2018

Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Last year I read and wrote about The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison. Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian starts out disappointing, but once it kicks in, is a wonderfully satisfying and beautifully written book.

When we meet Steinberg, he is somewhat adrift, having abandoned his religious studies at Yeshiva University, escaping to Harvard, but graduating with no discernible direction or passion to find one. The writing is snarky and self-deprecating; the tone is pure staccato. I thought Running the Books might be one of those "guy reads" that I find shallow and irritating.

But when Steinberg accepts a position as a prison librarian -- with no experience in either prisons or libraries -- the writing slows down, and it blossoms. Perhaps the early tone is meant to reflect Steinberg's state of mind at the time. Once it kicks in, the writing is beautiful, and the book is a wonderfully satisfying read.

Steinberg introduces the reader to the prisoners -- both men and women -- who frequent his library, with a keen eye for detail, a wry humour, and a voice suffused with compassion.

The library is a prison hang-out, a somewhat less supervised space where inmates can interact a bit more freely. In this way, Steinberg is witness to interactions an outsider normally would never see. Steinberg also runs a writing class, where inmates reveal bits of their lives and emotions.

The library also functions as an underground post office: prisoners leave each other messages -- known as "kites" -- in books. Many of these messages are romantic in nature, as the male and female inmates live in separate areas, and their paths rarely cross. Steinberg is supposed to destroy these notes, but he cannot bring himself to be so punitive about communication. He copies the messages into a notebook, and they form a sad, lonely core at the heart of this book.

I really liked Steinberg's writing, but I liked his point of view even more. He writes about the inmates with open eyes, not trying to romanticize or sugar-coat their crimes, but also with an open heart, one that recognizes the social complexities that may bring one person to prison and the other to rehab, with completely different outcomes. He is clearly changed by his experience, but he leaves it up to the reader to judge both how he changed, and how much. [A version of this review appeared on wmtc.]

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Dinosaurs are a persistent source of fascination for many people. Everything about earth’s ancient prehistoric past freezes the workaday humdrum reasoning part of our brain and liberates the imagination. Asking the question, What would it have been like to live back then? is inevitable with even the slightest perusal  into this topic (FYI, for much of the time, especially for the first generation of dinosaurs, it would have felt very much like living in a sauna). Author Steve Brusatte is a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and his book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reads like an epic.

The book is all about the dinosaurs but also discusses the planetary conditions that lead up to the proliferation of the many dinosaur species. Included in the narrative are several of the mass extinction events with special emphasis on the Permian extinction event roughly 250 million years ago.  The Permian extinction wiped out perhaps as much as 90% of the living species on earth. Slowly over millions of years the living animate things rebounded and the stage was set for the rise of the massive reptilian creatures of popular imagination. And there were many, many species of these house sized reptiles. One of the startling facts encountered within the pages of this book is the ongoing and frequent discover of ever new species of dinosaurs.

What makes Brusatte’s story so interesting and what separates his account from many others I have read is the emphases placed on current technology and the creative efforts of scientists to “get inside the heads” of the dinosaurs. What did they think? How did they sense the world? How did they hunt their prey? Researchers in our day with all the latest gadgets that the year 2018 has on offer are attempting to squeeze every ounce of information out of the fossil records.  The results are intriguing and provide an almost visceral glimpse into the lives of these huge creatures.

For a topic of this size (pun intended), The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is not an overwhelming read. The tone is actually quite conversational and is filled with the author’s observations about his profession. His enthusiasm for the subject and his delight with every new discovery is evident on every page. If you wanted one volume on the latest research into all things dinosaurs this could be the book for you.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence

The word "Psychedelic" has many connotations for people. When I hear the word I tend to think about the 1960s and Hippie culture---a time of experimentation and a more casual attitude to recreational drug use. But those carefree years are long gone. A plethora of warnings about abuse and the potential lethal nature of psychedelics ended the carefree part of the 60s. Governments around the world have prohibited the recreational use of these substances noting the growing list of dangers to public health. So what are psychedelics? They are drugs that alter the normal functioning of the brain; essentially they are chemicals that if not taken with extreme caution can permanently damage one's cognitive capacities, even potentially kill the one taking them. Given this reality, the reader will be surprised to find author Michael Pollan's considered suggestion that society rethink its ban on psychedelics, and even make access to them more available to the general public.

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is one of the better known psychedelics but there are many others. Mind altering drugs have been used by people since fire was invented and food was retrieved only at the end of a stone tipped club and after a major chase. That is to say psychedelics have been around for a long time. However, it has only been relatively recently that scientific experiments have been conducted on these substances and the true natures of their chemical compositions have been identified. A good part of the narrative of the book is taken up with tracing the harrowing experiments by naive researchers who took rather large doses of these drugs all in the name of scientific progress. These unexpected trips to La-La-Land make for interesting reading.

Without spoiling the surprise, the author takes the drugs.

Michael Pollan wanted to write from experience and so he tried a variety of psychedelic drugs in controlled environments (or as close to controlled as he could get) with an assortment of characters ranging from doctors to New Age gurus. His own honest (even to the point of embarrassing) revelations about his experiences are genuine and interesting as is his research into the possible uses of these drugs to help with an assortment of psychological ailments form depression to addiction. Pollan talks to many experts in the medical field as well as non-professionals who have spent their lives promoting and "researching" the use of these substances. Every one of them has something of value to add to the discussion.

The most interesting portion of the book, for me, was the connection he draws between the experiences people have while under the influence of these drugs and the experiences mystics have especially during meditation. The seeming similarity of the experiences raises fascinating questions. What is consciousness? How is it created by the brain? Is it a creation of the brain? Can consciousness happen without the brain? The mystics and the drug-tripping connoisseur have each experienced---in their own admittedly very different ways---an ineffable bliss and a something else. What is this else? Pollan wrestled mightily with the the nagging question that, perhaps, lurks behind every sentence in this book: what do these psychedelic experiences mean? Is it too simplistic to say "Its just the drugs talking."

The mysteries of the mind are ancient. Psychedelic drugs raise many interesting questions about the brain and altered states of consciousness. Pollan provides no simple solutions and the mysteries remain once the covers of the book are shut. Yet, after his experiences using psychedelics he is now more open-minded about the possibility of a realm beyond our everyday waking-conscious state. This  revelation combined with the now growing evidence of the potential health benefits of controlled use of these substances make for good reasons to reassess society's stance on psychedelic drugs.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Brimming with interesting anecdotes and intriguing facts, Spineless: the science of jellyfish and the art of growing a backbone is written in an engaging style that highlights the author’s academic background (she has a PhD in Ocean Science from USC) and her work as a textbook writer, especially when she connects obscure scientific concepts with tangible examples that most people can relate to.

Juli Berwald’s message to readers resonates in her journey from a hapless undergraduate to the discovery of her passion and fascination for jellyfish and the journey she embarks on to become an advocate for the preservation of underwater ecosystems. She details centuries of human discovery and scientific exploration of the world’s oceans while also highlighting the changes that have occurred as climate change, industrial fishing and sea transport have evolved.

In imparting this knowledge and raising awareness, Berwald also admits that there is no unique or singular solution to the changes being wrought under the oceans (and above it as well) but the urgency of her call to action is present throughout the book. She writes passionately about this subject, as can be seen from this passage:

We have reached a moment in history when we control the chemistry and biology of our planet. We are that powerful. But we are also endowed with gifts of even greater power. We have the capacity to communicate, to learn quickly, to change course, to create and re-create, to make decisions for the health of the oceans, to speak up. We can protect this stunning planet we all share if we grow a collective spine.

(Juli Berwald)

By focussing on jellyfish, Berwald provides a window through which the reader can see the need for awareness of the issues she discusses. As readers delve into the world of jellyfish and the complex ecosystems they inhabit, they will realize why jellyfish are being used by oceanologists as markers for tracking change in the oceans. One example that Berwald provides is in the jellyfish’s ability to thrive in acidic conditions. As ocean acidity increases year by year so do jellyfish populations, threatening the safe operations of nuclear power plants, of fish and plankton that are their natural and unnatural prey, as well as the safe use of beaches visited by people around the world. The impact can be devastating to many and that is the message the author wants readers to take away.

However, If that was the only message then this would be a dreadful read. It is not because Berwald has seamlessly included all sorts of interesting information about jellyfish as well. Partly from research and expert interviews, the information includes the jellyfish connection to the legend of medusa, the manner in which they reproduce and their potential powers of immortality.

Other pieces come from adventures that Berwald has embarked upon in her journey to becoming an advocate, such as trips jellyfishing along the West coast and her travels to Japan to swim with giant jellyfish. For those readers who feel up to it, there are some “try-it-at-home” adventures as well, such as having a jellyfish salad and keeping jellyfish as pets (Berwald’s attempt at the latter was unsuccessful, much to the noted dismay of her children).

There is a lot to discover in this book, and it is an easy engaging read. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in learning more about the world underwater or an interest in gaining more knowledge about the effects of climate change.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa by Douglas Rogers was recommended to me. I have not read a book that was personally recommended to me in years. I usually have so many of my own books to read, or get them from the library, that I have ignored any titles that others may have recommended. The Last Resort tells the story of the author's parents and their resort in Zimbabwe at the time when the Mugabe government was expropriating farms owned and operated by white farmers. Rogers, born in Zimbabwe yet living in London, wrote a personal and detailed account of the government's encroachment upon his parents' property. Rosalind and Lyn Rogers, both born and raised in Zimbabwe, operated Drifters, the name for their home and backpacker lodge located in Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe near the Mozambique border. Douglas made frequent trips to Drifters and saw the ominous signs of governmental interference with each visit. Little by little the lodge was taken away from them, from the type of tenants who occupied the cabins to the sort of "business" operated within. Irony of ironies is that Drifters was not even classified by government inspectors as a farm, as it had no arable land. It was a money-making resort which was exempt from expropriation. Drifters was famous enough to have been written up in the Lonely Planet travel guides. 

In spite of government assurance that their property would not be expropriated because of its designation as non-farmland, Ros and Lyn were always prepared for a visit from the authorities and kept a rifle by their bedside. They did not live in fear, however. They went about their day-to-day business even while neighbouring farms were taken over or their farmers were attacked. They allowed the greenery around their resort to grow wild and untrimmed in order to hide it. The Rogerses never accepted whatever whimsical policies or characters the Mugabe regime sent their way. All too often they were met with a cloud of personless bureaucracy whenever they needed to talk to someone. Typical of Zimbabwean bureaucracy in the age of Mugabe was the endless runaround or goose-chase the farm owners had to contend with. The plight Ros had to endure to renew her passport will leave you with multiple eyerolls paired with bursts of exasperated laughter. Throughout this entire ordeal Douglas kept the laughs coming. You'd never think that a son, whose parents could face immediate eviction from a nighttime raid, would find anything funny in the matter. 

Douglas outlined the reasons behind Zimbabwe's hyperinflation when the government simply printed more money in its attempt to deal with the economic crisis. He made the story of the country's economic meltdown seem suspenseful and appealing. The national treasury printed banknotes in higher upon higher denominations, and the economy fell further into chaos. Ros Rogers wrote to her son:

"'I thought we had reached the bottom, but the elevator keeps going down,' Mom wrote to me. 'We are passing the basement now. Nevertheless, it is quite exciting to watch. You never know what a new day will bring.'"

Ros and Lyn had an incredible sense of resilience to feel this way. They never felt defeated as Drifters drifted into the hands of prostitutes, pimps, diamond miners and drug dealers. 

After I read this book I contacted the author via his website. The site featured dozens of colour photos of all the people in the book, including many of Ros and Lyn Rogers, as well as Drifters and the surrounding property. In my E-mail to Douglas I asked about his family and the state of Drifters. I am sad to say that in the preceding week, while I was still reading The Last Resort, Ros Rogers had died. Douglas had just visited his mother and father in Mutare. He told me that since the publication of The Last Resort, his parents had become quite famous and received many visitors, however Drifters has since closed. I love to reach out to authors when their books move me and the Rogerses' struggle against adversity will leave you feeling empowered among gales of laughter. I am truly saddened to hear of the death of Rosalind Rogers.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

God's Wolf

According to the judgment of history, Reynald De Chatillon was a “Bad Guy” of the highest caliber. All opinions in, allies and foes; they all agree. Stories abound of his cruelties. He’s so bad, he could have been buddies with Prince Vlad the Impaler, if only he’d lived three hundred years later.

God’s Wolf, a biography of the Crusader Reynald de Chatillon, is out to prove this abiding opinion wrong.

Author Jeffrey Lee, a journalist with a background in Arabic and Islamic history, takes the 843-year bad reputation of Reynald de Chatillon, knight of the Second Crusade, and turns it on its head.

Granted, Reynald was an upstart. The younger son of a lesser lord in France, he came on crusade to make his career, like many others of his class. And that he did. He married well, and very likely for love. He became the highly effective Prince of the great city of Antioch and the stepfather of the Empress of Byzantium--a marriage alliance that he orchestrated.  Then mid-career, mid-aggression, he was captured and incarcerated as a POW in Aleppo. Nur al-Din held him for fifteen years; one of the longest POW imprisonments of the era.

Upon being released, Reynald learned he had lost everything. His family, possessions, and princely holdings were all gone.  Reynald had to rebuild his reputation as a loyal king’s man, unbowed by years of torture and confinement, and to convince the influential men in Jerusalem that he was still a chivalrous preudhomme.  That he did, for the second time in his life.  

Reynald did gain something in the fifteen years he spent jailed in his enemy’s dungeon. He developed a deep knowledge of Muslim habits and horrors. He also gained a capacity for revenge.

Other influential men who had been jailed with him (but not for nearly so long), specifically Raymond, Count of Tripoli, became sympathetic to the Muslim leaders.  Raymond of Tripoli became a traitor to the Crusader cause, sowing doubt and dissension as well as deceptively leading hundreds of men in war, only to turn tail and leave them to their deaths. Raymond was one of the men who was left to tell the enduring stories that colour Reynald in evil shades.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Crusades were a very dark time in world history, an example of the ills of colonialism at its very worst. And yes, Reynald was cold-blooded and cruel, and his audacious gouges at the heart of Islam still show the scars to this day.  However, the Western view of Reynald’s contributions in this seminal time in world history is strangely negative. This is despite the fact he was not alone in perpetrating these kinds of offenses, and that he was always a king’s man, and that he was true to all the attributes of chivalry, as identified at the time.     

Lee writes so engagingly that this book almost reads like a novel. It’s a fascinating polemic that re-examines the primary sources and the biases they reveal. Lee looks at all the facts; from Frankish, Byzantine and Arabic sources; to forge a new opinion on this much-maligned figure from history. And he does it in highly-readable style, incorporating fun references to the films The Manchurian Candidate and Ridley Scott’s historically inaccurate Kingdom Of Heaven. This is a fast-paced read that will provoke and challenge--a great book club choice! 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Browse: The World in Bookshops

Browse: The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings, is a collection of fifteen short reminiscences about the personal significance bookshops had on a diverse assortment of international authors. Half of the stories Hitchings included were not originally written in English, so he employed the work of at least seven translators. My favourite retail space is a bookstore, and specifically a second-hand bookstore. In the introduction Hitchings revealed the hidden secret of second-hand books and the function of their new resting place:

"Discarded books are 'repositories of the lives they've been so close to', and a second-hand bookshop is a museum of special moments in those lives."

I have read many books about Finland and languages which I no longer intend to keep. If I slipped them into my library's ongoing book sale I wonder what the browsing public might think. There's a nerdy Fennophile linguist in our midst!

Juan Gabriel Vásquez wrote about the charm of bookstores: 

"A good bookshop is a place we go into looking for a book and come out of with one we didn't know existed. That's how the literary conversation gets widened and that's how we push the frontiers of our experience, rebelling against its limits. This is something else online commerce deprives us of: on a website we cannot discover anything, we can't bump into the unexpected book, because an algorithm predicts what we're looking for and leads us--yes, mathematically--only to places we already know."


"The best bookshops are places where the principle of serendipity, which in broad strokes consists of finding the book you need when you don't yet know you need it, presents itself in all its splendour. A reader's life is, among other things, this tissue of opportune coincidences."

I would go one degree further and state, to me personally at least, that Vásquez's remarks are more poignant when referring specifically to second-hand bookstores. Retail establishments that sell new imprints are to some extent predictable. If you want a new book, you will find it there. A second-hand store offers no guarantees what you'll find. The sense of discovery is all the more exciting when you find titles you never thought existed. Such were my experiences shopping at Schoenhof's, a foreign languages bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While the majority of the stock was in fact new, some of the language-learning materials specifically were old enough to be out of print. When their bricks-and-mortar store was still in existence I would spend hours there literally browsing the languages from A to Z. My blog posts are full of discoveries of spontaneous joys. The store operates only on-line now. My favourite retail establishment remains Helsinki's Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, the largest bookstore in Nordic Europe. 

Michael Dirda wrote:

"As a boy, I could lose myself utterly in a book; now I seem to lose myself only in used bookstores. Alas, neither sweet surrender nor wide-eyed wonder, except fleetingly, is advisable for a professional reviewer. Moreover, I'm one who, even on holiday, can't start an Agatha Christie paperback without a pencil in his hand. My mind tends to interrogate any text, on the alert for clues, telling details, key passages, the secret engines of the story. As a result, while reading remains a pleasure, it's become a guarded pleasure, tinged with suspicion. Quite reliably, however, my heart still leaps with childlike joy at the sight of row after row of old books on shelves."

Dirda gets two of my passions down in one paragraph: browsing in used bookstores and always reading in a reviewer's mindset. I will post a review of every book I read, even for books long out of print. 

Browse was a fast weekend read which will take you back to your fondest bookstore memories.