The January Book Choice Is:

Desert Notes by Barry Lopez

I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn’t believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here, the dust feels like graphite. You can hear a man breathe a distance of twenty yards. You can see out there to the edge where the desert stops and the mountains begin. You think it is perhaps ten miles. It is more than a hundred. Just before the sun sets all the colors will change. Green will turn to blue, red to gold.

Barry Lopez wrote his first book after spending time in the Alvord Desert in Oregon in the late 1960s. He was 24 at the time. He transformed what he took away from that experience into a set of poetic short stories, and it set his writing career into motion. This collection has a running theme of the human relationship with the natural world. His short story ‘Coyote and Rattlesnake’ explores the invasive nature of people, the encroachment and usurping; the big picture reveals that people are just passing through and are part of the wider narrative. Lopez is our country’s finest writer of the natural world and his work has heavily influenced subsequent generations of writers.

When Desert Notes was anthologized with River Notes & Animal Notes in 2014, Lopez wrote about his writing technique in the afterword:

“When I write a story, I am not trying to make a point or demonstrate any particular proficiency as a writer. I am trying to make the patterns of American cultural life more apparent, patterns any individual reader might be able to take further, metaphorically, than I am able to, patterns that I hope will serve the reader’s own search for meaning. In the creation of the story, it is the reader’s welfare, not the life of the writer, that is finally central.”

Barry Lopez’s latest book ‘Horizon’ will be released in March.

The December Book Choice Is:

The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife

Chris Skaife, yeoman warder of the Tower of London, is chief Raven Master there, and though he claims to not be a raven expert, he is as close as it comes to understanding, and more importantly, revering them. Chris is in charge of the general welfare and the keeping of the ravens. Currently there are seven ravens housed at the Tower and it is foretold that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, it will fall, along with London itself. Hence, the importance of the job, not the least being that it keeps the mythos alive. Chris speaks romantically of London with its rich backdrop and substantial past:

‘History and prehistory, legends, fables, and stories, they’re everywhere here. I sometimes think that the Tower is just a vast storehouse of the human imagination, and the ravens are its guardians.’

Yeoman warders are informally known as ‘beefeaters’ and besides being the guards of Her Majesty’s crown jewels, they chaperone the droves of tourists who visit the Tower. Chris guesses that he must be photographed nearly 400 times a day during the summer: ‘I reckon the ravens and I have probably featured in someone’s family album in every country in the world.’ Guilty as charged: I also have a photograph of a beefeater from a trip to London.

As the head of Team Raven, Chris has attuned his senses to his birds’ needs. Ravens are smart birds but much-maligned and they have more in common with us than we might think: ‘Ravens are creatures of habit, and even the slightest change to their daily routine can lead to stress and psychological problems. Sometimes by the time I pick up on a dispute between ravens, it’s too late. Like a lot of us, they tend to hide their sicknesses and their grievances. I assume it’s a self-protection mechanism. I’m not an expert on raven social systems, but I can see that they have complex social lives, with feuds and disagreements between them, just as we humans do.’

Check out Chris’s twitter feed at twitter.com/ravenmaster1 to see images of the Tower’s magnificent ravens.

The September Book Choice Is:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee


This is a real meat and potatoes kind of book, and centers on one Korean family spanning the 20th century. Prejudice and racism, obstinance and perseverance, food culture and family life, and sacrifice, they all play a part here. Lee’s characters are torn between the logic of self-preservation and the beauty of an ideal. The conflict between these two themes is salt and peppered throughout the book.

During the first part of the 20th century, government corruption and mismanagement drove many Korean citizens out of their country. Many settled in Japan as strangers in a strange land and settled into a second-class tier. Japan became rife with racism and it became nearly impossible for a Korean to make any gains. The poverty is tangible:

‘At the crowded bar, men were drinking and making jokes, but there hadn’t been a soul in that squalid room — smelling of burnt dried squid and alcohol — who wasn’t worried about money and facing the terror of how he was supposed to take care of his family in this strange and difficult land.’

Japan was no Shangri-La for the Koreans. It is the real world, in all its hardship. ‘Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.’ More like survival of the fittest on steroids. But even the thought of fitting in was repellent to some Koreans: ’You think I’m an animal, Moazsu thought: Then I can be an animal and hurt you.’

A decent job or education are things that every person should have a right to. With resolve, and a striving for beauty in life, (‘Once tender-hearted people seemed wary and tough’) Lee’s characters make a concerted effort to break the chain.

The September Online Book Choice Is:

Greensboro (A Requiem) by Emily Mann


Emily Mann wrote this play in 1996. It is a remembrance of events in Greensboro, North Carolina that ended in violence and the subsequent lack of justice that followed.

In November of 1979, a group of Communist Workers’ Party members, both black and white, demonstrated in Greensboro against the Ku Klux Klan. A shootout occurred and 5 demonstrators were killed by members of the Klan and the Nazi Party.

[demonstrator]
‘We just want the Klan to go – go home. If they live here, go home, if they live there, go there. But we will not have it. We will not tolerate it. If we have to die here, we’ll die here. But there will not be any Klan. Today, tomorrow – NEVER! DEATH TO THE KLAN!’

At the criminal trials, 15 white men were tried and found innocent by all white juries. The demonstrators then filed civil suits and a jury found the Greensboro Police Department responsible for the shootings because they knew beforehand that the Klan had planned violence.

[Lewis]
‘Take the Freedom Riders in the sixties, same thing. The Klan’d go to the local police and say: ‘Hey, these integrationists are comin’ down here. We want to go in and bash some heads,” and the police’d look at their watches and say: “Okay — we’ll give you twenty minutes.” So, the buses full of Freedom Riders would arrive on schedule — the Klan was there to greet them and where were the cops? Well — the cops had “gone to lunch”’.

In 2004, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that ‘the members of the Klan caravan headed for Greensboro with malicious intent. More importantly, Klan members have admitted since the event that they intentionally came prepared to use deadly force in order to be victorious in any violence that occurred.’

The Commission also concluded that ‘the Greensboro Police Department was fully aware of all this information, and in fact its own paid informant, the Klansman Eddie Dawson, acted in a leadership role in bringing the two sides into contact. Dawson’s police handlers had full knowledge of this role. Based on the confrontation at China Grove, we believe that even a small but noticeable police presence would almost certainly have prevented loss of life on Nov. 3, 1979.’

[Signe]
‘What I’m afraid of now is the same prejudices are operating, just attaching to different people … I mean, once there are categories of people who do not qualify as having full human stature — whether they are gays or communist or black people or whoever they are — I mean, once you can separate humanity that way, then you have already created an entire framework in which you can practice all kinds of oppression on people. And you can get away with it. As soon as you have that less than human thing operating, boy, you can do anything to people.’

After the events in Charlottesville this past August 11 & 12, the Greensboro City Council apologized for the massacre.

The May Online Book Choice Is:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf


This book is a good dive into modernist lit; like Joyce & Proust, it is a ‘day in the life of’ for essentially 3 main characters. It unfolds with one continuous train of thought which jumps from person to person. And Woolf uses stream of consciousness technique for all of her characters as well, with plenty of light/dark, life/death symbolism thrown in.

The book follows the preparations of Clarissa Dalloway planning an evening party for the upper echelon of London society. Varying thoughts and actions take place throughout; what people think, and of whom, but then there is the stray ribbon of Septimus, a WWI veteran not in Clarissa’s circle, suffering from post traumatic stress:

‘He would argue with her about killing themselves; and explain how wicked people were; how he could see them making up lies as they passed in the street. He knew all their thoughts, he said; he knew everything. He knew the meaning of the world, he said. Then when they got back he could hardly walk, He lay on the sofa and made her hold his hand to prevent him from falling down, down, he cried, into the flames! and saw faces laughing at him, calling him horrible disgusting names, from the walls, and hands pointing round the screen. Yet they were quite alone.’

Clarissa Dalloway is in the upper stratum of English society, which means rich, vain, bored, empty moments are meaningful only because they are what constitute the rich, vain, and bored person’s thoughts. But there is more to Clarissa than her fluff of party planning. She is recently recovered from serious illness which triggers a looking back on her life and the people she knew. Juxtaposed with this is Septimus (unknown to Clarissa) and his doctors who offer a one-fit cure-all for his post traumatic stress. A change of scenery is all he needs. How can he weather it?

‘Scientifically speaking, the flesh was melted off the world. His body was macerated until only the nerve fibres were left. It was spread like a veil upon the rock.’

And in the end, what can be weathered? And what is important? A man suffering? ‘…It must be the fault of the world then — that he could not feel.’ Or a woman planning a party? Woolf saw the importance in even the doldrum daily life of a bored, rich woman. And deftly, Woolf ties the ribbon of the shell-shocked soldier with the hostess.

There is a lyric quality to this book. One almost needs to read it aloud to absorb the full weight of words:

‘Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to it s gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all.’

Resistance to Civil Government

‘Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.’     — Thoreau

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