Book Read: The Night Watchman

The Night WatchmanThe Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
My wife, Jody, and I finished reading Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman recently. So much has been spoken and written about this book; it would be silly to attempt any kind of a review. I gave it five stars. Several things make this event notable, though, and I thought them worth sharing.

  • Jody and I read simultaneously. (I should say Jody read it and I listened to most of it as an Audible audiobook. More about that later.) We’ve often read the same book, the readings sometimes separated by only a few weeks, but this is the first time that we ever read the same book at the same time.
  • We read this book so that we could participate in WNYC’s “Get Lit” program, hosted by Alison Stewart. According to the WNYC’s website, “Get Lit” is “a monthly on-air, social media, and live stream book club.” WNYC partners with the New York Public Library to make a number of ebook copies available to New York residents. On 2 December we watched the live discussion between Alison Stewart and Louise Erdrich. That discussion is available for streaming on the “Get Lit” webpage. Ms. Stewart was, of course, prepared with excellent questions, and she also read questions that had been submitted by readers. Ms. Erdrich is a pleasure to listen to.
  • The Audible version of The Night Watchman, read by Louise Erdrich herself, was made available by Overdrive, a free source for ebooks and audiobooks that can be accessed using my public-library card. Having finally joined the mature twenty-first century (the part of the century with smart phones), I use the Overdrive app to listen while I walked at lunch time. This is the first time I’ve listed to an audio book, Audible or otherwise. While I still greatly prefer reading ink on paper, and I will also read ebooks, I was pleasantly surprised by the audiobook experience. Having a free source such as Overdrive is a great alternative when the local library consortium doesn’t have the print version of a book.
  • This year many of us who are white have spent a lot of time and energy trying to come to terms with racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. The Night Watchman reveals another chapter in the story of white supremacy. We whites of European descent have abused our power and privilege in an attempt to wipe Indigenous culture, if not Indigenous people themselves, from North America.

If you are looking for some serious reading or listening for the long winter nights ahead, find a copy of The Night Watchman to listen to or read.

Thanks for stopping by.


Book Read: Nature’s Best Hope

Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your YardNature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy

In the spring of 2020 we replaced eighty square feet of our front lawn with a native perennial garden in the hopes of attracting more bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds to our yard and neighborhood. We planted some of the usual suspects from our local garden center: black-eyed Susan, coneflower, butterfly weed, bee balm, and phlox. We got compliments from our neighbors, but more importantly, the garden attracted plenty of pollinators. Bumblebees and honeybees predominated, especially early in the summer, then they were joined by black and tiger swallowtail butterflies, monarch butterflies, and skippers. And those were the ones we recognized. Although we observed monarchs laying eggs on the butterfly weed, we never saw any monarch caterpillars. Black swallowtails laid eggs on the parsley in our vegetable patch, and we saw some caterpillars, but I don’t know if any survived to the chrysalis stage.

Looking back on the choice of plants, I wish I had read Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope a year earlier. I might have included a few different plants. Tallamy presents an ambitious proposal that he refers to as Homegrown National Park: Private landowners, including homeowners, should replace half of their lawn areas with gardens that feature native perennials, or with native trees, to provide habitat and forage for native bees, butterflies, and moths. This, in turn, will attract the birds that eat the larvae of these insects.

Picture hundreds or thousands of tiny nature preserves in your city or town, no one of them more than a few dozen yards from another similar site. In the northeastern United States, where I live, you could drive from eastern Massachusetts to Northern Virginia and almost never be more than a few hundred yards from a collection of these preserves. Migratory insects and birds, some of whom travel the same corridor, would never be out of sight of a source of food and shelter.

What will creating Homegrown National Park accomplish? It will increase biodiversity at a time when many plant and wildlife species face human-caused extinction. These extinctions are a symptom of the havoc that humanity has wreaked on the natural world by building on it, paving it, filling it with lawns and nonnative plants and trees, and dumping our household and industrial wastes on it.

There would also be direct and immediate value for the people in the communities where this initiative takes root. Much has been written in recent years about the value and importance of spending time in the natural world. Consider, for example, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams. Or think about the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. How many people were a little better able to hold it together despite the isolation of a lockdown because they were able to spend a few minutes visiting green spaces in their local communities or just strolling their neighborhoods?

Planting native perennials and trees also reduces our carbon footprint. Native flowering perennials and trees don’t get mowed. They build extensive and deep root systems that transport carbon into the soil. If we leave the plant debris when the plants die back, and allow some of the leaves that fall from the trees to remain on the ground, more carbon is being sequestered. That also helps the insect and bird populations in the colder months.

Why recruit private landowners to this endeavor? Governments could achieve similar results on local, state, and federally owned land, but they have other priorities, and often sway in the prevailing political, cultural, and economic winds when considering environmental policy and action.

If you live in a private home, or own other real estate that includes lawn areas, would you consider converting up to half of your lawn to a native perennial garden? Would you plant native trees on your property, even if you knew, as I do, that you weren’t likely to enjoy the shade of those trees yourself? Give it some thought. Then borrow, download, or buy a copy of Nature’s Best Hope and start planning your own corner of Homegrown National Park.

Thank you for stopping by.


Book Read: White Lies

White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide UsWhite Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us by Daniel Hill
I received a free copy of White Lies from the publisher, Zondervan, by way of a giveaway conducted by The Englewood Review of Books.

Daniel Hill’s White Lies is an important and valuable addition to a growing mass of books about white supremacy by white authors. I finished reading it just after listening to a podcast that featured a conversation with Esau McCaulley, author of Reading While Black. Both McCaulley and Hill would affirm that there is only so much that white authors can teach any audience about white supremacy, racial injustice, and the path toward racial equity and justice. Daniel Hill would acknowledge that, but he has clearly made it his mission to learn and to teach as much as he can given that circumstance.

There is also only so much that white readers, and especially white male readers like me, can learn by reading such work. Our longstanding claims to and benefits from privilege and power keep us from grasping the scope and magnitude of racial injustice and inequity in the United States. That should never keep us from doing the work needed to achieve that grasp, though.

Daniel Hill clearly understands that personal narrative is quite effective in communicating even the most complex arguments. The ten chapters in this book are filled with stories of the challenges that he has faced in his pursuit of racial literacy and justice, and that his BIPOC collaborators have faced in the lived reality of racial injustice. One cannot begin to see racial injustice until its victims and its perpetrators have names and life stories.

Hill does not hesitate to burst the blissful bubbles that we privileged white people form around us. The first chapter after the introduction is titled “Stop Being Woke;” the second, “Beware of Diversity.” The remaining chapters are a bit more predictably titled, but the arguments are no less pointed.

Here I would invite any who happen to read this to argue with this observation: The pronouns that Daniel Hill uses most frequently are first person and singular. At times the stories read like long humble brags. Obviously that is not the intention, but it does have the effect of making Hill the hero of his own story. With that one criticism noted, I can heartily recommend White Lies to anyone who wants a better grasp of white privilege and the lies we tell ourselves to sustain it.

Thank you for stopping by!


Book Read: The Story of More

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from HereThe Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren

Before you read The Story of More, which I would recommend you do, you might want to locate a copy of Lab Girl, Hope Jahren’s memoir and first book, published in 2016. It will tell you much more about who Hope Jahren is than the one-paragraph biography on the back cover of The Story of More.

The Story of More is written for a popular audience, and more specifically for American consumers. In nineteen chapters, Jahren presents stories and data that describe changes in basic consumer products like sugar, meat, and fish, and the impacts that those changes have had on the environment. She writes about electricity generation, travel and transportation, and fossil fuels. She describes melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, vanishing forests, and mass extinctions. Unlike other books on climate change, The Story of More doesn’t often venture into apocalyptic scenarios that will result from these changes.

The Story of More does venture into some simple pronouncements on how American consumers can have a positive impact on climate change. Jahren points to energy conservation as a broad strategy: “[E]nergy conservation by its very definition requires the least effort of any approach [to climate change]. It is a strong lever by which we could pull ourselves back into alignment with a future that our grandchildren might survive.” (p. 169)

Readers might wonder about Hope Jahren’s not prescribing specific changes for consumers to make, but that lack of specificity reflects the genius of The Story of More. She wants consumers to do their homework and find the features of their lives where changes could have the most impact:

Pick out one change that you can make. Can you drive fewer miles? Carpool? Eliminate some of your plane trips? Use public transportation? By 40 percent less food (especially the items you notice finding their way to the garbage)? Avoid sugared foods? Eat fewer meals of meat each week? Reuse plastic objects more than twice? More than three times? Keep your thermometer lower during the winter and higher during the summer? By locally? Buy less? Give up more? (p. 179)

Hope Jahren also doesn’t provide a prescriptive reading list. She describes at length the institutions and organizations from which she gathered data, and she encourages readers to do their own research to gather information that they can use most readily in making their own lifestyle changes.

The Story of More is a quick read, and if readers pay attention and take Hope Jahren’s pleas to heart, they can make a lasting impact.

Book Read: The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret WorldThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

Is the onset of cool weather and the promise of colorful trees calling you to spend some time in the woods? Consider borrowing or picking up a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben to take with you. Wohlleben anthropomorphizes trees. In thirty-six vignettes he uses traits and behaviors that we think of as exclusively human (or at least limited to mammals and birds) to explain many features of the lives of trees, including

  • How they grow
  • How they propagate
  • How they defend themselves
  • How they communicate with one another and with other species
  • Where they get their nourishment
  • How they transport water
  • How they respond to adverse weather
  • What threats affect trees in urban settings
  • How long they can live
  • What happens when they die

You get the picture. Trees not only have enemies, they recognize them and send warnings to other trees when enemies are attacking. Trees have friends, and they take care of each other. They seem to be able to measure the length of a day in order to determine when to bloom and set out new leaves or shut down and discard those leaves. Trees abandon territory that has become inhospitable because of increasing cold or heat. Generation by generation they will move to places where they can thrive.

Peter Wohlleben could easily have turned parts of this book into a tract against commercial forestry, an industry in which he earned his living for many years. His prophetic message is, instead, understated: “Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.” (p. 244)

In March 2020 I published a post asking if trees can be lonely. Peter Wohlleben would say “Yes, they can!” Sadly, the tree I wrote about was already dead when I wrote that post, but I didn’t realize it at the time, and I was hoping that it would show signs of life when spring arrived. Did my tree die of loneliness? Again, Wohlleben might say “yes.” His description of the emotional and intellectual life of trees also reminds me of Stevland, a sentient bamboo that learns to communicate in writing to humans in Sue Burke’s excellent sci-fi novel, Semiosis.

In Peter Wohlleben’s view, all of life, be it vegetable or animal life, possesses intelligence and is capable of using that intelligence to interact with the world around it. He closes out his final vignette with some speculation about what trees might have to offer beyond products of commercial value. We should care about trees “because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with. Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take your next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination — in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality, after all!” (p. 244)

Thanks for stopping by!


Book Read: Wanderlust

Wanderlust: A History of WalkingWanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the United States was on the upward slope of the first wave of infections, many states, including my home state of New Jersey, ordered residents to stay at home and venture out for essential business only. Included in the order was a provision that residents could venture outside for exercise. Walking became a popular pastime. My wife Jody and I spent many hours walking the streets of our suburban neighborhood. (More about walking in suburban neighborhoods later.)

As much as I rely on walking to get from one place to another, to take my eyes away from the computer screen, or to burn a few calories, I haven’t give the act of walking much thought. Rebecca Solnit has given walking a lot of thought. In Wanderlust: A Brief History of Walking, she has filled almost 300 pages with the results of that thought and research, supported by twenty-six pages of endnotes.

Although it is thoroughly documented and includes an index, Wanderlust does not read like a textbook. This excerpt from a discussion of labyrinths demonstrates Solnit’s desire to move her readers not to an academic understanding of her subject but to a personal appreciation and appropriation: “[N]arrative writing is . . . closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide — a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted on to take one somewhere.” (p. 72)

In seventeen chapters, Rebecca Solnit discusses walking in its connection with learning, teaching, and philosophizing. Walking enables contemplation, Walking can be part of a pilgrimage or a journey of self-discovery. Walking in such events as walkathons represents a mutant form of pilgrimage. Walking can provide religious education through the exploration of medieval church architecture or through such devices as labyrinths or the Catholic Stations of the Cross. Walking enables freedom, escape, discovery, and appreciation. Connecting walking with a different art form, poetry, Solnit here discusses the travels of Dorothy and William Wordsworth.

Walking yields conquest or triumph as when one climbs a mountain. Walking is employed in confronting and protesting injustices. Walking serves romantic purposes. Walking the streets amounts to solicitation. Finally, walking itself can be art.

In a chapter titled “Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanized Psyche,” Solnit discusses the curse that is modern suburban sprawl. Her history of walking is a history of cities and countrysides. “Suburbs are bereft of the natural glories and civic pleasures of those older spaces, and suburbanization has radically changed the scale and texture of everyday life, usually in ways that are inimical to getting about on foot.” (p. 250) Suburban residents drive wherever they need to go, even if wherever they need to go is only a few blocks away. One possible reason, although she doesn’t directly cite it as such, is that “[s]uburban sprawls generally make dull places to walk, and a large subdivision can become numbingly repetitive at three miles an hour instead of thirty of sixty.” (p. 253)

Our suburban neighborhood can be considered a subdivision; most of the houses, including ours, are Cape Cod-style homes built in the 1950s. They have been expanded and modified over the decades so that no two adjacent homes look the same, but walking the neighborhood day after day can become tedious, as Jody can attest. That won’t keep us from walking, though.

The approach of cooler weather and the persistence of limitations imposed by the pandemic might be encouraging you to spend more time walking. Wanderlust will help you understand why walking is such an essential human activity.

Be well and at peace. Thank you for stopping by.


Book Read: The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Over the last few years, and especially over the last few months, people in my circle of friends and acquaintances have been coming to terms with issues of racism, racial justice, and white privilege and supremacy. We’ve read books and periodical articles, listened to sermons, podcasts, and radio programs, and watched videos. Personal stories abound in these resources, from Emmett Till’s to George Floyd’s. Those stories help us understand that racism and related behaviors and issues are not abstractions. They affect real people.

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson uses the stories of three individuals to school her readers on racism in the United States. These three are among the six million Blacks who left their lives and homes in the South behind between 1916 and 1970 and moved north and west in a sociological phenomenon that became known as the Great Migration.

I don’t remember learning about the Great Migration when I learned U.S. history in the 1960s and 1970s. It is alluded to briefly, although not called the Great Migration, in John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, which I read several years ago. Wilkerson does not refer to the great Mississippi Basin flood of 1927, but it is easy to see how it might have fit into her narrative: During the flood, Blacks in Mississippi were conscripted and ordered at gunpoint to work on reinforcing the levees along the lower Mississippi.

Wilkerson does not spare details when describing the mistreatment, abuse, and violence that Blacks have endured. She is also clear that the mistreatment and violence did not end when the migrants crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. White residents of communities where Blacks wanted to live would not permit that to take place. Landlords, employers, real-estate brokers, home sellers, banks, healthcare systems, school systems, and countless other individuals and institutions erected and maintained barriers to Black progress and well-being.

Those barriers might be less visible now, but they still exist. The Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequent efforts to treat Blacks as equal partners in the American experiment might have been the beginning of the end, but the end is still not in sight in many respects.

I write this as a white male who has enjoyed the benefits of white privilege my entire life. I make no claim of being woke or anti-racist. I still bear prejudices and attitudes that I might not rid myself of in my lifetime. Nonetheless, The Warmth of Other Suns has opened my eyes a little more to the injustices Blacks have endured in America for over four centuries. If you are looking to understand how Black lives have not mattered, or how they do matter and always have mattered, The Warmth of Other Suns is a great resource for gaining that understanding.

Thanks for stopping by. Be well!


Book Read: Inconspicuous Consumption

Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don't Know You HaveInconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg

Readers might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance as they move through this book. The message of the book could easily be “If you aren’t experiencing waves of panic, you aren’t paying attention.” But the text reads like the transcript of a comedy routine in many places. Here are a few examples:

As we covered in our section on monocultures that everyone will force their children to memorize because of the beauty of the prose and the fundamental wisdom of the insights, crops that are planted as monocultures are more susceptible to extreme weather events and pests.
(Page 91, in a chapter on food waste)

And what do we do with that excess of stuff that we now have? Do we treasure it and thank our lucky stars that we can buy an imitation Gucci bomber jacket for $10 and kiss the ground and love our parents and their parents for putting us on this verdant, splendid earth? Yep.
(Page 152, in a section on fast fashion)

There are so many things to give the British credit for: scones with cream and jam, Shakespeare, the idea that no one is above the law, ruthless colonialism, warm beer, I could go on.
(Page 186, in a section on using wood as a fuel)

In twenty-four chapters, Schlossberg covers much of our daily lives and activities, from entertainment to shopping to food to fashion to transportation to heating and air conditioning. In short, if we put on clothes, eat breakfast, go to work (even if we’re working from home), eat dinner, or watch a movie before heading off to bed, we’re doing something that in some way is damaging the environment. What’s worse, those of us who are fortunate enough to be considered middle class are damaging the environment in ways that will have a greater effect on those in lower socioeconomic strata.

At the moment it’s a bit harder than usual to focus on the environmental impact of my choices. I read the last chapters of Inconspicuous Consumption one evening. The next morning I was in line outside the local supermarket at 5:55 a.m., waiting to try my luck at finding ten days’ worth of groceries on shelves that had been stripped bare by panic shopping. It was five weeks into the state of emergency declared by the governor of New Jersey to curtail the spread of COVID-19. I’ve ordered things online, from e-tailers that I’ve never done business with before, that I can ordinarily find in the local supermarket. We haven’t had to put gas in our cars for weeks, which is a blessing, but we’ve used more soap and hot water, bleach and paper towels, in those five weeks than we have in the past five months.

On the other hand, It would be easy to pat myself on the back for long practices of composting kitchen scraps, recycling, drinking filtered tap water instead of water from plastic bottles, using reusable grocery bags, and wearing clothes until they are frayed and threadbare (much to my beloved wife’s chagrin). But I leave our WIFI router, cable TV box, digital clock-radios, and other devices that are constantly drawing power plugged in all day, every day. I can do more. I should do more.

I seldom say things like this, but every conscientious American should borrow this book from their local library and read it. It will open eyes and change attitudes. It won’t prescribe behavior or remedies to every concern that Tatiana Schlossberg raises. She admits in several places that there are no easy or obvious solutions, and it is impossible to say that things like e-commerce, fish farming, and large-scale agriculture are completely bad for the planet. But she connects enough dots to allow the reader to draw some pretty firm conclusions in many areas and take appropriate remedial action. She does so in a way that is approachable, not filled with dry statistics, nonjudgmental, and engaging in many places.

Thanks for stopping by.


Book Read: Borne

Borne (Borne, #1)Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is not the ideal time to be reading a postapocalyptic novel, especially one with passages as brutal and horror-filled as Borne has. I’ve read a few other postapocalyptic novels: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The Children of Men, and The Road. They all have violent passages, but much of the violence takes place off the page. Or maybe the images of the violence have faded in my memory. In any case, Borne has been a challenging read.

Interested readers can find plenty of synopses and reviews of the story, so I won’t attempt to provide one here. There is a clear environmental message—the apocalypse comes about through climate change—but Jeff VanderMeer also takes on corporate attempts at world domination and government collusion in those attempts. To balance those messages, VanderMeer weaves narratives of friendship; childlike playfulness and eagerness to learn; trust, mistrust, and distrust; courage, resilience, hope, and loyalty.

How do those narratives fit into such an outwardly dark novel? Surprisingly, they fit well. If the reader can tolerate sometimes graphic violence set in a bleak landscape, Borne will reward persistence.

Thanks for stopping by.


Book Read: An Ongoing Imagination

An On-Going Imagination: A Conversation about Scripture, Faith, and the Thickness of RelationshipAn On-Going Imagination: A Conversation about Scripture, Faith, and the Thickness of Relationship by Walter Brueggemann

My first real exposure to the work of Walter Brueggemann came in 2017, through reading one of his earliest and best known books, The Prophetic Imagination. I had also listened to his conversation with Krista Tippett, host of On Being, which I heard in December 2018. The title of the On Being episode was also “The Prophetic Imagination.”

An On-Going Imagination is a memoir or autobiography composed by interview. It consists of edited versions of conversations that Brueggemann had with his coauthor, Clover Reuter Beal, over several years beginning in 2011. Clover Reuter Beal is the Colead Pastor of Mountview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. She and her spouse, Timothy Beal, who edited the book, are former students of Brueggemann’s.

The book retains its conversational origins in its tone. It includes conversations about some complex theological subjects, and if time were to permit I would want to read further on those subjects in Brueggemann’s books and essays. That is the genius of the work. Walter Brueggemann is a brilliant man with a lot of intriguing things to say about scripture, theology, the state of the ancient world, and the state of the modern world. Further reading of his work on any of those subjects would be time well spent. It’s interesting, though, that the list of works cited and suggestions for further reading includes only sixteen titles. Then again, Walter Brueggemann has published over one hundred books.

In the chapter entitled “Divine Irascibility: An Astonishing and Scandalous God,” Brueggemann admits that some of what he sees as he examines the scriptures “confront[s] orthodox Christian theology in disturbing and fascinating ways.” I find some of his positions challenging. In challenging orthodoxies, though, Brueggemann’s goal is not to tear them down but to stretch them in ways that adherants ultimately will find beneficial.

John Knox Press sent me this book by way of a giveaway hosted by Englewood Review of Books. They asked for feedback, so this is an attempt at providing that for them.

Thanks for stopping by. Be well!