Book Review: Horizon

I admit: I had never heard or run across writer Barry Lopez before (as far as I remember), and I only got my hands on Horizon because it was in the Little Free Library in our neighborhood. The title and cover art caught my eye. I took a chance. Once inside book of powerful, exploratory essays by Lopez, I was hooked.

Later, after listening to an NPR retrospective of Lopez, who died late last year, I realized how strong was the resonance of his writing over time for many readers and writers.

A previous book — Arctic Dreams — won many accolades and his writing for environmental and science publications is a long and admirable list. I read Horizon (at 512 dense pages of story) over many months (rare for me to take that long with any book and to stay with it, but I wanted Lopez’s journeys across the world and observations about the changing climate, to settle with me over time).

His journeys here take him from his home in Oregon to Skraeling Island to Africa, Australia and the Antarctic, and beyond. Each place is so different, even as Lopez weaves the story of humanity and discovery into each location.

I would not call Lopez a travel writer, although his writing comes from his travels. He’s more of a naturalist, an environmental writer who wonders about the world and then goes out, and finds ways to discover and share his insights. He embeds himself with scientists of all ilk, and his wanderings take him to tropical places to arctic places, and everywhere in between.

It seems to me that Lopez is most interested in our collective human footprints on the world, for good and for bad, and how we might make sense of change through what has come before, and maybe make some adjustments for what comes next. Horizon is not an collection overtly about Climate Change, but the changing planet and humans role in that change is a constant underlying echo of everything here, and the topic that worries Lopez on his journeys.

He ends Horizon on a poetic note, asking the reader to wonder “what is out there, just beyond the end of the road …?” and suggests our collective future “arrives as a cantus, tying the faraway place to the thing living deep inside us, a canticle that releases us from the painstaking assembly of the milagros, year after year, and from a faith only in miracles.” (Lopez, p. 512, in Horizon)

I’m still mulling over those lines — maybe among the last he wrote —  and what they meant for Lopez, an experienced observer, and what the words might mean for me, and maybe for all of us.

Peace (looking out on horizon),
Kevin

PS — Cantus is a song from African culture; Canticle is a Christian hymn; and milagros are Mexican folk charms. I had to look up each of those words, and am grateful I did, and happy to share.

Book Review: Daemon Voices (On Stories and Storytelling)

There’s something to be said about stepping into the thinking pages of a talented writer, particularly one who has strong views on the world and yet who also has an open curiosity to the mysteries of stories. This is what you get when you read the essays inside Daemon Voices (On Stories and Storytelling) by Philip Pullman.

Pullman made his name with the His Dark Materials trilogy (which begins with The Golden Compass), is rich with allegory and fantasy, and his most recent fiction trilogy — The Book of Dust — pushes the story even further (with great success, I would argue). He writes with a quick pace of story and with an understanding of how to build an imaginative world that makes sense for that story to be told and for characters to be challenged within that world. These tension points are what drive Pullman’s tales.

Daemon Voices (On Stories and Storytelling) collected a series of lectures and writings he has done over the years about the art of writing. While some of it felt a bit too erudite for my tastes (and his debates about religion didn’t do much for me, so I power-read a few of the later chapters), his explorations of stories and characters, and themes, is quite intriguing, and his defense of children’s books as a legitimate art form with depth and artistry is worth a read alone. As a former teacher, Pullman understands what short thrift children’s stories often get, and argues that the field of criticism and publishing does not do it justice. Readers become writers, and readers become thinkers, Pullman notes.

I always enjoy crawling into the mind of a writer, to see what they see of the world. Of course, this experience is limited (we only see what he wants us to see), yet Pullman’s exploration of where his stories emerge from — mostly, unformed when he begins, and he finds the themes as he moves along into the story — and the way he remains open to inspiration as he writes is worth noting for anyone who writes.

Pullman is an intellectual guide into the art of the imagination.

Peace (dreaming of daemons and bears),
Kevin

Morning Poems, Collected, from Late Migrations

I really enjoyed the essay collection called Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss), and was working on poems as I was diving in through the book about nature and the world and personal stories (see my review of Margaret Renkl’s book). Sometimes, I write poems in the morning as a response to what I am reading.


– inspired by a reference to the sounds of grasshoppers in Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss) by Margaret Renkl

What I miss most
about the field before the woods
— where houses have been built
on soil, bulldozed, and rocks,
ripped clean of sand and mud —
would be the way you wrapped my hand –
such small fingers, gripping so tight –
as we took each foot, unbearably light,
triggering a tumult of grasshoppers in flight,
every step exploding like spores –
your voice leaping in laugh –
it might as well have been math
as much as magic at play,
the air becoming a perfect thrumming
following us all the way home


“Sometimes, when I haven’t slept or the news of the world, already bad, suddenly becomes much worse, the weight of belonging here is a heaviness I can’t shake.”
— from Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss) by Margaret Renkl, page 67

If only we were birds –
you and I in this wide
open sky –

then we might fly
without anchors weighed
on these tired feet,
this detritus of daily life
and shadows we can’t speak

Perhaps we’d bid the earth goodbye
to find the point
where horizons meet


— First lines are referenced from Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss) by Margaret Renkl, page 128

‘Poems
instead of
papers’

we don’t live
in a world
that values
verse

instead,
to be a poet
contains a crazy
concept

or worse,
a curse

Reclining into recluse
of inked words
and paper
dreams

we’re always
digging in,
to root the hurt,
to mine the
seams


“He will keep on singing until someone accepts his song.”
— from Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss) by Margaret Renkl, page 132

All night, on it goes,
these notes
he throws,
his music into air

she listens
to love songs
he sings;
pretends not to care


“For months the land has been pulling away from the edges of the world.”
— from Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss) by Margaret Renkl, page 169

And our footing’s lost
and trembling, too,
for even as these days
sing longer towards night,
even as the earth pulls ever on
towards beckoning seas,
all we may do now is notice
where it is that we are
and then write our way
where it is we have been,
fill our hearts with hope
that collision isn’t calamity


Peace (and poems in flight),
Kevin

Book Review: Squirm

Squirm by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiassen sure knows how to cook up a doozy of a young adult book. In Squirm, another in his series of books with environmental themes and young protagonist thwarting the evil greedies of the world, Hiassen spins a tale worth a read.

Billy, the hero here, lives in Florida with his sister and his mother, who moves whenever she needs to follow nesting Bald Eagles. Billy traps dangerous snakes. For fun. And for use in tormenting his tormentors. Billy’s father? Long gone, sending checks to support Billy’s family but little else.

Or not.

The story unfolds around a family unification theme of sorts, and with Billy traveling to Montana, where his long-lost father is doing something mysterious with drones in the wilderness, and where the tale suddenly veers into saving endangered species — the panther of the Florida Everglades — and a Grizzly Bear family in the wilds of the west. Billy also learns about his step-mother and step-sister, and their American Indian roots.

So, you know, typical Hiassen, and that’s not a bad thing. While I still think Flush is his best work in this genre (and I teach Flush as a class novel and kids just love it .. some are reading it right now, in fact), Squirm holds up just fine with humor, plot pacing and a story where looking out for the world continues to be the right thing to do.

Just ask Billy and his family.

Peace (in the wilds),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Stamped (Racism, Antiracism, and You)

Jason Reynolds reminds us again and again, This is not a history book. But it’s a book of our history, of our country’s racism and of how our country finds itself where it is, with huge divisions over race.

Stamped (Racism, Antiracism, and You) is Reynold’s ‘remix’ of Stamped From the Beginning (by Ibram X. Kendi), exploring how the construct of race continues to divide our nation. It arrived before all of the protests this past summer and fall, but it’s a book of that moment, too, of understanding the anger, and maybe, hopefully, providing a spark for change in the way we talk about race.

Reynolds, his narrative voice is loud and clear and  always very provocative, is a powerful guide in examining critically how slavery led to the place we’re at right now, today, and how institutional structures (and the people in power who don’t want to lose power) have long been designed to divide us as a nation. He advocates love but shines a light on injustice.

Reynolds divides people into three main categories:

  • Segregationist (who divides)
  • Assimilationist (who appeases)
  • Antiracist (who loves)

And while these divisions seemed a bit too simplistic, I think, they do capture some of the range of how people address, or don’t address, racism. The book — aimed at a young audience — seeks to frame each of these three categories through historical events and people, with Reynolds’ (and I suppose Kendi’s) critical lens on full display.

This book provided me, a white suburban teacher, another way to keep thinking about my own understanding of race. It is written primarily for a middle and high school audience and the book ends with a powerful call for change, for young people to be the generation that finally confronts race and forges a path forward.

“Perhaps they (the Black Lives Matter movement), the antiracist daughters of (Angela) Davis, should be held up at symbols of hope, for taking potential and turning it into power. More important, perhaps we should all do the same.” — from Stamped, by Jason Reynolds, page 243.

Maybe that’s what we were seeing in the streets all summer and beyond.

Peace (more necessary than ever),
Kevin

Book Review: Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss)

Someone here at my blog in a comment suggested this book by Margaret Renkl (a name I knew from the editorial pages of The New York Times) and it was just a lovely collection of short essays that thread the natural world to her family history. Thank you, Patricia, for the recommendation.

While each essay (some less than a page long, some two or three pages) could easily stand on its own as a piece of marvelous writing, the entire Late Migrations (A Natural History of Love and Loss) is best viewed from above, as she masterly weaves and threads her observations of the deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee) into the lore and stories of her own family’s roots in the same areas in the rural South.

I kept stopping and thinking, how did she do that? I heard echoes of Annie Dillard and others, for sure, but her voice is her own, and her observations of the birds and trees and roots and forests are full of insights of the world outside our doors. (It connects nicely to my last book ready, Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald, too.)

Reading this is a master class in the structuring of stories, and some of the sentences in this collection were so beautiful, so rich with imagery and insight, that I found myself reading them a few times just to let her words linger in my head (and inspire poems, which I will share another day).

A bonus is that her brother did the illustrations, and each one is an evocative work of art, tied to the writing and stories of Renkl, pulling visuals into the essay collection with perfect balance. The cover, for example, also could easily stand on its own, and the fact that it is her own brother just gives the artwork a little more magical power, I think.

Peace (outside in the world),
Kevin

Borrowed Lines: Poems Inspired by Vesper Flights

bird flight“bird flight” by suncana is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Reading Helen MacDonald’s essays in her book Vesper Flights inspired some of my morning poetry writing the last few weeks. Here are the poems that took flight from her words of birds, animals, nature and the world …


(inspired by High-Rise)

Above us;
insects in flight,
riding jet-streams
and wind eddies

while birds of prey,
always at the ready,
dive through night;

the sky teems
with life


(inspired by In Spight of Prisons)

Walk with me, awhile,
won’t you, and let us
wander into words …

Needless screens;
for if these diodes
of light and neon
beacons released us,
we’d see the sky,
not as pins, but as
remembered night

She doesn’t fly;
she only sings,
glitching her songs
to those who are
listening

It’s our own stories
that may yet save
us, the midnight
wanderer who recalls
lightning bugs and
glow-worms, the way
stars floating just above
this fleeting Earth
shimmered in mystery

We’re all mad,
scientists now,
pulling magic
into glass prisons,
dipping nature into tonic,
writing with wonder
of how the world
carries on, always,
even without us


”… the song continues, and the air around us is full of invisible wings.” — from Eulogy

Some things
get let go:

like falcons
at night, in
flight

like friends,
last breath, near
death

no longer mere
witness, listen:
invisible wings
flicker forgiveness


”… and then all at once, as if summoned by a call or a bell, they rise higher and higher and disappear from view.” – from Vesper Flights

Some mornings feel
like scattered words
on the wind

just sounds, we steal,
with hope a poem
might begin

to take shape, in sky,
like the fluttering flight
and soft wing

of evening swifts; we glide
through borders of unseen
so we may sing


“There would be no escaping the deep sea from the shore.” — from Dispatches from the Valley

for what are we but broken shells,
battered by waves and currents
and the moon’s luminescent glow

Safe haven may not be this beach,
not this sand, neither these dunes,
but somewhere in the ears of us

all listening, if we can, in tune to
the world


Peace (flying free),
Kevin

A Year of Reading (2020)

Year of Reading

Goodreads kicks out data from its archives each year as part of its Reading Challenge (I traditionally choose 100 books to read in a year and then often go past it). The collected BONE anthology, by Jeff Smith, was my longest book read (clocking in at 1,332 pages) and it was one that I started and finished during the Spring, when we were stuck at home in Pandemic isolation (Bone remains also one of my favorite books of the year).

The overall page count from the year always gets me. I read 39,500 pages. Neat.

My first book of the year was …

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

… which I definitely recommend for its magical elements and weaving of the power of story ….

and the last book of the year (I reviewed) was …

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars

… which was interested in a different way, looking at cityscapes and architectural design.

If you are curious about what else I read in 2020, you can check it out, too.

Peace (turning pages),
Kevin

Book Review: A Drop of Hope

Keith Calabrese’s A Drop of Hope is a stew of characters and connections. In short chapters, Calabrese weaves the story of a circle of friends, an abandoned town wishing well, and the hopes and dreams of many, all tied together with the possibility of magic in the world.

The three main characters — middle schoolers Ernest, Ryan and Lizzie — discover an old well, where people still toss coins and make wishes. When the kids find a secret entrance to the bottom of the well, they eavesdrop in on the wishes of others. The town is struggling, and some families are losing their jobs, and others are barely hanging on. And of course, for the kids themselves, friendship and family loom large.

In the attic of a deceased grandfather, the start of something odd is discovered and then slowly, unexpectedly, many of the wishes heard by the three protagonists start coming true as the kids try to find ways to help others. Interestingly, it never goes the way they think it will go, yet always seems to happen. The manner in which Calabrese makes the connections between the initial wish and the resolution of those wishes shows storytelling at its finest, and I tried to imagine the planning the author must have done to ensure that all loose ends get tied. It must have been a confusing writing plan, is all I can say.

The characters in this novel are quiet believable, and even if you don’t believe in magic, you will find yourself believing in the possibility of hope in the world, and how the unexpected gift often stems from not just doing the right thing in the right moment, but from viewing the world through a lens of kindness and compassion.

A Drop of Hope is a good fit for a middle school classroom.

Peace (in the wishing well),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Naturalist

Edward O. Wilson is famous (and maybe, as he admits, infamous) in the field of science, and I know a bit of him (but not a lot) so this new graphic novel version of his autobiography was an interesting, and sometimes heady, trip into Wilson’s exploratory forays into the world of ants, diversity and the world, mostly writ small.

Naturalist — adapted by writer Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by C.M.Butzer — starts with Wilson’s natural curiosity as a child of the South, and then moves into some pretty deep science (some of which, I found myself lost in), but what shines through is a love of learning and a deep-seated wonder at the wood or swamp or river just around the corner.

The graphic novel doesn’t shy away from some of the controversies that Wilson apparently stirred up in the world of sciences, which is more divided and territorial than an outsider like me probably realizes.

From what I can tell, too, his book on sociobiology led to intensive criticism of nature/nurture and of underlying racism, connected to views on Eugenics. Wilson (who once got water dumped on his head at a conference by protestors) admits that the book he wrote was really two books (one about nature and one about humans), and that he might have been better served to separate the two.

Still, his other work in the field of biodiversity has been used to ground ongoing nature conservation efforts in science. And his two Pulitzer Prizes give credit to the influence of his work. I guess his life as a researcher, scientist, naturalist is rather complicated.

I didn’t ignore these controversies, but I was more interested in how Wilson’s personal story is one of looking deep at something that inspires you, something that can drive you forward through your life, with passion. Naturalist shows a scientist in his realm, alone at times in unknown places, systematically gathering data and mulling over the ramifications. In this, we need more.

Peace (finding it),
Kevin