Darwin Comes to Town

I just finished this book, Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Shilthuizen, about adaptation and evolution in urban environments, which seemed somewhat hopeful. It’s a discussion about how quickly certain species change to thrive in cities. Stories include the hawksbeard dandelion, which evolved to produce heavier seeds so their little parachutes would keep them in the island of green instead of floating off onto asphalt and how crows learn to throw heavy-shelled walnuts into intersections, wait for cars to run over them and then when the light changes, run out to grab the walnut meat after the cars crush the shells.

But most encouraging was his chapter on the way cites are cooperating globally to understand and improve urban environments. He notes that cities all over the word have similar soil compositions, microbes, insect, bird, and plant life. So “cities as far apart as 2,500 miles share about half their birds, while the avifaunas of natural areas that distant are almost completely different.” The author states that “cities worldwide are beginning to exchange information and undertake concerted action.”

Given the pace at which the natural world is disappearing, at least it’s heartening to know that there are many groups working on innovative ways to make urban spaces more habitable for plants and animals, including humans. My only quibble with the book is the often anthropomorphic language of the anecdotes. Still, worth a read.

The exemplary sentence

 

I’ve been reading The Shadow Lines, by Amitav Ghosh, and have come across so many well-written passages. Here’s one about watching beggars scavenge a mound of waste and sludge for usable debris:

“It was true of course that I could not see that landscape or anything like it from my own window, but its presence was palpable everywhere in our house; I had grown up with it. It was that landscape that lent the note of hysteria to my mother’s voice when she drilled me for examinations; it was to those slopes she she pointed when she told me that if I didn’t study hard I would end up over there, that the only weapon people like us had was our brains and if we didn’t use them like claws to cling to what we’d got, that was where we’d end up, marooned in that landscape: I knew perfectly well that all it would take was a couple of failed examinations to put me where our relative was, in permanent proximity to that blackness: that landscape was the quicksand that seethed beneath the polished floors of our house; it was that sludge which gave our genteel decorum its fine edge of frenzy.”

The Exemplary Sentence

There is a new book of Bette Howland’s stories out, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and I immediately purchased a copy. Since posting about her last year, I have come to know her son, Jake, and was so pleased to see a review of this book last weekend, and see him quoted about her. The new book contains some of the stories from Blue in Chicago, and some I hadn’t read.

It contains the same quality of writing that I loved so much in the earlier book. Here’s a sample, talking about a walk through the park in Chicago peopled by the old and the minders. I love the quality of her observation, and how she paints a picture that ends in beauty:

“They come from the Shoreland, the Sherry-Netherland, Del Prado, Windermere–hotels once famous for the ballrooms, dance bands, steak houses, now providing package care for the elderly. My favorite of these couples is an old gent with a hooked back, houndstooth check cap and plus fours and his young pregnant nursemaid. He likes to get out of his chair and push; she dawdles at this side. Her belly lifts the front of her coat; her legs look gray in white stockings. Meanwhile the great yellow maple is shaking its branches, squandering leaves. They scatter like petals. It’s raining beauty; the air is drenched with gold.”

A terrific essay

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Ted Gioia, an essayist who is right up there with my favorites. In “Bach at the Burger King,” he writes about the “weaponization of classical music” as well as the damage caused by its use as advertising enhancement. Worth a read!

Ted is the son of the poet Dana Gioia, so he comes by his prose style naturally.

Willa Cather: The exemplary sentence

I reread A Lost Lady this week. Inhaled it really. The characters are so vivid, as is the portrait of the farm towns of the prairies at the turn of the century. The great rail roads were built, and the settlers had come, but soon the chiselers and cheapskates would take the place of the larger than life figures who had created the original settlements. One of the characters is the Forrester homestead itself:

“Just at the foot of the hill on which the house sat, one crossed a second creek by the stout wooden road-bridge. This stream traced artless loops and curves through the broad meadows that were half pasture land, half marsh.”

“Any one but Captain Forrester would have drained the bottom land and made it into highly productive fields. But he had selected this place long ago because it looked beautiful to him, and he happened to like the way the creek wound through his pasture, with mint and joint-grass and twinkling willows along its bank. He was well off for those times, and he had no children. He could afford to humor his fancies.”

Mrs. Forrester, the lost lady of the title, is a winsome, engaging woman, the essence of grace and good taste. The story is told through the eyes of a young boy who looks up to her, finds in her the emblem of all that is elegant and delightful, and who grows up under her spell. He is present as Forrester loses his fortune by personally bankrolling a failed bank, the only one of the directors to come forward and save the depositors.

Later, he must rent the pasture land to an unscrupulous character, Ivy Peters: “Neil and Ivy had disliked each other from childhood, blindly, instinctively, recognizing each other through antipathy, as hostile insects do. By draining the marsh Ivy had obliterated a few acres of something he hated, though he could not name it, and had asserted his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silvery beauty…

“The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence… Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risk anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great land-holders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable mats, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest.”

The lost lady of the title is not just Mrs. Forrester, but the west itself, described beautifully. Of course, the native population might feel the same about the”great-hearted adventurers,” but that’s a different book. This one is a gem of a portrait of a lost time.

Something about writing

I have been reading Randall Jarrell’s “Fifty Years of American Poetry,” an impressive essay, but it made me somehow wonder if all the books–those hours and years of work–won’t someday be winnowed down to a few kept in the basement of the cybrary, with its lightspeed wifi. A few first editions the way we now have illuminated manuscripts. Who even reads most of these people now?

The essay contained a gorgeous quote from Isaac Babel “A phrase is born into the world good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can turn it once, not twice.”

 

The exemplary sentence

One of the few fears that can really grab hold of me, especially before a long plane ride or (as was currently the case) a time of enforced inactivity, is that I’ve read all the really good books. A book that is well-written, thought provoking, and can immerse you in its reality is so rare. During this recent period, I had very little that fit this description. So I opened a book I hadn’t read in 25 years, Particle and Luck, by Louis B. Jones. Would it hold up? It does, and has snared me in the life of Mark Perdue, the archetypal absentminded physicist and his quirky journey around the Marin and the Berkeley campus.  Here are a few excerpts. Continue reading “The exemplary sentence”

Summer reading

I know that you’re supposed to take up some frivolous books for the summer, but perhaps influenced by the morning and evening fog that characterizes coastal California, my reading has been more dour. I mentioned these books in an earlier post: A Century of Horrors, by Alain Besançon, Hope Against Hope, by Osip Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, and most of Secondhand Time (I couldn’t get through all of it), by Svetlana Alexievich. I also just reread Czesław Miłosz’ The Captive Mind. All of these books deal with the phenomenon of Communism as it has been practiced since the Russian Revolution. Besançon’s thesis is that while Nazism was horrific, it was a brief nightmare compared to Communism. The Shoah was intense, killed millions, but was defeated and rejected.

Communism, on the other hand, while originating in an idealistic set of premises, has for over a century imprisoned, murdered, and instilled terror in many more millions, and is still doing so. It’s a powerful book, and lays out facts in a reasoned argument that’s hard to deny. Continue reading “Summer reading”

The exemplary sentence

I’ve been reading a slim novel by Forrest Gander called A Friend. It’s a novel in three parts that closely parallels a real life event. The part told by the lover, Sarah, is made up of mostly one-line statements about her lover and her grief at his death. Here are a few samples:

“The first man I went down on. You tasted like well water.”

“When you opened my shirt, you stepped back and said, They must be jealous of each other.”

“The red-bellied woodpecker swerves over the primroses and claps itself to the crab apple trunck as if a magnet had drawn it. In dreams, that’s how I come to you.”

“Not seeing the cup in the bathroom, you brought me a mouthful of water in your mouth.”

“You do not age. Someone else will watch me grow old.”

There are many others I could quote. The way they form a portrait of the beloved, the relationship, the grief, is extraordinary. And the short, final section is as gorgeous an aria of vulnerability and connectedness as I’ve ever read.

The Exemplary Sentence

I read about Bette Howland and her memoir/novel Blue in Chicago in the NY Times obituaries last month. According to the obituary she was a a protege (and perhaps lover) of Saul Bellow and had a troubled life.

 

 

 

 

 

I got her book out of the library, and Blue in Chicago is an extraordinary work, giving a rich portrait of Chicago and the complexities of Jewish family life. Here is an excerpt:

“Words of Yiddish passed over the table like the Angel of Death. It was the language of bad news; bodily functions; the parts of dead chickens.”

And this, about her grandmother’s funeral:

“It seemed strange to me that my grandmother was at one and the same time carrion–garbage–that had to be got rid of, shoveled quickly out of sight; and something precious and tender, of infinite value, being laid away for safekeeping–sunk in a vault. These things seemed opposed, bu the weren’t; they couldn’t be; because both were true. It was necessary to hold them both in your mind at once. That’s all we were trying to do, standing over the open grave… Continue reading “The Exemplary Sentence”

Exemplary sentences

I am reading Adam Zagajewsky’s new book of essays–more really diary entries–called Slight Exaggeration. I’m a fan of both his prose and his poetry. His standard of literacy and breadth of knowledge is so high. I came across this passage, which he wrote about the generation that came of age on the cusp of the First World War but which seems to me to apply perfectly to the baby boomers.

“What other people of that race, in other nations and times had achieved and attained over generations, through the course of age-long efforts at the cost of life, or of sacrifice and renunciations greater than life, this lay before hem like a chance inheritance, destiny’s perilous gift. It seemed fantastic and unlikely, but it was genuine: they could do whatever they wished with their youth.”

Somehow I thought we’d do more with this opportunity than we did.

Another phrase that caught my attention was from Samin Nosrat, who is now the food writer for the NY Times Maazine. Continue reading “Exemplary sentences”

Those long summer evenings

They are already growing shorter now, but this passage from Adam Zagajewski’s new book of essays, Slight Exaggeration, perfectly captures the experience of the long evenings–even longer in northern Europe:

“And once again it was June–mild, long, slowly fading evenings, evenings promising so much that no matter what you do with them, you always receive the impression of defeat, of wasted time. Nobody knows the best way to get through them. Continue reading “Those long summer evenings”