Sunday, January 30, 2011

Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn

I wasn’t sure I would like this book. A good friend who is really into some New Age things recommended it for our book club. I had read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee years ago and found that horribly tragic tale of genocide moving and unforgettable. As I began Nerburn’s book, I became absorbed from the opening pages. This first person account of atrocities and the underlying philosophy of Native Americans, takes its place as an important supplement to Dee Brown’s book. While some of these incidents had a vague place in my consciousness, Nerburn brought them into clear focus with his collection of “talks” by Dan, an elder of the Lakota tribe.

Quite a few passages really stuck out. Here they are – without comment – because they clearly speak for themselves.

“Our elders were schooled in the ways of silence, and they passed that along to us. Watch, listen, and then act, they told us. This is the way to live” (65).

"‘Look out there, Nerburn’ he said. I surveyed the lavender morning sky and the distant rolling foothills. “This is what my people care about. This is our mother, the earth.”
"‘It’s a beautiful place,’ I offered.
He snubbed out his cigarette. “It’s not a place. That’s white man’s talk. She’s alive. We are standing on her. We’re part of her’” (131).

“'Whenever the white people won it was a victory. Whenever we won it was a massacre. What was the difference? There were bodies on the ground and children lost their parents, whether the bodies were Indian or white. But the whites used their language to make their killing good and our killing bad’” (162-162).

Dan’s granddaughter weighed in, when she met Nerburn during one of the author’s trips around the reservation with Dan. She said, “They ignored us. We were just women. But we were always the ones to keep the culture alive. That was our job, as women and mothers. It always has been. The men can’t hunt buffalo anymore. But we can still cook and sew and practice the old ways. We can still feed the old people and make their days warm. We can teach the children. Our men may be defeated, but our women’s hearts are still strong” (249).

I did find some minor faults with the book. I felt the book went on just a bit too long -- the last few chapters were really over the top. I got the message clear as a mountain stream without them. While Dan often complains about how “Hollywood Indians” sounded, he frequently sounded like a Hollywood Indian to me.

But overall, a touching and shameful account of the genocide this country perpetrated against Native Americans. At times, it had a rather Zen-like feel to it, but it was always, honest and from the heart. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 1/26/11

Friday, January 14, 2011

Solar by Ian McEwan

While searching for a novel with a title I could not quite remember, I stumbled on a similarly entitled book by Ian McEwan. I examined the dust jacket, and I bought it, because, judging by the cover, it sounded interesting. Several decades later, I eagerly await each new novel by this Booker Prize-winning author.

Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, tells the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who expanded on an aspect of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Beard coasts on his past glory, and now seems only interested in the pleasures his reputation can bring him. Patrice, his fifth wife, has discovered an affair, and Michael experiences severe regret and tries everything to mend his marriage. He returns home early from a conference to discover his post-doctoral student assistant naked in a dressing gown Patrice had given Michael for his birthday. Michael’s life becomes as dense and entangled as the theories and calculations that made his reputation.

As in all his novels, McEwan mires his characters in contemporary problems and difficulties. Otherwise intelligent people seem bewildered when faced with moral and ethical choices. When Michael receives a possible solution to the problem of global warming from a deceased colleague, he decides to pursue this idea alone, and gathers funding from numerous sources in the U.S.

As I approached DFW airport the other day, I silently hoped for one or two more turns circling the airport so I could finish the last 18 pages – McEwan’s prose is that good. What I like most about McEwan’s novels are the tiny fire crackers he plants along the way, which turn out to be bombs that flare unexpectedly. Finding these seemingly offhand remarks becomes a game I relish when reading his work. For example, when Beard takes off from England for a conference near the Arctic Circle to study melting glaciers, he looks out the window of the plane. McEwan writes,

“Here was a commonplace sight that would have astounded Newton or Dickens. He was gazing east, through a great rim of ginger grime – it could have been detached from an unwashed bathtub and suspended in the air. He was looking past the City, down the bulging widening Thames, past oil and gas storage tanks toward the brown flatlands of Kent and Essex and the scene of his childhood and the outsized hospital where his mother had died, not long after she told him of her secret life, and beyond, the open jaw of the tidal estuary and the North Sea, an unwrinkled nursery blue in the February sunshine. Then his gaze was rotated southward through a silvery haze over the Weald of Sussex toward the soft line of the South Downs, whose gentle folds once cradled his raucous first marriage, a synesthesia of misguided love, infant excrement and wailing of their lodgers’ twins, and the heady quantum calculations that led, fifteen years and two divorces later, to his prize. His prize which half blessed, half ruined his life. (107-108)

McEwan’s lovely prose hides a secret, and as I circled DFW, too absorbed to look out the window, I turned the last page, and the “commonplace” exploded into a tragic-comic ending, which left me looking forward to McEwan’s next novel. 5 stars

--Chiron, 1/12/11

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chipmunk Seeks Squirrel by David Sedaris

At first, I did not really like this collection of fables, but, trapped on a long flight to California, and with nothing else to read easily at hand, I decided to slog through to the end. Actually, I began to enjoy the tails [pun intended], and the last were the best of all.

I really look forward to Sedaris’ pieces on NPR, but I rarely enjoy his writing. It always seemed smarmy to me, and I had a hard time relating to his tone. However, I heard him interviewed on Terry Gross’ show, Fresh Air and felt this latest book might be interesting. I also saw him interviewed on Jon Stewart, so I decided to give him another try.

This book had its moments, but it will not make me a fan of his writings. As I began this review, I tried to figure out some explanation for this dichotomy, but I came up empty. As I said, the last story was really good, and made me close the book with a chuckle. “The Grieving Owl” tells the story of an owl whose mate is three days dead. he obsesses over learning things, and jilts a young female his mother tried to match him with. Two brothers and his mother stalk the grieving owl, and sometimes steal his victims of hunting, because he asks them to teach him something in exchange for their freedom.

Now, a beast fable is a story with animals who have human characteristics – including the power of speech – which contains some moral lesson. Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest Tale” is a classic of the genre, right up there with Aesop and his foxes, hares, and tortoises. The glitch is in the moral. For the life of me, I cannot figure out this as any more than a humorous, slightly bawdy story. Characteristics shared by most of the tales.

Owl sees a rat and debates the one rule of owldom – never engage with your food. Kill it immediately and eat. But he catches a rat, and begins a conversation:

“So this rat, it was as if he were following a script. ‘I just swallowed some poison,’ he claimed. ‘Eat me, and you’re destined to die as well.’

It’s embarrassing to hear such lies, to think they think you’re dumb enough to believe them.

‘Oh please,” I said.

The rat moved to plan B. ‘I have children, babies, and their counting on me to feed them

I said to the guy, ‘Listen. There’s not a male rat in the history of the world who’s given his child so much as a cigarette butt, and don’t try to tell me otherwise. In fact,’ I went on, ‘from what I hear, any baby of yours has a better chance of being eaten by you than fed by you.’”

Grim humor, yes, but pretty amusing. The brother of Owl, steals the rat when he tells Owl something interesting, and then the brother eats the poor fellow. Oh, well. If I ever figure out what the moral is, I’ll let you know. 3 stars

--Chiron, 1/7/11

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, one of the foremost proponents of the “new atheism,” has returned to his first profession, evolutionary biologist. In this fascinating work, he lays down, in clear terms for the non-professional, all of the evidence from DNA to skeletal structure to behavior proving Darwin’s theory of evolution.

He starts off with some things I have argued for years. People who do not believe in evolution misunderstand the use of the term theory in that connection and fail to grasp the immense time scales involved. In fact, Dawkins describes quite a few things about evolution, which seemed to be mere common sense to me. Bi-lateral symmetry and similar skeletal structures for example.

Near the end, he sums all this up in a neat little package. Dawkins writes,

“What Darwin didn’t – couldn’t – know is that the comparative evidence becomes even more convincing when we include molecular genetics, in addition to the anatomical comparisons that were available to him.

Just is the vertebrate skeleton is invariant across all vertebrates while the individual bones differ, and just as the crustacean exoskeleton is invariant across all crustaceans while the individual ‘tubes’ vary, so the DNA code is invariant across all living creatures, while the individual genes themselves vary. This is a truly astounding fact, which shows more clearly than anything else that all living creatures are descended from a single ancestor. Not just the genetic code itself, but the whole gene/protein system for running life,…is the same in all animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea [microbes that live in extreme environments] and viruses. What varies is what is written in the code, not the code itself. And when we look comparatively what is written in the code – the actual genetic sequences in all these different creatures -- we find the same kind of hierarchical tree of resemblance. We find the same family tree [emphasis by Dawkins] – albeit much more thoroughly and convincingly laid out – as we did with the vertebrate skeleton, and indeed the whole pattern of anatomical resemblances through all the living kingdoms. (315)

On one or two occasions Dawkins does become a bit overly technical, and some passages required a slower and repeat reading, but overall this is a thoroughly readable and enjoyable account of the present state of the theory of evolution. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 1/14/11