Saturday, February 16, 2013

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

As we pass another vernal equinox in March of 2013, my mind wandered back to 1965 when I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This classic work, which became, in the words of Peter Matthiessen, “The cornerstone of the new environmentalism” has writing as beautiful as a perfect Spring day.

Carson was born in 1907 and served many years as a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Three previous works on the environment of the oceans firmly fixed her as an eminent writer on nature. She died less than two years after the publication of Silent Spring. Her work set in motion profound changes in environmental laws to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we live and grow our food.

Carson’s study focuses on the indiscriminate use of the pesticide DDT, which was banned shortly after the book caused a world-wide sensation. Predictably, much opposition arose from opponents of the idea we need to protect our environment. Detractors in government and the then multi-million dollar chemical industry attacked Carson, because – as Linda Lear who wrote a biography of Carson wrote in the Introduction to my anniversary edition – they “were not about to allow a former government editor, a female scientist without a Ph.D. or an institutional affiliation, known only for her lyrical books on the sea, to undermine public confidence in its products or to question its integrity” (xvii). Those chemical companies now have profits in the billions. Lear continues, when this book “caught the attention of President Kennedy, federal and state investigations were launched into the validity of Carson’s claims” (xvii).

The chapters then focus on various parts of the environment, the chemicals which were sprayed or dumped into each one, and the effects these chemicals had. The title “Silent Spring” reflects numerous reports of the death of thousands of song birds and other creatures following widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. I remember as a child watching trucks drive down our street spraying a white fog to kill mosquitoes. Sometimes the city issued warnings and other times not. My mother always made my sisters and me stay inside “until the smell went away.” However, I remember seeing children running and playing in the fog.

Carson writes about the hundreds of new chemicals which find their way into use every year. In the mid-40s alone “over 200 chemicals were invented to kill insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as ‘pests’” (7). Carson asks, “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but ‘biocides’” (8). Yet today, attacks continue on the EPA. Silent Spring is a most worthy read for anyone concerned about the environment. 5 stars

--Chiron, 2/15/13

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

In my younger days, I read all the science fiction and fantasy novels I could get my hands on. Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust and the epic fantasy, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, among others, remain favorites. Now, I have returned to those days with the magical, mysterious Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

Celia is the daughter of the great illusionist, Hector Bowen. Marco is the student of a competing illusionist, known only as “the man in the grey suit.” These two magicians have been challenging each other to a rather peculiar duel. Each trains an apprentice, a venue is selected, and the two students are bound together by mysterious silver ring. Neither knows the identity of the opponent, and in fact they know almost nothing of the rules of the contest. But this contest is to the death. This might sound rather ominous, but it is not, because Celia and Marco do not know what the other is doing at the Night Circus. Eventually, they are able to figure out the identity of the other, and that poses some interesting complications for the challenge.

The venue of the challenge is the Night Circus. Morgenstern writes,

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mention or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. But it is not open for business. Not just yet. A black sign painted in white letters hangs upon the gates, [it] reads Opens at Nightfall Closes at Dawn. ‘What kind of circus is only open at night?’ people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates” (3-4). The circus appears all over Europe, Turkey, and even in numerous locales in North America and East Asia.

This mysterious tale slowly resolves into a love story. I am sure my faithful listeners can guess the names of the love birds, and they would be right. But this story is larger than the sum of its parts. The web ensnaring all of the characters gradually takes the shape and form of the circus itself. And that does not even begin to hint at some of the marvelous and wonderful details Morgenstern has written into this story.

Marco performs incredible feats of illusion in and around the circus, and Celia is a performer. On one occasion, at a “midnight dinner” at the home of M. Lefèvre, a sort of agent/manager for the circus, Celia wears a gown which changes colors and patterns to match the dress of whoever stands alongside her. No more hints, I do not want to spoil any of the surprises. Readers who love magic, mystery, and love will really enjoy the story of Celia and Marco.

Night Circus is Morgenstern’s first novel, but I sensed great possibilities for a sequel in the final pages. I sure hope so! 5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/26/13

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Centaur by John Updike

As far back as about 4th grade, I have loved writing stories. I never received much encouragement from the teachers until I reached high school. William A. Votto, Jr. was my junior year English teacher. He liked an essay I wrote about a football game kick off, and he encouraged me to write. I spent numerous afternoons talking with him about reading and writing. He became the first person to plant the idea that reading and writing as closely bound together. Bill Votto also introduced me to The New Yorker magazine. I stopped at a news stand on the way home that day and bought the latest issue. It had a story by John Updike. I immediately fell in love with Updike’s masterful use of the English language.

Updike became my favorite writer. He was also the first writer I began gathering as many of his writings as I could. Today, my personal library has well over 340 books by and about John Updike. I was also lucky enough to meet him on several occasions. I even attended a writer’s conference in Boston one year and heard him speak. March 18th would have been his 81st birthday. He died in January 2009.

Of all his books, The Centaur is my absolute favorite. In fact it securely holds first place at the top of my favorite novels list. I once told him about this choice for his best work, and he said, “Well, it’s my favorite, too. It is the warmest story I ever wrote.” In 1964, it won the National Book Award for fiction.

The Centaur tells the story of George Caldwell, science teacher at Olinger High School. The fictional town of Olinger is the setting for one of his numerous collections of stories. Interwoven with the story of George and his brilliant son, Peter, is the myth of the centaur, Chiron, the teacher of Achilles. Peter plays the role of Prometheus. In the myth, Chiron is wounded, but since he is immortal, he must suffer for all eternity the pain of his wound. He gives up his life for Prometheus.

For a sample of Updike’s power with words, I turned to a random page and began reading,

“My father and I scraped together the change in our pockets and found enough for breakfast at a diner. I had one dollar in my wallet but did not tell him, intending it to be a surprise when things got more desperate. The counter of the diner was lined with workmen soft-eyed and gruff from behind half-asleep still. […] I ordered pancakes and bacon and it was the best breakfast I had had in months. My father ordered Wheaties, mushed the cereal into the milk, ate a few bites, and pushed it away. He looked at the clock. It said 7:25. He bit back a belch; his face whitened and the skin under his eyes seemed to sink against the socket bone. He saw me studying him in alarm and said, ‘I know. I look like the devil. I’ll shave in the boiler room over at the school, Heller has a razor.’ The pale grizzle, like a morning’s frost, of a day-old beard covered his cheeks and chin” (169).

If you have never read Updike, pick a genre – poetry, novels, short stories, or essays on art, books, writers, and philosophy. You will not be disappointed.

--Chiron, 1/27/13