Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Reviews

Usually I make some changes to my book reviews that I copy here from Amazon, lengthening or spicing them up but with time constraints and other things going on, here are a few as they were. Maybe you'll find a holiday book.

I've started one which isn't nature-related (not directly at least; I'd say the senses of boredom and loss and pain and directionlessness in question are very much related to our lack of connection with the natural world) but which i'm enjoying very much so far-- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Mate. The author is a doctor who works with the poorest street addicts in Vancouver but the idea of the book is that the issues underlying their addictions are present in all of us and in how our society functions.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau 1837-1861 Damion Searles, Editor

By length alone, despite a questionable editing choice, this new book becomes one of the best choices for the average reader interested in Thoreau's journal. No one, including the editor, pretends this is the equal of the full journal which is roughly ten times longer. Unfortunately, the older two-volume (relatively) complete journal is in a large unwieldy format, and the complete journal currently being published by Princeton is too academic and too expensive for the average reader.

The book's introductory material mentions five previous and much shorter books of journal selections. Several of these are still available--I own four of them and a couple others which aren't mentioned. Because there is so much original material to choose from and some of the books have a specific focus, there isn't that much duplication among them. If you enjoy one, you'll enjoy them all. Given the current options, I've preferred accumulating a collection of these books to an unsatisfactory version of the complete journal.

The introduction also explains how this book's content was chosen. The primary objective was to have it read as a representative version of the full journal rather than as a collection of excerpts. The editor therefore tried to balance material among the seasons and months, including keeping one of each month relatively unabridged. Another goal was to make it readable, so there is very little in the way of notes. Entries were chosen by personal preference, not historical importance. As you read, the date appears on the left page and Thoreau's age on the right so you always know where you are both in time and in his life.

An introductory example shows some of what was cut from one day's entry and made me wish again there was a better edition of the full journal. I'm not really comfortable with such heavy editing of Thoreau's words, especially since the text gives no indication of where the cuts are, even when done within a sentence. Does this material still deserve to be called Thoreau's journal? I greatly appreciate the quantity of material presented, but have reservations about its quality. It's not that it reads poorly--if the editor hadn't explained his method in the introduction, few people would even know cuts had been made. It just feels to me that Thoreau's been misquoted.

There is no index which would have been a very useful addition. There are however several of Thoreau's drawings included in the text, including an infamous morel which had been censored from the old edition of the journal.

Five stars for Thoreau's words, but I have to take away at least one for the editing.

Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future Bron Taylor

In the opening pages of this book, dark green religion (DGR) is defined as the belief that nature is sacred, has intrinsic value, and deserves reverent care. It is then divided into four varieties based on two choices: naturalism or spiritualism, and animism or Gaian. These merge and overlap, and I didn't find the division served much purpose except to make the DGR term an inclusive one. They are however enjoyably explored by looking at the beliefs of people the author places in the different types.

A look at the growth of DGR in North America is done primarily through the works of Thoreau and Muir. Of Thoreau, Taylor writes, "He is properly considered to be the most important innovator of American environmental thought." Eight themes of DGR found in Thoreau's writing are explored with a twenty page appendix of Thoreau excerpts presented as evidence. Muir doesn't get his own appendix but his importance is stressed, especially in terms of his effect on environmental activism.

A chapter on radical environmentalism provided many names to explore as sources of ideas in a wide range of fields from ethics to anarchism and science to psychology. This is also the first book I've read with information about Bill Rogers, the ELF activist who apparently killed himself in jail in 2005. The info is less about him as an individual than about the photocopied material he included in a couple compilations he distributed. This chapter also has a powerful excerpt from Paul Watson. The full article is in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature which Taylor edited.

After these obviously relevant topics, Taylor begins searching for evidence of the influence of DGR in other areas from surfing to politics and United Nations conferences. I most enjoyed the sections about the arts which included looks at Disney films, David Attenborough documentaries, Alice Walker novels, and Ansel Adams photography among others. I would have liked this section to have been much longer. For example, music isn't explored at all although it is one of the many additional topics to be added to the author's website.

The religious and political concerns some have about DGR are lightly examined, often coming to the obvious conclusion that no compromise is possible between these world views. The possibility/likelihood of DGR becoming a dominant force of world change is considered in the book's final pages.

The book would have benefited from better proofreading. For me, admittedly a perfectionist on the subject of typos in a book, there were too many cases of double words, missing words, and wrong words (assent for ascent, for example).

Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town Elyssa East

About 35 years ago, I got excited to hear Harry Chapin singing about (broadly speaking) my part of the world:

"Up in Massachusetts there's a little spit of land
The men who make the maps, yes, they call the place Cape Ann
The men who do the fishing call it Gloucester Harbor Sound
But the women left behind, they call the place Dogtown"

So when I got this book, one of the first things I did was check the index and found that the song was mentioned. Next, I looked up Thoreau and found that his journal entry about the area was quoted.

When I actually started reading, I soon realized that this is indeed a book with a little of whatever you're looking for. But contrary to the song lyric, one of the main threads of this book involves a man left behind, not by a ship lost at sea but by a brutal murder in Dogtown. Along with walks on the trails of Dogtown, you'll also find explorations of the area's history from colonists to witches to pirates, and the reactions of an artist and a poet and the author to this strange area of land.

It's strange not only because it's an undeveloped area of land near a major city (not just undeveloped--in many cases it's not even known who if anyone owns the land) or because of the boulders engraved with odd phrases, but because many people feel something unusual about the place. I have to admit I'm one of them. It was the early 90s before I first hiked Dogtown, a few years after the murder featured in the book which I didn't know about at the time. I saw the boulders, and the broken Whale's Jaw, and got lost on the many trails. Most of all, I felt a sense of claustrophobia, an oddness which I haven't felt in any other place I've hiked. It wasn't a pleasant feeling and in future visits to the area, I stuck to walking beside the ocean in neighboring Rockport.

I enjoyed the book very much, especially some pages near the end featuring a couple old timers who care about Dogtown much more than most people, but in very different ways--one wants the area left completely wild while the other wants the trails heavily maintained and well marked (I recognized the name of the second man and believe I was once part of a group hike he led).

I do agree with some reviewers that the book perhaps includes a few too many topics, but given the author's tendency to draw parallels among events, I did wonder if the book's structure was intended to reflect the meandering trails of the area.


Northland said...

Great reviews here, with your own both anecdotal as well as scholarly critiques of the books.
My own 2 volume copies of Thoreau's journals were put in a new light for me after reading your review of the Searles compilation. As a seeker of Thoreau, much more than a scholar, your review-in-passing of the various Thoreau Journal compilations gave me a good yardstick to view what is available nowadays. As a man of limited monetary means, I am well pleased with my 2 volume set of Journals for my own communing with Thoreau's thoughts through the seasons of his life.

greentangle said...

Thanks, I think which someone prefers depends in part on how they read. I owned the big 2 volume set for many years but read very little of it because I've done most of my adult reading commuting or in bed, neither very conducive to reading those books. I didn't like the 4 pages on 1 page set-up either. But I do wish there was a complete set I liked.