Category Archives: books

“Bringing Nature Home” changed my life

Well, ok, not my whole life, but certainly the part that I spend gardening, which is close to 15% of my life in the summer.

Bringing Nature Home, Douglas TallamyEverything that Douglas Tallamy says makes so much sense that it amazes me I didn’t know this stuff until I read this book:

1. Insects that are native to an ecosystem have evolved to eat only plants native to that ecosystem
2. Baby birds eat insects. Even normally seed-eating birds need a large insect population to support their young.
3. So, if there are fewer native plants around, there are fewer native insects, and fewer birds.
4. Suburban gardeners have a responsibility to rebuild the native ecosystem which the suburb has displaced.

Tallamy makes these points quickly, then spends a chapter on how to make a garden of native plants look attractive and formal so you don’t irritate your neighbors. The bulk of the book is descriptions of insects native to the eastern U.S. and the plants they live on, accompanied by attractive color photographs. I’ve identified the little red bugs on my coneflowers as the nymph stage of Red Milkweed Beetles.

Something is eating my Joe Pye Weed

For the last few years I’ve grown some native prairie plants because they are drought-tolerant and don’t require any attention. But I’ve also been planting various exotic ornamental species that are drought-tolerant, and it never occurred to me that they are just wasting space in my garden. Nothing can eat them, so they’re not in the food chain. I never thought about the insect part of the ecosystem, and how important it is to provide food and shelter for the insects that other local fauna depend on.

From now on only native plants and vegetables are allowed in my garden. And when I see that something is eating my perennials, instead of being irritated I’ll be happy that a tiny bit of the ecosystem is working as it should.

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Dangerous books for altered states

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire is full of neato ideas about the effects of various plants on the evolution of human culture and the origins of western ideas of beauty, major religions, and other important memes. The chapter about psychoactive plants is particularly interesting. This just made me chuckle:

The notion that drugs might function as cultural mutagens occurred to me while reading The Selfish Gene while high on marijuana, which may or may not be an advisable thing to do.

The Botany of Desire, p. 130.

It reminded me of the time I came home to find my roommate prostrate on the couch, almost weeping in frustration. She had the flu and a high fever, and had been trying to read Count Zero. Early William Gibson isn’t the best prose for calming the fevered mind.

I think the most mindbending thing I’ve attempted was bourbon + Thomas Pynchon, which was done more to preserve my sanity than to experiment with it. There was no way I was going to make it through Gravity’s Rainbow without a few stiff drinks.

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The Kite Runner: least likeable protagonist ever

Warning: Spoilers, lots of spoilers. All spoilers, all the time.

kite flying in afghanistanHi, I’m Amir, protagonist of The Kite Runner. I’m a lying coward and something of an idiot. It’s kind of weird that the book I’m in is at all enjoyable, since I’m such an unbelievable bastard.

For example, I spend the first several chapters of the book being a complete ass to my best friend, servant, and sidekick Hassan. Hassan has some kind of martyr complex, so it’s understandable that I would want to smash his face in, but you’d think that if his selfless devotion bothers me so much I’d just get some other friends.

Soon I’m watching as the neighborhood bully beats and rapes my buddy Hassan. This part is awesome because I do nothing to prevent it or to help him afterwards, and I never show him any concern. In fact, I frame Hassan for theft and drive him and his father from their home and livelihood. It’s pretty odd that I should be cowardly enough to treat Hassan like this, and yet also sensitive enough to be haunted by guilt about it for the rest of my life. I’m the most sensitive coward ever – totally in touch with my own moral failings and unwilling to do anything at all about them. I bet you’ll enjoy reading about my self-hatred.

The middle of the book is about my life in San Francisco after my charismatic heroic father and I escape from Russian-occupied Afghanistan. We live in an interesting and sympathetic community of Afghan immigrants and refugees. They’re all fun to read about. In this part I’m sort of likable because there are no challenges to my morals or physical safety; you kind of forget what a contemptible person I am.

The last part of the book is when you’d expect me to grow some balls and start redeeming myself. Things look promising for a while: I go undercover in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to find the lost son of my old buddy Hassan. Who, in an astonishing coincidence, is being kept as a sex toy and molested by the very same psychopath who raped his father. I rescue him by getting the crap beat out of me. Wait, no, I get the crap beat out of me and then the kid rescues me. And then, because although I have grown about half a ball I’m still a thoughtless idiot, I break the only promise I’ve made to this orphaned abused child. So he attempts suicide.

By the end of the book things are looking up and I’ve forgiven myself (and I’ve even apologized to the kid!), but by now you probably don’t even care and you wish that all the other characters in the book would just walk away from me and go be in some other story that’s not narrated by a self-indulgent moral coward who might be some kind of anthropomorphic metaphor for modern Afghanistan.

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Persuasion and Post Captain: same story, different genders

I just finished Persuasion, and it made me want to re-read Post Captain, by Patrick O’Brian. Post Captain is a great companion for Persuasion: same setting, and the first few chapters of it read like an Austen novel told from the man’s point of view. Which is fun – it’s like chick lit, with all the interpersonal drama + drinking and fighting.

The two books have the same plot setup: It’s 1802 and peace has been temporarily declared between Napoleon & England, so all the officers in the royal navy are on extended shore leave looking for entertainment, and all the ladies are excited to have eligible young men move into the neighborhood. In Persuasion the story of the young ladies trying to hook up with the various officers is told from a respectable young virgin’s point of view.

Louisa … burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy; their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved.

Persuasion, Chapter 11.

In Post Captain, the men are onshore looking for fun and trying to get laid, and the male author and modern sensibility make the young women less prim and more entertaining than they are in Austen’s story of the situation. Only the first few chapters of Post Captain are about flirtation, balls, and hunting. After a while war breaks out again and the men spend the rest of the book sailing around Europe fighting the French and blowing things up. There’s also an interlude with a bear costume that borders on the surreal.

‘When one sea-officer is to be roasted, there is always another at hand to turn the spit,’ said the bear. ‘It is an old service proverb. I hope to God I have that fornicating young sod under my command one day. I’ll make him dance a hornpipe – oh, such a hornpipe.’

Post Captain, Chapter 4.

Even if you don’t usually enjoy reading about the early 19th century or naval adventures, Patrick O’Brian is tremendously entertaining. Go read some.

Persuasion and Post Captain: same story, different genders

I just finished Persuasion, and it made me want to re-read Post Captain, by Patrick O’Brian. Post Captain is a great companion for Persuasion: same setting, and the first few chapters of it read like an Austen novel told from the man’s point of view. Which is fun – it’s like chick lit, with all the interpersonal drama + drinking and fighting.

The two books have the same plot setup: It’s 1802 and peace has been temporarily declared between Napoleon & England, so all the officers in the royal navy are on extended shore leave looking for entertainment, and all the ladies are excited to have eligible young men move into the neighborhood. In Persuasion the story of the young ladies trying to hook up with the various officers is told from a respectable young virgin’s point of view.

Louisa … burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy; their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved.

Persuasion, Chapter 11.

In Post Captain, the men are onshore looking for fun and trying to get laid, and the male author and modern sensibility make the young women less prim and more entertaining than they are in Austen’s story of the situation. Only the first few chapters of Post Captain are about flirtation, balls, and hunting. After a while war breaks out again and the men spend the rest of the book sailing around Europe fighting the French and blowing things up. There’s also an interlude with a bear costume that borders on the surreal.

‘When one sea-officer is to be roasted, there is always another at hand to turn the spit,’ said the bear. ‘It is an old service proverb. I hope to God I have that fornicating young sod under my command one day. I’ll make him dance a hornpipe – oh, such a hornpipe.’

Post Captain, Chapter 4.

Even if you don’t usually enjoy reading about the early 19th century or naval adventures, Patrick O’Brian is tremendously entertaining. Go read some.

Book club report: Austen, Bradbury, and No Child Left Behind

I go to a book club once a month; the other members all work at the high school where my sidekick teaches, and so have daily experience with current education legislation. This month we read Persuasion and a modern retelling of Persuasion: Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs. The modern book was an entertaining piece of chick lit in which the Anne Elliot character is a guidance counselor in a high school. I reread Persuasion for the 4th or 5th time and prepared for a nice discussion of antiromanticism, gender roles, and the class system. The main talking point of the discussion turned out to be the wrongheadedness of No Child Left Behind. See, the modern retelling is set in a high school, so there’s a connection.

This is a recurrent theme in my book club discussions. A few months ago we read Fahrenheit 451. I took lots of notes and had a nice “Ray Bradbury is a big ol’ misogynist” argument prepared. Bulk of discussion: how much the dystopia of Fahrenheit 451 reminded everyone about the wrongheadedness of No Child Left Behind.

I think we got all the way through A Walk in the Woods and Marley and Me without a detour into NCLB-sucks-landia. I skipped the Memory Keeper’s Daughter meeting because I hated the book so much, but I bet the subject of raising a child with Down Syndrome tied in nicely with NCLB. Faking a child’s death is bad, as is leaving one behind.

I think for the next meeting I’ll prepare some bullet points on how the book we’re reading ties in with NCLB, so I can join in the discussion. It’ll be easy: any bad, useless, or wasteful policy or decision is like No Child Left Behind. Which sucks, y’all.

Book meme: The Waterfall, Margaret Drabble

Here’s a book meme I found on Land-o-Lulu:
1) Grab the nearest book once you read this.
2) Open to page 161.
3) Find the 5th full sentence, and post the text, along with these instructions.

My results, from Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall:

“If you had some work to do, you’d be doing it.”

The Waterfall was published in 1969. It’s about an English woman in the 60’s, before feminism and the sexual revolution but while an antiquated and pathetic class distinction is still in place. The narrator has a baby (at home! with horrid 1960’s obstetric care!) and falls in love with her cousin’s husband, who visits her to help her out in the days she’s stuck at home postpartum. It sounds really dull, but I find it pretty entertaining, even funny. It apparently really sucked to be an intelligent educated woman in a time and place when intelligence and motherhood, or even womanhood, were supposed to be two different things. The style of the book is really modern, all psychological self-analysis and internal monologue, but the narrator’s attitude towards herself and her role in the world is so antithetical to a modern American woman’s that it might as well have been written by an alien. Reading this book makes me very glad I was born in the 1970’s and that I didn’t grow up in middle-class England.