Sightlines : A Conversation with the Natural World by Kathleen Jamie

As a nature writer, Kathleen Jamie sparkles.

In her native Scotland, she is knownsightlines primarily as a poet.  As an essayist, it would be great if she does more.  In Sightlines, Jamie takes an intense interest in all that she observes, and her places of interest range from the microscopic renderings of the human body to the fjords of Greenland.

Jamie’s essays cover the otherworldly, too.  In “Moon”, I think she’s put together a most excellent narrative about a lunar eclipse; she sees an event of high drama in the earth’s encroaching shadow.  During her visit to Greenland, Jamie takes on the Northern Lights, about as otherworldly a thing as anything we’ll ever see.

Her essays take in great swaths of the natural world, with a focus on the maritime climes of the northern Atlantic.  The sea and its effect on remote island settlements play a major part in several pieces here.  Whales are also a particular fascination – one essay is about her visit to the Hvalsalen, a museum in Norway with an extensive collection of whale skeletons.  There she is able to work with a restoration crew on a cleanup of the most significant specimens of the museum.

I found Jamie’s writing and scope of interest comparable to Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Landmarks), another British author who writes some amazing nature essays.  As with him, her writing begs the reader to slow down and to stretch one’s attention span.  If you’re willing, you’ll be glad you did.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Gone Feral : Tracking My Dad through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

After being estranged from her father for years, the author reassesses both her parentsgone feral and their roles they have played in her life as she reconnects with her father.

Carpenter’s parents lived the back-to-the-land lifestyle early on.  She and her older sister were born in the early 1970s, and spent their early childhood on a rural spread of land outside of Orofino, Idaho.  The idealism wore thin for their mother after a time, and she eventually moved her kids to Washington State for a more stable livelihood.

Solitary by nature, Carpenter’s father George continued to make a marginal living for himself on the same piece of land.  He would keep up with his ex-wife and daughters sporadically via phone calls and emails through the years.  Residents of the area knew his eccentric routines.

George goes missing for a longer period of time than usual, and when he turns up again, the author sees this as an opportunity to forge a closer relationship with her dad.  Reunions with him, however, tend to be brief, disturbing and scattershot, and Carpenter begins to fear for his sanity (and consider her own) as she goes about linking her father’s past with her continuing life story.

Gone Feral explores fringe lifestyles (urban farms, communal homesteading) and how family ties never completely disappear.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the Countless Minor Ones By Henri Michaux

major ordealsIn the 1950s, French writer/poet/artist Henri Michaux began experimenting with mescaline, LSD and hashish in an effort to understand the workings of the human mind.  An earlier book of his, Miserable Miracle, is an immediate journal of these experiments, while Major Ordeals is Michaux’s attempt to make sense of and draw conclusions from these experiences.  “Just as the stomach does not digest itself, just as it is essential that the stomach do no such thing, the mind is constructed in such a way that it cannot grasp itself, cannot directly, continuously grasp its own mechanism and action, having other matter to grasp,” he writes in the introductory chapter “The Marvelous Normal”.  The use of hallucinogenic drugs reveals this otherwise ungraspable “mechanism and action” to Michaux, and the majority of Major Ordeals is spent documenting the many vertiginous states that leave the author helpless.  Rather than the “expanded consciousness” motif that is the takeaway from Aldous Huxley’s similar The Doors of Perception, Michaux conveys instead a modest amazement at the amount of unconscious, fugitive labor the mind must perform for human beings to be able to engage in even the simplest tasks.  Because Michaux is a poet, the descriptions of the drugged states are so vivid that the reader experiences something like a contact derangement by simply engaging with the text. Huxley’s book may have launched a thousand visionary acid trips, but Michaux’s comes to grips with the inevitable philosophical hangover that awaits the traveler upon their return.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers

The Queen of Katwe is the true story of Phiona, a Ugandan girl from Katwe, one of thequeen of Katwe world’s most dreadful slums.  Amazingly, despite her desperate poverty, she learns chess well enough to represent her country in international chess Olympiads.

As the book begins, Phiona and her family often have only one meal a day.  Since the slum is in a swamp, the floor of their shack is frequently deep in water.  There are no free schools in the area, and since Phiona’s mother has almost no money to pay for tuition, Phiona has had very little education.

When Phiona is nine years old, she sees a man teaching a group of boys how to play a game – chess – that she’s never seen.  Those who come to learn chess get a bowl of porridge each day.  She wants to learn – and to fill her empty stomach.  She proves to have a talent for chess, as well as great determination.  Within a few years, Phiona is winning games in international competitions and discovering such wonders as airplanes and flush toilets!  She also receives a scholarship to return to school.  The money that Phiona receives from this book and from a movie contract makes it possible for her family to move from the slum and into a home that is free from flooding.

This inspirational tale is fascinating, even to people – like me – who don’t play chess.

The movie based on this book won awards from the African-American Film Critics Association and from the Women Film Critics Circle.  It stars David Olelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga.

The book’s author lives in Chapel Hill.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Passages in Modern Sculpture by Rosalind E. Krauss

Sculpture has always been an “unreadable” and opaque art form for me.  While I canpassages look at classical and figurative sculpture and appreciate the labor and skill that went into its making, I couldn’t tell you what the underlying meaning of the work was.  By the time you get to the non-figurative, conceptual sculpture of the 20th and 21st centuries, I am at a complete loss and feel like I have no idea what I’m looking at.

Rosalind Krauss’ Passages in Modern Sculpture was the first book to really teach me how to look at and think about modern/contemporary sculpture.

Chapter One examines Rodin, a sculptor many would consider “classical” insofar as he deals with recognizable human forms, and demonstrates how the conceptual and abstract properties of later sculpture are already at work here.  By treating Rodin as a transitional figure, Krauss helps the sculpturally illiterate (like me!) bridge the daunting gap between representational and abstract art.

Subsequent chapters tackle Duchamp’s readymades, Giacometti’s surreal constructions, installation art, and environmental sculpture.

In her introduction, Krauss points out that she wrote her book with student readers in mind, so the text is lucid and refreshingly jargon-free.  If you are up for an adventurous stroll through the enigmatic sculpture gardens of the past hundred years, Rosalind Krauss makes an excellent tour guide.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

David Lynch : The Man from Another Place By Dennis Lim

David LynchWhen the Twin Peaks revival was announced a few years ago, a veritable cottage industry of Twin Peaks-related books, think pieces, and apparel appeared virtually overnight to cash in on the news.  Missing from this welcome deluge of material was a concise, accessible critical/biographical overview of David Lynch, co-creator of the cult TV show and arguably the reason most folks were excited about the prospects of the new season.

Dennis Lim’s The Man From Another Place successfully fills that void with a breezy, readable introduction to the life and work of David Lynch. Lim does an excellent job incorporating the many projects Lynch has been involved in, including his art work, “industrial symphonies”, songwriting, Transcendental Meditation advocacy, and even his four-panel comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World.

Lim’s book is saved from being a glorified Wikipedia page by the copious amount of interviews he conducted with Lynch and various artistic collaborators, so that someone who has read, say, the 700-page David Lynch biography Beautiful Dark, will still find new insights and information here. The author is also gracious enough to provide interpretations of Lynch’s films for the newly initiated, giving the perplexed a way into the labyrinths of these visionary works (indeed, Lim has me convinced I now “understand” Inland Empire.)

If you’ve heard the name David Lynch and never understood what the fuss is about, this book is an excellent place to start.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

killersIf you like to read about history and like true crime books, you’ll probably find this book a fascinating tale.

The time?  The 1920s.  The place?  The Osage Indian lands in Oklahoma.  The situation?  These Indians, after the discovery of oil under their land, were the world’s richest people per capita.

Then Anna Brown, an Osage Indian, disappeared.  Her body showed up in a river; someone had shot her through the head.  This was the first of many deaths among the tribe’s members – from gunshot wounds, from suspicious illnesses, and from an explosion in the home of an Osage couple.  Local investigators were unable to solve these crimes, and some of these investigators also met untimely deaths.

The FBI was rather new at this time.  J. Edgar Hoover, its young director, sent a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate the matter.  The FBI estimated a total of twenty-four murders, and later estimates are much higher.  White and his team were partially successful in determining the cause of the murders; later investigators, including this book’s author, have made more discoveries.

Grann also wrote The Lost City of Z; I have not read that book but did enjoy seeing the movie version of this true story about exploration in the Amazon region.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)