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A Brief History of Motion, by Tom Standage

Tom Standage’s new book A Brief History of Motion promises a little more than it delivers, but it is still a very entertaining and informative book. My one qualm is that it begins with its promised history of all sorts of human mechanical motion, but midway through veers into the single lane of how the car gained primacy. 

The book begins with an environmental catastrophe that confronted humankind in the late 1800s, as a way of setting the stage for his end-of-book optimism about changing the gasoline-based car culture before it is too late in our current time. That earlier catastrophe was horse manure.

Horse manure was already a problem in cities by the mid-Nineteenth Century, when a newspaper described New York City streets as “one mass of reeking, disgusting filth, which in some places is piled to such height as to render them almost impassable.” By the 1890s, the problem had become dire. With the growth of city factories, steam locomotives boosting intercity travel, and the development of inner suburbs served by horse-drawn streetcars, horses became more vital than ever to the economy. The number of horses increased fourfold between 1870 and 1900, while the human population only doubled.

New York City now had 150,000 horses, each of them producing the rank stew of 22 pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day, turning the streets into rivers of filth in wet weather, and the air into clouds of foul dust in dry weather. In addition, some 15,000 horses died each year, and were often left rotting on the street for days. (Methane gas was less of a problem; horses produce only a small fraction of the gas produced by cows.) Traffic was often impassable with the crush of horse-drawn vehicles.

An interesting aside is that an outbreak of the equine flu in 1872 sidelined horses and mules for weeks, crippling the economy. “The present epidemic has brought us face to face with the startling fact that the sudden loss of horse labor would totally disorganize our industry and commerce,” wrote The Nation. Sort of like what happened with Covid, or what will happen with a crippled internet or electrical grid. Economies seem to hang on an over-reliance on the technologies of the day. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

The Arbornaut, by tree canopy scientist Meg Lowman

I was drawn to biologist Meg Lowman’s new book The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us partly by my love of adventurous travel in distant lands, and partly by my fascination with those who make ground-breaking discoveries. And if those innovators are women dealing with systemic sexism in their chosen field, all the more interesting.

The Arbornaut hits on all three. She takes us to Australia, Peru, India, Ethiopia, Malaysia and more.  Lowman pioneered the science of treetop ecology, which greatly changed our understanding of forests and has much to contribute to the fight against climate change. And she managed to do this despite the systemic roadblocks against her as a woman scientist.

Reading this book in a week when wildfires rage and destroy anew, and when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change released such a dire report, added additional emotional layers. First, there was the tragic sense that much of the biological beauty the writer so vividly describes is on the brink of destruction. And yet, there was also a sense of hope. She refuses to give into despair over our environmental calamity, and makes the case for the major role forests have in humanity’s survival.

Her story in a nutshell, as she describes it:

No one would have guessed that a shy kid from rural upstate New York, a veritable geek who spent her childhood collecting wildflowers along roadsides, could change our view of the planet with a few homemade gadgets.

Sounds pretty grandiose, but that’s exactly what she did. Up until 40 or so years ago, the study of trees and forests focused mostly on the tree trunk and whatever part of the understory was accessible from the ground, which in retrospect seems absurd since only 1% of the trunk is living tissue; the other 99% is dead tissue, otherwise known as ‘wood.’ As she puts it: “Imagine going to the doctor for a complete checkup and, in the course of an entire visit, the only body part examined was your big toe.” If tree canopies were studied at all, it was generally of trees that had been cut down. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World, by Daniel Sherrell

 I wanted to like Daniel Sherrell’s new paperback Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World more than I did; indeed, I expected to like it and, more importantly, to be more affected by it than I did. Part of the problem stems from some marketing and early reviews that tout it as a cri de coeur of the Millennial Generation in the face of the mortal threat of what the author calls The Problem, i.e., climate change. My expectations had thus been primed for insight into a ferocious passion being brought to bear by the younger generation in the face of an imminent threat, with some thoughts about the failings of earlier generations to do so.

I did not get that. I did get a well-written, heartfelt meditation on living with the confusing, complicated, frightening and infuriating physical, emotional and intellectual impact of climate change. I did get a nuanced meditation on the struggle to carry on and fight on in the face of grief and despair. But in the end, I was left with that depressing, hackneyed old sense of ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ Which in turn infuriated me, because things can’t remain the same, not with the imminent threat and accelerating disruption of climate change.

To his credit, author Daniel Sherrell gets all this. His working through these contradictions is always interesting and is one of the book’s strengths. He repeatedly steps back to place his observations within a greater context, comparing them to periods of history when humanity felt the world was on the brink, or with refugees facing the loss of everything, or with the AIDS epidemic. He never shies away from the awareness that much of what enables his education, his activism and his writing is a direct result of the advantages bestowed on him by the very fossil fuel lifestyle that has brought us to the brink. The heart of his book is a passionate attempt to get to the root of how hard it is to wrap our minds around the enormity of it all.  Still, it all just felt so...familiar.

My illustration at the top of this review superimposes the book cover over the New York Times’ front page coverage of the first Earth Day in 1970. I did this because in Warmth, Sherrell relates his sense of wonder and pride at the turnout in New York City for a demonstration he helped organize coinciding with the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014:

It’s September 21, 2014, and half a million people have gathered on Central Park West. I’ve never seen this many people in one place, enough to clog all the side streets, to completely obscure the pavement. “Throng” seems too small a word for what is happening….

And though we’ve spent months calling them here, it’s still impossible to believe they’ve arrived. We frankly don’t know where they’ve all come from, but here they are anyway, hundreds of thousands of strangers gathered on a street that was empty just this morning….We’ve billed it as the largest ever march against the Problem, and within twenty minutes of the start time it is clear that this is true by a long shot, maybe even by an order of magnitude….

And at least on that day, our work works—the story is ours. On the front page of The New York Times, right there above the fold, are four pictures of the rally. We wake up to them sitting in coffee shops and bodega windows, the headlines as triumphant as we could have asked, though what this amounts to is not immediately clear. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

Our Opinionated Look at New Nonfiction Coming in August

Summer is usually a bit slower in the book publishing world, but there are a number of amazing new nonfiction titles of interest to coming out before the fall publishing season kicks in in September. All these titles are available for preorder and will ship on or just before their official publication date. We've got politics, history, and more!

First up is Mary Trump’s The Reckoning: Our Nation's Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal, coming out August 17th. In her previous book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Manthe clinical psychologist and Donald Trump niece used both her professional training and her family insider perspective to trace how Trump became the dangerous narcissistic sociopath who wrought such toxic consequences on our country and the world. It arguably was one of the books published last summer that helped set up his defeat in November. In this new book, she turns her attention to us and the PTSD we and the nation are dealing with as we grapple with the stress of coming to terms with how Trump sledgehammered the country, the world, and our inner lives. How do we recover from this?

This Tuesday, August 3rd, brings an autobiography by Amy McGrath, the woman who ran against Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky senatorial race last year. In Honor Bound: An American Story of Dreams and Service, you can read about her fighter pilot experience as the first female Marine to fly a combat mission in an F/A-18 and about her political journey. But mostly you can daydream about how much better off we’d be today had she won that election last November.

This new book by historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States and An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, is guaranteed to enrage the idiots frothing at the mouth about the dangers of critical race theory. In Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion, coming out August 24th, Dunbar-Ortiz strikes back at the dominate myths of the United States. From the Beacon Press publisher blurb:

Whether in political debates or discussions about immigration around the kitchen table, many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, will say proudly that we are a nation of immigrants. In this bold new book, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz asserts this ideology is harmful and dishonest because it serves to mask and diminish the US's history of settler colonialism, genocide, white supremacy, slavery, and structural inequality, all of which we still grapple with today.

She explains that the idea that we are living in a land of opportunity--founded and built by immigrants--was a convenient response by the ruling class and its brain trust to the 1960s demands for decolonialization, justice, reparations, and social equality. Moreover, Dunbar-Ortiz charges that this feel good--but inaccurate--story promotes a benign narrative of progress, obscuring that the country was founded in violence as a settler state, and imperialist since its inception.

While some of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, others are descendants of white settlers who arrived as colonizers to displace those who were here since time immemorial, and still others are descendants of those who were kidnapped and forced here against their will. This paradigm shifting new book charges that we need to stop believing and perpetuating this simplistic and a historical idea and embrace the real (and often horrific) history of the United States.

Here are a few more societal paradigm-busters coming out in August:

Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires

How do you want your outrage provoked and your heart broken?

Maybe from the wildfires. Thanks to climate change and thoughtless overdevelopment, extreme wildfires are becoming the year-round norm, more frequent, burning bigger, longer, faster and more destructive than ever.

Or maybe from a system that incarcerates thousands of people from impoverished or abusive environments for petty crimes, and then uses those inmates, with minimal training and for slave wages, to do the dangerous work of fighting wildfires.

Or maybe from a broken prison system that is so physically threatening and psychologically tormenting that for many inmates, volunteering for the wildfire fighting camps seems an improvement despite the danger.

Or maybe it will be all three, once you’ve finished reading Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires, by Jaime Lowe, just published today..

Many states, including my current home state of Arizona, use inmates for fighting wildfires, but California is at the top of the list. Some 30% of the state’s wildfire crews are inmates, and they can be up to 70% of the crew in some instances. Prison labor is common in general, and is in fact authorized by the very 13th Constitutional Amendment that otherwise abolished slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  But fighting fires is in a category of its own: work that is extremely dangerous and that normally requires years of training.

As the frequency, breadth and ferocity of wildfires increase due to climate change, states are increasingly under pressure to put more bodies into the fight, and where better to find those bodies than the prison population. States also like to tout the great savings to taxpayers generated by paying inmates a couple bucks an hour rather than hiring and training hundreds of professionals (ignoring, of course, the costs of mass incarceration and the millions raked in by for-profit prisons). (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

New Women in the Old West, by Winifred Gallagher

Winifred Gallagher’s just-published New Women in the Old West: From Settlers to Suffragists, an Untold American Story, is an interesting entry in the ‘rescuing ignored people in history’ genre, pairing the histories of western expansion and of women’s rights in the United States between 1840 and 1920.

Women’s suffrage is a big part of the story: women gained the vote in Wyoming Territory in 1869 and in Utah Territory in 1870, and by the time the 19th Amendment extended it nationwide in 1920, fully eleven of the 14 states in the West had already granted suffrage to women. But it isn’t the only part of the story: women made other advances in the western territories and states ahead of their counterparts in the east.

Part of the reason, Gallagher believes, is the simple fact of the grueling nature of the western journey. Out of necessity, the assumed more responsibilities, learned more skill sets, and persevered through mental and physical hardships that belied the prevalent medical mindset that deemed women frail. An interesting statistic: 20% of women in the western migration did so while pregnant, yet that subset suffered a lower mortality rate than men on the journey.

Women also stepped up into public service roles as they pushed for the creation or schools, libraries and churches in their new outposts. This history is hard to excavate in part because, as women generally lacked legal rights to incorporate the institutions they created, it was their husbands or other men whose names appeared on the legal documents and who were thus credited as ‘town fathers.’

Two atypically gender-neutral national laws passed in the Civil War era also helped women. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any head of household, including unmarried women, to claim 160 acres in the west, gaining access to financial equity otherwise not easily available to them. Then, the Morrill Land-Grant Act created colleges in the west open equally to women and men at little or no cost. The Federal law left the controversy of whether to allow co-education to the individual states; most of the new settlements in the west opted for coeducation simply to cut the costs of building campuses. A full one-third of the students in these western colleges constituted were women, and they graduated at a higher rate than men.

This, in turn, opened up employment opportunities for women, especially as teachers. Indeed, the general earlier opening of doors for women in the west extended to other careers: by 1890, 14.5 percent of women in the West worked as lawyers, doctors and other professional areas, versus only 8 percent in the rest of the country. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

Happy 86th Birthday, Dalai Lama

In honor of HH The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s 86th birthday on July 6th, I published a photo diary on the website Daily Kos about my visits to Tibet and to Dharamshala, India, seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, in 1998 and 2000. Go read it if travel is your thing (it's certainly one of mine!). But here on The Literate Lizard, I’m taking a quick overview of a number of books on Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

The recent The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life, published in 2020 and out in paperback earlier this year, is a very good overview of his life and his place in Tibetan religion, history and politics. Author Alexander Norman has a long relationship with the Dalai Lama, having been a co-author of several of his books, including his autobiography Freedom in Exile. He also is a scholar of Tibetan history, having written Secret Lives of the Dalai Lama: The Untold Story of the Holy Men Who Shaped Tibet, from Pre-history to the Present Day (out of print in paper, but available as an eBook.)

Puzzled by the reference to pre-history in the subtitle of that Secret Lives book? Well, that’s part of the fun of Norman’s writing. While he hews mostly to facts and history, he’s not afraid to mix in a bit of Tibetan mysticism as well. He pulls the same trick in his new bio of the Dalai Lama (bear with me here):

“It is tempting to begin our story with the first Saturday in July, 1935, when, by the Gregorian calendar, the present Dalai Lama was born….In a way, it would be more accurate to begin with the evening of the seventeenth of December 1933 [as] the death of the previous Dalai Lama is what precipitates the birth of the next….Yet there is also a case for beginning with the birth of the First Dalai Lama, since, after all, each incarnation is considered to share the same mental continuum. turns out the First Dalai Lama was in fact the Third...because Sonam Gyatso was in fact the third incarnation of a lineage connected with Drepung, Tibet’s largest monastery….There is an added complication, however….Sonam Gyatso is also considered to have been the 42nd in an unbroken lineage going back to the time of the historical Buddha, who lived during the fifth century BCE. It is this lineage that associates the Dalai Lamas with Chenresig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whom they are understood to manifest on earth. And yet this lineage itself is antedated by yet another that connects with a young prince who lived 990 eons ago.”

And how long is an eon, you ask? The Buddha is said to have defined it thus: Suppose there were a great mountain of rock, seven miles across and seven miles high, a solid mass without any cracks. At the end of every hundred years, a man might brush it with a fine Benares cloth. That great mountain would be worn away and come to an end sooner than an eon.

In other words, a bloody long time.

Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books

Penguin Books has been churning out their Great Ideas series for quite some time now, , inexpensive, slender books featuring classic essays by notable thinkers. Eleven new entries in the series came out recently, one of which is Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books, by Georges Perec.

Perec (1936-1982) would probably have loved Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, which I profiled in a recent blog entry: along with his novels, he was a talented essayist who delighted in observing the everyday. The title essay of this book is just one of nine in the book, which cover topics from the literature of concentration camps to objects on his desk to 37 things he’d like to do before he dies (which include writing a script featuring “5000 Kirghiz tribesmen riding across the steppes,” and getting drunk with Malcolm Lowry.

But I know you’re all on tenterhooks awaiting the advice on book arranging. Well, forget it. Perec is reluctant to choose between order and disorder in the library: 

"Disorder in a library is not serious in itself: it ranks with “Which drawer did I put my socks in?”….Between these two tensions, one which sets a premium on letting things be, on a good-natured anarchy, the other that exalts the virtues of the tabula rasa, the cold efficiency of the great arranging, one always ends by trying to set one’s books in order. This is a trying, depressing operation, but one liable to produce pleasant surprises, such as coming upon a book you had forgotten because you could no longer see it and which, putting off until tomorrow what you will not do today, you finally re-devour lying face down on your bed.

Bloomsbury's Addictive 'Object Lessons' Book Series

Have you heard abou the the amazing, addictive Object Lessons book series put out by the publishing house Bloomsbury?

Bloomsbury's Object Lessons Book SeriesThese are small books, less than 5 by 7 inches and not much more than 100 pages, and are focused on singular, specific subjects—often specific to the point of banality, as you can see from the illustration of sample titles in the illustration above. And yet, from those tiny starting points, these books take you in multiple unexpected directions. It is therefore not surprising that in Phone Booth, author and English Lit/Comparative Religion professor Ariana Kelly quotes Proust: “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.”

And where does Phone Booth take us? To Holden Caulfield wandering into New York City phone booths in Catcher in the Rye; to the disconnected phone booth set up in the ruins of Ōtsuchi, Japan after the 2011 earthquake, where people gathered to send conversations in the wind to those they had lost; to phone booths in movies from Goodfellas to The Matrix to Rosemary’s Baby to The Birds to Trading Places; to the podcast Serial, much of which hinges on a phone booth which may or may not exist; to Carlos Castaneda and his abandoned nonfiction book Dial Operator, and who in his secretive way only made calls from pay phones; to Howard Hughes, who had the Beverly Hills Hotel install a phone booth in his bungalow...and regularly swap it out for another one; to Rick Carr, who was directed by the Holy Spirit to camp out by an isolated phone booth in the middle of the Mojave Desert and answer the calls that came in; to the astounding numbers of suicides which take place in phone booths; to, of course, Doctor Who and Superman; and to so much more.


Remembering the 'Hippie Trail' of the 1960s and '70s

I have so many books I’ve collected during and after trips all over the world, books on Latin America, Kenya, India, Nepal, Tibet, Turkey and Morocco. Today, I'm browsing through some of my books on the old Hippie Trail, the overland journey from Istanbul, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India and Nepal.

The heyday of the hippie trail was the 1960s and 70s, before war, revolution and politics made the middle section of the overland journey difficult. It has opened up somewhat in the past couple decades. I missed the heyday: my pair of two-month trips to India, Nepal, and Tibet were in 1998 and 2000, and my visit to Istanbul in 2008.

There are plenty of books about the hippie trail, and I’ve read a few. In Rory MacLean’s Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India, the author revisits the trail forty years later to see what remains. A scene in Afghanistan encapsulates the vibe as a bus to Herat picks him up in the middle of nowhere:

On impulse, I sweep a strip of grit off its mottled surface. I see the crude ”Flying Muslim Coach” logo has been painted over flaking portraits of sultry beauties, their faces scratched out years earlier by Taliban fanatics. I brush away another coat of dirt and discover Russian words beneath the portraits, faded reminders of the Soviet occupation. With both arms, I rub again, pushing back another decade, reaching deeper into the collage and discovering that the Cyrillic characters themselves efface psychedelic, Day-Glo peace symbols.

The bus driver, thrilled to have his bus honored by the presence of a too-rare tourist, ejects the Afghan pop music cassette that is blaring, digs deep into a box and pops in a cassette of The Who. “Music for you! For you!”