Book Review: The War Of Art

The War Of Art:  Break Through The Blocks And Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield

This book is one of those volumes where the author gets to relish in being a jerk and views himself as superior to fundamentalists while proving himself to be equally as narrow-minded as any fundamentalist, albeit for the sake of art rather than religion.  If you have a high tolerance for jerks and hypocrites, there is a lot that one can gain from a book like this, although there are plenty of cringy moments and also some moments where it will be impossible to avoid at least a snicker at the ridiculousness of the author.  One particular aspect of the ridiculousness of the author’s claim to be a no bs sort of person is the fact that the author is best known for writing a golf novel where the main character is a Magic Negro (The Legend Of Bagger Vance), although it must be admitted that as far as that sort of trope goes the author does a decent job at it.  Still, the writer thinks he is somewhat more professional than he is, the sort of person who has achieved enough to get a book published but not enough to be humble about it or to be remembered decades from now except as a footnote to someone’s thesis on obscure novels or screenplays or the role of the Marines in public culture.

At its heart, this book is a short volume of a bit more than 150 pages that urges the reader to become a professional and to take the creation of art seriously.  How does one do this?  By taking it seriously, depending on it for one’s living (although the author does talk about living in vans, so it may not go well for a while), doing it day in and day out regardless of how one feels, and focusing on getting work done rather than claiming being a writer or artist as an avocation.  The author spends a lot of time talking about resistance, pointing out a valid moral point (although he does not clearly see it), that the darker and baser side of our nature (that side most in touch with Satan, to put it religiously) will resist those actions that we take in order to better our lives or to show growth, and that quite a lot of people will view our attempts at growth and success as a threat to them and an insult to their own complacency.  The author also points out the necessity of exposing our precious creations to the cruelty of the real world and of its judgments.  Most of the essays are short, as if they were originally part of the author’s blog and simply got combined in a book.

And if that is the case, more power to him.  The author certainly does come off as a jerk, although it is intentionally so.  And the author’s points remain valid even if he does not put them in the friendliest way.  This is not a book that seeks to appeal with a gentle word, but is rather an indelicate kick to the backside to get the reader, who is presumably a creative person of some kind, to get busy working on one’s creations and to take art more seriously.  I cannot say how helpful the book is to the reader because I speak as someone who is already doing what the author suggests, but the fact that there are more than half a dozen people in my county’s library system that have requested this book to read after me suggests that the message is certainly appealing to a lot of people.  War is an art, and to create art we must war against ourselves, against our laziness and procrastination and our fear of rejection and of our desire to protect our babies from a harsh world of critics.  It is a harsh world, and the author suggests that one has to be rather tough-minded in order to deal with it.  For all the author’s flaws, I happen to agree with him.

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Book Review: The Design Of Everyday Things

The Design Of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman

It’s nice to know that I’m not the only person who has serious problems with doors.  In the course of my life I have far too frequently ended up walking into automatic doors that for whatever reason failed to open.  It feels (and looks) rather like the ubiquitous and embarrassing flight of birds into glass doors, as one tries to preserve one’s dignity in the face of a door that has failed to open or to recognize that a somewhat heavy object was approaching it a relatively high speed (for walking, at least).  As someone who has tended to feel rather inept when it comes to opening doors or dealing with other common objects, this book was a breath of fresh air in explaining that in many cases it has not been my own fault but rather the fault of poor design by those who failed to take into account how it is that something would be used and the need for cues to prompt the correct behavior on the part of a user of such a product.  Told with a great deal of humor and sarcasm, this book is a must-read for those who design products for consumer use.

Coming in at a bit more than 200 pages, this book is divided into seven chapters that explain why so many things are designed so poorly in our world.  The author begins with two prefaces, noting the title of the book and why it was changed, because those who design things do not apparently read books on psychology.  The author begins the book with an entertaining and all too easy to understand discussion of the psychopathology of everyday things, from phones that are impossible to use properly to doors that are nearly impossible to use to problems from the absence of proper feedback to know that one is doing things correctly (1).  After this comes a discussion of the psychology of everyday actions (2), where people depend on both the knowledge that is in their head and knowledge in the world that does not have to be remembered.  This leads to a detailed discussion of these two types of knowledge (3) and how they can be harnessed in design through appropriate cues and sound mapping principles.  After this the author talks about how we know what to do (4) and how it is that many designs fail to properly inform us of what we are doing through visibility and feedback.  After this the author discusses various types of errors (5) and how it is that good designs help mitigate them, before moving to the design challenge (6) of avoiding feature creep and overreliance on computers.  The book then closes with a discussion about the importance of user-centered design (7) along with notes, suggested readings, and other reference and index material.

Why is it that communication is so difficult in this world?  Those things that are the easiest to use and that lead to the fewest problems share a set of circumstances, such as the fact that we can see what we are supposed to do with it and that the controls map well with the design of the device itself.  All too often, though, the desire for visual elegance is viewed as being much more important than being able to properly use something.  Devises win awards for elegant design even as they prove impossible to use in basic and fundamental ways.  Buildings are given awards for ambiguous doors and torturous office design that prove actively painful and unpleasant to use on the part of others.  And a great deal of this comes because people care more about things that look good than things that work, except for those who actually have to use them, and whose opinions and perspective is seldom taken into account by anyone who is involved in designing and purchasing devices for corporate use.  At the very least, this book is a helpful reminder to readers that they are not alone in struggling with poorly designed everyday objects, and that there is a better way for such things to be designed.

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Book Review: To Engineer Is Human (2)

To Engineer Is Human:  The Role Of Failure In Successful Design, by Henry Petroski

There is in this particular book a sense of the dynamic nature of engineering and the sort of tension that exists between a desire for safety and a desire to transcend previous efforts as well as economize in various practices, all of which leads to risk of failure.  Using both familiar and unfamiliar examples, the author does a good job here of discussing the pivotal role of failure in leading to successful designs, revealing the paradoxical truth that learning from failure leads to future successes, while success often brings with it a strong sense of complacency that in turn leads to future failure, and that our own contemporary efforts at design are hindered by a lack of understanding of the importance of learning from history and deep problems in communicating and even understanding what is being designed because of the complexity of what is being done and the ineffectiveness of various computer models at approximating reality.  The author thus shows himself to be temperamentally conservative, which is a very good thing, even as he is deeply learned in the ways that failure has shaped design and how constraints are present in any sort of design efforts.

This particular book of around 250 pages or so is full of interest and even some surprises.  The author begins with an understanding that design and engineering are a part of what it means to be human (1) and that falling down is a part of growing up (2), whether one is a toddler trying to learn how to walk better or whether one is an engineer working on a bridge or vehicle design.   The author then uses “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” as a way of discussing lessons about design from both play and life (3) and discusses the nature of every design as a hypothesis (4).  The author discusses the importance of foreseeing failure and accounting for its possibility in leading to success (5) and that design helps us get from where we are to where we want to be (6).  The author reminds us that design is often a revision of what has come before (7) in some fashion that that reality places us with accidents that are waiting to happen (8) that can wreck our plans and designs.  The author discusses safety in numbers (9) as well as the problem of cracks (10), and gives a humorous story of buses and knife blades in trying to build things cheaply (11).  An interlude about the success of the Crystal Palace (12) leads to a discussion of bridge failures (13) as well as the importance of forensic engineering and engineering fiction in teaching an understanding of failure (14).  The author as a chance to grouse about the failure of people to understand how design used to be done in the face of the transition between slide rules and computers (15), the discussion of people as connoisseurs of chaos (16), and the limits of design (17) in addressing factors of safety and economic concerns.  This version of the book then concludes with a new afterword that discusses the Challenger failure.

Why is it that engineering seems so remote from the experience of most people?  After all, the basic structures that we use in design are things that are familiar to human beings seeking to interact with the world.  Moreover, the attitude of learning from failure and dealing with the tension of our desires for safety and our desires for novelty as well as efficiency is something that is present in many aspects of our lives and not merely in our mechanical and structural designs.  The author examines how it is that some failures, like that of the first Tacoma Narrows bridge, came about because of a failure to learn from history when it came to overly elegant bridge design that failed to take wind loads and the problem of resonance into consideration.  All of this entertaining discussion is included with a wealth of humane and gentle humor that puts the reader at ease and that allows even those who have little familiarity with engineering design to understand what the author is getting at and be able to think at least a little more soundly about engineering failures and why they happen.

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On The Many Ways Of Being Anti-Intellectual

From the beginning of my life, I have been marked out as an intellectual, especially given my early fondness for reading and acquiring a highly complex and multilingual vocabulary.  It so happens that I was born in a farming family in Western Pennsylvania and raised in rural Central Florida, neither of which are known for being the sort of locations that cultivated intellectuals.  Suffice it to say that during the course of my childhood (and long afterward) I had to deal with what I thought of as highly anti-intellectual behavior, where it seemed that people were envious and hostile of my God-given gifts of a good memory and a quick mind and a love of sound logic and argumentation.  Nevertheless, I have seldom felt at ease even when surrounded by other self-professed intellectuals, because I have never viewed my intellect as making me qualified to rule over humanity like one of Plato’s philosopher kings or even made me superior as a human being to the unwashed masses of humanity.  To the extent that I acquired my intellectual knowledge through voluminous reading and extensive education and an interest in observation and conversation with what was around me, I never saw it as impossible that plenty of other people would be able to acquire greater intellect themselves, if they so wished, based on the gifts they had also been given.

What are the ways that one can be anti-intellectual?  We have already discussed the way that one can be hostile to or envious of those people who have devoted much of their time and energy to the acquisition of intellectual knowledge, especially through voluminous reading, or have a high standard of education.  Yet this is not the only way that one can be anti-intellectual.  Not by a long-shot.  The author Thomas Sowell wrote a book on the relationship of intellectuals and society and proved himself to be anti-intellectual, if one defines that as having a sinecure that allows one to be unaccountable to the general public (in academia or journalism) where one is often wrong but never in doubt of one’s own sagacity.  That too is a type of being anti-intellectual.  So too is being hostile to intellectual processes by which one forms ideas and tests them as they are practiced in the world.  It could be said that those people or institutions that have been hostile to literacy among the people because it would lead to a decline in the respect of governing institutions have been anti-intellectual because of their lack of interest in cultivating the intellectual capacity of others.  And so it goes.

These different ways of being anti-intellectual are often complex in their relationship with each other.  For example, it is quite likely that a prejudice against intellecutalism inherited from parents who had a reflexive (and not necessarily unjust) hostility to those who were unaccountable cultural elites of immense destructiveness led them to be hostile to those who were intellectual of a different kind.  There are many ways for an intellectual to be anti-intellectual, if someone views themselves as being the source of what is reasonable and disdains those who engage in argumentation and rhetoric that is in disagreement with one’s own views, or if one considers oneself an elite that is hostile to the wider acquisition of intellectual capacity on the part of the general public, which would then be more equipped to critique one’s own intellectual accomplishments.  We may see, therefore, that being anti-intellectual is an immensely complex matter, where it is possible to be anti-intellectual because of a hostility to intellect as well as a hostility to particular (mis)uses of intellect, or a hostility to the development of intellect by those who are not part of a privileged class.

Why is this so?  It just so happens that intellectual is a word that as many shades of meaning.  On the broadest level, an intellectual could be used to describe anyone who has an approach to life that focuses on the acquisition and use of knowledge and information, often of an esoteric kind that does not appeal to others.  Additionally, there is a social aspect to being an intellectual, in that there is a class of people whose professions allow them to be free of accountability to general society while also in the position of seeking to influence others to support their worldview, which has not tended to produce the best results for society.  Even more specifically, an intellectual can be defined in the sense of a public intellectual, someone who writes and speaks in order to support a particular worldview that is based on abstract ideas rather than practical experience.  And to the extent that others have a mistrust of those who like to read too much and too widely, or a distaste for corrupt intellectual elites, or have a marked bias for the practical and empirical rather than the abstract and theoretical, there are a great many roads to being anti-intellectual.  So rather than having the term be a useful label in order to deal with those who are hostile to others on spurious grounds, the term is a muddled one that merely opens the conversation to discussing how someone is intellectual, and how we could very easily be intellectual, even without that necessarily being a bad thing, even if one happens to be a pretty obvious intellectual oneself.

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Book Review: Oregon Asylum

Oregon Asylum (Images Of America), by Diane L. Goeres-Gardner

Did you know that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed in the Oregon State Hospital, originally known as the Oregon Asylum?  If you are a fan of that particular film, you can find some of the stills from that film as well as photographs of site locations in the asylum used in that film here, and that is perhaps a good enough reason to read this book.  If you, like me, are fascinated by asylums and the pendulum swing of mental health efforts that begin in high ideals and that usually end in overcrowded and unsafe places where tormented souls are abused and neglected and forgotten, then there are plenty of other reasons to read this book.  That does not say that this book is perfect, or even that it is as good as most of the other volumes in this series, for there are aspects of this book that do not allow it to reach the heights of previous volumes, but all the same, this is the sort of book that may appear to be odd but which is very easy to justify reading if you have an interest in its subject matter.

This book is a short one, at less than 150 pages, and it is divided into six parts.  After the acknowledgements and introduction, the book begins with the efforts in Oregon to make a new state asylum, as the state had previously paid a sizable amount of money to a private mental hospital in Portland before building a state asylum, which by law had to be in the Salem area (since that is where the state capital was at the time, and still is today) (1).  An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the lengthy Calbreath era when he was the asylum superintendent for a long while despite occasionally being involved in shady business like buying a new car for himself out of asylum funds despite the purchase being denied (2).  After this comes a discussion of the Golden Years of the asylum when it had its highest budget and largest amount of services for patients (3).  This leads into a chapter on triumphs and tragedies that looks at high numbers and overcrowding and decreased budgets and various health problems that took place during the sixties and beyond (4) before an entire chapter is spent on the tunnel system below the original asylum buildings (5).  Finally, the book closes with a look at the rebuilding of the hospital and its present appearance (6).

For me, the biggest problem with this book is that quite a few of what I expected and hoped to be photographs were spent in ugly looking bar graphs that looked at the marriage status of male and female inmates compared by percentage throughout the decades and interpreted by the author herself.  When reading a book like this one I am perfectly content, if not necessarily pleased, to see material that is not strictly photography in these volumes.  That said, the author herself is a writer on the subject of mental health and it is clear that she is viewing this particular book not merely as a chance to provide a glimpse at the past idealism and frustration of those ideals relating to mental health efforts in Oregon, but as a way for her to pursue some sort of private agenda relating to gender imbalances in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, an agenda that belongs in another sort of work and not this one.  There are thankfully enough photos to make this a worthwhile read, but the author’s attempts to interpret the population of the asylum through the decades is a case where doing more amounts to less enjoyment of a book.

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Book Review: Hillsboro

Hillsboro (Images Of America), by Kimberli Fitzgerald and Deborah Raber with the Hillsboro HIstoric Landmarks Advisory Committee

As someone who lives at present just outside of the city boundaries of Hillsboro, it is striking to note just how small Hillsboro was in terms of area for most of its history.  While Hillsboro has certainly always had ambitions to be a major city and has engaged in some very clever behavior (including snagging a desirable source of water) to try to build up a reputation in farming and trade, for most of Hillsboro’s history it was a very small town that was heavily based on timber and agricultural related business as well as serving as a somewhat sleepy suburb of Portland.  Obviously, its days as a sleepy little town are over, though, and this book indicates little by little how this happened, how it was that a town that had less than 1000 residents just over a century go has more than 100 times that amount now, thanks both to drastic changes in the city itself as well as in massive annexation efforts that swallowed a great many of the smaller communities like Orenco that were once independent communities of their own, until Hillsboro has become a city of its own.

This book of a bit more than 100 pages is divided into six chapters and begins with acknowledgments and an introduction that discuss the material in the book and its context, given that Hillsboro has always been the county seat of Washington County from the time it was created in the 1850’s.  The book begins with a discussion of the Atfalati and East Tualatin plains where natives cut off from the rich fishing of the regions major river valleys were engaged in farming (including prairie-burning efforts) from time immemorial until the area became desirable for local settlers (1).  After that the book discusses the early history of the town, when it was known first as Columbia and then becoming Hillsborough in honor of a prominent local man named Hill (2).  After that the book deals with the latter part of the 19th century when Hillsboro started building hotels and businesses and entered the 20th century with a fair amount of ambition (3).  Immediately after that the city’s growing up from a saloon town famous as a “sin city” is discussed (4) before the book shows some photos of the 1920’s, the Depression, and the Second World War period (5).  Finally, the book concludes with a discussion of the changes that took place in the second century of Hillsboro’s existence, not only in the city core itself but in outlying areas like Orenco (6).

In reading this book, I was struck by how much understanding of it depended on having a local knowledge of the area.  As someone who lives and works and travels within the bounds of Hillsboro on a pretty regular basis, there was much I found here that I enjoyed.  I smiled at the street references, knowing how Cornell looks at present as opposed to how it looked decades ago when the airport was relatively new, for example, or knowing the location of Shute Park and being intrigued by how different it is now that the sports pavilion has been torn down for one of the city’s two libraries.  I enjoyed the sight of the old courthouse, knowing that the current county courthouse there was once a place where marching bands used to play and where square dance exhibitions have been held, and where the streets of the city were once swept by matrons supporting the election of Eisenhower in 1952.  And there are poignant photos too, for example of a Japanese family that was interned and were fortunate enough during those dark times to have neighbors who helped keep up their farm so that when they returned they were able to pick up despite the years of the locust.  And although I am a relative newcomer here, there is much about this town and the gap between its reality and reputation, between its ambitions and its achievements, that cannot help but be intensely Nathanish.

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Book Review: Fort Stevens

Fort Stevens (Images Of America), by Susan L. Glen

I happen to greatly fond of the Images of America, and as someone who has gone to Fort Stevens to watch civil war reenactments, there is a great deal of enjoyment to be found in reading a book that answers to one’s own behaviors even if one does not happen to be in the photos.  The text itself is welcoming to someone who is familiar with the fort and what goes on there, and provides a look at the past that also provides some hint as to what still goes on in the fort today, and what role the fort has in American history as having suffered inaccurate fire from the Japanese during World War II.  Photographic history is a perhaps underrecognized aspect of allowing the past to be visualized by those of us in the present, and this book (like many other examples of its series) has done a great job in providing a picture of Fort Stevens through the years with enough discussion about the present that it will hopefully encourage more people to visit and enjoy what it has to offer contemporary tourists and Civil War reenactors in the present day.

The contents of this particular book, which at just over 100 pages is a very short one, take a bit more than 100 pages.  The author begins with acknowledgements and an introduction.  The first 30 pages of photographs with captions look at the early construction of Fort Stevens during the period during the Civil War and the period following it (1).  After that the author discusses and provides pictures of the submarine mines that the fortress and its personnel were involved in laying and practicing to lay during times of war (2).  A short chapter provides some pictures and discusses of the notable wreck of the Peter Iredale that took place on the fortress grounds, where the quickness of personnel in the area in rescuing survivors was praised by the British government in its inquiry of the wreck (3).  Two chapters deal with the pre-World War I and World War I years at the fortress (4) as well as the World War II times (5) where the small fort and its few people had to deal with Japanese attack, to which they responded with some fierceness of wit.  Finally, the last chapter of the book looks at Fort Stevens today and what remains of the fort, including its melancholy graveyard and redoubt and visitor’s center (6).

Fort Stevens has been important throughout history because it guarded the Oregon shore at the mouth of the Columbia River.  Such a strategic location near Seaside and Astoria would make it obvious for fortresses to be built, and the obviousness of its strategic location has made it a target in war.  The fact that the site is pleasant and close to the ocean has also made the place an equally obvious for contemporary use in historical reenactments.  The photos in this book also bring to life the way that people lived in the fort, with the observation that while enlisted people often had to sleep in tents that could not even keep their uniforms clean and dry.  Intriguingly enough, the gardens of the fort were kept in shape by those who had run afoul of discipline, and the photos in the book of kitchen duty show that soldiers were not happy to be photographed peeling potatoes, perhaps not considering it manly enough work.  At any rate, this particular little book helps the reader to better understand Fort Stevens as it has existed throughout history to the present day, and that is a very worthy exploration to take.

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Walking A Thin Line

I have read a fair amount of travel books, many of which purport to be books of humor, and I have found it to be one of those areas where the writer tends to walk a thin line between insulting themselves or others to an unpleasant and awkward degree or making the reader jealous of his or her travels.  Reading travel humor is one of those activities that reveals a great deal of information about ourselves relative to the writer.  Can we relate to the perspective of the writer?  Does the writer’s humor touch our funny bone at least a little?  Is there a proper balance between sarcasm and wonder that expresses the joy of travel as well as the frustrations when things don’t go well?  I have found that speaking personally, I don’t tend to find much cause for being envious of others.  I have traveled enough that even when I read essays or books by people who have traveled more or traveled differently, I don’t feel a consuming sense of envy about their experiences.  Rather, I tend to think what sort of potential travels I would like to do in the future if time and resources permit.

Why is travel writing such a tricky genre?  For one, it consists of the framing of situations and experiences in such a way that it demonstrates the character of the writer and seeks to convey a complex set of emotions to the reader.  There is an expectation that the writer has gone somewhere that is intriguing and has experienced something that is worth telling.  The reader is then placed in the spot of deciding whether or not the place or experience was worth writing about.  At times writers are seeking not only to convey travel experiences to the reader but also put other people down, be it the people of a particular place (this happens a lot in travel writings about the United States), or be it different types of travel writers who the writer disagrees with.  Often travel writing carries with it a sense of polemic that makes it hard to appreciate when one does not share the same sort of assumptions and worldview as the author.  Likewise, an author may go on a quest for something that the reader cannot relate to, thus making the mock heroic tone of the writing go flat.

Once one has written someone, it is impossible to know for sure exactly who will read it.  Perhaps no one will; some things, many things, have been written that no one has picked up or downloaded and read and responded to.  There are other books and essays that are read by people who clearly do not appreciate it, and who the author has never thought of writing to.  When we write a letter, we have some idea in mind of the specific person we are writing to and what we want to say, but even here we can be misunderstand and even here other people may read and interpret what has been written beyond the intentions of the author.  At times this can mean that a writer who thought one was writing to a niche audience was instead reaching a mass audience, most likely because a book led to an appearance on NPR or because an essay was anthologized in a popular series.  And a writer can feel a great deal of pleasure about having reached more people, while at the same time being concerned about the way that writing will be responded to by people who are outside of a certain target audience that shares the concern and perspective of the author.

It must be admitted that this is not an issue with travel writing alone.  Much critical writing about books and music and movies depends both on the context of a work (especially when seen with others) and the particular worldview of the writer.  Most writings come with some sort of agenda attached to them–and we are to be considered fortunate when this agenda is open and honest rather than hidden or denied.  That said, even though many other writing genres require a delicate balance between different approaches, few genres of writing possess the pitfalls of travel humor.  After all, it is a straightforward thing to tell an honest story of one’s travels from the quirky but authentic point of view of the writer, as crazy things are always happening when one is in unfamiliar territory and not entirely sure of the rules on the ground.  Even so, such writing may not aim at being funny, and the desire to make others laugh can often distort the authenticity of what we have to say, and lead to false assumptions about what it is about our travel writing that makes others laugh.  The dogged determination of someone looking for kow soy on their birthday may be humorous, but a more obvious attempt at humor may look like pandering and may fail to hit the target.  Such is the risk of aiming at humor.

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Book Review: Lost In My Own Backyard

Lost In My Own Backyard, by Tim Cahill

There are two kinds of books that one can read by Tim Cahill.  There are books that make the author appear a bit clueless and that encourage the reader to travel like him, where his quirks are endearing rather than annoying.  On the other hand, there are books by the author where the political discourse gets out of hand and where the author comes off as a giant tool who insults the reader and appears entirely undeserved of the privilege of being able to travel on someone else’s dime for writing about it.  Fortunately, this book is the first kind and not the second, and it is a short volume to boot, and also one that should inspire the reader to pick up other books (including one I really want to read myself, namely Death In Yellowstone, which sounds amazingly morbid or morbidly amazing, or both).  And any book that is not only enjoyable on its own right (as well as part of a series on journeys that I have only read in part [1]) but that encourages the reader to read more books is definitely a success as far as I am concerned.  Hopefully you agree.

This short volume of less than 150 pages begins with an introduction where the author admits to having gotten lost in Yellowstone even though it is very close to where he lives in Montana.  As someone who has gotten lost in the wilderness before, I can certainly empathize.  After that comes a selection of day hikes that the author has taken in Yellowstone, narrated with a good deal of humor and discussing such areas as Mount Washburn, the Norris Geyser Basin, the Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful, Artists’ Paintpots, the Monument Geyser Basin, Ice Lake, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, The Lamar Valley, and Fossil Forest.  After that the author goes into a bit more detail about three good backcountry treks that the author has gone on in Yellowstone, into the Thorofare, the Goblin Labyrinth, and the River of Reliable Rainbows, which is such an obscure waterfall that the author is forbidden from giving its exact location lest it become overly seen by other tourists.  Finally, the book ends with a selection of worthy books on Yellowstone to read as well as a series of acknowledgements, making this a short volume that one wishes were a bit longer as it could easily include more content to enjoy.

There are at least a few qualities that make this a book that is easy to appreciate.  For one, the author has the good sense to write about a place that is not so remote that people cannot plan to travel there (although admittedly I have never yet been to Yellowstone and only once to the state of Wyoming at all, and never to Montana either as of yet).  For another, the book is written in a way that is designed to appeal to the popular reader who is fascinated by discussion of petrified forests, Yellowstone’s noted fauna–from bison to bears to trout seeking to cross the great divide through the swampy ground that straddles the divide between two watersheds that end up in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean, respectively.  The author approaches his subject with a suitably populist tone, noting his amusement at the flatulent sounds of the artists’ paintpots and the way that Old Faithful is well worth seeing even if it is really popular, and only occasionally glorifies in his tough-guy willingness to make rigorous climbs to travel to areas that receive far fewer visitors.  All in all, this is a worthwhile guide to walking in an area that is well-worth seeing.


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Book Review: Pecked To Death By Ducks

Pecked To Death By Ducks, by Tim Cahill

As this is the fifth book by the author I have read so far, I’m pretty familiar with his shtick.  Unfortunately, this book falls towards the bottom of the author’s body of work rather than towards the top.  Cahill is best when he is writing so that you are neither offended by his political and religious thoughts or envious that this tool is able to travel on the dime of other companies and make a career writing about it, but instead writing so that you are able to laugh at what a clueless buffoon he is.  At his best, Cahill manages to do enviable things without provoking envy, and to be an idiot without that idiocy being offensive, but that is not the case here.  Instead, this book follows the same kind of trend of Cahill’s early writings when he wrote a lot about politics and religion and made himself look less than charitable in the process.  Indeed, in one essay here the author shows himself to be remarkably hostile to a premillennial religious group that had settled in Montana.  I wonder what he would think about some of my coreligionists in the Eternal Church of God who settled in Montana?  Probably nothing positive.

This particular book of almost 400 pages is divided into five sections with numerous essays within them.  The author begins with a look at the unnatural world (I), with Kuwait burning at the end of the Gulf War, a complaint about a lack of mutilations in people who believe in paranormal phenomena, and a brag/complaint about the way that the Marquesas have failed to attract many tourists, except for the author who has now written about them at least twice.  After that comes “Tooth And Claw,” which contains some of the author’s thoughts on bear, bison, and moose, as well as llama and the mountain gorilla (II).  “The Natural World” allows the author to reflect on kayaking and traveling in Antarctic waters (III).  In Other People’s Lives, the author gets the chance to talk about pretending to be a duck (again) in Bali, dealing with the miner’s paradox, visits to Chiloé off the coast of Chile, and the story of a missing hiker in Yellowstone (IV).  Finally, in “Risk,” the author tackles paragliding, a football player’s hatred of caving, sorority sisters hiking on the ice, and a trek with the Dangerous Sports Club, apparently the inventors of bungee jumping.

It is a bit of a letdown that this book is not better than it is.  In some ways, after several books of essays, the author shows himself running out of ideas and returning to subjects he had previously written about, in a sort of self-plagiarism.  Likewise, after having written a few books where he made himself look incompetent in the interests of pleasing the reader, here he seems a bit more interested in writing with a political edge, and it doesn’t suite him as well as his more comic writing.  Given that the author has a worldview that makes him very harsh towards conservative religious sects and tediously progressive in much of his politics, anything that encourages the author to engage in that side of his writing is not playing to his strengths but rather alienating him from potential readers.  Likewise, the whole book as a whole reeks with a sort of privilege that engages in tourism while simultaneously bragging that the places the author goes to are for him but not for everyone else, seeking to preserve what is unspoiled while simultaneously spoiling it through his own presence and his writing about it in ways that would likely inspire imitation.

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