Mar 20, 2012

Armando's Choices for April

Below are the titles Armando has suggested for our consideration.  His summaries are unattributed, but I'm guessing Amazon may deserve some credit.

Sweet Promised Land, Robert Laxalt, 207 pages
Dominique Laxalt was sixteen when he left the French Pyrenees for America. He became a sheepherder in the Nevada desert and nearby hills of the Sierra. Like all his fellow Basque immigrants, Dominique dreamed of someday returning to the land of his beginnings. Most Basques never made the journey back, but Dominique finally did return for a visit with family and friends. Sweet Promised Land is the story of that trip, told by his son Robert, who accompanied him to the pastoral mountain village in France. Dominique came home victorious, the adventurer who had conquered the unknown and found his fortune in the New World. He walked the paths of his youth and again experienced the traditions of his Basque heritage. He told of his life in America, the hardships and challenges, and began to realize that he had changed since his departure from the village of Tardets. By the end of the visit, he knew with certainty where he belonged. Sweet Promised Land was first published in 1957 by Harper & Row. During the past fifty years, the book has become a classic in Western American literature, still beloved by the Basque-American community and widely used in undergraduate classes. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the book's publication, western literature scholar Ann Ronald has written a new foreword, discussing the book in the context of American and Nevada literature.

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin,  293 pages
That, ostensibly, is what Songlines is about. What it really is is Chatwin's rambling, discursive, ultimately brilliant exploration of territory, nomadism, and the the origin of violence in humans. Some have labeled his account presumptuous, but I find it wholly intriguing. While Chatwin repeatedly engages in pop-anthropology of dubious quality, what impressed me was the breadth of his imagination and his willingness to set it down in prose. He may give his views a little too much importance, but this does not detract from their scope.Bruce Chatwin's book is ostensibly an examination of the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Songline: a song that relates a series of geographical locations ranging from one coast to another, tied to the (mythical) creation of an animal, that in a variety of languages unified by tune sings out the geography of the route. He explores this abstract concept through the agency of Arkady and a cast of other Whites who live and work amongst the Aborigines in the harsh heart of Australia, defending their rights and interpreting their rites.As a book, this is a rather odd concoction. I expected it to be a spiritual ramble, but it is in fact a direct account of his travels in Australia. When he is trapped by rains, he plunders his accumulated notebooks, and sets down what is effectively his own Walkabout, the series of episodic meditations that are the real focus of the book.Chatwin's Rousseauvian worldview (pg. 133) and rough-and-ready anthropology are not to everyone's taste, his exchange with Konrad Lorenz (!) is odd, and the book has been controversial for his sometimes-fictitious accounts of the Aborigines. Despite that this is an ambitious book, and if you ignore that the Aboriginal veneer, it is at once more compelling than almost all the travel writing that populates bookshelves put together.

Assembling California, John McPhee,  294 pages
At various times in a span of fifteen years, John McPhee made geological field surveys in the company of Eldridge Moores, a tectonicist at the University of California at Davis. The result of these trips is Assembling California, a cross-section in human and geologic time, from Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada through the golden foothills of the Mother Lode and across the Great Central Valley to the wine country of the Coast Ranges, the rock of San Francisco, and the San Andreas family of faults. The two disparate time scales occasionally intersect—in the gold disruptions of the nineteenth century no less than in the earthquakes of the twentieth—and always with relevance to a newly understood geologic history in which half a dozen large and separate pieces of country are seen to have drifted in from far and near to coalesce as California. McPhee and Moores also journeyed to remote mountains of Arizona and to Cyprus and northern Greece, where rock of the deep-ocean floor has been transported into continental settings, as it has in California. Global in scope and a delight to read, Assembling California is a sweeping narrative of maps in motion, of evolving and dissolving lands.

Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez, 496 pages
This is one of the finest books ever written about the Far North, warmly appreciative and understanding of the natural forces that shape life in an austere landscape. The prize-winning author (Of Wolves and Men spent four years in Arctic regions: traveling between Davis Strait in the east and Bering Strait in the west, hunting with Eskimos and accompanying archeologists, biologists and geologists in the field. Lopez became enthralled by the power of the Arctic, a power he observes derives from "the tension between its beauty and its capacity to take life." This is a story of light, darkness and ice; of animal migrations and Eskimos; of the specter of development and the cultural perception of a region. Examining the literature of 19th century exploration, Lopez finds a disassociation from the actual landscape; explorers have tended to see the Arctic as an adversary. Peary and Stefansson left as a troubling legacy the attitude that the landscape could be labeled, then manipulated. Today, he contends, an imaginative, emotional approach to the Arctic is as important as a rational, scientific one. Lopez has written a wonderful, compelling defense of the Arctic wilderness. 

Unquenchable, Robert Glannon, 414 pages
America faces a water-supply crisis. Profligate consumption of water for agriculture, power generation, industry, and homes has led to reduction of groundwater, threats to rivers, and mortal danger to many of the nation’s lakes. Much of the blame for this state of affairs lies with uncontrolled growth in the nation’s South and Southwest. Desert cities such as Las Vegas use fountains as decorations. Phoenix households draw down the finite resources of ever-shrinking Lake Mead. In great detail, Glennon documents present and future water crises in Georgia, California, and even seemingly water-rich Michigan, noting that states generally end up competing with one another over water allocation and that international conflict follows in short order. Desalination offers little immediate hope because of economic and ecological barriers. Glennon submits a list of possible reforms to decrease water consumption. Some, such as waterless toilets, are technological innovations. Others, such as restructuring sewer systems, require governmental intervention.