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This earlier post is now updated to reflect the recent release of a film, The Lost City of Z, based on Grann’s book of the same name. Both tell the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went into the Amazon in 1925 with his son looking for an ancient lost city. They both disappeared. For decades, explorers and scientists have tried to find evidence of his party and the Lost City of Z. Since then, perhaps another hundred people have died or disappeared searching for Fawcett.

I read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z in 2010 and halfway through it I realized what attracted me to it. It takes me back to a book of my youth – The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – which was a novel I loved as a kid.  I probably read the Classics Illustrated Comic version before I actually read the book, as that was the case with many books from Treasure Island to Hamlet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is much better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Even if you have never read any of his fiction, you probably know a few of his stories and characters because, according to the Internet Movie Database (love that site) there are at least 215 films based on his writing.

I took out my old comic book version and also my paperback of the novel and rediscovered Doyle’s little introductory verse:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

There was another book titled The Lost World which was Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, but I have nothing to say about that book. To me, The Lost World is the one published in 1912 and it is the fictional story of an expedition to a place in the Amazon where prehistoric animals still survive. (Hmmm, did Mr. Crichton get inspiration for Jurassic Park from it?)  The book introduced the character Professor Challenger who appears in other books by Doyle.

Exploration and lost worlds captured the fancy of the public and authors in the early part of the 20th century. In 1916, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who is better known for his Tarzan and science-fiction stories) published The Land that Time Forgot, which was his version of a lost world story. In that  rather ridiculous tale, sailors  from a German U-Boat discover a world of dinosaurs and ape-men in Antarctica.

I read all of them. I didn’t really pay attention back then to the chronology of publication. If I had noted dates, I would have realized that another one of my childhood author heroes, Jules Verne, had introduced the whole prehistoric-animals-in-the-present-day adventure story with his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth which was published back in 1864. Those explorers find a prehistoric world of people and dinosaurs inside the Earth.

By the way, you can read The Lost World as an “e-book” free online at Project Gutenberg – if you can handle reading on a screen. I can’t.

cover

Now, to get back to where this post started, the setting for The Lost World is was probably inspired by reports about British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett’s expedition to Venezuela and Brazil, in a mountain region called Mount Roraima.

The modern-day non-fiction book, The Lost City of Z , tells the tale of Fawcett who launched his final expedition in 1925 into the Amazon.

His goal was to find the fabled lost city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold.” El Dorado has captured the imaginations of kids, armchair explorers and real anthropologists, adventurers, and scientists for about 400 years – even though there really has never been evidence that it ever existed. That hasn’t stopped hundreds of expeditions from going out looking for it.

Fawcett was financed by the Royal Geographical Society in London.  It humbles me to think that at age 57 he headed out again because he really believed in El Dorado, which he called the City of Z .

He set out with only his 21-year-old son Jack and one of Jack’s friends. He wanted to travel light and fast, eat off the land, and not harass the natives. They vanished in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.  Subsequent attempts to find Fawcett and the city have failed.

What happened to Fawcett? David Grann thinks he knows. The author is not an adventurer, but he ended up in the jungles of the Amazon to try to find an answer.

Fawcett’s expeditions inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of a lost world. Grann wrote an earlier book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.

I’m not ready for any Amazon adventures, so I’m happy to follow Grann’s digging through Fawcett’s old diaries and logs for clues and doing my own armchair adventuring.

I liked that the book also deals with how in the past 40 years in Brazil alone, the Amazon has lost some two hundred and seventy thousand square miles of its original forest cover. That’s an area bigger than France. Tribes are being threatened with extinction. Many animals and plants, some we never even knew existed, are also vanishing.

Much has been lost in those jungles.

More Reading
Vanished!: Explorers Forever Lost     

The Lost City

“And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good.  Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”  –  Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig

Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig, who I wrote about here earlier, died this week at the age of 88 at his home in South Berwick, Maine after a period of failing health.

He will be remembered for his two books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

Zen is a novelistic autobiography that inspired readers in many ways, including those who did their own road trip across America with or without a motorcycle.

Published in 1974, I read it as I was finishing college and the mix of road story, philosophy, Zen and some actual motorcycle maintenance tips inspired me to take a small road trip after graduation of my own.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

I would say the book is a classic, and not of the “underground” type, as it sold well then and seems to continues to find new readers.

Though published in 1974, it echoes a lot of the philosophies and issues that the earlier decade brought forward in America and also the “on the road” vibes of the 1950s. Pirsig used as inspiration a motorcycle trip across the West he took with his son Christopher in 1968.

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

While serving as a soldier in South Korea after WWII, Pirsig encountered the Asian philosophies and he went on to study Hindu philosophy in India. He started a philosophy Ph.D. at the University of Chicago but didn’t continue with it.

He went through a period of hospitalization for mental illness, but after his release he lived in Minneapolis, worked as a technical writer and began writing Zen.

The Zen was real for him. He helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”

He worked on and off on his second book for 17 years. Lila, his look at morals, came out in 1991 and  tells of a journey down the Hudson River in a sailboat by his philosopher-narrator, Phaedrus. He encounters Lila, a troubled woman who is nearing a mental breakdown. This book feels like an attempt to complete the “metaphysics of Quality” system introduced in his first book.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

 

All quotations here from  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I started reading The Goldfinchthe third novel by Donna Tartt, when it was released. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Secret History (1992), but at almost 800 pages The Goldfinch didn’t grab me.

I’m tough on books lately. I tend to get library books most of the time nowadays – too many books in the house and it is getting harder to get rid of them. That means, especially for new, popular books, that I have two weeks to read them probably without renewal. I read slower than ever before and I only made it about 100 pages into the novel and didn’t renew it.

Tartt only produces a book about every decade, so there is plenty of time to read her work. And then The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Amazon selected the novel as the 2013 Best Book of the Year, and it was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review

I am not the only reader who misses something in a book that is critically acclaimed later. One review of The Goldfinch reminded us that “It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” was part of a review in The New York Times at the release of Nabokov’s Lolita. I liked that novel a lot when I read it in college.

The NYT (well, their critic) also declared that  Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was “Kind of monotonous… He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crummy school.” And I loved that book when I read it at 13 and every time I reread it.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is in my top ten novels list and many others, but it was called “An absurd story” by The Saturday Review while the New York Herald Tribune said it was “a book of the season only.”

My local library now offers me ebooks and audiobooks online via Overdrive and I saw that The Goldfinch was available as an audiobook. I downloaded it and once again had two weeks to finish. I started at the beginning again and this time I made it through the 32 hours and 29 minutes.

The novel can be called a Bildungsroman, which is the fancier German word for a novel of formation or education, and is sometimes called a coming-of-age story. The  first-person narrator is Theodore Decker who we meet at age 13. He survives a terrorist bombing at a NYC art museum. His much beloved mother dies in the blast. As he escapes the museum he meets two other victims and half-consciously takes a small, Dutch painting, The Goldfinch. 

Those two people will change his life path, as will having that stolen work of art.

The painting (shown above) is one of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius. I doubt that it is coincidence that almost all of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in an explosion in 1654 which also killed the artist.

The goldfinch in that painting is chained to its feeder perch. In the painter’s time,  goldfinches were popular pets. They could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this training and translates literally as “little weller.”

I see goldfinches at the feeder outside my window. they are American goldfinches and more beautiful than the one in that painting.

goldfinches

American Goldfinches at a feeder – male on the left

I don’t find the painting that extraordinary but, as the novel makes clear, my review doesn’t match that of most critics.  With the painting, like the novel, maybe I am missing something.

The painting is nice. The novel was okay this second time around. But I can’t give either one a rave review. I don’t like reading reviews before I read a book or watch a film. But I did read reviews for the novel in between my first and second attempts. Some people loved it. Some did not.

But those goldfinches outside get five stars. They are perfect.

I may have started out as a voracious reader, moved on to be an English major and then a teacher, but now that all that life has pretty much passed, I find myself more fascinated by what is actually outside my window. Real birds. Real stories. Real people.

I haven’t abandoned the arts. I even make some attempts at them myself.  And I’ll still recommend Tartt’s The Secret History, and Gatsby, Lolita, and Catcher. But I strongly recommend looking out the window and then stepping out to encounter the world more often.

 

 

monk-road-pixa

I have often told my good friend Scott that we are both “seekers.” It seems we have spent most of our lives searching for… well, that’s a hard sentence to complete. In search of Truth? Enlightenment? God?

“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) is a phrase that gained popular usage as a way of saying that you self-identify as someone that has a hard time believing that an organized religion is the only or most valuable means of furthering your spiritual growth.

Though I was raised a Catholic, I parted ways in my late teens and explored a number of other religious seeker from Quakers to Buddhists and finally decided that there was no group that filled my needs or answered my questions.

SBNR became very “New Age” and got mixed in with “mind-body-spirit” and holistic movements such as tai chi, reiki, and yoga. They became groups to join and pay for memberships.

I was convinced that spirituality had more to do with the interior life of the individual than that of a group.

There actually was a group known as Seekers (also known as Legatine-Arians). They were an English Protestant dissenting group that emerged around the 1620s, inspired by three Legate brothers.

These Seekers considered all organized churches of their day corrupt. They were patient – waiting for God’s revelation. They were not an organized religious group in any way that would be recognized today. They were not a religious cult. It was an informal structure and localized. To be a “member” didn’t mean you couldn’t belong to another sect. Many Seekers were also Quakers.

But to me that doesn’t sound like “seeking.” To be a seeker, one needs to actively be in search of something, not waiting for revelation to come to you.

Seeking is not limited to religion and spirituality. It is a quest to know more about everything.

If you do an Internet search on just “in search of” books, you will find a very wide ranges of things being sought. From those in search of memory through the science of the mind, to those in search of Schrödinger’s cat in quantum physics.

I think I was a seeker from my earliest teen years. I definitely searched for answers to many questions in books. In novels that weren’t always considered to be about seeking (Siddhartha, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Slaughterhouse-Five), I found Seekers. I found books that were about seeking too – The Seven Storey Mountain, Dark Night of the SoulThe Wisdom of the Sufis, Carlos Castenada’s books and others.

Yesterday, I wrote about some other books that have inspired seekers and there are lots of other books that have been spiritually influential to people.

College exposed me to many of these books, but it also brought me to other people who seemed to be on a similar path. It was a time of experimentation. We followed paths that seemed to hold new possibilities, including sexuality and drugs.

After college and as a young husband, I felt like there were other unexplored worlds contained in this one we believe we live in that I needed to first find and then examine.

During this time, In Search of… , a weekly television series appeared. It was devoted to mysterious phenomena. There had been three one-hour TV documentaries (In Search of Ancient Astronauts, In Search of Ancient Mysteries and The Outer Space Connection) that were narrated by by Rod Serling in the voice that had intrigued and frightened me in my younger years from his Twilight Zone.

Certainly, a lot of the 146 episodes of the series (hosted by Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy) were fringe science at best. Those ancient astronauts came from the book Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken and though I never believed his theory, it certainly made me consider us being alone, or not alone, in the universe. It led me to seek out more about the Mayan culture and other mysteries.

The seeking certainly wasn’t restricted to religion or spirituality. The TV program shifted from UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster to cults, the disappearances of cities (Atlantis, Roanoke Colony), ships (Mary Celeste) and people (Amelia Earhart, D. B. Cooper). Some of this was quite real, more like history than the paranormal.

I remember the show’s opening disclaimer and was able to find it online. It is pretty close to a seeker creed.

“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

In college, I had a girlfriend who was deep into the occult and “strange worlds.” Many of the topics she exposed me to, I found out more about in the years to come. I found several books by Arthur C. Clarke that were not his sci-fi novels, but non-fiction collections about mysterious worlds and strange powers. I suspect that Clarke didn’t write the books, but was attached to the project.  only the foreword but

When I started reading aloud the first Harry Potter book to my son, I was amused when we came upon a Seeker. It is a position in the wizarding sport of Quidditch. The one Seeker on a team has to find the Golden Snitch, and until the Seeker catches it, a game does not end. What is your Golden Snitch?

There is a song “The Seeker” written by Peter Townshend and performed by The Who. I hope that as a Seeker all my searching low and high won’t end as the song does – that I won’t get to get what I’m after till the day I die.

I’ve looked under chairs
I’ve looked under tables
I’ve tried to find the key
To fifty million fables

I asked Bobby Dylan
I asked The Beatles
I asked Timothy Leary
But he couldn’t help me either

They call me The Seeker
I’ve been searching low and high
I won’t get to get what I’m after
Till the day I die

messy-paints-pixa

I bet that a lot of people reading this post are making resolutions for the new year, and I suspect that cleaning up messiness both literal and figurative in their life is on many of those lists.

Your parents have been telling you this since you were a kid. Your spouse, roommate, officemate and others may have been suggesting it. I am constantly trying – and failing – to achieve a state of orderliness that I can maintain.

The  chaos of a house or room or closet, garage, basement, or even a desk drawer or desktop just seems wrong. I also think that achieving even a small feat of order – such as an empty inbox – gives us not only satisfaction but the hope that we can accomplish the same order in our larger areas. may even in our personal life.

People are writing books about how to clean and organize, and I wrote here about the combined joy and sadness of throwing things away. But that process (and those readings) can make you very anxious and just remind you of your failures to get rid of the mess.

A good amount of the rhetoric of the recent election was about cleaning up the mess in Washington D.C. and across the country. Donald Trump’s campaign was a mess. But he won.

chaos-phone-lines-pixa

But I have to thank podcast episode 53 of Hidden Brain for turning me on to the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. For the New Year, I appreciate a book that  celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives.

Embrace the messiness and chaos! It is important. Stop resisting.

The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but he looks at research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, and examples of people who did extraordinary things in messy and chaotic ways.

Some qualities that we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – seem to require a degree of disorder, confusion, and disarray.

This messiness doesn’t have to be visible, like that pile of stuff on and around your desk. Think about how unexpected changes of plans and unplanned events can generate new ideas and opportunities. Yes, these things can also make you anxious and angry, but you need to let that part go.

The book (and the podcast for the not-lazy but more aural learners) can help you stop underestimating the value of disorder. I’m typing this on the couch surrounded by unread magazines and notes for things I want to write and the remains of breakfast – and I feel fine.

messy-rope-pixa

Fight the urge to untangle the rope mess.

dolphin-pixabay image

Dolphin stuck in the desert

Did you know that you have a chronotype? Did you know that there was such a thing as a chronotype? This weekend I’m thinking, like many of you, about the new year. I’m not making any new resolutions because I have plenty of past ones that were never resolved to keep me busy for a lifetime.

But today I am considering that part of my problem might be not knowing the best time to do things. I mean from the best time to have my coffee, to the best time to go for my exercise walk, to the best time to have sex. The answers vary according to your body’s chronotype.

You can find lots of self-help advice out there about WHAT to do and HOW to do it, but not much about WHEN to do it.

The when part has to do with your biology, hormones and the circadian rhythms of your body clock.

In the book, The Power of When by Michael Breus, you can “Discover Your Chronotype–and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.”

I’m not sure you can confirm all those times so easily, but it is certainly interesting to take his quick online quiz and see what chronotype you are supposed to be.

Are you a Bear, Lion, Dolphin or Wolf? Once you know, you can do some lifehacking on when to do different activities. I came out as a Dolphin.

Your chronotype is your biological clock. It is when your body naturally wants to do things like sleep, eat, exercise and work. Most of us fight our body’s internal clock because we follow the unnatural clocks and schedules that tell us it’s time for breakfast, time to go to work, time to get to sleep.

Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour timekeeper. It regulates not only sleep but also body temperature, hormone levels, blood flow, and gut bacteria. It also ebbs and flows, so certain tasks done at certain hours will yield better results.

I have a habit of taking my prescription drugs in the morning, but it may be better to do it before I go to sleep.  I don’t take any cholesterol drugs but they work better before bed because that’s when the liver also starts breaking down cholesterol, and the drugs can work in tandem with the body. It seems that blood pressure pills may have more impact at night because some people with hypertension don’t experience a natural dip in blood pressure when they sleep.

Your chronotype can shift as you age. No chronotype is “better” than any other and some things are shared across types. For example, when it comes to romance, for all chronotypes, 11 am to 2 pm is when bonding hormones are at their lowest. Forget that lunch date. Go for the dinner hours.

According to a study Breus cites, most people have sex between 11 pm and 1 am and that is the worst possible time. Late at night, levels of sleep-inducing melatonin rise and testosterone is at its lowest. When you wake up, testosterone levels are at their peak. Breus says, “I’d love for everyone to make a point of having Saturday-morning sex.”  Set a reminder for next weekend.

Some of his advice I have heard before. For a long time I had heard that because we are more insulin-resistant after 3 pm,we don’t efficiently convert sugar to energy, and instead store it as fat. So, you should eat your big meal earlier as often as you can. Of course, that doesn’t fit in well with most working folks.

Of the four chronotypes (Dolphin, Lion, Bear, and Wolf), most people fit into the “Bear” category.

I haven’t tested the chronotypes theories out yet (New Year?) but you can take a start by taking Breus’s quick chronotype quiz to find out which one you are.

For Dolphin me I’m going to think about whether or not:

  • My most creative time of day is between 10:00am and noon.
  • My 4 key personality traits are: cautiousness, introversion, neuroticism, intelligence
  • and my 4 key behaviors are: avoiding risky situations, striving for perfection, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fixating on details.
  • I already know that my “Sleep/Alertness Pattern” is that I usually wake up feeling unrefreshed (sleep apnea too) and I get an energy boost late in the evening.
  • I’m supposed to be most productive: in spurts throughout the day.
  • I agree that when it comes to naps, I try to catch up on sleep but can’t quite make it happen.
  • My fellow dolphins are unihemispheric sleepers – one half of the brain shuts down while the other half stays alert. Not a bad thing if you want to prevent drowning and being eaten by predators, but a drag for those of us who are land dwellers in houses. Dolphins lie awake thinking about mistakes they’ve made. Sometimes we don’t know whether or not we actually slept at all.

I like those watery dolphins, but I’m not thrilled about being one. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

 

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