Duck Duck Book

24 – greenfinger
09.7.2005, 12:04 am
Filed under: fiction

Greenfinger / Julian Rathbone.
New York, N.Y. : Viking, 1987.
[MCL call number: FICTION RATHBONE; one copy, no holds]

Sometimes I think in themes, especially when it comes to literature. I imagine some of this is just part of my personality, as I have always liked lists and enjoyed putting things in groups with other things they seem to be like. It also seems likely that my work as a librarian encourages this kind of thinking — librarians are called upon to help people find a book that’s like the one they just finished, we create booklists on defined subjects, we sort and classify the materials in our library collections — and, of course, we think about all of these things, we dwell on how people use resources, the architectures inherent in information as it comes to us, and many other philosophical aspects of the work that we do.

Well, Greenfinger is a book that, to me, falls into a category. It is a novel about more or less regular people who find themselves turning into heroes, crusaders, people who cannot sit by and let things happen — all because they notice and cannot ignore the sheer evil of a profit-driven international corporation. Such stories are almost always thrillers, but they fall into different genre categories — mystery, adventure, romance — and can be told in different media — fiction, comics, film, etc.

In Greenfinger‘s first two chapters, the basics of the tale are laid out — Costa Rica’s land reform laws allow, in theory, for people who have farmed their land for a certain number of years to claim formal legal title to it. A giant multinational corporation is angling to control the world’s food supply through politics, brute force, and the commodification of science. Politicians are subject to pressure from big money. The United Nations straddles the tightrope between toadying to the powerful and serving the interests of the world’s people and environment.

The story is told from different points of view — some in the third person and describing the activities of various evil characters, or characters who are somewhat morally neutral — and some in the first person in the voice of Esther Somers, who is mother to baby Zena, wife to a lower level U.N. official, and who is far smarter than anyone else in the book. Esther kicks ass, in fact.

A prolonged scene near the end of the book shows us Esther, with small Zena strapped to her back in a Snugli, running long-distance through the Costa Rican jungle, pursued by a very fit and rather psychopathic ex-SAS killer-for-hire. Everyone who has previously been on her side is either dead or completely unavailable, and so Esther runs, she climbs, she waits patiently, she outwits, and rather than merely surviving, she and Zena can be said to win, without apologies, in the end.

(The farmers, the environment, and the world’s hungry do not win — though I don’t mean to spoil the plot for you.)


24 – betsey brown
09.7.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

Betsey Brown : a novel / Ntozake Shange.
New York : Picador USA ; St. Martin’s press, 1995, 1985.
[MCL call number: FICTION SHANGE; eight copies, no holds] 

Bestey Brown is the oldest daughter in a socially aware and relatively privileged African American family in 1960s St. Louis. The novel focuses on Betsey’s family life, her path into adolescence, and her and her family’s experience of life during the introduction of school desegregation in their city.

Betsey takes her place in the world from the foundation of her family — Betsey’s parents and grandmother have each instilled in her generation a variety of different kinds of faith in the essential glory of their ethnic history. In the Brown household, being Black is something to be proud of, and the achievements and experiments of Africans and members of the African diaspora are daily acknowledged, explored, and celebrated. For example, Betsey’s father wakes the family up each morning with the beat of a conga drum and a quick question for each child about African, Caribbean, or African American history, current events, or culture:

“Betsey, what’s the most standard of blues forms?”
“Twelve-bar blues, Daddy.”
“Charlie, who invented the banjo?”
“Africans who called it a banjar, Uncle Greer.”
“Sharon, what is the name of the President of Ghana?”
“Um. . . Nkrumah, I think.”
“Thinking’s not good enough, a Negro has got to know. Besides, it’s Kwame Nkrumah. Margot, where is Trinidad?”
“Off the coast of Venezuela, but it’s English-speaking.”

This embracing of Blackness as something to be take pride in and familiar with doesn’t happen without conflict, though. Betsey’s parents have many differences of opinion, about lofty concerns (how to actively live out a commitment to equality without endangering the safety of their children), and everyday things (when is jazz a great art form, and when is it low-class “jungle music”?)

And, even though Betsey’s family is a place of strength for its members, the introduction of school integration in St. Louis tests that strength. All the children are bussed to faraway schools, and the family is under greater than average pressure as the grownups consider history, progress, and the state of the race; while each child deals with the stress of additional travel, isolation, and the anxieties of trying to learn among all those unfriendly white people.

Betsey Brown is not a tragedy, or a thriller. There’s tension and conflict, anxiety and reconciliation — plenty of high emotion. But essentially it is a sensitive novel about a child who is ready to begin becoming a woman, and the circumstances of her life.

I first read the book when it was relatively new, and I was a teenager myself. That first reading was the famous magical experience that literature is often advertised as providing — it drew me into a world I would never experience in my own life, it challenged my way of thinking, and gave me the opportunity to have emotions specific to the experience of reading the book. Betsey Brown reads just as true to me now as it did twenty years ago, and it is well worth your time. I would especially recommend sharing the book with any 10-15 year olds you know who are looking for some interesting leisure reading.

24 – making stuff
09.7.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: generalities, zines

Making stuff and doing things : a collection of DIY guides to just about everything / compiled and edited by Kyle Bravo, with major assistance from Jenny LeBlanc.
Portland, OR : Microcosm Pub., 2005.
[MCL does not have this book. I’m not really sure where it would be on the shelf if it were in the library’s collection — maybe somewhere in 001, Knowledge, or at 643.7, Renovation, improvement, remodeling (a subset of Home economics and family living, in the Technology section)?]

This is, just as the title indicates, a book chock full of instructions. How-tos are reprinted in facsimile from dozens of zines, including helpful illustrations and amusing side comments. The book is divided into topical sections covering activism, self-education, self-publishing, fun, arts & crafts, clothing, “creative troublemaking” (stencils, wheatpasting, and puppets), outdoorsy stuff, gardening, food & drink, travel, health & body, pet care, recycling, repairs, household stuff, and transportation. At the end is a section of pieces on the philosophy of DIY, a list of author contact information, and a very competent index.

Some of my favorites are: I made my own soymilk (p. 119), unstink your socks (p. 69), typewriter ribbons (p. 174), the DIY punk rock cat diet (p. 173), tips for staying fit on the road (p. 122), and how to do basic electrical wiring (p. 205).

24 – following the bloom
09.7.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: technology

Following the bloom : across America with the migratory beekeepers / Douglas Whynott.
New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004.
[MCL call number: 638.1 W629f 2004; two copies, one hold]

I’ve had a bit of a fascination with bees lately (you may have noticed this if you’ve been reading this booklist carefully), and this book is one of the more compelling I’ve found on the subject.

Migratory beekeepers truck their hives from Florida or California north in the summers, to the blueberry fields in Maine, the clover fields in North Dakota, and other places where pollination assistance is welcome and where bees will make wonderful honey. Then in the winter they travel south again, combining the work of pollinating crops with that of producing honey and wax. Whynott spent a few years following these beekeepers on their journeys, talking to them about bees, about their lives, their work, and their thoughts about bees and honey and politics and whatever else came up.

He tells the story of his travels in a journalistic style, with side notes about various bee-related subjects, such as federal honey subsidies (chapters 19, 20, and 21), the concept of “bee space” (the room bees leave between combs, chapter 5), how bees collect pollen and communicate where it is to other bees (chapters 10, 27, 39, 41, and 43). But Whynott’s stories are mostly of individual beekeepers, the operation and histories of their mostly family-run businesses, and the political and social context within which they work. It is really a book about people and their connection to the work of tending bees.

Following the Bloom is easy to read — the everyday exploits of real, specific people are interesting, and the bits of practical information about bees, beekeeping, farming, and the honey industry are folded so smoothly into the beekeepers’ stories that I was surprised to feel quite a bit smarter (bee-wise) when I was finished reading the book.

There is no index, but the text is followed by a useful bibliography.