Duck Duck Book

32 – shared lives
04.24.2006, 5:34 pm
Filed under: history & geography

Shared lives / Lyndall Gordon. 
New York : Norton, 1992.
[MCL call number: B-Go656s; one copy, no holds]

Shared Lives is a memoir of friendship, specifically of the friendships between biographer Lyndall Gordon and three of her close friends from childhood, all of whom died before their middle age.  The genesis of this friendship is in the insular, middle class community of immigrant Jews in 1950s Cape Town, South Africa.

The story is presented chronologically, from the four girls' childhood through their adolescence and into their adulthood.  We are introduced to the girls and their families, friends, their school, and the tightly knit world of white Jewish immigrants where they live.  Social restrictions, schoolwork, leisure time, travel, celebrations, and the elements of community life that most affect young girls are described in detail.  Family relationships and the social dynamics of school life are paramount in this part of the story. 

As the girls grow older, their lives broaden.  They become involved in politics, they have romances, and they focus also on weightier family responsibilities, serious academic study, and the world of work.  Eventually each of them follows her own path into adulthood — for Gordon it is marriage, a move to the United States and eventually Great Britain, graduate school, motherhood, and an academic career of her own. 

I was almost done with the book when I realized that the structure with which Gordon forms her story has another level, beyond the frame of the journey of friendship over the years.  Shared Lives begins with the girls' childhood.  This world does not include any understanding of the realities of life for other South Africans (or indeed, for anyone else at all) because at a young age, the four girls did not themselves comprehend a life beyond the ones they lived.  As they grow up, they follow their own interests outside of the circumscribed middle class Jewish society of 1950s Cape Town.  New responsibilities and social expectations begin to require them to interact with a wider world. 

But the story of the changes from girlhood to adolescence to adulthood is accompanied by the story of the four friends' increasing understanding of their own culture, and of South African society and politics.  Each has a different view of these things, and of course different restrictions and opportunities are available to each woman.  Their similarities and differences create many opportunities for discussion of the choices they've made about how to interact with the racist society in which they were raised, their differing levels of compliance with social propriety and expectations for women of their cultural background, religion, and class, their willingness to break rules or not, and their compromises for the sake of work, love, and family.  Shared Lives is a beautiful, warm story, and its focus on the entire span of friendships between a group of women is interesting and heartening.  Although it is in some ways a very sad story, I found that reading Shared Lives left me feeling encouraged and rather hopeful.

Gordon's Vindication : A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft is also excellent, and was reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 31.


32 – long summer
04.24.2006, 5:33 pm
Filed under: science

The long summer : how climate changed civilization / Brian Fagan.
New York : Basic Books, c2004.
[MCL call number: 551.6 F151L 2004; two copies, no holds]

When I was in grade school, I was taught about the Ice Age.  I learned that the Ice Age was an era many thousands of years ago when mastodons lived in Europe and North America, and nearly the entire earth was wrapped in cold, cold, cold.  Our ancestors hunted for their living, and supplemented their diets with the few plant foods available (which were very, very few in the northern hemisphere).  After the Ice Age, things warmed up, people developed agriculture, and civilization began.

Well, like most things taught in grade school, the relationship between the development of civilizations the history of the earth’s climate is much more complex than this.  In The Long Summer, Brian Fagan begins with the premise that human innovations to survive climatic stress (such as agriculture, irrigation, cities, and large scale political alliances) have done very well for us in times of moderate climate change, but have set us up for disaster when large changes come.

For example, healthy hunter-gatherer societies employ a strategy of mobility, shifting to neighboring regions when their environment is no longer able to support them comfortably.  But people have these big brains, just waiting to be used.  In many different parts of the world, hunter-gatherer societies responded to greater-than-average climate change by cultivating plants to provide a more steady supply of food.  This move made it possible for larger groups of people to live in one place, and in turn increased food security to a degree that allowed for population growth.  When the next horrific shift in the weather came (drought, rain at the wrong season, cold weather, whatever), people weren’t able to change their strategy so nimbly as before.  In some places, the next round of innovation raised the stakes again — people developed more intense systems of agriculture with irrigation, double-cropping, and practices to increase soil fertility, all so that they would be able to feed larger populations, and even support whole classes of people who didn’t work to provide food (or who didn’t work at all).  We have, Fagan asserts, boldly undertaken innumerable further innovations that protect us in the short term, but make us ever more vulnerable to really big events of weather and climate change.  Careful attention to recent weather events makes this thesis seem very plausible.

While explaining the detail of this story of innovation and risk, Fagan takes readers through a history of how the climate has shifted colder and warmer in the northern hemisphere, and how that affected our ancestors there, always with an eye toward explaining the consequences of dry and wet periods, hot weather, winds, ocean currents, and cold, and how these phenomena have influenced vegetation, rivers and lakes, sea levels, animal populations, and people’s ability to survive in the ever changing landscape.  Fagan explains complex scientific theories smoothly, and his writing is engaging and instructive.  The Long Summer is well worth your time, especially if your understanding of the history of climate change is limited to what you learned in elementary school, as mine was when I picked up this book.

32 – new georgia encyclopedia
04.24.2006, 5:32 pm
Filed under: generalities, history & geography, websites

The new Georgia encyclopedia / A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, 2004-2006.

Here you will find scores of articles on subjects relating to the history, culture, life, politics, geography, government, and economics of the state of Georgia, and about the South more generally.  Topics are diverse, from chenille bedspreads to the Nuclear Threat Initiative to time capsules

The New Georgia Encyclopedia's clear and richly illustrated articles are arranged (not exactly encyclopedically, but in a hierarchical fashion) on the left hand side of the page, and are easily browsable.  But the site has some other nice features as well — if you type some terms into the search box, for example, the Encyclopedia will suggest topics that might be what you want, while you type.  The Encyclopedia has are quick-reference sections detailing facts about the state of Georgia, popular destinations in the state, and features that the editors want especially to highlight.  There are also several indices.

Really, there is more in here than you might think, especially if you are looking for information about American History, folkways, or any subject that relates to the South.  I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes leafing through the Encyclopedia, if only just for amusement purposes.  

The New Georgia Encyclopedia has a selection of rss feeds to alert truly committed readers of new articles.

31 – vindication
04.12.2006, 12:44 pm
Filed under: history & geography, literature

Vindication : a life of Mary Wollstonecraft / Lyndall Gordon. 
New York : HarperCollins, c2005.
[MCL call number: B-Wo836g 2005; eight copies, no holds]

Mary Wollstonecraft is famous for her book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, but still in print and widely read in college women's studies classes even today.   Modern readers often remark that it is surprising how modern Wollstonecraft's ideas seem — quickly summed up, Wollstonecraft's argument in Vindication of Rights of Woman is that if we give women the opportunity to be whole people (an opportunity that they've never had but deserve), everything will work better for everyone. 

Think on this thesis for a minute, and consider what it might be like to be a woman who held such views in late 1700s England.

Then take note of some of the other features of Wollstonecraft's life:  When she was in her twenties, Wollstonecraft and her sister started a school for girls, with the central principle that education is about opening minds, encouraging questions, and loving your pupils instead of about rote memorization or the inculcation of order and respect for hierarchy.  Then she wrote a book about educating girls.  She went to Paris just at the time when the French Revolution was turning a bit sour and a lot bloody, and stayed even though she had to learn French and find a way to escape being taken to the guillotine for being English.  She wrote a book about this too.  She made a journey to Scandinavia, with her infant daughter on a mission to resolve a murky business matter for her lover.  She wrote a book inspired by this journey as well.

Wollstonecraft was famous for her writing, knew some of the most influential intellectuals of her time, and managed to live a life largely defined by her own interests and desires, despite the obstacles.  Her story is fascinating, and yet it is not well known. 

There are many reasons to read Vindication in particular.  It is a well-researched and thorough analysis of an interesting woman's story.  Gordon treats Wollstonecraft's life in light of her feminism, her commitment to her family, her vocation as a teacher, and above all, her passion to be, in her words "the first of a new genus" — a compassionate, creative, intellectually vital person determined to live as much on her own terms as possible.  Vindication is long, but I found myself relishing the sheer bigness of the story, and I was sorry to reach the end, even after 450 pages.  Read it.

31 – chocolate connoisseur
04.12.2006, 12:44 pm
Filed under: technology

The chocolate connoisseur : for everyone with a passion for chocolate / Chloé Doutre-Roussel.
New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, c2006.
[MCL call number: 641.3374 D741c 2006; eight copies, no holds]

Chloé Doutre-Roussel is a queen of chocolate. She is the expert's expert, and she is here to tell you all you need to know to sharpen your palate for this magnificent food. Doutre-Roussel introduces chocolate agriculture, production, packaging, marketing, and of course, chocolate eating. She provides readers with a course in chocolate tasting — tailored to each person's specific chocolate interests and tastes — and gives pointers on where and how to find satisfaction and continued interest once one has begun to appreciate the subtleties of flavor, texture, and smell. Even if the book inspires you to try a mere one or two new varieties chocolate — or perhaps only to compare those you have already eaten, there is little doubt that your sense of the edible world will expand.

31 – world of the kalapuya
04.12.2006, 12:43 pm
Filed under: history & geography

The world of the Kalapuya : a native people of western Oregon / Judy Rycraft Juntunen, May D. Dasch, Ann Bennett Rogers ; illustrations by Lenore Ooyevaar, Don Boucher. 
Philomath, Or. : Benton County Historical Society and Museum, c2005.
[MCL call number: 979.5004 J95w 2005; 23 copies, no holds; two copies reference only at Central Library]

Recently I got a question at the reference desk: who were the people who lived in Portland’s West Hills before white people settled this part of Oregon?  The question was passed to me by the librarian I was relieving in the Literature & History room.  She is fairly new, and although she had assembled an excellent array of sources within a few minutes, the answers she found were somewhat contradictory and she was wondering if we had a standard source we refer to for this no doubt frequent question.

Hmm.   I would think this would be a frequent question too, but in fact, it is not.  And I knew of no standard source.  Neither did the other librarian (a twenty year veteran) who arrived on shift with me.  We spent a good hour checking and double-checking to make sure we gave our patron an accurate and reasonably complete answer — that the Tualatin group of Kalapuya Indians lived in the  southern end of the West Hills, near the Tualatin River, but that Chinook Indians of various bands also lived near Portland and possibly in the northern part of the West Hills.

There are many books about the history of native peoples of the Pacific Northwest.  There are encyclopedias, histories, anthropological analyses, oral histories, collections of photographs, linguistic tomes, and accounts of wars.  But almost all are thin on the history of the indigenous people of the Willamette Valley before white settlers took over, because the Kalapuya people who lived here did not have a writing system and the overwhelming majority of them were dead before they acquired literacy through assimilation and modernization, or before anyone else cared to write their stories.  I mean really the overwhelming majority — estimates are that there were just shy of 15,000 Kalapuya in 1750, but only 600 or so by 1840. 

However, a labor of love that has been many years in production has finally been published: The World of the Kalapuya collects the fragments that are known of the pre-settlement culture and history of the Kalapuya.  The book is arranged in short chapters by topic (language, basketry, travel, etc.), nicely illustrated with line drawings, maps, photographs, and charts, and appended with a bibliography and a very serviceable index.  The text is thorough, but simply and clearly written — I would recommend it to interested readers and researchers above the age of 9 or so, though the book is not written explicitly for young people.   Anyone with a moderate interest in the history of the Willamette Valley or the history of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest should find The World of the Kalapuya useful and interesting.