Duck Duck Book

addendum to number 34
06.29.2006, 5:13 pm
Filed under: generalities, websites

Dear readers,
I am pleased to announce that I have completed a new booklist — one made with
my Multnomah County Library hat on:

Surprising histories : how small things have changed the world.
Portland, Ore. : Multnomah County Library, 28 June 2006.

Surprising Histories recommends books about objects.  One of my coworkers, who loves this particular genre of nonfiction, calls them “biographies of nouns.”

Each book takes the case of an object (or sometimes several related objects), examines its evolution, discovery, and/or invention, and discusses why it is important to human culture.  Long-term readers of Duck Duck Book may remember my fascination with this kind of literature from number 23, when I reviewed Tammy Horn’s Bees in America (Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, c2005).

Most of the books included in Surprising Histories are of relatively recent publication and should be available through your local library, even if you are not so lucky as to live here in the Rose City.

N.b.: Multnomah County Library has many other fabulous booklists on its webpage,
in sections devoted to books for adults, for teens, for kids, and books for babies.


34 – desert in bohemia
06.25.2006, 12:02 am
Filed under: fiction

A desert in Bohemia / Jill Paton Walsh.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
[MCL call number: FICTION; four copies, no holds]

The chaos and turmoil that accompanies wartime allows a for a great deal of shifting of accepted roles and social patterns. When nearly everything normal is disrupted, some people take advantage of their neighbors, some rise to heroism or bravery unexpectedly, some withdraw from their former responsibilities, some rejoice in the opportunity to remake themselves entirely — the range of responses is wide.

A Desert in Bohemia opens during a period of intense upheaval just at the end of the Second World War, when German soldiers have withdrawn from their occupation of central Europe and Russian soldiers are arriving as vanquishers. There is essentially no government, no social order other than what people can forge in their relations with other people near them, and the questions of what people will eat and how they will shelter are of primary importance to nearly everyone.

The story begins as one by one, several people seek the shelter of a large castle abandoned by retreating German soldiers. First a woman who remembers nothing other than a massacre that she has managed to walk away from unharmed, then a sweet-tempered idealistic young partisan, then his comrades and their severe and manipulative field commander, then the young Count who would, if not for the war, be lord of the castle. As the book progresses, these people and their loved ones grow older and live lives picked apart by the changes of history and circumstance, and we follow them through forty-five years of family life, politics, idealism, education, disillusionment, intimacy, and detachment.

A Desert in Bohemia is about European history, certainly — it is a story of war and ideology and political pressure and national identity and culture, and it is also the story of certain people’s lives and relationships — but at the center it is a story of what these individual people do with the chances they have been given. How do they bend, when do they break, where is their grace, when are they unlikely heroes, and when do they hold each other back? How do they navigate through the impossible choices they face, and what do they do with the results of choosing? One of the things the book is about is this question of moral luck — what happens when people are faced with situations in which circumstances well beyond their control make them heroes or shameful traitors? Are they more heroic, or more traitorous, than those who have not been similarly cornered? Are they more virtuous, or more despicable, than others who by sheer chance were not forced to choose sides, who were not compelled to judge what it is acceptable to give up and what it is acceptable to give things up for?

* * *

(For more on the question of moral luck, see my review of Thomas Nagle’s essay “Moral Luck,” below.)

Paton Walsh has written several other worthwhile novels for adults — one that I particularly liked is Knowledge of Angels (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1993) — for young children and for teens, as well as a series of mysteries written for adults (staring Imogen Quy, who works as a nurse for a Cambridge college).

She is also noted for being brave enough to take on the task of completing Dorothy L. Sayers’ unfinished novel, Thrones, Dominations (New York : St. Martin’s Press, c1998), during which Sayers’ perfectly imperfect sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and his new wife, mystery writer Harriet Vane, solve a murder while coping with the anxieties of their young marriage and the death of King George V. Paton Walsh followed Thrones, Dominations with another Wimsey/Vane novel, A Presumption of Death (New York : St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2003), this one written from notes, rather than from an incomplete manuscript. Both “collaborative” novels are worthwhile for lovers of Sayers, Wimsey, and Vane, but for the rest of you, I’d recommend starting with the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? (many publishers, dates).

34 – proceed and be bold
06.25.2006, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Proceed and be bold : Rural Studio after Samuel Mockbee / text by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, photographs by Timothy Hursley.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.
[MCL call number: 728.1 D281p 2005; one copy, no holds]

Buildings and spaces that are shaped to meet the specific needs of the people who use them, without being ostentatious or status-charged, have a special appeal for me.  The room that is designed with an odd wiggle in it to accommodate a previously unused space above the stairs, the two-hole outhouse with an adult-sized hole up high and a child-sized hole a little lower, the garden of raised beds fit just so to the slope of the yard — these are all beautiful in the way that something ready-made for thousands of faceless consumers can never be.  (Please don't think, however, that I shun mass-produced items, even houses — they just have a different kind of beauty.)

The students and teachers at the Rural Studio in Hale County, Alabama build houses, community centers, and public spaces, and they aim to design them to meet the uses of the real people who will live in and use them.  They try to do it creatively, and cheaply, meeting the budgets necessitated by poor clients and public funding.  The Rural Studio is unusual, apparently, in that its students do a lot of actual building as a part of their learning process.  Proceed and Be Bold details 17 student building projects completed between 2001 (when founder Samuel Mockbee died) and 2002.  Each project is described with a brief essay about the people who use it, the architects, and the building process, and with beautiful photographs illustrating project challenges and innovations. 

The end of the book is taken up with Dean's interviews with students, a Rural Studio teacher, and a client, a brief piece about the building process of one of the projects, a memorial essay about Mockbee, and detailed credits for each of the profiled projects. 

Proceed and Be Bold provides an interesting introduction to an unusual school.  The text is satisfyingly informational, and well written, but it was really Hursley's exceptional photographs that drew me in.

Dean and Hursley produced an earlier book in the same format, about the Rural Studio before Mockbee's death.  It too, is an illuminating read.

Rural Studio : Samuel Mockbee and an architecture of decency / text by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean ; photographs by Timothy Hursley ; and essays by Lawrence Chua and Cervin Robinson. 
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 720.711 D281r 2002; two copies, no holds]

34 – moral luck
06.25.2006, 12:00 am
Filed under: articles, philosophy & psychology

"Moral luck" / Thomas Nagel, from the book: Mortal questions / Thomas Nagel.
Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1979, pages 24-38.
[MCL call number: 170 N147m; one copy, no holds]

Thomas Nagle's terse essay introduces and discusses the central questions of moral luck — the idea that chance, or luck, is some of what makes us good and virtuous, or evil and immoral.  Nagle gives several examples of situations in which the way people tend to judge someone's actions are largely tied to circumstances that are beyond the control of the person acting. 

We have all had experiences of this type.  I, for example, often turn on the wrong burner on my electric stove.  This can be an annoyance (when there is nothing on the burner I've mistakenly lit, and when someone in the kitchen notices my error), or a minor disaster (as the time when I filled the house with smoke and burned the patina off my favorite cast iron frying pan). "Moral Luck" is Nagle's attempt to tease out some of the concerns related to this sort of circumstance, and consider them in the light of moral responsibility.  Reading this essay, you may wonder whether I was in fact, more negligent when I burned my frying pan than I am when I just use up a little extra electricity and perhaps slow down the production of breakfast by 90 seconds.  It is an interesting thing to consider even when the risks are so low as to include only a scorched pan.

If you're interested in this subject but you're not yet ready to cozy up with a book that's all about philosophy, or if you wonder what other ivory tower types think about moral luck, there's a straightforward discussion of the concept and the major philosophical arguments about it in "Moral Luck," by Andrew Latus (from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, 2005).

N.b.: The essay "Moral Luck" was reprinted in Free Will, edited by Gary Watson (Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1982) and in Moral Luck, edited by Daniel Statman (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1993).  The latter also includes Bernard Williams' essay of the same title.  Nagel's book Mortal Questions has been translated into several languages (at least Chinese, French, German, and Spanish) and was reprinted in English in 1991 by Canto. 

[thanks, Kristian]