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[Book Reviews] Three nonfiction, one fiction

Wed, 2015-09-30 18:29
Books (that I felt like reviewing) of September!

miss_adventure recommended "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work" to me as a way towards understanding the gearhead mentality. Lots of my friends have read and praised the excerpted essay of the same name, whether they're mechanics or seamstresses or knitters or what. I had a harder time with it... despite agreeing with many of the author's points, I still don't feel the sympathy of spirit towards working with my hands that he extols. So reading the book was a strange experience, simultaneously concurring with the author's arguments while feeling emotionally unmoved by this topic that clearly sings to him. I agree, but I still don't "get it" in the way people who find joy in the work do. I think the author is correct that we undervalue the trades, and that a career as a skilled mechanic can be intellectually engaging as well as a fine choice of work. People who love that should have opportunities to pursue that as a career path as they're figuring out what they want to do in life. I did wonder how the increasing integration of computerized parts into more recent models of vehicles will shape the industries and his feelings here; I suspect Crawford's philosophical meanderings would be less well satisfied by a computer display of error codes than by wrenching on something and shaping metal, but I think I'd be happier with more high-tech tools at my disposal. I'm glad he's happy in his chosen profession, but I still end up cussing every time I have to figure out what to do with a stripped screw, and do not consider it a moral virtue to have overcome those experiences... it's just a lot of cussing, and then you fix it. (I pretty much feel like this about programming, too. Maybe this is why I know so many machinist-programmers. They love it. I find both aggravating, though at least with programming you don't end up all scraped up.) So I think Crawford is on to something in his phrasing of this as a vocation... either you feel it or you don't. Three-or-five oxyacetylene torches, depending on your calling.

I delighted in the inimitable Dr. Barry Cunliffe's "The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek", though. In chronicling the times and setting of Pytheas's journey, there's lots of context even for Classical scholars of the worldview and knowledge of the Greeks of Pytheas's time. Prior to reading this book, I'd forgotten that the Mediterranean coast of what is now France was then Greek colony cities, for example... Pytheas starts from his Greek hometown of Massalia, now Marseille. Cunliffe doesn't stop there, though -- the meat of the book is discussing a similar framing for the cultures Pytheas would most probably have met along the way (probably over the neck of the Iberian peninsula to Brittany, then Britain, Iceland, and Denmark by sea), and the contributions those intersections of experience and knowledge made to our early understandings of geography and natural history. While it's less than refreshing to have examples of academic backbiting going back thousands of years, I found the search for the unknown sources of known import products (tin and amber) to be absorbing. Dr. Cunliffe does a good job of explaining the likely divergent possibilities for travel routes between points on Pytheas's journey, and is clear about what is speculation and what has evidence on its side. An excellent read about a fascinating explorer of his time; five bold voyages out of five.

The only fiction book of this set, Gail Tsukiyama's "The Samurai's Garden" is a gentle read with slow character development. Tsukiyama does an excellent job of carefully suggesting the maturing of kindness between a Chinese artist recovering his health, the caretaker of his father's vacation home, and a woman whose beauty of spirit brings them all together. This is a book about the surprising fulfillment found in cultivation, not through the "hard work brings rewards" ethos as it's usually framed, but "helping others makes you happier and wiser". Set against the distant tides of a faraway war that affects all the protagonists, the book uses that as a foil to suggest a different way of interaction than man's inhumanity to man. Given all the difficulties in the world, it was nice to read a book about people whose countries were at war with each other getting along and not treating each other as the enemy. Four and a half slowly deepening understandings of five.

My favorite of this set, "Ireland, a Bicycle, and a Tin Whistle" is full of sheerest delight and wicked wit. I chortled my way through this Irish-Canadian's bicycle circumnavigation of Ireland, from the John Denver-loving motorcycle gangs of Carrick-a-Rede to the miserable weather of the west coast to the 1/4 of the trip merely labeled "alcoholic haze" with no further details given. The political/cultural commentary is in places a product of its time, but captures the larger historic patterns that cycle around and play out. The more you know about traditional Irish music, the funnier this book is; I will absolutely be recommending it to several of my relatives. Bicycle fans won't find a whole lot about bicycling in here... while there are plenty of references to the perilousness of cycling along Irish roads while giant tour buses roar merrily by, and some, er, choice phrasing describing some of the hill climbs. But if there's a hobby the book is skewed towards, it's music. A sample:

Then they came in -- three lads, hard as nails, arms tattooed with UVF, GOD AND ULSTER, and MOTHER, fingers with LOVE and HATE, faces scarred with Saturday night fights. As they sat down with their half 'uns and their wee nips, one of them turned to me and said in a slow, staccato monotone, "Play us something we can all sing along to." It was one of the most menacing requests I had ever heard. [snip] I moved quickly into a finger-style instrumental version of "God Bless the Child" which I'd cribbed from a record a few months earlier; it was technically difficult, but had a gentle jazz-blues feel guaranteed to soothe the soul of a psycho-killer -- or so I thought. Halfway through the second verse, one of them stood up. He did not look soothed. He walked over and curled his fingers -- H - A - T - E -- over the fretboard, deadening the strings. He leant over me, looked me in the eye, and said very softly and very slowly: "You've shown us that you can play the fuckin' guitar, Davy. Now play a John Denver song."

Reader, I was on the floor. From the alleged Belfast bullshit of "every year at midnight we ride our motorcycles over the bridge at Carrick-a-Rede" to the undocumented backwards rotation of part of his trip (allegedly he's going counterclockwise around Ireland, but he starts one chapter at the Giant's Causeway and bicycles backwards around the route that Mayhem and I hiked, ending up back at Dunseverick and Ballintoy... that's clockwise, and he never mentions it, heh), this book is a gem. Five meanderings out of five, and my favorite of this batch.

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