Friday, April 20, 2018

Best Books Syllabus (updated)

More and more, it's becoming a struggle to find a book worth reading. The classics no longer seem relevant. Contemporary novels (half of which seem to be set among the upper-middle class in NYC and California) don't do much for me. All travel books seem wimpy and unambitious. Lately, I've had to resort to nonfiction science writing and biographies. For every book I start, three are given up by page thirty.

I'd love it if someone, whose tastes are similar to my own, would give me a syllabus of decent books to read, to save me the trouble of having to sample and discard so many. With that in mind, I've decided to list my favorite books for those of you who may also be struggling.

This list is as unpretentious as I could make it. Many books that I respect but that didn't agree with me (Joyce's Ulysses for instance), didn't make this list. The following books are simply my favorites.

Fiction 1700 - 1899

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Fiction 1900 - Present

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Poldark series by Winston Graham
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence
Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
1984 by George Orwell
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Non-Fiction - Travel/Nature

Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey
501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
On Nature: Selected Essays by Edward Hoagland
A Walk across America by Peter Jenkins
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

Non-Fiction - Philosophy

Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Tribe by Sebastian Junger
But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman
A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Abstract Wild by Jack Turner
Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

Non-Fiction - Memoir/Autobiography/Essays

The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
The Stars, the Snow, the Fire by John Haines
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Denial by Jonathan Rauch
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Naked by David Sedaris
Essays from the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka

Non-Fiction - History
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz
The Endurance by Alfred Lansing
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Non-Fiction - Biography

Che by Jon Lee Anderson
Grant by Ron Chernow
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding
Henry Thoreau: Life of the Mind by Robert Richardson
Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West

Non-Fiction - Special Interest

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
Story by Robert McKee
The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Publication day!

It's publication day! This Land Is Our Land is available at your local bookstore. Here's one last pitch (of several last pitches) to buy my book...

You will learn a lot about your country. I know this because, to write this book, I had to learn a lot about our country.

Forget the right to roam and the more radical aspects of the book. You can be completely against my theories on private property, and still get a lot out of this. I spend one chapter giving the WHOLE history of property, from our hunter-gatherer past, to the Code of Hammurabi, to Plato's and Aristotle's views on property, to the Clearances of Scotland, to the Rambler's "mass trespass" of the mountain Kinder Scout, to today. You will also learn about:

-your state's recreational use statutes

-the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment

-Donald Trump's Scottish golf course and how his people photograph old women urinating

-the cost and overvisitation of our national parks

-John Locke's theories of property, which impacted how the new American colonies thought of property

-how philosopher John Rawls's theories on justice tie into my own proposals

-the amount of Americans killed in hunting accidents per year

-statistics that illustrate Americans' nature-deficit disorders

-statistics about how racially segregated and politically polarized we are

-"green prescribing," which is a unique method of medically prescribing NATURE to ill patients

-the philosophies of Wiliam Cronon on wilderness

-Texas's legendary anti-litter campaign, "Don't Mess with Texas!"

-whether you're allowed to kill people with tough-sounding "Make My Day" and "Castle Doctrine" laws.

-our annual $20 billion subsidies to American farmers and ranchers

-the lost verses of Woodie Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land"

Once you look at American history from a new angle (in this case the boring-sounding topic of PROPERTY) you will view your country in new and interesting ways. 

Look at it this way... I make sure I keep up on the latest books on topics related to race, gender, and poverty. I do so not for fun (it's usually depressing stuff that makes me feel privileged and guilty), but to stay informed and to strive to be a worldly citizen. A book on the under-discussed topic of property (which has not been written to depress) will catch you up on matters outside of your base of knowledge.

Will stop peddling my wares soon, promise.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Six weeks in Lithuania

[I was recently interviewed by a newspaper in Lithuania. Here's the transcript of the interview.]

What is the purpose of your visit to Lithuania?

I was curious. I wanted to walk Lithuania’s city streets and forest paths and imagine myself as one of my Lithuanian ancestors. I thought that maybe I could come to understand something more about myself. Could I, after over a hundred years, still in some way be Lithuanian? Obviously I have a Lithuanian name, but I wondered if I might in some way still be culturally Lithuanian.

I have a fascination with what I’ll call “cultural echoes.” Can a culture echo across generations, even if generations of family members have lived within a completely different culture? In other words, can a family retain a culture for several generations even after assimilating into a different culture—in my case a Scottish and American culture? Does a distant culture still echo within a person, or does the culture’s influence inevitably grow dimmer and eventually disappear? For instance, does a Swede remain a Swede after 100 years in America? Does an African remain an African after several hundred years on a foreign continent? I suppose I was wondering if I am still in some way Lithuanian even though my family has completely lost touch with and forgotten its Lithuanian roots. We never talked about Lithuania. We never ate its traditional dishes. We never celebrated its traditions. Yet I still wonder if there is still some part of my character that is fundamentally Baltic that has been unknowingly and obliviously passed down from parent to child ever since Juozas left in the 1890s. I ask myself these questions and my answer is, “I don’t know.” It’s very difficult to examine your character and personality and attribute some aspect of it to a faraway culture and country that you still just barely understand. It would be easier for someone else to make that judgement about me than it would be for me.

Birutė Ilgūnienė and Gediminas Ilgūnas 

What is your family history? Could you tell some details about your Lithuanian descent? How do you feel about some ties between you and famous Lithuanian politician Gediminas Ilgūnas?

My great-great grandfather Juozas Ilgunas came to Scotland in the 1890s. My family has forgotten almost everything about him, except for a story about him escaping Lithuania in a rowboat while being shot at by Cossacks. (I have no idea how true this story is.) He made his way to Motherwell, Scotland. The next few generations of Ilgunas’s in Scotland became coal miners, steel workers, ambulance drivers, police officers, house painters, and building contractors. In the 1970s, my dad moved from Scotland to Canada, and eventually my family moved to the U.S. when I was a little boy. I didn’t know anything about my Lithuanian heritage until a few years ago. But of course I always had this Lithuanian surname, and I became curious about my family history.

A woman named Ugne Matuleviciene, the daughter of Gediminas Ilgūnas, found my blog, got in touch we me, and invited me over to Lithuania. It’s unclear if I’m even related to Gediminas Ilgūnas or Ugne Matuleviciene’s family, but they treated me like family and that’s how I view them now. There aren’t any artists in my U.S. family, so I was intrigued that I might be related to Gediminas, who was a writer and adventurer. That certainly fueled my desire to visit. There was something comforting knowing that I might be related to this man.

Do you feel any sentiments about Lithuania?

One can’t help but feel pride for Lithuania when you learn about its history. I’m inspired by Lithuanians’ pagan past, by their resistance against bigger powers, by their quest for independence, by their love for nature. In many ways, I feel a sense of kinship with the country.

And I feel pride knowing that I’m associated with a country that has faced so many challenges and that is so resilient. Lithuania is an underdog country. It’s a country that has been pushed around by powerful countries that surround it, yet it has found a way to prevail. It is a knight that has been surrounded by dragons yet managed to survive. Some people might think this is a narrative of weakness and victimhood, but I see it as a narrative of resilience, resourcefulness, and reinvention. Lithuania has not had it easy, but I think that’s why I view the country’s narrative romantically: by not having it easy, by never having been handed anything, by being forced to be self sufficient, the country has to be the maker of its own destiny. And anybody who comes from humble origins will respect a country like this. I suppose I identify with Lithuania because I like to think of my own life in these terms.

All that said, I try not to get too carried away with a love for certain countries or obsessed with national narratives. Nationalism, as a concept, is a relatively recent phenomenon. And ultimately we all come from Africa, right? I’ll allow myself to feel a healthy and simple pride for certain nations, but I recognize that nationalism — when we love one country too much at the expense of others — has an ugly side, which I want nothing to do with.

On another and completely unrelated note, it was interesting visiting a Baltic country as an American. I never really had cause to think much about the Soviet Union or Russia or the Cold War. Yes, America was a principal player in the Cold War, but the average American wasn’t terribly affected by the Cold War. We don’t think about the Cold War much and we don’t think of Russia at all, except when it comes to them possibly sabotaging our last election. So it was interesting to visit Lithuania, a country that was and still is very much affected by the Soviet occupation.

I went to the KGB Museum in Vilnius and was disturbed to learn how people suffered during the occupation. From new friends, I learned that nearly every family has a relative who was either killed or deported. Neighbors were turned against neighbors. Many people were compelled to do terrible things. It seems a part of Lithuania is still suffering from the psychic wounds of that era.

This may sound terrible and offensive, but I think I’ll share it anyway: There was part of me that was thankful that Juozas got out when he did. My family found a safe harbor in Scotland, faraway from many of the atrocities that plagued Eastern Europe. I grew up in America and had an easy, safe childhood. I was not affected by these atrocities, nor were my parents or their parents. This was the first time I felt a connection with my great-great grandfather, and I wanted to thank him.

Soviet memorial in cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania 

What are your most favorite places, towns in Lithuania?

I really liked where I was living. I was on the east side of Vilnius, just east of the old town of Uzupis. I was within walking distance of the city and a network of forest trails, so I had a nice balance of nature and city. I was impressed with Kaunas (especially the Čiurlionis Museum), the Dutchman’s Cap near Klaipeda, Labanoras Regional Park, and the hill fort mounts near Kernavė.

Is the Lithuanian reader of your books close to your experience and views? Or you feel like a martian in Lithuania?

Ha, I didn’t feel like a martian in Lithuania. There is a close relationship between North America and Europe, and I think we all speak a similar cultural language. That said, I think I have had different experiences than Lithuanians. Some of the things that trouble me about American society, such as consumerism, student debt, or the obliteration of the natural world have caused a lot of people to want to live locally, move out into the countryside, and live really simple and low-impact lives.

There is a strong subculture of people in America who want to live outside of the consumer-capitalist system and live in vehicles, tiny homes, and grow their own food. I did not see a similar subculture in Lithuania, so perhaps my story of wanting to live frugally in my van, with only a few things and very little money, does not resonate with a lot of people here. But it makes sense why there may not be such a movement or subculture. Lithuania is still emerging from a long period of material and economic deprivation; perhaps now is not the right time for a minimalist movement that rejects some of the more unsavory aspects of capitalism.

Vilnius, Lithuania 

Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius Lithuania. This is a memorial to the "partisans," who lived in the forest after WWII and fought the Soviets as guerrilla fighters. 

Vilnius, Lithuania 

I believe this is a representation of the 1410 Battle of Grunwald, when Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated the Prussian and German Teutonic Knights. For the next several hundred years, this Polish-Lithuanian empire would be one of the largest and strongest in Europe. From what looks like a well-cited Wikipedia source: "At its peak in the early 17th century, the Commonwealth spanned almost 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 km2) and sustained a multi-ethnic population of 11 million." That big guy back there is Vytautas the Great, a Lithuanian hero who commanded the forces at Grunwald.

Vilnius, Lithuania 

Kaunas, Lithuania 

Kaunas, Lithuania 

Dutchman's cap on western border next to Baltic Sea 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: "Grant" by Ron Chernow

It’s a great book. Some thoughts…

1. Grant’s story is pretty close to a real rags-to-riches story, and watching his climb is such fun. He has a pretty average adolescence. He gets lucky when his father (who had a bit of wealth and a few connections) gets him into West Point. He shows potential in the Mexican-American War, but after the war he begins his fall. Loneliness and alcoholism get to him and he loses his army position. Money runs low, and there he is at his rockbottom, peddling firewood to support his young family. The Civil War begins and we watch him achieve a stunning sequence of victories that vault him to the position of top general. The presidency is right around the corner.

Don’t so many of us long for a turn of events that will supercharge our lives with special meaning and purpose? Grant was fairly useless in normal life. He had no skills for oratory, he was a terrible speculator, and he showed little ambition for business. His years between the Mexican-American War and the Civil War is a period of focuslessness and failure.

It isn’t until the war begins when everything clicks into place for Grant. He finally has an opportunity to activate all of his rare qualities and talents: his horsemanship, his singleminded drive, his confident and fearless demeanor, his military creativity, his high-altitude strategic perspective on a massive multi-front war, his astute political gifts, his clear writing style, and his emotional intelligence. These gifts were useless in his previous life, but they were just what the country needed in its darkest hour.

This is the plot for so many of our favorite characters—Neo from The Matrix, Frodo from Lord of the Rings, basically any coming-of-age superhero movie. This is a story of having some hidden talent and energy that is just waiting to be brought to life. For those of us who find ourselves often discontent with ordinary life, or who think they've been born in the wrong century, it’s a supremely compelling fantasy.

2. Grant is an easy man to love. He makes some mistakes (such as when he called for all Jewish people be removed from his military region), but he always overcomes his prejudices and atones for his sins. (Later, he becomes a great friend to the Jewish community.) He is gentle with Native Americans, a friend to the women’s suffrage movement, and he is deeply, deeply concerned about the welfare of the newly freed slaves. Morally and ethically, he was a great president then, and he would be a great president today.

The book reminded me of the terror that the freed slaves endured immediately after the war. The KKK formed and what followed was a shocking spree of genocide and murders, not to mention voter repression. I had no idea how bad it was.

Grant is remembered as one of the worst presidents, and Chernow doesn’t hide the fact that Grant, as president, made mistakes, namely by unwittingly surrounding himself with the corrupt and the incompetent. But Chernow takes care to remind us just how devoted Grant was to uplifting the freed slaves and controlling the murderous racism that wreaked havoc across the South. If Grant had more support, we may have been able to prevent the hundred years of Jim Crow that followed the Civil War.

3. We’d probably call Grant “emotionally unavailable” these days. Raising a boy to be like Grant would likely be frowned upon. This is a man so stoic he never shows his feelings, even when under gunfire. In his memoir, he never discusses serious family matters, many of his failures, or his alcoholism. Perhaps he was emotionally expressive behind closed doors with his wife and members of his military family, but you get the impression that he was, emotionally, a black box.

But here’s the paradoxical thing about Grant. He, like George Washington, was emotionally astute. When dealing with superiors or subordinates, he wrote to them with great care, avoiding doing any harm to fragile egos. We see this considerate manner in the gentle, conciliatory way he dealt with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Grant’s gentle hand, and his deft conciliatory gestures, helped bridge some major chasms between the North and South after the war. Grant’s example shows that we can both practice a disciplined stoicism and be emotionally thoughtful.

4. Grant was a liberal warrior. I've now read two giant Grant biographies, plus his mammoth memoir. I've read several books on John Brown, plus a couple on Lincoln. I love reading about the Civil War and about these men because, nowadays, to be liberal is to be soft, peaceful, and maybe even a pushover. That's how many liberals see themselves, and it's certainly how the right looks upon the left. Think about how Obama (whom I like and support) dealt with the news that the Russians were meddling in our election. He chose not to publicly say anything because he worried it might make him look biased. This is an honorable, but weak approach. Think about how Republicans gerrymander districts, pass anti-voting laws, prevent the president from making a Supreme Court nomination. Think about how Trump would have reacted to news of foreign meddling that might hurt his party's chances. I'm not saying I want my party to be unethical or unfair, but I want them to be tough.  

Back in the 1860s we see these Union men, driven by a compulsion to do what's right, become liberal warriors. They can be sensitive souls, like Grant and Lincoln. They can believe in snowflake things like justice and equality. But they can be determined, unflinching, and tough. They weren't afraid to assert that they indeed had the moral high ground. They weren't afraid to put an end to crimes of humanity with punishing force. And I suppose there's part of me that wants liberals to re-embrace this toughness, to not be such a bunch of softies. (To be clear, I'm in no way calling for actual violence.) 

5. One of Grant’s savviest political strategies was to place himself in luck's path. He never really sought the presidency, but he (consciously or unconsciously, it's hard to determine) placed himself in the right place at the right time. This way, he got what he wanted without sacrificing his honor or dignity, because back then it was still a bit unseemly to greedily seek higher office.

He did indeed want things. Like anyone, he enjoyed fame. He enjoyed power. He even ran for (and almost won) the nomination for a third term. Grant was a truly great man and as close to truly honorable as a man can get. But his honorable conduct wasn't just for honor's sake. Honor had political value back then, which I wish was the case today.

A deliberate and well-preened honor is, by its nature, artificial. But this well-preened and artificial honor is almost as laudable as real honest-to-goodness honor because it functions almost in the same way as honest-to-goodness honor. A code of honor, to which everyone feels obligated to adhere, forces people to live within tight moral boundaries. This slightly fake honor (which sort of functions as real honor) was actually how people acquired power.

Not all politicians or presidents had such honor, but it was valued enough to help win Grant the wide support he got. 
He was able to climb the military ladder and win the presidency because of the sterling character he so vigorously burnished. Politicians liked him and people voted for him because of this well-burnished character. 

I don't know how and when we lost this. Voters are attracted to Trump not because he's honorable, but because he's the exact opposite. We don't see any problem with people running for the presidency two or three years in advance, always boasting about their accomplishments and promising us the moon and more. I feel nostalgic for the times when leaders like Grant and Washington were compelled to pursue ambitions obliquely, and even remark about their unfitness for the job, as a symbol of their humility.

I do hope I get to see a president like Grant in my lifetime—someone who’s incapable of bombast, who’s humble, and who’s maybe even quiet. Can that feasibly happen in an age when politicians must take to the TV and Twitter to gain bigger and bigger followings? I suppose I wish for such a president less for the president than for the way it would reflect on our (hopefully improved) collective character.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: "The Post"

The story of the Pentagon Papers is important and timely, but, as with many of Spielberg’s films of the last twenty years, I sense that Spielberg has creatively checked out.

My gripes: a cast of overused actors (like everyone, I love Tom Hanks, but he was an uninspired choice here); corny humor (the little girl and the lemonade stand); the artificial banter Spielberg has his characters engage in as they talk over themselves in a chaotic but really choreographed and phony way (Spielberg used to be a real pro at this—see the dinner table scenes in E.T., which seem scarily authentic).

Worst of all were the periodic moments of melodrama when some character steps into the light and makes a grand pronouncement about the nobility of journalism. I don’t disagree with the message, but the delivery is cheesy! You don’t see characters in All the President’s Men or Spotlight embarrassing themselves with such schmaltz—rather, those stories very subtly and very maturely say all they have to about the nobility of journalism.

Lastly, the movie lacks any sense of atmosphere or style. It just seemed hastily and formulaically thrown together, the theme timely enough and the actors prestigious enough to possibly help Spielberg pad his resume with more award nominations. Someone like a David Fincher could have lent a movie like this some seriousness and style.