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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: Stranger in the Woods

This is a fun, delightful read about a hermit who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years. The hermit, Christopher Knight, stole food, clothes, and books from nearby homeowners. According to Knight, Knight said one word ("hi") to one person (a random hiker) during those 27 years. He is eventually caught by a law enforcement official and imprisoned for his crimes. 

Knight is not a guy who we're going to revere or glorify the way we might revere other hermits, such as a Henry David Thoreau or a Chris McCandless. We look to hermits to tell us a bit about ourselves; to deliver a little sage wisdom from a mountaintop or a cabin in the woods.

Knight has his moments of wisdom, but he's neither sage nor lovable hero. Knight stole, drank, and ate a lot of sugar, which rotted his teeth. He's cranky and arrogant. He looks down on the rest of humanity, even though Knight admits that many of his deeds were far from pardonable. He can't be looked up to. But just because we can't look up to him doesn't mean we can't be intrigued by him. 

What made him take off into the woods? Was it something from Knight's past? These are questions that largely go unanswered, despite the author's great efforts to understand and connect with his subject. 

There were times I wanted the author to dissect Knight's brain a bit more: to help Knight articulate why he ventured out into the woods. The book seems to be something of an unsolved mystery. But if this is its weakness, it's also its strength: It gives you, as reader, space to interpret and wonder. And you can't place any blame on the author: he may have been dealing with the most reticent man alive, and the author made more than half a dozen (sometimes fruitless) trips from his home in Montana to Maine to get to the bottom of things.  

I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of Knight's predicament. (Wishing to be sent to solitary confinement when he's in jail, having to move into his mom's house as a middle-age man, brusquely rejecting the author's earnest overtures.) And yet there are moments when I felt deeply for Knight. I rooted for Knight to either find some happy compromise with society, or to just disappear again into the woods, where he belongs. 

Perhaps this book would have benefited from not being published so soon. We might have gotten more satisfying closure if the book was published a few years later. But I don't fault the author for seizing on a grand story in timely fashion. There will likely be a second edition, and maybe by the time the movie comes out (it needs to be adapted!) we'll have such an ending. 

Knight may have been an extremist in his quest for solitude, but he was not crazy. The book is a comedy, tragedy, and mystery, but also a paean to solitude, to the contentment that comes from being alone; to the simple joy of melting into the natural world. One of the underlying messages of the book, which I'm on board with, is that there's nothing crazy or wrong or even weird about wanting to be alone. For many, it's a luxury. For some, a necessity.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Shape of Water is not a good movie

The Shape of Water has earned thirteen Oscar nominations, one short of tying the record. The movie got a 92 percent “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Professional critics, in their widespread acclaim for what is, at best, a mediocre movie, have committed a dereliction of duty. The thirteen award nominations are galling and further evidence that the world has gone mad.

(Spoiler Alert.) This movie is not good because… 

1. The monster character had no depth. A wild beast with a soft soul? How many times has that already been done? (King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2, basically all “bad boy” movies…) Can we not be a bit more imaginative?

2. The characters were too cartoonish (the no-nonsense black housekeeper, the emotionally-unavailable military villain, the self-sacrificing man of science). Plus, it is unimaginative, absurd, and unrealistic for two housekeepers to steal the American government’s most precious military object with little more than a laundry bin. The dialogue, except for Richard Jenkins’s bathroom soliloquy, was inexcusably dumb. All of the above made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief and get emotionally absorbed.

3. Could the writers have drawn up a more cliched villain? Michael Shannon [who I really like as an actor (I like all the actors!)] plays someone who’s overtly racist, a misogynist, and an animal torturer. Why not make him homophobic while you’re at it! Why not have him drown a sack of puppies just to underline the point? Having a character perform a sequence of terrible deeds (so that we may identify him as “the villain”) is disrespectful to an adult’s intelligence. Actual evil  real, scary, compelling evil  must be mixed with charm or mystery or something enigmatic. It must be mixed with a creditable backstory. There have been more layered villains in children’s picture books! You can’t just give a steel-jawed man an electrified club and have him utter a few racist remarks and expect us to wee our knickers when he comes on screen. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking, What does Del Toro think we are, children!?!

4. Including a movie subtheme within your movie shows that you, as storyteller, are out of touch. In this story, we have the Richard Jenkins character watching movie musicals. We have the ridiculous and cringingly-flamboyant woman/monster musical number. And we have most of the movie taking place above a movie theaterthe symbolic value of which escapes me. Hollywood loves these self-congratulatory self-references. In the past six years, three movies about the entertainment industry won Best Picture [Birdman (2014), Argo (2012), The Artist (2011)], and last year La La Land (2016), about an aspiring singer and actor in Los Angeles, took away the most awards with six. Only .000001% of Americans have any real relationship with Hollywood or the entertainment industry, yet so many singers sing about songs, so many writers write about writers, so many movies are about movies. Artists must make a real and deliberate effort to tell stories that are about real people, and that have real relevance to people’s lives. We cannot fall back on telling stories about our elite and tiny bubble.  

5. What was the symbolic value of Michael Shannon’s putrid fingers? A materialization of his moral decay is the best I can come up with, and, for the filmmaker's sake, I hope I'm not right. 

6. What was the thematic value of Michael Shannon’s devotion to consumerist accumulation? His nice home, his beautiful family, and his reoccurring Cadillac? Was the degradation of the Cadillac commentary on the shallowness of American materialism? Was the movie saying we should value love over things? Could the filmmakers have chosen such a hackneyed theme, or am I missing something?

7. The movie had a chance to spice things up with a dramatic heist, but the heist was uninspired, unsuspenseful, and anti-climatic.

8. The monster had random healing powers. Not only is this a knockoff of Wolverine and E.T., but it is a shallow and convenient plot device that let’s the filmmaker kill a character and then bring the character back from the dead. Richard Jenkins’s hair grows back after the monster touches Jenkins’s bald head. Does this mean that baldness is something that needs healing? How would the monster know Jenkins was ailed by his baldnessdoes the monster have insight into America’s standards of male beauty in the early 1960s?   

9. Gratuitous disfigurement is utterly pointless and a lazy way of getting an emotional reaction out of an audience. Del Toro has a thing with facial disfigurement. In Del Toro’s movie Pan’s Labyrinth, the villain (who is almost as character-less as Michael Shannon’s villain) has to stitch up a gruesome cheek wound in front of a mirror after a knife attack. In The Shape of Water, Dimitri gets shot in the face, leaving him with his own gruesome cheek wound. In both movies, the injury serves little-to-no narrative purpose, other than to momentarily make the audience squirm in revulsion. 

From Pan's Labyrinth

10. Please, storytellers, put an end to the Bible allusions! (Unless it’s a religious movie!) The super evil Michael Shannon character gives a Bible lesson to Delilah (the black character) on the story of her namesake’s biblical character. Biblical analogies get under my skin. It’s lazy symbolism. It’s pseudo-intellectualism (“I’m going to give this story a second layer of meaning by giving characters biblical names!”). And it’s a desperate attempt to enhance character depth. We see these Bible allusions all the time in stories. Think of random Biblical recitations (Pulp Fiction), wanton use of Biblical names (There Will Be Blood), heroes sacrificially dying with outstretched arms (Braveheart). Lacking some deeper symbolism? Just impale a palm. Why do writers even feel the need to pay homage to the Bible, which may very well be history’s most overrated piece of literature? Let’s tell our own new story, with symbolism of our own, with non-derivative characters, without feeling the need to legitimize ourselves as writers by referencing nonsensical stories from the ancient past.    

11. The transformation of the monster should have been challenging, but really all it took were a few hard-boiled eggs.

12. I’ve read that Del Toro wanted the movie to serve as an adult modern-day fairy tale. This may explain the cartoonish settings, the archetypal characters, the simplistic dialogue. But you can’t just dismiss all of my above criticisms because “You don’t get it, it’s just a fairy tale!” All that matters is whether or not the story has emotional resonance. It must make you feel. It must sit in your gut. It must make you care about the characters. I went to this movie to have this experience, but I resented the child-like presentation. I refused to be duped by something so half-hearted, so callow, so stylistically-driven. There were a few visually beautiful scenes (the love scene in the water-logged bathroom, for example), but visuals are wasted when they’re not part of a story that works.

Monday, February 12, 2018

My first book review

Ilgunas returns with a heavily researched, passionate argument about the need for America to emulate many other countries and allow its citizens to roam across the land, public as well as private… Earnest, thoughtful, and alarming in places—an optimistic work that urges America toward a profound cultural shift.  Kirkus review of my book, This Land Is Our Land

It's such an odd thing, throwing your book out into the world. You may be content with the book, but there's simply no way of knowing how the rest of the world will receive it.

You probably think it’s at least pretty good. Why else would you take the time to write your book and share it with the world if it’s not at least pretty good? But of course you have doubts, too. You, as writer, can certainly imagine critical responses because you’ve been criticizing your book all along.

So it’s nerve-wracking and exciting publishing a book. You have no idea if you’ve written a runaway bestseller or quite possibly the worst book ever written. That’s why early book reviews are so emotionally potentthey’re either confirmations of your greatest hopes or auguries of your greatest fears.  

Two early book reviewers are Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. They publish reviews months before other book reviewers, and months before your book actually publishes. For my first book, Walden on Wheels, Publisher’s Weekly called my writing as thick as “pancake batter.” Kirkus called it a “middling” memoir.

I hope you don’t mind if I take the liberty of placing yourself in my shoes to show you how traumatizing these early reviews were. Imagine yourself as a first-time 29-year-old author. You’re confident enough to take on such a project, but you’re also insecure enough to be terrified about everything that could possibly go wrong. You’ve just devoted two-and-a-half years of your life to this book. You have no idea if your book is any good. And then you read your first two reviews in which the reviewers savage your book. You wonder if you have any business calling yourself a writer. Should you decide you’ve improperly labeled yourself as a “career writer,”  you will now have to start from scratch if you decide that it’s more responsible to become a teacher or a nurse, due to the fact that you have no other training or useful skills. Meanwhile, all your friends have been in their careers and have been watching their incomes rise for a good many years. Worst of all: You won’t get to read another review for another two months.

This all triggered a rather unpleasant 30-year life crisis, which lasted about three months. The crux of the crisis was this: What am I going to do if I’m not made out to be a writer?

I recognize now how I was wrong to compare my life to my peers' lives, as if life is a race in which I needed to keep up or get ahead. I recognize now how it’s perfectly alright to start a new career at any age. I recognize now that many authors fail early and succeed later. Yet my feelings were very real and human and ordinary: I wanted financial security; I wanted to write only if other people thought my stuff was worth reading; more than anything I wanted directionI wanted to know what I was and what I was supposed to be doing.

Thankfully, the book did quite well. Other critics liked it. Amazon readers gave it mostly positive reviews. It sold (and continues to sell) fairly well. And I got a good deal of press. Taking all of the above into consideration, I now feel confident enough about Walden on Wheels to say that those early book reviewers were wrong, even if my prose can indeed be as thick as pancake batter. The success of the book helped me get past my crisis, and while I’ve wavered over the years on the subject of my career path, I more or less committed to the life of the writer. This realization (let’s also call it a decision)  that I am a career writer  has done more to release me of existential anxiety than any other.

For my second book, Trespassing across America, Kirkus called it “preachy” and I don’t think Publisher’s Weekly even bothered to review it. These reviews didn’t bother me so much. My confidence was stronger and dealing with early criticisms was easier.

The first review of my latest book, This Land Is Our Land (publishing April 10) just came out, and it was one of the nicer reviews I’ve read. Never before has anyone acknowledged my research (the reviewer calls it “heavily researched”), and the reviewer was kind enough to notice the grandness of my ambitions and acknowledge that I was aiming for a “profound cultural shift.” Indeed!

This early review brings me a great deal of comfort. For now at least.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The relevance of Henry David Thoreau

[Daniel Vollaro, a professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, is interviewing subjects for a book he's writing about Thoreau's impact on 21st Century American culture. Below I've listed his questions and my answers.] 

How did you become interested in Thoreau? 

I can’t remember when exactly I became interested in Thoreau. He wasn’t assigned in high school or college. I think I was coming across his name in other books I respected, like Into the Wild. In my early twenties I had this unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I wanted to watch every important movie and read every important book, so his writings were just part of a long list of stuff I wanted to consume.

Can you describe your first encounter with Thoreauvian ideas?

That’s a tough one to answer. Aren’t Thoreauvian ideals already a part of the American subconsciousness? Even if we never read Thoreau, our culture can’t help but acquaint us with Thoreau’s values. More than often, we become aware of the practice of civil disobedience without knowing about Thoreau’s seminal essay on the subject. We look at nature reverently and romantically because of Thoreau’s and other romanticists’ nature writings. So I think I was probably “Thoreauvian” well before I first heard about Thoreau.

But to answer your question more concretely, I was around 22. It was the perfect time for me to be exposed to Thoreau. To have been introduced to him in high school or college would have been premature because I just didn’t have the life experiences that would have made his writings relevant to me. Later on, in my early twenties, Thoreau became relevant. I was heavily in debt, I’d been working as a cart pusher for the Home Depot, and I was beginning to get really suspicious of the consumerist culture and overly-suburbanized landscape around me. My work was soulless, my life was nature-less, and my bank account was nearly money-less. Thoreau’s book would speak to all of these issues. Thoreau, to me, wasn’t quite an epiphany or some ground-breaking discovery. I’d been thinking about a lot of the stuff he had written about on my own, so, more than anything, he helped put words to thoughts, validated my own critical observations, and simply made me feel less alone. 

Walden has inspired many imitators, many of them cabin builders of one kind or another. Your Thoreauvian adventure is unique. Can you explain how "Walden" made its way into the title of your book? 

Inspiration to live in my van came from a few places. When I worked up in Alaska for a few summers, I met people who were living in their vehicles or in small cabins in semi-subsistence villages. Their examples showed me that there are other, more creative, and less expensive ways to live and house yourself. 

Thoreau’s cabin experiment was another useful example of a creative housing arrangement, but he adds something elsean element of asceticism. An ascetic performs his or her act with a public context in mind. He shares his experience with the world. And that's when you go from being a merely frugal person to an ascetic. An ascetic is someone who does something as a stunt. The stunt could also be for personal reasons, but there is always a public component to a stunt. And Thoreau, through his publishing and also by conducting his experiment so close to town, was participating in a very public act. He was a stuntman. 

I think I was combining these clever Alaskans’ housing arrangements with Thoreau’s ascetic performance. In other words, I’d move into my van to live cheap, but I’d blog about my experience to hopefully say something that needed to be said about society.

Home in Wiseman, Alaska

Chevy Suburban, home to a man named James, who lived in this vehicle for six years in Coldfoot, Alaska.

As for "Walden" in my own book’s title (Walden on Wheels), I was really hesitant about including someone else’s book title within my own. And I was thinking about this when I was writing my book. I didn’t want to be constantly referencing or alluding to the writings and deeds of dead men. Too many writers do this. Their books have more quotations from dead men than their own ideas. I think we’re scared to publicize our own opinions. I think this fear comes from our educational backgrounds: when writing anything in college, we have to carefully study, reference, and quote other people. Later on, we feel this unhealthy compulsion to legitimize our thoughts by fitting them within some sort of intellectual legacy. To some extent, it’s admirable, even necessary, to acknowledge the shoulders of the giants we stand on, but too often do our voices get lost amid all these references to the people of the past. Some people go on journeys in homage of someone else’s journey, which is a bit crazy to me when we could, with a little more effort, do something no one has ever done. I’m pretty sure Thoreau wrote about this stuff. At least I knew Emerson did, who complained that our age is too retrospective. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson wrote. So, yeah, because transcendentalists were writing about this stuff, I was especially hesitant about placing someone else’s title within my own when the whole point of my book was to be something new. But I suppose I thought the title, Walden on Wheels, sounded nice, and it was a lot better than my second-best ideaVandweller

Were you self consciously imitating Thoreau?

Not really, but before I committed to the van, I considered secretly building a hut in the woods. At one point I even considered building a little coffin, or underground “hutch,” and just living in that, inspired as I was with Thoreau’s passage about living in some such box. With the van, I suppose you could say it was more inspiration than imitation. While my experiment certainly had similarities with Thoreau’s, there were fundamental differences. Part of his experiment was living in nature, while I was living in a parking lot next to a busy main street. He was growing his own food and chopping his own wood, while I bought my food at grocery stores and enjoyed the indoor heating systems on campus. The main similarity was that Thoreau had done something ballsy, and I was in the mood to do something ballsy. If there was any imitation, it was that.

I think some people will read Walden on Wheels and be inspired to imitate what you did in some way. Was that your intention in writing the book? What do you hope readers will get out of it?

My intention was definitely not to start some sort of vandwelling movement, though I would have been happy to take credit if such a thing happened. My intention, rather, was to write a book that my 17-year-old self would have enjoyed and benefited from. 
And I suppose, with that in mind, I’d hoped other young men and women might get something out of it, too. 

I’d recognized that my book was a book that needed to be written. For one, the country had a huge student debt (and general debt) problem, but not one book, up until mine, had been written from the student debtor’s perspective. That was crazy, considering that there were like 35 million student debtors. (Now there are 44 million.) Two, I think we needed another Into the Wild-type story (about a young person getting off the school-debt-career conveyor belt), but that didn’t end fatally and that was written from the protagonist’s point of view. And three, I thought people would benefit from living more freely, adventurously, and creatively, and I thought a book about an ordinary person who makes a few bold decisions that lead to even bolder decisions could provide a helpful example. Really, I wanted to do what Thoreau’s book did for me, which is to show that we can take our crazy ideas and turn them into realities. 

My van, a 1994 Ford Econoline. Lived in from 2009 to 2011. RIP: 1994-2015

My book is about the influence of Thoreau in the 21st century. What can we learn from Thoreau in this age of smart phones and streaming television?

Much of what Thoreau has said has been absorbed into the greater culture or expanded upon by subsequent writers, naturalists, and environmental thinkers. So you could make the argument that Thoreau isn’t exactly “required reading.” Yet I think we all like to point to, and need, a rich intellectual legacy for our most beloved subjects. These intellectuals from the past give us the philosophical foundation which we can build on. 
And Thoreau, for many subjects, is the perfect foundation. He can be considered the dark-bearded sage for American naturalists, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, anti-consumerists, and right-to-roamers. Thoreau was a pro at crafting passages that can be quoted on postcards and calendars (or their future equivalent) for centuries. (Ex. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” & “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.") This is a useful skill for somebody who wants their works to outlive himself. 

On another note, it helps that he doesn’t have any serious blemishes on his moral resume. He is a safe figure for we moderns to adore. Thoreau was sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans, accommodating to runaway slaves, outspoken about environmental degradation, and prescient in forecasting the demise of America’s open roaming culture. He was a good friend and family man. If there are examples of him being racist or sexist or some other “ist,” they are few and not serious, at least compared to his contemporaries. Teddy Roosevelt did more to protect American nature, but he's harder to celebrate for all the racism and warmongering. While Roosevelt, 
Muir, Whitman, Jefferson and most other thinkers have moral blemishes on their resumes, Thoreau has made it the to the 21st Century without alienating anybody. He’d fit in quite well here.

He lasts, too, because he was a man of action. He didn't just discuss civil disobedience; he did it. He didn't just condemn the materialistic lifestyle, he built a cabin in the woods and lived in it for two years. When a person has lived a life of action, they're much more easy to romanticize and mythologize. Emerson was brilliant, and his
 essays "Self Reliance" and "Nature" are worth being immortalized, but Thoreau, more than Emerson, is a mythic figure  for the full and adventurous life he lived  which will make him, more than all of his literary peers, a figure for the ages. 

Thoreau wrote about the bustle of an industrializing America. He wrote about the compulsion to keep pace with our neighbors in money and material items. He talked about conserving wildness and nature in a rapidly changing world. These things haven't changed. In fact, they've gotten worse. Thoreau will only be forgotten and he will only become irrelevant when these things get fixed.

There was a practical side to Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond; he wanted to finish writing a book about his brother.Your motivations were also partially practical. What are the practical reasons for a person to "drop out" of a settled, mainstream existence in 21st century America?

I think there’s always a practical element even behind the most high-minded motivation. The most obvious benefit to a Thoreauvian existence is simply having more time to yourself. And something as simple as an ordinary existence severely limits how much time we have. An ordinary existence requires a house or an apartment, and that requires all the amenities of modern life, from heat, to air-conditioning, to Wi-Fi, etc. We're then required to devote many hours of our day to working for a company, corporation, or organization in an office where we more than likely wouldn’t willfully choose to spend our time. More than often, such a job requires a vehicle. The sedentary lifestyle requires a gym membership. And all of a sudden we’re in this endless and inescapable cycle of work to pay for all these now-necessary things and keep the lights on. But turn the lights off, and forego all the usual comforts, and you no longer need to work as much, and you suddenly have so much more time for reading, writing, reflection, walking, sleeping, and all the things that, for me at least, matter most.

In your book, you mention Thoreau's observations about how his neighbors hated the mundane drudgery of their lives, and yet, he was a person who enjoyed hard work and doing a job with integrity. Did your experience in the van make you reflect on the nature of work and its relationship to your life? To the lives of others?

The end goal for me is not to escape work and live a life of decadent leisure, but to create a set of conditions that enable me to do the work I really want to do. And I think this desire comes from a series of jobs I’ve had that made me routinely miserable. I’ve been a cashier, cart pusher, dishwasher, landscaper, ice skate sharpener, short order cook, tour guide, and motel cleaner. Usually I was underpaid and often my work was unappreciated. 

I think I also felt, deep down, that the product of my work was ultimately unnecessary. I’ve spent a great deal of my working hours attending to the comforts of middle-to-upper class tourists. I’ve spent a great deal of time working for the fossil fuel industry, an industry I have no interest in supporting. Ultimately, if I didn’t exist and didn’t perform these tasks, the world would be no worse off. 

My situation was not unusual. So many of us spend our days selling some cheap plastic piece of crap that will be used once, or some garment to someone who already has a closet full of unused clothes. Let’s face it, a great deal of the work we do serves no useful, substantial purpose whatsoever, and I think this is often felt, if unconsciously. And when we spend forty hours of the week doing it, it makes our lives feel a little bit more meaningless. Yes, we may be very meaningfully feeding our families from the wages we make selling that plastic piece of crap, but in the best of both worlds, we produce or sell something meaningful and use our earnings on something meaningful.

I consider myself a writer, but I also really enjoy the work of gardening, building fences and chicken coops, revitalizing soil, tending to an orchard and a flock of chickens. This is largely because these tasks, for me, existed outside the normal, company-based work routine in which we’re carefully monitored by superiors. Our break time is carefully measured. We work within a mostly uncaring corporate bureaucracy. We seldom get to enjoy or take part in the very products or services we’re providing. Our work is so unintegrated with our actual lives. Thoreau hoed his beans, chopped his wood, and built his own home, and I think there’s a deep and meaningful and unabstract pleasure that comes from seeing and enjoying and even tasting the fruits of our labors.

Monday, January 29, 2018

This Land Is Our Land: Haters Welcome

The jacket for my book, coming out April 10, 2018.
I have a hunch that This Land Is Our Land will be viciously attacked.

This hunch comes from two places: 1. A review of my book by National Parks Traveler, a website devoted to covering issues related to parks; and, 2. My Backpacker Magazine article on Scotland’s right to roam. The review was positive and I was happy with how the Backpacker article turned out, but it was in the Facebook comment sections for these articles where my ideas were angrily dismissed and I was personally attacked.

For the National Parks Traveler article, reader David Schultz says, “Ilgunas is having a wet dream. This will never happen nor should it. Apparently, he doesn’t understand the definition of private property.” Reader Brian Emch says “Right to roam my arse. The author is obviously just a libtard who wants to go anywhere he wants.”

The Backpacker audience didn’t concern themselves with the details of my wet dreams (which are about things far more exciting than the right to roam, believe me), but these readers weren’t any more enthusiastic about the right to roam:

Comments on my article on Backpacker's Facebook page. 
The somewhat alarming thing about these responses is that these people (people who love parks, the outdoors, and hiking) should be my base! They should be my supporters! Yet I’m getting loud and really cranky opposition from them. What’s it going to be like when libertarians, big landowners, and the far right hear of my idea or read my book? It’s not going to be pretty.    

You might think that I’m upset by all of this. Not one bit. I knew that my idea  that citizens should be able to responsibly access the great bulk of our nation’s lands and waters  would be controversial. And I realize how the enactment of a right to roam law, should it come to that, is a long way away. So I’m okay if my book doesn’t automatically lead to legislation. I’m okay if the right to roam doesn’t happen in my lifetime. I'm okay if a lot of people hate the idea at first. 

When it comes to saying something radical (but right and true and just), I like how the late British MP, Tony Benn, put it: “First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.”

I know the right to roam is right the same way I know universal suffrage, universal healthcare, and democracy are right. I know the right to roam is the right policy for an advanced country devoted to equality, good health, and justice. So I’m not worried about being wrong. And I’m not worried about a few uninformed, if earnest, comments from Facebook users (who might not be so critical if they read my book because I do indeed address all of their most common concerns).

The only thing I’m worried about is step one in Benn’s progression: Getting ignored. I’d prefer that I skip ahead to steps two and three, when everyone can call me mad and dangerous.

Honestly, the best thing that could happen for the right to roam is for me and my book to get burnt at the (metaphorical) stake. We should die the heretic's death: that is, die loudly and symbolically, surrounded by naysayers chanting for blood. This way, the idea can go as far as it can. It can reach as many eyes as possible. Then, at a later date, once we’ve all calmed down, once the idea has had time to slowly and more gently seep in the collective consciousness, maybe we can begin an earnest debate about the right to roam.

First comes blood, then comes bills. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

New article in Backpacker Magazine

My piece in Backpacker Magazine ran last week. It's part of their "public lands" issue, so the article has as much to do with my Scottish hike as the public lands situation in America. 

The photos below are from my hike, from Inverie to Fort William.