Category Archives: LITERATURE

Thoreau, Dillard, and Nature Classics

I’ve vowed to read more nature classics in 2014, and I recently put out a call on Facebook to solicit recommendations. I also checked out booklists, such as The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment’s “Top Ten Books of Nature Writing.” I marked off ones I’ve already read and narrowed down my list to the following:

Berry, Wendell. Art of the Commonplace.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring.
Ehrlich, Gretel. The Solace of Open Spaces.
Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature.
Leopold, Aldo. Sand County Almanac.
Muir, John. Nature Writings.
Snyder, Gary. Practice of the Wild.
Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.
Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge.
Literary Criticism: Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism.
A Book on Craft: Murray, John. Writing About Nature.
Optional/Extras: Olson, Sigurd. (title suggestions??); Wilson, E.O. The Diversity of Life.

I’m currently reading Leaves of Grass, and I’ll be back here to offer progress updates as I read my way through this list.

I left off two books that I consider absolute must-reads for anyone wanting to read more in the nature classics category (because I’ve already read them multiple times): Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. If you want to read more nature classics, I’d suggest starting with these and exploring the boards I created about them on Learnist:

“The Importance of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’”


“Nature Classics: ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ by Annie Dillard”


I’m still looking for a Sigurd Olson title recommendation, so if you have a suggestion or ideas for even more nature classics recommendations, please leave a comment!


Literature: Reading for Pleasure

“The man who hasn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” –Mark Twain

I’ve been in Norman, Oklahoma for the past few days talking about books and adventure at a high school of 2,400 students. Some of these students–about 150 of them–are lucky enough to take an elective class called “Reading for Pleasure.” When I first heard about it, I wondered if there was any other kind of reading. I mean–I thought all reading was for pleasure! Reading for Pain? Sounds horrible. But then I remembered back to those days of assigned reading. Those days when I had to read because someone was telling me what to read. And even now–those articles I have to read for meetings, or whatever. Yes–there is something other than reading for pleasure. I must have forgotten about it after reading a few good books of my own choosing.

The “Reading for Pleasure” students get to walk into a classroom each day and read what they want to read, at their own pace. I’m jealous. They give presentations about their books at the end of the semester, but most of the time, they just get to read. I talked to the teacher who designed this course and promotes reading for pleasure. Her room was absolutely full of books, and I asked her what she’d recommend for young adult readers. She gave me a long list and another handout including titles and authors high school students picked as their favorites. I’ll name a few of them here; many of them are either National Book Award Winners or winners of the Prinz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Reading for pleasure recommendations, from the “Reading for Pleasure” guru at Norman North High School:

Hurricane Song, Paul Volponi
Peak, Roland Smith
Touching Spirit Bear, Ben Mikaelsen

Carter Finally Gets It, Brent Crawford
Son of the Mob, Gordon Korman
Spanking Shakespeare, Jake Wizner

Just Good Books:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary Pearson
If I Stay, Gayle Forman
Looking for Alaska, John Green
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
Runner, Carl Deuker
The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht
Wish You Were Dead, Todd Strasser

Photo credit: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Literature: John Keats’s Globed Peonies

I recently saw this vase of peonies in the window of NYC’s Sullivan Street Bakery, which of course (of course?) brought to mind the “globèd peonies” that John Keats mentions in his “Ode on Melancholy.”

In “Ode on Melancholy,” Keats basically starts out saying what not to do when overwhelmed in a melancholy moment: don’t kill yourself, don’t forget melancholy, don’t partner with it, etc. And then he goes on to offer a few things that a person can do when a “melancholy fit shall fall,” basically: glut your sorrows on thoughts of natural beauty. Morning roses, rainbows, waves, and peonies will do. Oh–and don’t let other angry people bring you down. Finally, Keats shows the brilliant interconnectedness of pleasure and pain, Beauty and Melancholy, joy and sadness. But instead of reading my very brief explication of the poem, I’d suggest reading the poem itself:

“Ode on Melancholy”

No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

–John Keats (1795-1821)

The details:
Sullivan Street Bakery
533 W. 47th St.
New York, NY 10036

John Keats “Ode on Melancholy” reproduced from:
Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, Sir, ed. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919, [c1901];, 1999. [1.1.2012].

Literature: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

Title: The Leftovers // Author: Tom Perrotta // Publisher: St. Martin’s Press // September 2011 // 368 p.

Be on the lookout this month for Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, a sort of satirical novel that explores the startling question: What if millions of us disappeared in a split second? One moment, we’re there jogging on a treadmill at the gym. The next, we’re gone. And our families and friends are left behind to sift through the aftermath of our mass exodus. In The Leftovers, the residents of Mapleton are living through such a time, and Perrotta captures their story with a great deal of humor and wit.

This is a good book for those who enjoy religious humor—Perrotta makes light of a serious situation without being icky or disrespectful. Even though some of Perrotta’s characters believe that they’re living through the Rapture, most are instead calling it the Sudden Departure because no one knows exactly why so many people disappeared on October 14. Perrotta gives us a glimpse of the lives of the leftovers three years on, at a transition time when widowed spouses are dating again, people are joining cults to deal with global uncertainty, and teenagers are rebelling from their parents, as usual.

Perrotta does a great job creating and maintaining suspense through this novel. He leaves his readers in a cloud of unknowing, just as Mapleton residents were left by their friends, families, and neighbors after the Sudden Departure. In doing so, he puts us in a position to experience this strange life along with them, “as if the whole world had paused to take a deep breath and steel itself for whatever was going to happen next.”

To read my full review of The Leftovers on the Contemporary Literature website, click here.

Literature: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

Title: State of Wonder // Author: Ann Patchett // Publisher: Harper // Pub. Date: June 2011 // 368 p.

Ann Patchett’s new novel, State of Wonder, has been #3 on The New York Times bestseller list for the past two weeks…and the NYT Book Review gave it some good buzz last weekend. I’d say that the attention is well deserved for this book and for Patchett, who has also written two books of nonfiction and five other novels, including Bel Canto, which won, basically, a bunch of big awards.

In State of Wonder, medical researcher Marina Singh gets sent into one of the most alive places on earth to uncover an unexplained death. The book opens with news of a death announcement that arrives in Minnesota by way of an Aerogram sent from Brazil. Such startling news immediately sets this book’s plot into motion and begs the question: what in the world happened to Anders Eckman?

Eckman—the deceased—had been sent deep into the Amazonian jungle by his employer, a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company. But he doesn’t return. Marina Singh, Eckman’s loyal co-worker and friend, seems like the most logical person to uncover the truth about what exactly happened. So…off to the Amazon Marina goes, not knowing where exactly she’ll end up or what details she’ll bring home.

State of Wonder is lush with the details of its vibrant setting in the Amazonian jungle, a place that teems with life: rare birds, poisonous snakes, and a tree whose bark promises a revolutionary change for Western medicine. Bringing together elements of adventure, travel, and mystery, this story sustains itself with a compelling central character and takes an exciting turn at the end.

Click here to read a great interview I found on—author Elizabeth Gilbert (of the whole Eat, Pray, Love craze) chattily interviews Patchett, her “close personal friend.”

Click here to read my upcoming review of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder on the Contemporary Literature website.

Photo credit: Harper.

Literature: Into the Wild–With Edward Abbey

As I’m rushing around this morning getting ready to go to Utah for a backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park, I’m trying to decide which books—and how many—I can sensibly carry with me into the wild. The book I’m currently reading? The upcoming book I’m supposed to be reading? Or maybe just my journal—and a classic. The latter will probably end up being what I choose. I’ve pulled out my copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a book that has inspired several of my previous journeys to the Utah desert. It’s full of underlined sections and notes in the margins—affirmations like “Yes” and “Right On” and “Yeah.” As in—“You said it, Mr. Abbey, and I hear ya.”

I spent a good chunk of time going through this book last night, and the “Episodes and Visions” essay-chapter is the one that sticks out to me most. It’s Labor Day in The Park, and Abbey is its desert-anarchist-ranger. He’s abrasive, and curmudgeonly, but at least he’s not afraid to say what he really thinks to the tourists—stuff such as:

“Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like human beings! And walk—walk—WALK upon our sweet and blessed land.”

Walk, walk, WALK—that’s what one of my girlfriends and I propose to do for the next three days on an out-there loop in the Needles area of Canyonlands. Hopefully, we’ll find water, we’ll hear coyotes singing at night, we won’t get lost too many times, and we’ll come back without blisters. These are ideals. And one thing’s for certain—Abbey will be there with me, whether or not I carry Desert Solitaire in my pack.

Here are a few more of Abbey’s “Episodes and Visions” that I hope to inspire this journey:

“Despite its clarity and simplicity…the desert wears at the same time, paradoxically a veil of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed.”

“There is something about the desert that the human sensibility cannot assimilate, or has not so far been able to assimilate.”

“Where is the heart of the desert?”

“I am convinced that the desert has no heart, that it presents a riddle which has no answer, and that the riddle itself is an illusion created by some limitation or exaggeration of the displaced human consciousness.”

And…I’ll close with one of Abbey’s “Episodes and Visions” that I hope will also inspire you to get out there, here—in America, even in Utah—this summer:

“So much for the stars. Why, a man could lose his mind in those incomprehensible distances. Is there intelligent life on other worlds? Ask rather, is there intelligent life on earth? There are mysteries enough right here in America, in Utah, in the canyons.”

Literature: Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes // Author: Sarah Vowell // Publisher: Riverhead Books // Pub. Date: March 2011 // 256 p.

It’s snowing here this morning in the Vail Valley—characteristically turbulent spring weather in Colorado’s mountains. Rain, snow, sun…repeat. I’m sure the big-fat snowflakes have some of the locals dreaming of warmer climates, so I’ve got a good book to recommend–not just for locals–for anyone out there thinking of lying facedown in the sand with the sun on your back: Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes.

Published just a few weeks ago, Vowell’s new book reads like an adventure through a little-known moment in history that begins in 1819, when the first New England missionaries arrived on Maui, to 2009, when a song written by Hawaii’s last queen serenaded America’s first Hawaiian-born president, Barack Obama, during his inauguration.

Besides offering a historically accurate account on this time period, Vowell also digresses from a straight telling of history into other entertaining topics such as hula, whaling, sailors, and her love for the plate lunch—a meal she makes a strong case for being the quintessential Hawaiian meal with its eclectic mixing of culinary traditions.

This book fits into at least these three categories: history, nonfiction, funny. And if you don’t normally think of “funny” as being in the same context as “history,” you should read Sarah Vowell. One of my favorite writers, humorist David Sedaris says that Vowell has created her own category of writer: “funny historian.” It’s true—Vowell is like history’s version of David Sedaris. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell demonstrates her ability to rewrite history—or even write it for the first time—with a trademark style full of personality, intelligence, and wit.

Photo credit: Riverhead Books

Click here to read my full-length review of this book on the Contemporary Literature site.