SenseofStylePinker“THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE IS THE SINGLE BEST EXPLANATION I KNOW OF WHY GOOD PEOPLE WRITE BAD PROSE,” Steven Pinker observes in his thoroughly engaging new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century! He goes on in the same paragraph to lay the groundwork for the critical importance of knowing, first and foremost, who you are writing for—are they gonna get it or have you lost them straight out of the gate? Yep, the classic KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.

This is one example of Pinker’s no-nonsense, clear style in a book chock-full of very good tell-by-showing writing samples, as well as some not so good that illustrate common errors, convoluted constructions, grotesque grammar and heaps more of just plain goop, often from the pens, pencils and keyboards of éminences grises. It’s all wonderfully delectable.

I found Chapter 4, “The Web, the Tree, and the String: Understanding Syntax Can Help a Writer Avoid Ungrammatical, Convoluted, and Misleading Prose,” the most intriguing and “fun” to interact with, as over the course of 60+ pages Pinker constructs elegant, complex sentence trees (think elaborate sentence diagramming) to uncover deep sentence structures, harmonized coordination, “noun piles” and much more. I hope this doesn’t sound merely like super yummy grammar nerd manna (that’s a noun pile), because Pinker explains it all in a sunshiney, here-to-help manner that shouldn’t scare you away.

I highly recommend this aha!-rich book to anyone looking to improve his or her communications, be it an email, memo, report, RFP response, blog, FB post or, hey, even a measly little tweet or handwritten postcard to grandma.




THE MAD SUGAR POP KULTCHUR RUSH OF ALL THINGS NATURAL GONE FERAL OR WERE-* seeking revenge on humankind for past, present or future injustices manifests itself realistically in John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. The book, in great detail, recounts the December 1997 fatal attacks and eventual killing of a “vengeful” Amur (or Siberian) tiger in the Primorye Territory in Russia’s Far East.

It’s a harrowing tale on numerous fronts: from the point of view of the region’s post-perestroika destitute manual laborers and loggers, of the various families trying to make ends meet at the unforgiving taiga’s edge, of the underfunded governmental organizations and individuals trying to help them while “managing” the tigers, and of the Amur tigers themselves, largely endangered and preyed upon by feckless poachers looking to cash in across the nearby Chinese border.

Vaillant, the Vancouver, BC, author who previously penned the heart-wrenching, deservedly much-admired Golden Spruce, imbues The Tiger with a fierce, fiery energy and dramatic narrative flow that reads novel-like at times, while at others like a top-drawer fact-driven piece from Smithsonian, Nat Geo or The New Yorker. The interweaved fates of the human characters and the shock-and-awe-inspiring tigers drive the book, delivering its timely message of “We’re all in this together.” Vaillant writes:

Panthera tigris and Homo sapiens are actually very much alike, and we are drawn to many of the same things, if for slightly different reasons. Both of us demand large territories; both of us have prodigious appetites for meat; both of us require control over our living space and are prepared to defend it, and both of us have an enormous sense of entitlement to the resources around us. If a tiger can poach on another’s territory, it probably will, and so, of course, will we. A key difference, however, is that tigers take only what they need.

Instead of beating us over the head with this message, Vaillant lets it slowly develop while allowing the story to unfold, its many larger-than-life characters sharing tales of the taiga and its inhabitants, the tigers, Russia both past and present, and much more that draws a portrait of a fragile enclave on the chill edge of a teetering world.

“If there is enough land, cover, water, and game to support a keystone species like [the tiger],” Vaillant writes, “it implies that all the creatures beneath it are present and accounted for, and that the ecosystem is intact. In this sense, the tiger represents an enormous canary in the biological coal mine.” Vaillant goes on to report that, as of December 2009, fewer than 400 tigers may remain in the Russian Far East (more than 75,000 were reported to having lived in Asia last century; this number has since dipped some 95 percent).

Yes, The Tiger is a real-life bloodcurdling thriller about an Amur tiger seemingly bent on revenge, relentlessly going after a poacher who’d crossed his path and foolishly invited his wrath (like a fearsome Udeghe tale featuring the mythical tiger-like monster/malevolent spirit Amba)—in that, it’s a pretty unputdownable read. It’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of our Anthropocene age, as Vaillant has it, “characterized by increasingly dense concentrations of human beings living in permanent settlements on a landscape that has been progressively altered and degraded in order to support our steadily growing population”—in that, too, it’s a pretty unputdownable, and eminently compelling, read.

Tiger Protection Efforts in Primorye: Organizations to Support
Udeghe Legend National Park
Phoenix Fund
Tigris Foundation
21st Century Tiger
Wildlife Conservation Society


*Yes, indeed, I’m talking vampires, werewolves, piranhas and zombies—sure, why not include our dear departed loved ones who, instead of silently nurturing the Earth six feet under, are reanimated, irascible and, of course, hungry for brains!

“THE ARCTIC IS CARRYING THE DEEP WOUNDS OF THE WORLD,” asserts Gretel Ehrlich in her elegiac In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape [Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2010]. She continues: “Wounds that aren’t healing. Bands of ice and tundra that protected Inuit people for thousands of years, ensuring a continuity of language and lifeways and a meta-stable climate, have been assaulted from above and below, inside and out. Pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the crushing demands of sovereignty and capitalism, war and religion have severed the strong embrace of ice.”

Her timely, highly recommended book clashes great beauty (“The poet Joseph Brodsky said that the purpose of evolution was beauty,” she notes amid myriad descriptions of awe-inspiring Arctic allure) with dispassionate science (“The paradise called the Holocene is ending, and a new epoch, tentatively named the Anthropocene, is beginning—an era when climate will be forced against its cyclical ‘instinct’ to become cold again”). It’s this clash, really a jarring shift, like ice shelves themselves colliding, then violently crumbling as they part, that infuses Ehrlich’s text with its vigorous and heartrending power.

In her telling observations, she is as unrelenting as the melting ice: “Perhaps the term climate change should be changed to climate care, since it is carelessness that is bringing so many changes to life as we know it and most likely will bring much of the life of humans and megafauna on this planet to what may be the end”; or try: “When we lose an ecosystem we are losing our thumbprint uniqueness, our way of knowing the world and our strategies of survival.”

As tocsinlike and grim as this may sound, and is, Ehrlich also celebrates native ingenuity, creativity—primarily as witnessed through storytelling, myth and art—and toughened spirit—the will to survive, to balance a hierarchy of needs and to bask rather contentedly in the determinate beauty of a (still) ice-locked natural world—a little of the noble savage perhaps, but I’d never for a moment confuse Ehrlich with Rousseau. Read More »

FAR FROM JUST FLIGHTY PERSIFLAGE or limited strictly to foreboding midnight caterwauls (think Poe’s raven, Coleridge’s albatross), birds and verse can go together quite mellifluously, rather like the images of David Allen Sibley and anthological guidance of former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins do in Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). This gorgeous new volume of ornithological verse is as welcome a spring companion as those first lengthening, warmer days that promise a bounteous garden and more time to spend outdoors.

One of the true joys of Bright Wings, that is, in addition to Sibley’s captivating opaque watercolor and gouache paintings, is its avoidance of the obvious and cliché-riddled when it comes to poems about birds. As Collins relates in the book’s intro, “Because this gathering did not want merely to echo the work of past anthologizers, many of the obvious choices were passed over. Classics such as Keat’s and Coleridge’s nightingales, Yeats’s swans at Coole, Bryan’s waterfowl, Jeffers’s hawks, Hopkins’s windhover, and Poe’s raven have been showcased in so many books of poetry—bird-oriented or otherwise—that no editorial regrets were felt at the decision to leave them out. Instead, air time is given to many lesser-known poems, particularly more contemporary ones, in order to give the reader a better chance of being taken by surprise.”

Taking flight, then, are evocative, plumed words by poets as far ranging as Jonathan Aaron (“Cedar Waxwings”) and David Bottoms (“An Owl”) to Lisa Williams (“The Kingfisher” and “Grackles”) and David Yezzi (“Mother Carey’s Hen”)—but that doesn’t mean you won’t find Thomas Hardy (“The Darkling Thrush” ), D.H. Lawrence (“Humming-Bird” ), Emily Dickinson (“I have a Bird in spring” and “I dreaded that first Robin so” ) or William Carlos Williams (“The Birds” ). Again, Collins from his intro: “[R]ecent poems about birds may fall into the loose category of ‘ecopoetry,’ or they may remain in a state of post-Emersonian idealism regarding nature.” Whatever path they take in Bright Wings, they capture our fancy while simultaneously setting our spirit free, whether read silently or aloud, which, as with all poetry, serves them best.

I’ll let poet Juliana Gray have the parting words here, from her Bright Wings-included poem “Rose-Breasted Grosbeak”: “Oh, pretty bird! Oh, fluff and feathers, beak / and bright eye, alliterative name / in my throat!”


America at Risk coverThere is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.’ —Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’

PROPHETIC WORDS OR AN AGE-OLD OBSERVATION of the way change, by necessity, is initiated, that is, breakdown serves as accelerant? In America at Risk: The Crisis of Hope, Trust, and Caring by Purdue sociologists Robert Perrucci and Carolyn Perrucci (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), systemic cracks are painfully dissected—with true and actionable enlightenment, hopefully, to follow. The Perruccis’ thesis:

“We believe that the decline of hope, trust, and caring is the unanticipated consequence of the major transformation over the last thirty years in the kind of goods and services produced in America, in the technology that is used in production, and in the people who are involved in the production process. We call the composite of these changes the new economy.”

Their take on our current collective cachexia, all part and parcel of the “new economy,” makes for compelling reading, and the slender book (including index and notes it’s a mere 160 pages) offers up an array of solutions that deserves further exploration, certainly before we move from Cohen’s “Anthem” to Gibbons’ Decline and Fall … (for instance, from Gibbons: “If all the barbarian conquerors had been annihilated in the same hour, their total destruction would not have restored the empire of the West: and if Rome still survived, she survived the loss of freedom, of virtue, and of honor”—just plug in “terrorists” in place of “barbarian conquerers” and “America” in place of “Rome,” and wait for the cookie to crumble). Read More »

cover_bringing_it1“I LIVE IN A PART OF THE COUNTRY that at one time a good farmer could take some pleasure in looking at,” Wendell Berry intones in the opening essay of his new collection, Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009); a little farther down the page he continues, “Now the country is not well farmed, and driving through it has become a depressing experience.” This somber tone-setting essay, “Nature as Measure,” was written 20 years ago. Poet-essayist-novelist Berry—now in his mid-70s and who has farmed a hillside in his native Henry County, Kentucky, for more than 40 years—has had plenty to rail against when it comes to Big Ag, the politics of indifference and our alienating post-industrial age; but he also has had plenty to celebrate in clear-eyed observations of humankind interacting with nature, the value of true hard work (diametrically opposed to the digitally and plutocratically enabled “work” of accumulating phantom wealth) and the rewarding simplicity of sharing, of family, of community.

An out-of-touch cranky neo-luddite screeching for a return to prelapsarian times? Hardly. Berry’s vision is that of a hardy-yet-hoary realist, tinged by both optimism and pessimism (ah, the foibles of humanity!), attempting to show us a path out of our befoulment, a steaming, festering swamp we teeter face-first ever closer toward. And Berry’s prose? Gracefully worn and weathered to a burnished beauty, like a glacier-cast erratic, transfigurative in its straightforward simplicity. Read More »

Reenchanged WorldBEFORE TAKING A BITE of James William Gibson‘s delicious new read, let me set the scene by revisiting a classic of enchantment that’s as fresh and evocative as ever, Thoreau’s Walden:

“We need the tonic of wilderness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

I think this quote gets at the rather juicy heart of Gibson’s compelling and eminently readable Reenchanted World, published this spring by Metropolitan Books, a cautionary tale for the double aughts that judiciously includes a “Hope Renewed” coda. Read More »