20 March 2014

Lake Wobegon, Alaska

I was feeling a little flush. Probably a budgetary bad way to feel when I'm in a bookstore. It can contribute to deficit spending. So I bought a book.

As big as life on the new mysteries shelf was John Straley's Cold Storage, Alaska. I had good feelings about Straley's earlier books. Goes to show how I'd forgotten the most recent one, The Angels Will Not Care. I've read at least one other, but my written response is buried in the paper files of the old newsletter.

Well, whatever shortcomings I found in The Angels Will Not Care are forgiven.

I started reading Cold Storage, Alaska thinking it was a mystery. It was a reasonable assumption for most of the first half of the book. But about half way through the book, I realized that Straley wasn't writing a mystery, but he was writing a Garrison Keillor-like story of an Alaskan Lake Wobegon (or a seaside version of Cicily, Alaska from Northern Exposure). And he was doing a damn fine job.

Cold Storage is a tiny sea side village that once had a thriving fishing-based economy. Then freezing fish replaced canning fish and the village went into decline. But the story is really about the people who wash up in the backwater of the Alaskan coast. And Straley does a wonderful job of populating the town with natives, returnees, and haphazard immigrants. Like the Norwegian- and German-American residents of Lake Wobegon, the people in small town Alaska are interesting and attractive once you get to know them. And Straley creates characters who are easy to get to know.
Hoonah, Alaska (could be a prosperous version of Cold Storage)

There's Miles, the former army medic who is now the town's physician's assistant (even though there's no physician to assist). Miles' brother, Clive, returns to town with a pile of cash after serving a prison sentence for drug dealing. There is a group of cruise ship refugees who appear just as Clive is rehabbing the old family bar and in need of a house band. Ed and Tina are teachers in the Cold Storage school. Billy is an old fisherman who sets out in a kayak on a fund raising mission to meet the Dali Lama in Seattle and returns with Bonnie, the woman who rescued him when his kayak sank. There's the Alaskan state trooper who is anxious to bust Clive for returning to his old occupation and two of Clive's old criminal buddies who want the money Clive made off with.

If I compare Cold Storage, Alaska with the last of Keillor's novels I read, Pontoon, this is head and shoulders above what the Old Scout turned out.

I learned that this is one of two "Cold Storage" novels Straley has written. Somehow I missed the one about the parents of Miles and Clive, The Big Both Ways. Now, I get to find that book. I don't know if that will be as good as this, but I heartily recommend Cold Storage, Alaska.

Have you read Cold Storage, Alaska?  

Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

10 March 2014

Science without the fiction

I know I've told the story of meeting and talking to Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Leakey. They were speakers and I was an attendee at a conference. The three of us were in the shelter of a building where Leakey and I could smoke. Gould just wanted to talk to Leakey. So did I. So I hung out with them for a few minutes. I must have told the story in the ancient printed version of this blog because the only reference I can find to the story online is in Stephen Jay Gould, 1941 - 2002.

After meeting Gould, I began reading his essays. Books full of them. They were (are) masterpieces of exposition and art. One of my favorites is Dousing Diminutive Dennis's Debate, arguing, years before the millennium, for the the importance of the year 2001.

Recently I picked up a book of essays by one of Gould's successors at Natural History, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I'm impressed by Tyson's interviews and good humored appearances on television. I wrote about one of his essays here last year, More non-fiction .

The book I picked up was Death by Black Hole. Tyson, is good. He's not Stephen Jay Gould great, but perhaps no one will ever be. Some of the same questions I asked when I last read "The Importance of Being Constant" rose in my head when I read it this time. Go look at my physicist daughter's response.

Tyson won me over in an early essay by noting that "One of the challenges of scientific inquiry is knowing when to step back -- and how far back to step -- and when to move in close... A raft of complications sometimes points to true complexity and sometimes just clutters up the picture." That's an important lesson I strive to teach students.

Over and over Tyson points out lessons like that. Sometimes his analogies are too complex and sometimes his explanations are inadequate for my little brain. But I enjoy what I read and I learn things. But I didn't finish the book yet.

It has to go back to the library. I might have finished it, but Eric Johnson lent me Junkyard Planet (see below), and I wanted to read about recycling and see what my former student had written. I might check Death by Black Hole out again and finish it. But right now I'm sated on non-fiction, and I have two new books on my shelf.

So have you read Death by Black Hole or other essays by Tyson? What did you think of them? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

05 March 2014

Minnesota junkyard boy far from home

Once upon a time, a long time ago in a classroom not too far from here, a young man was a student in a class I taught. He became a Shanghai-based journalist. (He is one of two Shanghai-based journalists I got to know when they were students, but that's a story for another time.)

The young man grew up helping to run the family business, a "junkyard" in north Minneapolis, not far from where my parents grew up, but that's also a story for another time.

Adam Minter started his career writing about the junkyard/scrapyard/recycling business in China. I had no idea there were specialized journals about such obscure topics. Goes to show what I know.

I caught up with Adam Minter a few years ago, when I ran into an article he wrote for The Atlantic. Then I found his blog -- about the scrapyard business in China. It seems he wrote enough episodes in his blog to convince someone (maybe Minter himself) to write a book about the topic. My friend Eric Johnson had just read it and mentioned it one morning. When I claimed acquaintance with the author, Eric loaned me the book the next day.
 Junkyard Planet, Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade was published last year. It's been noticed far beyond the scrapyard/recycling world and it's earned good reviews globally.

The reason it's been noticed is that this goes beyond telling stories about the entrepreneurs in China who have built a business dependent upon importing cast offs from the USA, Europe, and Japan (although those stories are often interesting).

Minter offers abundant data on the vast scope of the global trade in trash and the ways it is changing. He also explains the mysterious processes used to extract value from trash (like harvesting copper wire from discarded strings of Christmas lights which are sent to China in huge bales that fill many shipping containers).

But he forcefully makes that point that much of the value in trash from Japan and the USA comes not from recycling, but from reuse. Old cell phone screens become screens for hand-held video games. Discarded computer chips become the hearts of new game counsels. Discarded computers and monitors become affordable computers for Chinese homes.

In fact, Minter repeatedly makes the case for the importance of reuse and how reuse is more important for our futures than recycling.

Minter writes well. He circles his topics and keeps coming back to his main points. His data seems as complete as it would be for a term paper. Luckily, he doesn't write like a student. Junkyard Planet, Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade is an enlightening book. I encourage everyone to read it. It's important stuff. At least catch up with Adam Minter's blog, Shanghai Scrap or his Twitter posts, which you can follow on Facebook.

Have you read Junkyard Planet? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.