Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tree Climber, Life Liver

I received a delightful and unexpected gift in the mail a while back, a copy of The Wild Trees from my dad.  Just looking at the cover clued me in that it would be a good ride: I continue to live in awe of redwood trees, and this book promised plenty.

The writing style is pretty interesting.  Richard Preston writes in a mode usually called "narrative nonfiction," which brings a novelistic style to the topic.  He focuses on the people, tapping in to our human instinct to pay more attention to other individuals, and only incidentally do we realize that we have learned an awful lot about the planet, biology, history, science, and mythology from ancient Greece to Tolkien.

The author also writes for The New Yorker, and the style will feel familiar to any regular reader of that excellent periodical.  I still remember a few weeks after my subscription first started, when I suddenly realized with amazement that I had just read twenty pages about how barges move on a river - and couldn't wait to read what came next.  Many of their authors have a rare skill to take what would seem like an unbelievably ordinary topic (bargestruck driving!  plush dolls!  trees!), and then rope you in, making you realize how little you knew about this ordinary thing, and both humbling and entertaining you as they explain it.

That said, in retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed this book even more if I had approached it like a loose series of New Yorker articles than as a book.  Each individual chapter was excellent, but sometimes even I groaned a little under the sheer cumulative effect.  Not that it's long or hard to read - quite the opposite, actually - but the writing still really reminded me of something in a magazine, and so part of me kept expecting it to be over in another 15 pages or so, only to find another thread starting and a new narrative picking up.  A better approach would probably be to read, say, a chapter at a time, spread out over several weeks.  There are few enough characters  - just four or so major ones - that it would be easy to keep them straight in non-consecutive sittings, and that way the anticipation could build a bit more.

I thought that probably the most amazing part of this book was how it changed my vision of the world.  I'm one of those occasionally dour people who wishes they had been born a few centuries earlier.  It feels like everything that can be discovered, has already been... we have mapped all of Africa, discovered every Pacific island, defined the most useful natural laws, and learned how to travel in space.  There is no more frontier, no unexplored space.  Well, this book proved me wrong.  I was regularly amazed at how recently these great discoveries were taking place... all within my lifetime, and many of them within the past decade.  And the nature of these discoveries weren't trivial, either: people finding the tallest trees on Earth, discovering primeval forests, locating entire ecosystems that were previously thought to be impossible.  And most compellingly for me, these possibilities feel fresh for me in a way that, say, exploring Titan does not.  These are more or less ordinary people, who became obsessed with finding out how things worked, and by exploring on their days off work and spending relatively little money, they managed to pierce the canopy and find a new world.  I can imagine myself following in their footsteps, and so it is a more real mental picture for me.

Next to the sheer gall of what they accomplished, though, I was most impressed by how... unusual the principal explorers were.  (Are.)  They are interesting people, and frankly, not always very nice.  I had great admiration for what they could accomplish through sheer determination, but at the same time was pretty horrified by how they lived their lives.  Infidelity, broken marriages, academic sloth, and lack of career ambition all seemed pretty horrible to me... but at the same time, I was very aware that these same qualities helped make them who they were.  After all, if someone is a well-adjusted, happily married, content, wealthy business executive who plays golf every weekend, they aren't exactly going to have the same kind of drive to go out and climb trees in excruciatingly painful physical conditions all year long.  Again, this seems to connect these events with the more famous explorers we've learned about in history.  We admire the brave souls who took stupid risks and expanded our view of the world, but we wouldn't necessarily want to be married to them.

One final surprise: about 2/3 of the way through the book, I flipped through the front matter, and noticed that Preston was also the author of The Hot Zone.  I still vividly remember this book, which I only read once, back when I was in... sixth or seventh grade, maybe.  It was the book that taught me about the Ebola virus, and helped me learn that monkeys are both funny AND deadly.  Anyways, it was just a weird kind of feeling.  I'd enjoyed that book as well, and it was kind of funny that I've been reading the author's stuff in the New Yorker without making that connection before now.

Speaking of the New Yorker: I haven't picked it up yet, but I'm sure that "Outliers" will be in my future.  I love all of Gladwell's articles, and have enjoyed his two earlier books.  "Blink," the second one he wrote but the first one I read, was pretty good, while "The Tipping Point" is one of my favorite non-fiction books ever.  What I loved about The Tipping Point was that it didn't just fascinate; it also instructed and offered hope.  It was a surprisingly practical book that gives a useful model for how the world works, and suggests how you can operate within that model to achieve outcomes.  "Blink" was in some ways a more interesting book, but ultimately felt less valuable... where TTP was an excellent purpose-driven book, with canny examples driving home a profound point, Blink felt like a collection of wonderful examples in search of a thesis.  I enjoyed every story in there, but at the end of the book felt like I was left holding several pieces of material without a plan for how to fit them together.  Anyways!  Gladwell is a phenomenal writer, so no matter what I'm confident that I will enjoy the book, but I do hope that it's more like TTP than like Blink.

One thing that I have picked up is Little Big Planet.  In retrospect, this was overly ambitious of me.  GTA IV lasted me for nearly five months, after all, and Little Big Planet is potentially never-ending, since it promises an endless supply of user-created content.  I've barely scratched the surface yet, only getting as far as Africa, and I still am having trouble doing some seemingly-simple tasks like leaping from a swinging rope.  Already, though, I have been amazed by the gorgeous graphics, beautiful music, and endless feeling of fun.  Spiritually, it is a firm successor of Katamari.  When it comes to community, it could be the next incarnation of The Sims.  And in genre, it is a platformer!  I don't even like platformers all that much.  I'm trying to think of the most recent one I've played all the way through, and have trouble thinking past Super Mario Brothers 3 and the original side-scrolling Duke Nukem.  (Well, that's not entirely true,  there have been some intriguing indy platformer games and engines in the last several years.  Check 'em out if you're interested - they're free!)  I feel like LBP takes the potential of the platformer and finally realizes it.  It is a challenging game that stretches you, makes you think, endlessly rewards you, and focuses on FUN.

Just got back from Thanksgiving, and man, is my stomach tired!  In the best possible way, of course,  It's always great to get together with the family again, and in some ways it gets even better as we all get older.  This year we had an especially large crowd of 14, including some relatives who I rarely get to see, and an unbelievable mountain of food.  Pat and I contributed Cooks Illustrated's take on Green Bean Casserole (fresh beans!  sauteed mushrooms!  but don't worry, it still has fried onions!), and added a Sweet Potato Pie to the incredible seven or so that my mom made.  The day after I whipped together a Cooks Country 30-minute recipe, "Turkey Pot Pie with Stuffing Crust."  I think this may be the best possible outcome for a Thanksgiving turkey.  I love leftovers as much as the next person, but Thanksgiving turkey has a bad tendency to dry out... even if it's fine during the meal, by the time you're making sandwiches it's usually really dry, so I always need to turn to Swiss cheese and loads of mustard.  Anyways, this was a great alternative: use up a bunch of leftover shredded turkey meat, combine with a simple homemade sauce (sauteed onions, cream, chicken broth, frozen peas and carrots), pour in a dish and top with some rolled-out stuffing.  We didn't have the requisite 12" oven-safe skillet, but it baked up perfectly in a 9x13 pan.  My only regret: the stuffing, while incredibly tasty, didn't get as brown and crisp as I would have liked.  If and when I tackle this again, I can think of some alternatives.  First, because the 14 of us decimated all the prepared stuffing, I actually cooked another 3 cups just to top the pie with.  Even with a rest in the refrigerator, it almost certainly wasn't as dry and cool as a true day-old leftover stuffing would be.  Second, it might be worth experimenting with other kinds of stuffing.  Everyone seems to do theirs differently, and the package directions I was following might have been aimed at a soggier outcome anyways.

The weather in Chicago was actually pretty nice over Thanksgiving; I think it's the warmest we've had in years.  We were able to do our traditional dog-walk in the morning, and enjoy some outdoor time later in the week.  Still, it was fairly overcast much of the time, and I continued to embrace my wussiness as I bundled up in a coat and gloves every time I ventured outdoors.  A slushy rain started around the time I flew out on Sunday.  As we touched down in San Jose, the pilot announced that it was currently 72 degrees and sunny.  I smiled.  It's good to be home.  It's even better to have two homes.

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