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Books, authors and all things bookish

Category: environment

Coming to the Festival of Books: Mark Kurlansky

Markkurlansky_daughterMark Kurlansky, the author of "Salt," has also written several books about fish, the oceans and how we relate to the sea: "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," "The Big Oyster" and "The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Port and Most Original Town." (He's also written about baseball, most recently in "Hank Greenberg: A Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One"; he's a busy guy.)

He'll be at the Festival of Books on Saturday speaking on the panel "Boiling Point: Climate, Population, & Environment."

Jacket Copy: You've written a number of books about fish and our relationship to them. What draws you back to the subject?

Mark Kurlansky: I don't know what drew me there in the first place. Why does a Jewish kid from Hartford raised in a most un-maritime family  feel compelled to go to sea on fishing boats as a teenager? I was always drawn to the sea and don’t like to be in landlocked places. Working on fishing boats gave me a great fondness for fisherman and fishing ports. I always seek them out. The sea, which is beautiful and mysterious, is the least-known and least-studied part of the planet -- seductive and intriguing and also, of course, dangerous, and in a lot of trouble.

JC: In "The World Without Fish: How Kids Can Help Save the Oceans," you take some themes you've touched on before -- fish, fishing, sustainability and our oceans -- and address them to children. How did you make the subject approachable?

MK: Because of all the books I have done related to this topic I have traveled all over the country talking to adults and children in schools about what is happening in the oceans and I have found two things. There are a lot of people who are really concerned, kids in particular, and there is complete confusion and misunderstanding. This is partly because it is a very complicated problem and partly because fishermen, regulators and biologists all talk in extremely inaccessible language, full of inside codes and assumptions. I set out to explain the whole thing in simple, clear language, step by step, starting with Charles Darwin, who explained the natural order we are trying to deal with. I use careful explained biology, politics, economics. I use text and pictures and a graphic novel that puts it in human terms. I tell what is happening, what will happen if we don’t fix it, how we are trying to fix it, what the problems are and what concerned individuals can do about it. 

JC: You're also the author of "Food of a Younger Land." Do you consider yourself a foodie?

MK: I once wrote an essay that began  by saying that you never know when you are well off. I always saw something negative in being called a gourmet, but now that they use the word foodie, that must be something even worse. I am fascinated by food history, food anthropology, food sociology. Food is a favorite device of mine for illuminating characters in my fiction writing. I love recipes as artifacts for the clues to society and history they hold. But I never actually use recipes when I am cooking.  Discussions of food that are truly about nothing but food strike me as profoundly boring. I am the worst person to ask for a restaurant tip because I don't think about it very much. And I find it bad manners to criticize food at the table. So you'll have to decide whether or not I am a foodie. 

JC: Are you looking forward to anything in particular at the Festival of Books this year?

MK: There is always someone I admire that I have never heard before, and lots of old friends, and the reassuring sight of thousands who seem passionate about books.

JC: Is there anything you plan to do in Los Angeles while you're here, apart from the Festival of Books?

MK: I wish I had time to see an old friend or two as I speedily pass through. 

Tickets for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panels will be available through Eventbrite beginning Sunday, April 24, at 9 a.m. Look in Sunday's paper for a pullout print schedule of the event.


Coming to the Festival of Books: Laura Lippman

Coming to the Festival of Books: Jonathan Evison

The L.A. Times Festival of Books moves to USC

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mark Kurlansky with his daughter and a fish. Credit: Workman Publishing

9 books about the gulf oil spill


The BP oil spill that started below the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico began last April and continued for weeks. In today's paper, L.A. Times environmental editor Geoffrey Mohan reviews several books related to the spill. "Few of the books that have been written about the BP oil leak that began last April 20 with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig are good history, and time is the primary culprit," Mohan writes. "[N]early all veer toward the polemical, political and ideological."

Online, Mohan reviews nine books about the incident. Three stand above the rest:

1. "Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster" by oil-rig mariner John Konrad and former Washington Post reporter Tom Shroder, Mohan writes, "deftly navigates around the good-guy versus bad-guy leitmotif.... Artfully and compellingly told, the book marries a John McPhee feel for the technology to a Jon Krakauer sense of an adventure turned tragic. Konrad writes, 'This is not a story of a rig, technology, the environment, corporate policy or government oversight, but it concerns each.' "

2. "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher" by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, Mohan writes, "adds a candid view of the media's coverage." Mohan continues, "Achenbach lives up to his promises to make the disaster 'into a tale that everyone can comprehend,' with fluid, often Spartan prose and a candid tone.... Achenbach appears to be the only author among the bunch who bothered to obtain emails and other documents that were not revealed in testimony, which allows him to focus on Washington's response to the disaster."

3. "Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit" by Loren C. Steffy. Mohan writes: "Steffy focuses unrelentingly on BP's persistent failure to change its management culture.... The culture that rewarded short-term gains business unit by business unit wound up eviscerating the company's engineering, training and safety corps. That left BP more susceptible than most to an industry-wide blind spot: 'Exploration for oil in the Gulf of Mexico had become ruled by the engineer's conceit that the industry's technology was impeccable and by the financial arrogance that argued that safety would never be compromised because the fallout from a disaster would be so great that companies would never cut corners.' "

After the jump: the other six gulf oil spill books.

Continue reading »

A new California garden book from three top horticulturalists

Giving water-guzzling yards a makeover is the focus of "Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-Conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs" by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien, three of California's star horticulturalists.

At our sibling blog L.A. at Home, Emily Green has a writeup of "Reimagining the California Lawn":

Bornstein, Fross and O'Brien have kept their focus stubbornly local. They've identified the best plants from our native flora and countries with similar climates. Through their botanic gardens and nursery, they helped to breed these plants into garden cultivars.

This new book, published by Cachuma Press, is a primer on how to use those plants instead of opting for turf.

Like any book on the subject of lawn, “Reimagining” opens by describing the environmental cost of conventional grass landscapes — in grooming lawn, fertilizing it and finally, most disastrous for California, watering it. Yet rather than say we shouldn't have lawn, the book instead offers more responsible ways to keep it, along with examples of lower-impact green spaces involving sedges or native grasses that they call “greenswards.” Also included are models for meadows, succulent gardens, multicolored and textured groundcover treatments called “tapestry gardens,” and kitchen gardens. 

Green concludes, "No other author or imprint can rival Bornstein, Fross and O'Brien's careful selection of species, plant profiles, clear pictures and reliable notes about where each type of plant will thrive and what it will need." The authors will be appearing all over California for book signings in April, at nurseries, garden shows and more.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Cachuma Press

9 ways of looking at earthquakes through literature

Japan_earthquakedmgEarthquakes are the expression of a living planet, the earth's way of re-inventingitself. But while this knowledge may be consoling in the abstract, it's not very useful in the face of a catastrophe such as last week's quake and tsunami in Japan. At these times, we need real consolation: food and water, emergency services and rescue ... and, David L. Ulin suggests, literature. Ulin is the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith."

For as long as we have experienced seismicity, we have written about it, going back to the Book of Acts. Below are nine works (one for each of this most recent earthquake's points of magnitude) that channel both our terror and our awe.

1) "The Earthquake in Chile" by Heinrich von Kleist.Originally published in 1807, Kleist's novella takes place duringthe 1647 Santiago earthquake and ends tragically, with a young couple killed after having been blamed, in a sermon, for the disaster. But Kleist has a bigger purpose, which is to highlight the idea that meaning is a matter of interpretation, that what we know is what we see. "[O]nly when he turned and saw the city leveled to the ground behind him," he writes, "did he remember the terrifying moments he had just experienced. He bowed his forehead to the very ground as he thanked God for his miraculous escape; and as if this one appalling memory, stamping itself on his mind, had erased all others, he wept with rapture to find that the blessing of life, in all its wealth and variety, was still his to enjoy."

2) "The Flutter of an Eyelid" by Myron Brinig.Published in 1933, Brinig's novel is the great modernist fantasy of Los Angeles (every city needs one), although it is essentially unread today. The book ends with a massive earthquake, in which the entire state of California breaks off from North America and crumbles into the Pacific, "Los Angeles toboggan[ing] with almost one continuous movement into the water, the shore cities going first, followed by the inland communities; the business streets, the buildings, the motion picture studios in Hollywood where actors became stark and pallid under their mustard-colored makeup."

3) "The Folklore of Earthquakes" by Carey McWilliams.Written in response to the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, McWilliams'essay is a clear-eyed guide to both what we might call earthquake myths and the powerful terror the shaking provokes. "On the basis of their reaction to the word earthquake,” he writes, "Californians can be divided into three classes: first, the innocent late arrivals who have never felt an earthquake but who go about avowing to all and sundry that 'it must be fun'; next, those who have experienced a slight quake and should know better, but who none the less persist in propagating the fable that the San Francisco quake of 1906 was the only major upheaval the State has ever suffered; and, lastly, the victims of a real earthquake -- for example, the residents of San Francisco, Santa Barbara, or, more recently, Long Beach. To these last, the word is full of terror. They are supersensitive to the slightest rattles and jars, and move uneasily whenever a heavy truck passes along the highway."

4) "Ask the Dust"by John Fante.In this 1939 novel, generally regarded as a cornerstone of the Southern California literary canon, Fante describes the struggles of a young man named Arturo Bandini, based directly on himself. In one particularly memorable set piece, Bandini survives the Long Beach earthquake, which he interprets as divine retribution for his sins. "You did it, Arturo," he reflects. "This is the wrath of God. You did it.... Repent, repent before it’s too late. I said a prayer but it was dust in my mouth. No prayers. But there would be some changes made in my life. There would be decency and gentleness from now on. This was the turning point."

Continue reading »

Is snow coming to L.A.? Did the Almanac predict it?


It's chilly in L.A. -- temperatures are expected to drop into the mid-30s Saturday night. The storm front rolling into Southern California on Friday, which left sprinkles at my house this morning, may intensify, delivering rain and hail and snow.


Snow as low as elevation 500 feet, our sibling blog L.A. Now reports. The Hollywood sign is at 1,600 feet. Which means that it's possible that the night before the Oscars, there might be snow on the Hollywood sign.

You absolutely couldn't have predicted this -- or maybe you could have, with "The Old Farmer's Almanac 2011." Established in 1792 by Robert N. Thomas, the almanac has astronomical charts, a farmer's calendar and weather predictions.

Do they work? Can they rival the daily satellite weather reports we can find on television and the Internet? Last year, the almanac was pretty accurate, predicting below-normal winter temperatures across most of the nation -- and 11 of its 16 regions came through. The book includes this self-evaluation:

Overall, our monthly regional forecasts were 81 percent accurate in predicting the direction of change in precipitation from the previous winter.... Overall, we were within 1.9 degrees F, on average, in our temperature forecasts, using a city selected from each region.

That's not bad. But did it predict snow for Los Angeles in February 2011? Not exactly. "Winter temperatures will be near normal, on average, with above-normal rainfall," the almanac predicts for the Pacific Southwest region, which extends from San Francisco to San Diego. "The coldest periods will be in mid-January and early February."

It's so close -- off by just a few weeks. Which shouldn't matter, except to the people using the almanac as a planting guide who followed it to the letter and counted on the coldest part of the winter being behind us. If they planted their tender seedlings last weekend, they might be in trouble if it gets frosty over the next two nights.

But lackadaisical farmers can take heart -- they've timed things just right.

There is more in "The Old Farmer's Almanac" than just weather. It has a detailed calendar that includes such archaic days as Lammas Day (the beginning of the harvest, having to do with the Latin word for bread) and Cats Night (summer nights said to be when witches prowl as cats). It has charts of the sunrise and sunset times for each day of the year, and, with a nod to the current era, has customizable-by-Zip-Code versions online, available for purchase.

And there are other ancillary bits and pieces related to farming; the more than 200-year-old almanac describes its contents as "containing, besides the large number of astronomical calculations and the farmer's calendar for every month in the year, a variety of new, useful & entertaining matter."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: L.A.'s palm trees and the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains in January 2011. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Who is the true Urban Homesteader (TM)?

For more than a decade, the Dervaes family of Pasadena has labored to turn their one-fifth-acre lot into a self-sufficient, sustainable farm. When the Los Angeles Times checked in with them in 2007, they were producing much of their own power, although they hadn't gone entirely off the grid yet. There were still some foodstuffs they'd buy, but they'd regularly sell produce and duck eggs to local restaurants.

"People thought, and I did too, that we couldn't make it on such a small piece of land," patriarch Jules Dervaes told The Times. But he decided "we're going to grow as much as we can on this property for a living. I was going to live off this come hell or high water."

In the years that Dervaes has been doing his urban gardening thing, the ideas and practices have become widely popular. Our own Susan Carpenter tried a two-year experiment in eco-living, discovering what worked (gray water reuse) and some hard lessons (backyard chickens make easy prey, even in the city). Not surprisingly, bookstores now stock a plethora of memoirs, guides and how-to books that address the project of city folk living sustainably.

This is complicated by the fact that in October 2010, Dervaes trademarked the phrases Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading. According to the O.C. Weekly, he recently has been sending out cease-and-desist letters to those using the phrase, including KCRW's radio show "Good Food" (which had used it in a blog post) and the Santa Monica Public Library, which held a free event on the topic.

One book has gotten caught up in Dervaes' campaign: "The Urban Homestead" by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. The authors, who also live here in L.A., published the book in 2008 and maintain a blog with tips and chronicles of their sustainable-living efforts. Apparently the recipients of one of Dervaes' letters, they have, according to BoingBoing, found legal representation with the Electronic Freedom Foundation. (They did not respond to request for comment. It's OK: They're probably in the yard, mulching).

When the book came out, Knutzen spoke to the L.A. Times. Back then, we asked him about the now-trademarked term Urban Homestead. Knutzen explained:

It's a phrase that's been floating around since the '70s.  That's the earliest I've seen a reference to an "Urban Homestead." The magazine Mother Earth News, a classic resource for back-to-the-land hippies, and still a wonderful resource, had a bunch of stories in the 1970s that used the expression "Urban Homestead."

There's also a classic example in Berkeley from the early 1970s that was an experiment in self-reliant living in the city called the Integral Urban House. It was a very ambitious project based in Berkeley aimed at setting up a self-reliant urban household. For instance, they had fish ponds with bee hives over the fish ponds. The dead bees would fall into the ponds, providing food for the fish. The goal was to apply principles of the back-to-the-land movement to living in the city.

Interestingly, Knutzen expressed some dissatisfaction with his book's title, saying, "the word homestead suggests a sort of Little House on the Prairie, completely self-sufficient life.  Our focus isn't on that kind of extreme living but on small things that anyone can do."

Which probably did not include getting involved in legal tusslings over sustainable-living phraseology.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: At top left, Jules Dervaes in 2007. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Arroyo Seco branch library wants gardeners Saturday for cleanup project

Nevinsbarberry Can Nevin's Barberry help the Arroyo Seco Branch Library stay beautiful? Opened in Highland Park in 2003, the library's river-rock exterior has been tagged by vandals, and the garden has fallen into disrepair. There aren't library funds available for cleanup, but library supporters -- and a thorny plant -- may be able to help.

Nevin's Barberry, a hardy shrub, will act as the library's natural defender. Eastsider LA reports that "once the plants grow, anyone considering tagging those walls they 'may want to put on a suit of armor,' " according to Trisha Gossett, who has led the project to revitalize the library's exterior.

On Saturday, the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council is calling for volunteers to come out for a morning of weeding, pruning, planting and mulching. A welcome session begins and 8:30 a.m.; gardening activities kick off at 9 a.m. and continue until noon.

Those who arrive early -- anytime from 6:00 to 8:30 a.m. -- will be able to watch the exterior of the Arroyo Seco Branch Library get a power washing. And gardeners who stay for the duration will be treated to lunch.

In addition to the thorny Nevin's Barberry, donated security cameras will also be installed to help keep the library's exterior protected from vandals.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: A barberry illustration by Otto Wilhelm Thomé.

World's most expensive book -- by Audubon -- sells for $11.5 million [updated]

Naturalist John James Audubon's "Birds of America" sold at auction in London on Tuesday for $11.5 million, making it the world's most expensive book. The book, which was sold by the auction house Sotheby's, was purchased by Micahel Tollemache, a London art dealer who was present in the room.

"Birds of America" is oversize -- more than 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide -- with 435 illustrations. When first published in 1827, the images were printed in black and white and then hand-colored by specialists.

The combination of accuracy and artistry make Audubon's work unique. The first plate alone -- of a wild turkey -- could fetch $200,000. The Associated Press reports

Because each picture is so valuable, there have been fears the volume will be broken up and sold as separate works of art. However, experts believe that's unlikely. The tome is probably more valuable intact. And collectors hold Audubon in such reverence that the notion of ripping apart a perfect copy would be akin to sacrilege.

"Audubon's 'Birds' holds a special place in the rare book market," said Heather O'Donnell, a specialist with Bauman Rare Books in New York. "The book is a major original contribution to the study of natural history in the New World."

A much smaller, low-resolution -- but entirely free -- version of "Birds of America" is on view on the Audubon website.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

[Update, Dec. 8 at 12 p.m.: An earlier version of this post, based on a report from the Associated Press, said that the book had been purchased for $10 million by an anonymous telephone bidder. The bidder was, in fact, outbid by Tollemache.]

Photo: A Sotheby's employee with a page from "Birds of America" by John James Audubon. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

School reading: James Prosek on Elizabeth Bishop


James Prosek was just 19 when his first book, 1996's "Trout: An Illustrated History," was published. It included original watercolors he'd painted of North American trout as well as the stories he'd learned about them. This fall, he turns his considerable narrative talents to another watery creature in "Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish." Prosek answered our questions about what he read in school -- when he wasn't busy bringing the world of trout to life -- and it's not fishy at all. It's poetry.

Jacket Copy: What was the most interesting book that you were assigned in school?

James Prosek: The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop ("The Complete Poems, 1927-1979"), which I had not been exposed to before.  The class was 20th century poetry.

JC: When and where was this?

JP: It was my junior year of college, at Yale University.

JC: Did you read the book?
JP: Yes, though perhaps not every poem in the collection.
JC: What did you learn from it? Why does it stand out?

JP: Bishop wrote about landscapes that I was interested in, seascapes in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Key West.  She lived in Brazil and wrote about São Paolo, where my father was born. She loved travel and maps, things that were part of my childhood image of my father, who loved nature and during his time in the Merchant Marines had traveled all over the world. She writes like a painter. I learned that Bishop was a watercolor painter, and about the time I was taking the course, a collection of her delicate paintings had come out in book form. I realized from reading her work (and this is what I wrote my paper about in Harold Bloom’s class) that words could describe color in ways that paint could not, simply because with words you can have metaphorical color. For instance, two of my favorite Bishop colors in her poetry both describe water. The first, “mutton fat jade,” she uses to describe the cold seawater of Canada. The second, “lime milk sherbet,” she uses to describe the tropical flats off the Florida Keys when the silt of the bottom is kicked up in a storm and suspended in the water.  As a painter myself, I became fascinated with the notion of what color could do in visual art versus in literature (paint versus language).

JC: Do you remember what grade you got on the paper?

JP: It’s one of two papers I can clearly remember writing. We had one grade for the class, 20th century poetry. I got an A.

JC: It was for Harold Bloom's class. What did you think of his assignments?

JP: He assigned a lot of poetry by poets that he had met or knew personally, like Hart Crane and John Hollander. But he had met Bishop once when she visited Yale.  

JC: If you were teaching that class today, what book would you assign your students?

JP: I would definitely not leave Bishop out of a 20th century poetry class.  I also would have thrown Robert Frost in, but Bloom didn’t.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

A Swiftian proposal for publishers and more book news


Are some publishers nearing the end of their life cycles? Will the print-electronic revolution spell death for some? Instead of dragging their businesses slowly to the graveyard, should those facing certain doom meet their ends with dignity? At the Institute for the Future of the Book, Bob Stein makes a Swiftian suggestion: hospice for publishers.

"It would be a matter of selling the assets that can be sold, providing staff with generous severance and really helping them to find new jobs, and then at the very end giving some wonderful parties, celebrating the end of an era."

He's kidding, at least a little, right?

As we move into a future where e-books and e-readers compete side-by-side with old-style paper books, one question to ask is which is better for the environment? The Washington Post says the e-book is the green book.

"As long as you consume a healthy number of titles, you read at a normal pace and you don't trade in your gadget every year, perusing electronically will lighten your environmental impact." Which is hard to reconcile with Pieter Hugo's stunning photos of a graveyard for computers in Ghana; paper pulp facilities aren't quite so grim.

Seattle's public libraries will close for a week, from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6 because of the city's $67-million budget shortfall. Decision makers selected a week of low usage, when students would not yet be in school, and will save around $650,000. Surprisingly, there's a piece of good news in this story: borrowers will be able to download e-books from the library's website during the closure (via Booksquare).

For all its popularity, the Kindle e-reader still is a little lacking in the book jacket department -- while it can render images, it's not yet in color. The annual Orbit Books survey of the art of fantasy book covers is a reminder why covers are fun. Their overview of cover trends includes unicorns (appropriately rare), dragons, "glowy magic," swords (trending down), and damsels, who in 2008 were in distress and, in 2009, entered the survey with no distress at all. Other chart-style analyses include The Changing Face of Urban Fantasy Heroines, Title Trends and Fonts and Color Trends in the North American Dragon.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Reading on Malibu beach. Credit: usestangerines via Flickr

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