Archive for the ‘Adult Nonfiction’ Category

by Susan Freinkel
University of California Press, 2007
Source: public library
I actually finished this book eons ago but have been too distracted by other shiny objects lately to mull over such a serious book. I’m finally buckling down (but mostly because it’s overdue at the library . . . oops).
American Chestnut is a comprehensive look at the history of the American chestnut, a tree that once dominated the East coast only to be nearly obliterated by an invasive fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica; aka the chestnut blight). Susan Freinkel examines every aspect of this tree’s history, traveling throughout the Appalachians to hear firsthand accounts from people whose livelihood depended upon the chestnut tree, and meeting with people who have dedicated their lives to bringing this iconic tree back from the brink of extinction. She unravels the entire history of the blight, from the first moment the fungus was noticed to the various efforts made over the years to eliminate it and protect the remaining chestnuts. She writes of the passion and love people had, and still have, for this tree, and the heartache surrounding its loss.
It was difficult to read this without weeping. Maybe it’s because I’m a tree person, (I need trees the way regular people need food and water), but as I read I found myself mourning this tree I had never known, this tree that had played no direct role in my life or even that of my ancestors. What right did I have to weep? I had no ties to this tree, and yet my heart broke. All I wanted to do was to find one of the ancient chestnuts that had somehow survived the blight, stand at its base with my hands on its bark and . . . what? Apologize? I don’t know.
For all the despair found within its pages this is not, however, a book without hope. It isn’t really a hope that one day blight-free chestnuts will fill the forests, although there is some of that in there. No, it’s more the kind of hope that restores faith in humanity. Saving the chestnut may seem like a lost cause – for the blight is relentless and the trees nearly gone – yet there are people out there working tirelessly to do just that. Their passion and dedication may appear irrational, but at the end of the day irrational passion is their greatest strength. Restoring species and repairing ecological damage can’t just be about the science, for if we don’t care passionately about something we will not work to save it. That there are people out there clinging to the belief that it’s not too late to repair the damage we’ve caused is enough to prevent the quicksands of hopelessness from sucking us all in. Maybe that’s why I need to find that tree: to ask it to hang in there just a little longer . . . there’s still hope.

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by Judith & Neil Morgan 
Random House, 1995
Source: Hollins University library

Well, I got my wish — another snowbound weekend!  I honestly didn’t think this would happen again this winter, much less so soon after the last storm.  Since the snow started early Friday morning I actually got a three-day weekend out of the deal, which means I had absolutely no reason not to finish Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  I am relieved to say that I did.


Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel offers a detailed account of the life of Ted Geisel, the infamous children’s author/illustrator Dr. Seuss.  Overall, it was an interesting read.  Geisel’s personality is exactly what I would have expected from the author of The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham: rowdy, playful, mischievous, subversive. 


Frequently, however, the book was bogged down by pages of aimless anecdotes and name-dropping, and so by the time I was about halfway through the book I was ready to be done with it.  Don’t get me wrong — most of the anecdotes were amusing and illuminated Geisel’s personality perfectly while simultaneously moving the biography along.  Sometimes these anecdotes read more like lists than stories, though, and didn’t seem to serve any purpose to the book as a whole.  The constant string of names wore me out, too.  By about two-thirds of the way through the book I stopped trying to keep track of people, since most of the time the person mentioned never showed up again.  I decided that the Morgans were just trying to pay tribute to the people who were important in Geisel’s life, and tried not to let it bother me too much.


While I think the book could have been streamlined a bit, I do recommend it for anyone interested in reading about Dr. Seuss.  He was quite an entertaining man 🙂


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by Ruth K. MacDonald
Twayne Publishers, 1988
Source: Hollins University library

Published in 1988, Dr. Seuss by Ruth K. MacDonald was the first full-length study of Dr. Seuss and his work. At the time of its publication, Seuss had published fifty-six books, won three Caldecott Honors, won a Pulitzer Prize, received numerous honorary degrees, (beginning with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Dartmouth College in 1956), and was serving as president of the Beginner Books division of Random House (established after the publication of The Cat in the Hat). In spite of all this, until MacDonald’s book Seuss’ work had received very little attention from literary scholars. I wish I could say this fact surprised me. The truth of the matter is that children’s literature is frequently dismissed from the Canon of Literature and therefore does not receive the scholarly attention that it is due. But that’s a rant for another day.

As a first work on Seuss, MacDonald’s book is impressive. In just 170 pages she not only provides a relatively detailed biographical sketch of Seuss, (which, I imagine, must have been difficult to write given that he was a fairly private man), but also critically examines each of his books, spending between one and nine pages discussing their characters, illustrations, text and themes, and their place within Seuss’ life and other works. She steps even further back and analyzes his work in the context of children’s literature overall. Ultimately, MacDonald concludes that Seuss “gave a new dignity and interest to the field of children’s literature”:

By bringing interesting reading materials to children, Seuss gave a new dignity and interest to the field of children’s literature. Simply because his books are not high li terature, and appear deceptively simple in both language and illustration, does not mean that there is no literary or artistic value to them or that they are effortless productions dashed off in a weekend. By putting such effort into his books, Seuss dignifies child readers and reading, giving them extraordinary efforts and excellent products. His massive popularity does not imply a crass diminution of his art. Being popular does not mean being second-rate. (169-170)

One little piece of information jumped out at me as I read. Since my thesis is on The Lorax anything that is in any way related to that book and Seuss’ view of the environment is of particular interest to me. While I knew that he drew political cartoons before he wrote and illustrated children’s books, I was startled to learn that from 1928 to 1941 he worked as an advertising cartoonist for Standard Oil. During his tenure at Standard Oil he designed the promotional campaign for Flit, an insecticide.

Initially, I could not wrap my head around this. Promoting the use of an insecticide seemed completely at odds with the message of The Lorax; how could the same man be behind both campaigns? I reminded myself that The Lorax was written 43 years after Seuss began working at Standard Oil, and that a lot can happen in 43 years. I doubt I will be the same person at 67 that I was at 24. I can’t reasonably expect another person to stay exactly the same, either.

Then it hit me: Flit the Insecticide and The Lorax are not at odds at all. The Lorax is a story about the heedless destruction of a flawless world. It is a story about unchecked greed and senseless consumerism. Above all, it is a story that longs for the return of a pristine world, a world where Bar-ba-loots play in the shade of Truffula Trees, where Humming-Fish hum and Swomee-Swans sing, where Truffulas grow tall and proud against a bright, clear sky. It is a world completely devoid of anything that might mar its perfection. Flit would be a welcome addition to this world, this Eden, for creepy-crawlies have no place here.

It seems surprising, then, that the figure of the Lorax is still the poster child for the environmental movement. Yes, he speaks for the trees. But what about everyone else?

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