Book Reviews

A few capsule reviews of things I’ve read lately, along with links.

Maiden Voyage, by Tania Aebi
Maiden Voyage is the account of the youngest person — and first American woman — ever to sail around the world alone (ok, alone except for 80 miles). At the age of 18, after a long and difficult relationship with her parents (a literally-crazy mother and an adventure-obsessed father), Tania accepts her father’s second offer either to go to college or sail alone around the world. He paid for the boat, sent supplies to various ports, and helped her get a few contacts with Cruising World magazine to report her adventures. All she had to do was undertake a circumnavigation of the world in a tiny sailboat called Varuna. As she departed from New York’s South Street Seaport at the very start of the voyage, the engine of her boat broke down. “Daddy,” she calls through the fog, “the engine isn’t working. I can’t do this!” He calls back to her, encouraging her, “Dear, you have a sailboat!” She puts up the sail, and sails to Sandy Hook — the first time in her life that she had ever sailed a small boat on her own. More than two weeks later, pulling into Bermuda, she is amazed to discover “I am the only young woman on the island who arrived on her own boat.”

Maiden Voyage is a good read but not a great read. Tania manages to make things that are tremendously exciting and potentially ruinous to her voyage into ordinary day-to-day events, and day-to-day events ordinary. A tremendous amount of time is spent describing the various ports of call, but not well; the mundanity of shipboard life, but not the peril. All through the book, there is this sense that the life-threatening moments are not really life-threatening; the bustle of harbors not really bustling; the difficulties of the journey not really all that difficult. I’m down-playing the book quite a lot, and making it less compelling than it really is. I had to keep reminding myself that Tania was incredibly young to be doing this, and that her downplaying of the events of the voyage was in part the youth’s self-impression of immortality and invulnerability.

From an organizer’s point of view, there are a few discoveries she makes along the way. At the start of the voyage, from New York to Bermuda, the boat is heavily overloaded with gear. Her father persuades her not to invest heavily in electronic gear; the sea corrodes it and breaks it, and then where will you be? At the start of the voyage, her lightweight plastic sextant warps in the heat, and she misjudges where she is numerous times — in places and ways where misjudging her location could lose her forever. Her careful attention to the mathematics of celestial navigation is what reveals the the problem. A fellow singlehander shows her how important it is to keep the boat clean. Her boat papers are stored in a safe place, but where she can access them in a moment, in case she has to abandon ship. Finally, by the time she’s ready to make the final Atlantic crossing from Gibraltar to New York, the boat has been stripped down to its essentials: self-steering gear, navigation instruments and books, clothes, food, and a boyfriend’s shell collection. It’s a testament to the principle articulated by William Morris, “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Kickboxing Geishas by Veronica Chambers
Kickboxing Geishas is a non-fiction account of a black woman journalist’s encounters with the modern women remaking Japan. There are chapters about the harajuku girls who dress up in elaborate fashion costumes, and host clubs, where fashionable men lavish attention on powerful women in an effort to get them to drink, party, and have sex. It’s OK, but I think I’m not going to bother finishing it.

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough the architect and Braungart the chemical engineer, discuss ways to redesign the world to take advantage of natural processes, rather than destroying them. The book itself is part of the message: it is printed on a recycled, recyclable plastic ‘paper’, and bound with a hot water-soluble glue that also lifts off and biodegrades the ink. Thus, while the book is sufficiently waterproof to take into the shower with you, a good boiling will blank the pages and separate the glue from the paper, which can then be recycled into a new book.

I left this one at home, and since I’m in Florida I’m a little hazy on some of the details. However, the two of them propose a greater attention to biomimicry, or design with natural processes in mind, and an increased attention to two recycling programs: the biological cycle and the technical cycle. Biological materials should be recycled in a way that returns biological material to the earth as soil or compost. For example, one company has engineered several new fabrics (including carpets) to be made entirely and exclusively of materials that could go into your garden when you’re done with them. Simply cut up the fabric, drop it into your compost heap, and in 6 weeks to 6 months, you have soil instead of a pair of ratty blue jeans or a bathroom rug. On the technical side, another company redesigned its television sets so that instead of having 39 plastic parts and 41 silicon or metal parts, it has 4 plastic parts all of the same kind of (recyclable) plastic, and 12 silicon/metal/glass parts, but it can be disassembled in 70 seconds, and all of its components recycled for new televisions or other products.

They also argue for good design of whole systems. A shampoo company in Germany redesigned one of its popular shampoos, so that instead of using 39 chemicals and a 40-step compounding process, it uses 9 chemicals and a 7-step compounding process, that also processes and cleans the water source at the factory. German environmental officials were startled to discover that the water coming out of the factory was cleaner than the water going in. The shampoo is also healthier for humans, because it now lacks six chemicals that can dry out and crack skin.

McDonough specifically argues for good design in buildings. He points out that “meeting building code” is simply a code phrase for the bare minimum necessary to avoid prosecution. By building to higher standards, he argues, people can design houses now that actually produce energy, clean water and clean air, instead of being pollutants. Green roofs, solar power, superwindows, interior greenhouses, and substantial insulation can reduce the need for HVAC systems, furnaces, water boilers and more.

The book is short on strategies for individual consumers about how to get and use these products, or convince landlords to retrofit buildings with green technologies. However, it’s a call to action for industrial designers, architects and chemists. Say McDonough and Braungart, “eliminate waste as a concept.” In other words, design out the industrial waste and undesired side effects at the beginning of a product cycle, not the end.

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