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Despite a shovel-able amount of snow on Thursday we were one of the only educational institutions  around here NOT to have a delay. Still, bingo beckoned, so I kept working on my squares this week. Actually over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on the “An ebook or an audiobook” square, listening to Paris in Love by Eloisa James, a memoir about her family’s year living on Rue du Conservatoire. At first I didn’t like the format, because the chapters are so brief, but I got used to that. I enjoyed hearing the author read, and what’s not to like about Paris? It was hard not to be a little envious, knowing that a year in Paris would never be possible for my family. But the descriptions of shopping, eating, and exploring the City’s many museums are irresistible. James is the pen name of Shakespeare professor Mary Bly, daughter of Robert Bly. It seems unfair that one person is so successful at two careers — as an academic and a romance writer — and lives variously in New York, Paris, and Florence. Did I mention it was hard not to be envious? But the author’s tone is very down to earth. I enjoyed it.

For “A book with a number in the title, ” I decided to read a Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four. Besides the mystery at the heart of the plot, this book also tells the story of how John Watson and Mary meet and get engaged. I’m a big fan of Elementary (Best. Watson. Ever.) and have also watched other big and small screen versions of the great detective’s tales, and we visited 221B Baker Street when we went to London.But I’d never actually read any of the Sherlock stories or novels, even though I have a library discard copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and I can really see how well Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have incorporated things Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock into their portrayals of him.

For “A book about art or artists,” I am still reading Mrs. Jack but decided it’s really more about Isabella Stewart Gardner, so I read The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which is the official collection guide. If you’ve never been, the ISGM is different than other museums in many ways, one of which is that there are no placards on the walls explaining what you’re looking at. There are laminated room guides but when we visited last, I decided I wanted to buy and read the guide before our next visit. It’s an interesting read, because it tells a fair bit about the artists and their works but also how ISG came to own each piece and how she decided what to put together in the different rooms. It was really enjoyable and I look forward to going back to ISGM soon, I hope.

For “A book from the Children’s Room,” I chose a New Hampshire Downloadable book version of the highly lauded Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, with illustrations by Christian Robinson. It’s a colorful portrayal of a boy and his grandma taking the bus from church to a soup kitchen where they volunteer. Along the way the boy, CJ, asks a LOT of questions, and his grandma gives interesting answers. for example: “How come that man can’t see?” “Boy, what do you know about seeing?” Nana told him. “Some people watch the world with their ears.” CJ and Nana are brown-skinned, and the people in the book are rendered in many shades, ages, sizes, and styles. CJ envies his friends who don’t have to go anywhere after church and don’t ride the bus, and some kids who get on listening to music through a set of shared earbuds. Nana has a reply to assuage each of his longings. It’s a beautiful book, although I was thinking that Nana may find in a few years it’s not so easy to try and explain the world to CJ, who clearly already has a sense of the disparities and disgraces of the world, “How come it’s always so dirty over here?” he asks, as he gets off the bus with Nana. She tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” And they head in to serve lunch. A book that could lead to interesting conversations, for sure.

Feeling at loose ends for reading this weekend, at work I checked out a couple of Margaret Drabble novels I haven’t yet read, to choose one for “A book you haven’t read by an author you like,” and I started an audiobook memoir, Wesley the Owl: the Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl, for “A biography or memoir” on my commute today. That will leave me with “Any book in a series,” “Re-read an old favorite” and two “Reader’s Choice” squares before the deadline, March 3. Stay tuned!

 

Ok, so it didn’t snow today, or last Friday, but it snowed Saturday-Monday and I read three more books.

One book bingo square I filled is “A book from one of the library’s new shelves.” I chose Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It’s as much the story of his remarkable mother as it is his story. Noah explains apartheid and the post-apartheid years in Johannesburg and describes his childhood and adolescence, as well as his family history. As the child of his unconventional mother and father — a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man, Noah is considered colored, or mixed race, in South Africa, and his very existence was illegal. Growing up his black relatives and their neighbors considered him white; he thought of himself as black.

Noah has a conversational style and as you might expect, a gift for finding humor even in extreme hardship. And it’s clear that despite repeatedly describing beatings he received from her, Noah’s mother is the reason he survived his childhood. In one story he explains that she frequently told him things a child perhaps should not hear, but she had her reasons: “My mom told me these things so I would never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past,’ she would say, ‘but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.’ And she never was.”

For my “book whose title that begins with W,” my second born suggested Why We Broke Up. I got it at the library book sale at one point, because we both love Maira Kalman and they loved Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket — A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of the first series they read without me reading it aloud. Why We Broke Up is is the story of Min, a teenager who is writing to her two-timing jock ex-boyfriend, Ed. She’s explaining what’s in a box of stuff she’s going to leave on his porch as soon as she’s done writing the letter. Her best friend, Al, is driving her to take the box of stuff back. I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure the second born would — they’d probably want to know what in the hell Min saw in Ed (ok, lust, popularity). I couldn’t decide if Ed is a serial shit, a victim of his own popularity and co-captain privilege, a product of the patriarchy, or unreliable because of his own troubled childhood. Min is awesome, except that she’s dim about Al, who is superior to Ed in every way. Al is awesome, and at first I thought kind of unbelievable but then I realized no, there are kids who are kind of mature beyond their years. A little painful to read for someone who made her share of dumb decisions about which boys to spend time in high school, but I like the way it’s told, and I LOVE the illustrations.

Finally I read “A book with a red cover,” one that I’ve owned for years but had only flipped through: A Journey Into the Transcendentalists’ New England by R. Todd Felton. I bought this in Concord, MA, when we went on a family day trip after reading about — and some works by some of Concord’s famous residents, particularly Thoreau. I’ve been reading and thinking a good bit about 19th century Boston, especially because the Computer Scientist and I have spent more time there this year. This book is an introductory guide to the places and people who were important to the Transcendentalist movement. It’s full of photos and maps, but no visitor information, so it’s more a guide in the sense of giving an overview than a tourist guide. It made me curious about The Boston Atheneum – a private library, still in existence today. And it made me aware of some of the history of places I’ve already been — I didn’t know The Atlantic Monthly was founded by a group called the Saturday Club, which met at The Omni Parker House.  Nor did I know that the building attached to the Brattle Book Shop on West Street, now occupied by a restaurant called Papagayo, was once Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, where Margaret Fuller and Peabody held “conversations” for thinking women and so many of the great writers and thinkers of the day came to talk and buy books.

I love history and reading this, as well as a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner that I’m about halfway through, makes me want to go through my shelves for more Boston history. I could read something in that vein for the “A biography or memoir” square, since the Gardner book would fit the “book about art or artists” square (she collected art, befriended artists, and founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this evening, I’m after “A book with a number in the title.”

And, there is snow in the forecast.

We had two snow days and a late start this week, plus as I mentioned in my last post, I’m really getting into my book bingo card. So I read three books!

I had three squares I wanted to fill. The first was “A book from the Books & Brew book lists.” I chose The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It’s a debut novel that got a lot of buzz last summer, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of four grown siblings in New York, the Plumbs, who’ve all been counting on “the Nest” — an inheritance fund their father, who made his fortune in absorbent materials found in feminine hygiene products, diapers, and meat tray liners, set up to distribute to each of them on the youngest sibling’s 40th birthday. Leo, the eldest, is the family ne’er do well, who made a bundle selling a gossip website and has been in trouble ever since. When the book opens he gets into a drug-addled crash, injuring a nineteen year old catering waitress. His mother taps into the Nest to settle his affairs, and the rest of the book is about how the other siblings await Leo’s reparations — Bea, a writer who has been stuck on a dead-end book for years; Jack, an antique store owner who didn’t tell his husband he took out a second mortgage on their summer place; and Melody, who can’t afford the perfect suburban life she is trying to give her teenaged twins.

As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the sibings’ lives and their families, but Sweeney also works in details about contemporary American life – 9/11, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, SAT tutoring, gay marriage, the gentrification of Brooklyn . . . . Yes, it’s a book about New York, and that’s both a pleasure and an annoyance, in that it’s fun to vicariously enjoy the city, and it’s aggravating to read about privileged people feeling badly that they can’t keep their summer home or they can’t get away with not filling out financial aid forms or they can’t quite become an “it” novelist while living pretty much free in a dead lover’s apartment and having a job where they’re allowed to work on said novel. A few times I wanted to yell, “Hey, there are real problems in the world.” Still, it seemed possible that was part of the point, and also, it wasn’t enough of a detraction to keep from enjoying the story, which is Austen-like in it’s social commentary and it’s contemporary “novel of manners” sensibility.

Will Leo make good? Will Melody ever figure out what her daughters really want? Will Jack push his patient husband too far? Will Bea notice that her long suffering boss not only admires, but loves her? Just as there’s fun in reading about Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters, I didn’t ever completely lose patience with the Plumbs. My brief quibbles: a few minor characters play relatively important roles but we hardly get to know them. And the final pages skip ahead a year, and at one point even tell us what’s going to happen further in the future, a device I’ve never enjoyed.

The next square I wanted to vanquish was “A book of short stories.” I’d had my eye on Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith for some time, ever since reading that in the time it took her to write and edit the book, 1,000 British libraries closed. Smith wrote the book in part to draw attention to the importance of libraries, and she alternates short stories, all of which deal in some way with words or books, and brief commentaries on libraries by Smith and many of her writer friends. Public Library, Smith says, “. . .  celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced,  and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” I read it in one sitting, and enjoyed both the fiction and the tributes. It’s one of those books that caused me to look things up and wonder things (How many libraries have closed in the UK? (depends where you look and how you define closed) Why haven’t I ever read anything by Katherine Mansfield? Why haven’t I heard of Olive Fraser?) This was the perfect read on a day when the snow was falling hard and I could sit and muse on the meaning of libraries in my own life. If you like short fiction, the stories are a delight.

Finally, I needed to fill the square “A book about weather or the environment,” so I read The Hidden Life of Trees by forester and conservationist Peter Wohlleben. This is one of those books that compels the reader to lift her head, exclaim, “Wow, listen to this,” and read fascinating tidbits to her family members, whether they want to hear them or not, and whether the only family members in the room at the time are feline or not. (Examples “There is a fungus in Oregon that is 2,400 years old and weighs 660 tons!” and  “There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old!!” “There’s a quaking aspen in Utah that has more than 40,000 trunks and is thousands of years old!” “Trees scream!”) I couldn’t get over what I was reading and I will, as many other reviewers have stated, never look at trees the same way. Wohlleben explains the life of trees and their incredible abilities to deter pests and adapt to changes in climate, cooperate with each other and with beneficial partner species, raise their young, communicate, and learn from their environment. As the author says of trees, “I will never stop learning from them, but even what I have learned so far under their leafy canopy exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.” I learned so much from this book, not only about trees, but also about the human capacity to understand the world, and hopefully, to preserve it.

And now, on to the square “A book whose title begins with ‘W.'”

I’m participating in my local library’s winter reading program, which is a book bingo card. One of the squares I needed to get my first “bingo” (five squares in a row) was “A book set in a place you’d like to visit.” I thought of Iceland, and came across Names for the Sea. It’s the story of novelist and literature professor Sarah Moss‘s year teaching at the University of Iceland, and her family’s life in Reykjavik.

They arrived in 2009, shortly after Iceland’s financial crisis led to widespread hardship for Icelanders — and seriously eroded her own family’s income, since she’d be paid in krona. She and her husband and two small boys ended up in a brand new apartment with triple glazed windows and heated floors in an otherwise empty building. Being English and thus, as far as I can tell, having a penchant for mild suffering and inconvenience so long as there’s tea and biscuits afterwards, they try to live without a car, and soon discover that outside the tourist center, Reykjavik isn’t designed for walking. (The Computer Scientist is half English; although he rarely drinks tea he does prefer to “suck it up” more than is strictly necessary, especially when it comes to walking in cities. I’d say he frequently manifests a sort of an Americanized stiff upper lip attitude that is admirable at times, but can often lead to blisters and sunburn.) Moss actually purchases a bike and cycles to work even once the weather is so cold she can’t feel her face. But once she describes driving in Iceland, readers can’t really blame her for wanting to walk or bike.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a personal essay in a small, sadly now out of print journal for stay-at-home parents (mostly mothers, at the time) called Welcome Home. The essay was titled “Winter Escapes for Moms,” and it was about surviving Seattle winters (long, wet, and grey) with two small children by reading this genre — books about people who up and move to a new country. I’ve read a fair number of this kind of book, and I can say that Names for the Sea is wonderful for several reasons.

First, Moss is quite honest about the pitfalls of life in Iceland and the depth of her feeling foreign for most of the year. She actually knows enough Icelandic to get by, but describes feeling helpless: “I still can’t say the Icelandic words I have in my head, and still can’t bear the arrogance of asking people to speak English for me, and still, therefore, mutter and smile as if I had no language at all.” She’s also honest when she is baffled by certain cultural differences, such as the lack of any second hand market for clothes or furniture, despite the economic downturn. And instead of raving about culinary adventures as some travel writers do, she is honest about how much her family misses fruit and vegetables and how difficult it is to feed children in a strange land where whale meat and split sheep’s heads are in the grocery store.

Moss is also intensely curious about Iceland. She writes beautifully about her experiences talking to Icelanders about all kinds of things — life in the country pre-WWII, what it was like in Vestmannaeyjar when the Eldfell volcano erupted, burying some houses in lava and others in ash right up to the ceilings. Finding out about Icelandic knitting, fiction, and film. Learning about crime rates, gender roles, parenting styles, cars and road safety, the presence of elves, what life is like for foreigners who marry Icelanders, what long daylight and long darkness and the many levels of cold are like. How the economy impacts people (or not) and how Icelanders feel about inequality. All of this is interesting in Moss’s thoughtful hands, and she is respectful even when she cannot understand her adopted home or agree with its inhabitants’ views. Also, she and her family go back for a summer holiday the year after they return to the UK, and the final chapter offers her appreciation for Iceland a year on, and insights into some changes she observes once the economic recovery seems to be underway, which is interesting.

Names for the Sea manages to be both enchanting, as all winter escape reading should be, and also unvarnished. I liked it very much, and I’m curious to seek out Moss’s fiction and her other nonfiction; on her website I found that each one of her books sounds interesting to me, and it’s been some time since I’ve found myself wanting to read everything someone has written. Her blog is also interesting.

 

A coworker recommended The Circle back in the fall. It’s a cautionary tale about a tech company called The Circle that is run by a trio called “The Wise Men” and is growing exponentially, adding newer and more far-reaching applications every week to its near-monopoly on internet searching and commerce. It’s a company wealthy beyond imagining, with thousands of smart, idealistic young people like Mae Holland working there.

Mae is soon consumed with her work, caught up in and even authoring some of its slogans, including “secrets are lies,””sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” To atone for a transgression — not telling her many social circle contacts inside and outside the company that she kayaks, not borrowing a kayak after hours from a rental company without paying, and not sharing any of her experience online — she agrees to become transparent, wearing a camera and being connected to her followers and watchers all the time, except when she’s in the bathroom or in bed.

Slowly the Circle nears “Completion” when the whole world will be a part of it, and no one anywhere will go untracked, unwatched, unknown. Secrets will be a thing of the past. The Circlers believe this will be utopia, with no crime and no unknowns, but there are a few people who seem to think things may be getting out of hand. Mae proposes a new tool that will make democracy “mandatory” and gets increasingly hounded by a mysterious man named Kalden who is trying to warn her off these plans. The higher she rises in the Circle the less contact she has with her family and her friend Annie, who helped her get hired. None of this seems to bother her, as she becomes thoroughly indoctrinated in the Circle’s ways.

Mae is an impossible character to like, and the whole book made me squeamish, but it still seemed like a good read. The story seems improbable, but so did a Trump presidency not long ago. It’s hard to imagine brilliant young people at a technology company making decisions that could impact the world — but then again, look at the way Facebook and Twitter let fake news and trolls proliferate, sure that these things would not matter. The Circle would be good to read with a book group, and to discuss the questions the book raises about the overreach of technology in our lives, and about privacy, freedom, transparency, safety, and the fine line between utopianism and totalitarianism.

 

This amazing novel, recommended by a friend, is about an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Ruth Ozeki, the author of this amazing novel, is an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Trippy? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The book opens with a diary entry: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being  is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is or was, or ever will be.”

We soon learn that Nao is a teenager in Japan, and that her diary washed up on the beach near Ruth’s and Oliver’s home, in a plastic bag, wrapped up with a watch, a parcel of letters, and another diary, written in French. As the novel unfolds, we learn about Ruth’s life and Nao’s. It’s a tough read, full of deeply important questions of human decency, purpose, belief, and meaning. Ozeki touches on an array of subjects as she tells her story —  First Peoples mythology, botany & ecology, meteorology & geography, Western philosophy, Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, computing and technology, consumerism, contemporary education, pop culture, and the relationship between people and cats, to name several.

Nao is terribly unhappy, but her father introduces her to her great-grandmother, who is 104 and lives at a temple where she is a Buddhist nun. From the start, Ruth is concerned about Nao’s well being, not only because she is troubled, but also because the diary appears on the beach after the 2011 Tsunami. Ruth wonders if Nao and her family are still alive. She becomes so wrapped up in determining what became of them that her own work suffers. Her interest teeters on obsession and possibly even madness, when she swears that Nao’s diary is missing words. Separately, she pursues tracking down Nao and her father, and finds out just enough to leave readers intrigued to the last pages.

Oliver, is sort of a modern Renaissance man, part artist, part scientist, part philosopher, and fully capable of wrestling the tricky generator they rely on when storms ravage the island, digging clams and oysters, and chopping firewood. He’s also Ruth’s counterbalance, a partner who supports her curiosity but also challenges it at times. The rest of the island gets involved too, once word gets out about their find. Much of what is in the two diaries is had to read — Ozeki captures man’s inhumanity to man pretty vividly. But it’s worth reading because A Tale for the Time Being is both a good story with a mystery at its heart and an incredible amalgamation of Eastern and Western culture and ideas. It’s a trip, full of heart, and a good read, and did I mention?  There’s a cat (and Schrödinger’s cat as well).

 

 

Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.