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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

My daughter gave me The Diary of A Bookseller by Shawn Bythell for my birthday. I’d first heard about it in some sort of media report about Wigtown, Scotland and it’s annual book festival. It’s a yearlong diary Bythell kept to share his life as owner of a large used bookstore in a small rural town.

I’ve worked in an indie bookstore and I felt fairly well aware of the threat Amazon has been to booksellers but I was thinking from the perspective of stores that primarily sell new books. I didn’t fully grasp the way Amazon has undermined the value of used books and made it harder and less profitable to run a used bookshop.

I used to fantasize about having a used bookstore and even had a book (which I think I bought at Powell’s) about how to do start and run one, right down to how to build the shelves. I let the book go a few years ago when we were having a big clear out (to make way for more books) and realized then that the business had likely changed so much I’d be better off learning from someone in the trade today.  The Diary of a Bookseller drove that point home for sure.

Some of what Bythell described is recognizable to anyone who has worked retail or in a library — the regulars who are both very familiar and complete strangers, the rude or demanding or opinionated people who feel entitled to provide commentary on the way things are run, the stock, the prices, the staff, etc. Other challenges I hadn’t considered, like the wear and tear on the body of lugging boxes of books, the difficulty of heating a very old building, and the fearful difficulty of clearing a clogged gutter in a downpour to stop it flooding the shop.

I admire Bythell’s desire to be independent, to quietly fight on against giants like Amazon and Waterstones, and to find hope in kind customers and in the beauty of living where one wants, doing something one values. It’s also really interesting to read the quotes from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories at the start of each chapter and realize that as different as the world was in the first half of the 20th century when Orwell worked in a bookshop, many things he wrote about are still true today.

This was an interesting and enjoyable read, and I hope to make it to Wigtown and The Bookshop one day! I also hope the Random Book Club re-opens for membership. In less than a year I’ll be done with my second foray into grad school and free to read whatever I want, so that would be a good gift to myself!

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Don’t worry, I’m still here. I know two weeks is a long time between bookconscious posts. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, for one, and also I spent over a week reading a book I disliked and don’t want to blog about. But I also read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair which I enjoyed very much, but which took longer to read because it’s a collection of dozens of dense, fascinating brief essays and each requires careful attention. There is nothing to skim here — nor would you want to. St. Clair carefully and skillfully connects each color to the social, cultural, and historical context in which it was created or dominated as a pigment.

I heard about the book from an episode of 99% Invisible, one of my favorite podcasts. I think if you listen to St. Clair talk with Roman Mars you will want the book immediately, as I did. Part of its charm is St. Clair’s voice — she writes authoritatively but personably, so that you feel as if a very smart friend of a friend is talking to you. This keeps what is arguably a very specialized topic — the history of 75 different colors in art, fashion, and decor — from feeling impenetrable for readers who may never have really given it any thought before. Here’s a taste of her writing, in the essay on Heliotrope (a shade of purple):

“While this hue’s fortunes have suffered something of a collapse in the real world, it has a distinguished literary afterlife. Badly behaved characters are often described as wearing the color . . . . The word is pleasurable to say, filling the mouth like a rich, buttery sauce. Added to which, the color itself is intriguing: antiquated, unusual, and just a little bit brassy.”

Honestly, even though I like art and history, if I hadn’t heard this episode, I’m not sure I would have picked up The Secret Lives of Color other than to gawk at it’s lovely cover and the rainbow effect of the colors printed in strips that frame each essay (the book’s design enhances the text perfectly). But I’m very glad I heard about and then sought out the book. It’s an unusual format, just right for the topic, and a terrific read, appropriate for times when life is so hectic that finishing one exquisitely interesting, well-written essay is just what you can manage in the evening.

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I finished another book on the Yale Climate Connections blog “12 books about climate change ‘solutions’ that belong on your summer reading list,” Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. Presented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this 2012 book is a non nonsense action guide. Nearly the entire book focuses on what we can do as individuals, in our communities, and as a society to reduce our carbon footprints, slow the pace of global warming, and protect the future. If you feel paralyzed or just uncertain about what concrete steps you can take, this book, and the accompanying website, is for you.*

The Computer Scientist and I have taken some steps already — some deliberately to reduce our footprint, like investing in hybrid vehicles, and some accidentally beneficial because they also make sense and save money, like trip-chaining or replacing our old drafty windows and adding insulation to the house when we replaced the rotting siding.

Although I found Being the Change very compelling, I’m not Peter Kalmus. Some of the changes he has made are impressive but not for me, like gleaning from dumpsters, converting an old diesel car to burn recycled vegetable oil,  or composting human waste. I admire his knowledge and commitment but I was left feeling like even if I took modest versions of his actions, things may not necessarily work out. Cooler Smarter‘s recommendations seem more accessible to me, a person with very few DIY skills who lives in a much colder climate than Kalmus.

Please don’t get me wrong — you should still read and enjoy Being the Change, learn what you can from itand feel glad for people living with this kind of passion for his values. Kalmus also addresses issues of justice and equity related to climate change in his book, and that is a key piece to understand. My advice: read both books!

Anyway, at my house, we’re going to try to take further steps, like eating less meat, installing programmable thermostats and living with colder winter temperatures in the house, and thinking carefully when we have to replace the water heater and our roof (both likely in the next decade) about energy use and conservation. Mainly we’ve committed to thinking more intentionally about climate change and the way all of our actions contribute to global warming.

As Cooler Smarter notes, “Can we accomplish the transition to a low-carbon society? Of course we can.” This isn’t a matter of not knowing enough, or not understanding what needs to happen — scientists have been telling us for decades. It’s a matter of will.

There is some good news. Cooler Smarter‘s team of science writers goes on to laud the progress already made around the world and shares their conviction that “Working together, we can step back from the brink of ecological disaster and move toward a more sustainable balance between the natural world and human civilization, ensuring a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren.” That is something very much on my mind these days, and in my prayers. I agree that it’s not too late, although it’s getting pretty darn close. If you’re frustrated by the inaction of our national government, take heart — there is so much happening in towns and cities across America to reduce the human impact on our world. And you can easily do so, too. Start by reading. You’ll be inspired to get going with this work.

*If you know anyone who is not yet convinced we should worry, Cooler Smarter also includes a very clear, 20 page chapter called “The Weight of the Evidence” that paints a compelling picture of the scientific consensus, although since this book was published, the situation has become more urgent and dire for earth’s climate.

 

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Recently I’ve been digging into some climate change booklists.  The first book I checked out is Being the Change: Life Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus. I was drawn to the description in Michael reading list at Yale Climate Connections: “The core message is deeply optimistic: living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better.”

Kalmus is a climate scientist. He writes in a very personable way, not only telling the science like it is, in enough detail that I had to go back and re-read some of the more technical sections, but also telling his own story. The book is a sort of hybrid memoir-popular science-how-to. Kalmus writes of his own awakening to the reality of global warming, not only because he studied it but also because he began to practice meditation.

With his new awareness of reality, Kalmus felt called to live what he believes: that we owe it to all of life on Earth (including future life), to stop extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. Even though he has taken actions that will seem like too much for some readers he repeatedly suggests starting with what you can do and going from there. Humanure is probably a bridge too far for some, but he explains honestly that it was for his wife, until eventually, she used his “leaf toilet” too. But he goes on to say if you can’t imagine that, just compost. 

Kalmus offers lists of more accessible actions people can take and tips on taking them, not because he believes that individual actions will end global warming but because his own story illustrates the way his commitment to making changes grew as he continued to explore our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels. The book is as philosophical as it is scientific, grounded in Kalmus’s sense of justice and practical insights into human nature. He reminds readers regularly that his life is more rewarding, happy and fun since he began reducing his use of fossil fuels.

Towards the end of the book he describes bigger cultural and collective steps to take and alludes to his motivations:

“Our predicament is the result of a vast industrial-commercial system of living, which can be viewed in various ways. It’s the systemic fossil-fuelization of almost everything. It’s the replacement of interpersonal transactions with money and debt. It’s the redirection of distributed natural cycles with linear, centralized monetized flows of energy and resources . . . . It’s as if humanity’s cyclic connections to the land were cut by the scissors of the industrial system. We then plugged ourselves into the matrix, and we must now rely on that system for our survival.

Part of my response is to opt out of this destructive system. Opting out brings me the satisfaction of transitioning from consumer to producer. It can be playful, or delicious; sometimes it can be frightening; ultimately it’s fulfilling. Opting out is another form of reconnecting; as I lessen my dependence on global corporate systems, I naturally need to opt in to local biospheric systems.”

He goes on to say that imperfection is fine. He himself does “remain deeply intertwined within the industrial system . . . . But that’s OK; this is a path of transition . . . . Cultivate stillness, listen, go where your principles lead you — and do what brings you satisfaction.”

I’m not sure about this. I find it hard to reconcile being motivated by personal satisfaction with the kind of community building and awareness of the interconnectedness of living things that Kalmus espouses. I suspect doing what feels good is not necessarily going to lead everyone onto the path to doing what’s right, but I absolutely admire Kalmus’s commitment and conviction and the way he is living according to his values.

This is a very interesting book. It will (and should) alarm you, but it’s also very thought provoking and I don’t think anyone can come away from reading it without feeling at least slightly empowered to begin breaking fossil fuel’s grip on their lives and communities.

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I love a book that expands my “to be read” list, and Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris did that. Not only does she recommend some classic books about Greece (such as Lawrence Durrell‘s and Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s work) but also, she writes eloquently about Homer and I have had Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad on my shelf for some time.

Mostly it’s a joy to read about someone’s passions, and for Norris, the Greek language, literature, and Greece itself are longtime passions. She was a young copy editor at The New Yorker when she first began learning Greek, and her boss, Ed Stringham, encouraged her and even agreed it would help her work so it could be paid for by the magazine. He encouraged her to travel and suggested things to read (like the books mentioned above). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came across a mentor like that, who sees a spark and fans it?

Norris intersperses her writing about Greece and Greek with writing abut herself and her family, but this book doesn’t hit you over the head with interpersonal drama or devolve into navel gazing. Instead Norris is thoughtful, observant, introspective at times without being self-absorbed, curious about her family relationships without playing them up for effect. In short, she writes an intelligent, beautiful book that is informative and entertaining. Even though I went through a Greece phase of my own — we took a family trip when I read that there were deals to be had after the Athens Olympics, and I made sure the kids and I were immersed in all things Greek for about six months before we went — I learned a good bit reading Greek to Me, especially regarding connections between Greek and English.

Norris’s descriptive language is evocative and also makes the foreign familiar, as with this passage about the earthquake restorations at the Daphni monastery:  “The scaffolding inside made it look like trapeze school . . . by now multiple earthquakes had shattered the mosaics, which had collapsed onto the floor in jumbles of tesserae. The restorers’ work was of a magnitude I could barely comprehend: they were putting the Almighty together again.” Or this one, about the view from the Kalamitsi Hotel: “The sun left a pink smear above the distant gray-blue peninsula, and the sea was like a bolt of ice-blue satin, with matching sky, except that the colors of the air were not as nuanced, having no surface, existing as pure distance measured in light. In the grove in the foreground the trunks of olive trees twisted seductively A tongue of sea eased in from the Messenian Gulf below a steep hill covered with pines, plane trees, and pointed cypresses . . . .” It goes on, but you should read the book for the full effect.

If you’re staycationing this summer, this would be a great book to take you away, and if you’re planning a trip to Greece, this is a don’t miss. But even if neither of those describes you, this is a wonderful read. I wanted to sit down with the author over some coffee (or ouzo!) and hear more stories, take in her fascinating experiences, and enjoy her voice after I reached the end. In fact, I never looked for her first book, Between You & Me, about her time at The New Yorker when it came out, but I’ve added that to my list as well.

 

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“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  That quote sums up for me the essence of W.E.B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk, which my book club is reading. If men would just know men, “double consciousness” would not be a way of life for people of color — a way of living that splits people in two, the person they are and the person the racist world sees them as.

Du Bois wrote this book around the turn of the 20th century; Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the initial hope and promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a distant memory. Du Bois’ descriptions of life in south Georgia (the “black belt”) are haunting to me because we spent five years living just 45 minutes north of Albany in Americus, and the legacy of systemic inequity is still evident, or was within the last two decades when we were there. The places where each race attends their own churches, their own schools (although not officially, but in many parts of rural Georgia, including the town where we lived, many white families send their kids to private school and the percentages of black and white children in public school don’t come anywhere near matching those of the population at large), their own entertainment — still existed when my family lived there in the early 2000s.

I was also struck by the chapters on individuals’ struggles to live as their true selves — Of Alexander Crummell and Of the Coming of John — which are especially powerful positioned after essays on reconstruction, the economy of share crop cotton farming, education, etc. I struggled, if I’m honest, to get through some of the history and sociology; important as it is to understand, it’s dense and difficult. Anytime I read about reconstruction I wonder what would have happened if Lincoln lived?

As I’ve thought many times recently when trying to read a more diverse history of the U.S. than what I was taught, it’s appalling that public schools don’t fully teach American history. There is so much I am only learning in more depth as an adult that was glossed over in a few sentences in my childhood history books. Someone I know told me recently that every so often he looks at 5th grade social studies books and checks to see if Martin Luther King is mentioned in a sidebar — rather than having his own chapter.

King, at least, is a household name. What about Alexander Crummell, who I’d never heard of until reading The Souls of Black Folk, or A. Philip Randolph, a man who is among the most important labor and civil rights pioneers in this country but I’ll bet many of you have never heard of (I only learned about him at a free breakfast about using online sources for historical research at the ACRL conference)?

It’s never too late to add “narrative plentitude” to one’s understanding so I’m going to keep learning about privilege and its lack.

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The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

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