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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

Around ten years ago I read Anne Fadiman‘s wonderful books of essays, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small. Those are both so delightful that I still recommend them to people — they make wonderful gifts for people who love reading and books, and they are smart, interesting, and won’t keep you up at night like so many contemporary nonfiction books might. I’ve also always meant to read her book about a Hmong family dealing with the American medical system The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. But I was in a bookstore in Vermont on Columbus Day and saw her 2017 memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, on a staff pick display and serendipitously, discovered it is in Overdrive (library eBooks).

This memoir is as much a book about Fadiman’s father, Clifton Fadiman, as it is about her and the rest of her family. She talks about what it was like to have a well-known father, to both be writers, and to try to share his love of wine. In fact, much of the book is about the fact that Fadiman doesn’t really like wine, something she feels badly about and suspects her father knows even though she politely fakes it. Towards the end of the book, Fadiman looks into the physiological reason some people don’t like certain tastes, and that section is reminiscent of her earlier work.

I enjoyed both the personal reflections and the more straightforward nonfiction sections. It’s interesting to read about Clifton Fadiman, and his desire to make himself over from a Jewish child of immigrants into a man of letters. My own great-uncle, a chemist, changed his name to sound less Jewish, so the phenomena of distancing oneself from family history is familiar to me. And there is a good bit of information about wine in this book, especially French wines of certain areas and vintages that I didn’t know much about before reading it.  Mainly Fadiman’s writing is a pleasure, smart and clear and evocative.

This was a good read, but I admit I am a little tired of eBooks. There are a few more I’d like to read that are available on Hoopla and Overdrive but I may take a print break before reading those.

 

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I’ve written about a number of Howard Mansfield’s books over the years here at bookconscious. Today on the bus back and forth to Boston I finished his latest, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down, and I’m pleased to report that like all of his writing, it is both a delightful read and one that will leave you better informed and perhaps pensive. Mansfield has the gift of writing both clearly and intellectually. His topic this time is property, particularly the American concept of property as “the rock-solid part of our creed of individualism.” From the colonies to climate change, Mansfield traces the ways we’ve sought, fought over, bought or taken land, and how we associate land with identity and progress.

I learned some things, as I always do when I read his work. I had not ever stopped to think about who lived on the land where the interstate highways now run. I’ll never pass exit 8 on I91 without feeling for Romaine Tenney, the bachelor farmer who, faced with losing his farm to eminent domain for the highway project, freed his animals, set fire to his barns and house, and killed himself in 1964. I’ll never visit the White Mountains without thinking of the Weeks Act, which I’d heard of but now understand better. I had no idea that New Hampshire’s north country was clear cut and burned, so denuded that Concord and Manchester flooded because the runoff overwhelmed the Merrimack. without the flooding, and the impetus to protect the mills that were big business, national forests might not have been established in the east. Mansfield also tells of the dark side of the Weeks Act, which permitted the government to preserve land but not what’s underneath, which is why mining and drilling can take place on national land.

Although I am very aware of projects which propose to install wind turbines, electric lines, or gas pipelines through private lands, I hadn’t ever really considered the extent to which people’s lives are completely disrupted, often with little compensation, when such a project comes to their neighborhoods. And although I’m concerned about climate change, I hadn’t heard about some of the things Mansfield illuminates, like marshes “walking,” and communities having conversations now about how they will survive sea level rise. Or about how we both care and blithely go on visiting the coast as if it will always be there. I know I do.

The book is definitely about hard things, but Mansfield doesn’t leave us entirely without hope. His suggestion for how to move forward is based in a Buddhist idea of accepting the reality of fragility, and living as if things are already “broken.” It’s interesting, and complicated, and thought provoking. And he lets Tocqueville have the last word, writing about the wilderness he saw as he traveled America, knowing that the American penchant for “progress” would conquer it: “It is this consciousness of destruction, this arriere-pensee of quick and inevitable change that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One see them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of hurry to admire them.”

If you live near a wild place that is transient — as most of us do — that will be developed, or drilled, or dug, or turbined, or covered in rising seas, go on. Hurry to admire them.

** I should add, I realized this morning, that this book has a gorgeous design, and is published by a wonderful NH indie press, Bauhan Publishing.

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I got to know a small but lovely independent bookstore this summer, Belmont Books, and one Saturday I spied on their staff picks display Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. I had heard about the book when it first came out — although clearly I didn’t remember much, as you’ll soon see — and who doesn’t love that title? Not this librarian.

Only it turns out, it’s only partly about the librarians and a good bit about extremist jihadis and their takeover of Mali. I’ll grant that a good bit of the beginning of the book explores Mali’s history and the personal story of the incredible librarian, scholar and conservationist Abdel Kader Haidara. His story and that of the manuscripts of Timbuktu weave throughout the book. But Joshua Hammer also writes in great detail about why the manuscripts needed saving.

Haidara, son of a scholar whose family treasures included a very large collection of medieval manuscripts, was only seventeen when his father died and he was named the heir of the family library. The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, established by UNESCO and the Malian government in the 70’s, sought Haidara out and asked him to come work for them. At the time, they had only about 2,500 manuscripts in their collection. Nine years later, thanks almost entirely to Haidara’s personal efforts, the collection had grown by 16,500, “one of the largest public collections of Arabic handwritten books in the world.”

Haidara wasn’t done. He went on to establish a private library to house his family’s collection, and he also established Savama-DCI, an organization of other families in Timbuktu with manuscripts. With his own library housing around 50,000 manuscripts, and the growing number of private libraries he had influenced, Haidara had been a huge force in re-establishing Timbuktu as a cultural center, and in reminding the world of the city’s long heritage of scholarship.

All of that is very inspiring. What is amazing is that as Hammer tells readers, Haidara’s hard work had only just begun. Despite these accomplishments and his successful fundraising (many prominent foundations from around the world supported his work and that of his colleagues), the most challenging tasks were still to come.

And this is where I had a harder time reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of  Timbuktu. Hammer spares no grisly details as he describes the rise of radical Islam in the Sahara and the Sahel. I admit part of my discomfort came from realizing that even though I try to pay attention to news from around the world, I don’t recall hearing much about the civil war in Mali and the jihadist takeover of the northern part of the country. And part of my discomfort is because I don’t usually read accounts of brutality as detailed as Hammer’s.

Faced with a growing fear that the jihadis would destroy Timbuktu’s manuscripts, as they had smashed Sufi shrines, broken and burned musical instruments and threatened Mali’s other cultural treasure — musicians — with disfigurement if they continued to play or sing, Haidara, knew he had to do something. So together with an American woman in Mali, known in the book as Emily Brady, he once again raised funds and worked to evacuate the manuscripts. Like the gripping story of his collecting them in the first place, the story of Haidara’s rescue is uplifting and mind-boggling.

They gathered trunks, recruited donkey carts, trucks, and boats, recruited families to hide manuscripts in Timbuktu and then recruited them again, to evacuate the trunks. Despite the dangers and expense, they succeeded. Around 377,000 manuscripts survived. Hammer tells the story well. Just be prepared for a fair bit of geopolitics and out and out horror if you read this book — well written, but hard to stomach.

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A brief and amusing backstory to this book: I bought The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn along with an embarrassingly tall stack of other really intriguing books at the Yale Divinity School Student Book Supply, which is a terrific independent bookstore at YDS, last February when we were visiting the former Teen the Elder. He was in class, and joined us for the completion of the purchase since he’s a member. We then proceeded to the Marquand chapel for worship, which that day was a baptist service with very beautiful music and a wonderful sermon. I was into it, I admit, and sang along where I could and moved with the music and clapped — especially to a South African song I’ve sung with Songweavers & Songhealers (Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God). A woman who seemed roughly of my generation was seated next to me and we exchanged smiles. She also seemed moved by the service and the music.

Afterwards we had lunch, and I was showing our son the books I bought. Two were by Maggi Dawn, and he remarked casually, “Oh that’s who you sat next to in chapel.” Oh. Gosh. And swayed and clapped like a  slightly awkward privileged white middle class woman (which I am). Ahem.

Anyway, The Accidental Pilgrim is one of those books. I read it over the past couple of days at a time when I’m feeling a little at loose ends. My family is on a journey not of our own choosing right now, and the summer has been very wrapped up in it. In the end it will have changed our lives (hopefully for the better) and strengthened us individually and collectively, will have changed the way we see the world and our place(s) in it, and will have helped us see who we are and how we want to live. I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, and I hadn’t thought I needed to read about pilgrims. When I picked this up, I was here in the house alone (the Computer Scientist was away at a conference) and I made myself a comfort food dinner (poached eggs and beet greens on toast) and browsed my bookshelves. One book after the next seemed not quite right until I landed on this one.

Dawn organizes The Accidental Pilgrim around three times in her life when she was a pilgrim of sorts: in graduate school at Cambridge when she went to the Holy Land on a summer study trip, when her young son was still in a pushchair (stroller to we Americans) and she was facing doubts about what she could and couldn’t do as a woman priest and a new mother, and when she was laid up by an illness just as she and her son were going to embark on a weeklong walk on the Camino. In none of these instances did she embark on what she consciously thought of as a pilgrimage, and in each that is what she came to see herself doing.

I loved this book, and it was, like the sermon I heard that day in Marquand chapel, just what I needed. Some passages resonated with me; others spoke to me like the sort of straight talking friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth when you’re resisting the inevitable. For example: “. . . such a journey not only removes you from home comforts, but also forces you into the constant company of others. . . . sometimes uncomfortably so, for some dither about while others stride ahead like sergeant-majors, barking instructions to others to keep up. . . . And of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that you yourself are being seen close up by others. Any false impressions of noblesse or spiritual maturity is soon whittled away until the true picture becomes visible, but more often than not, in the midst of this dose of human reality there emerges a deepening sense of affection for, and dependence upon, others.”

I’m partway through an experience like that, at the painful realization of being seen close up by others part. Anyone who has done something challenging (intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, any which way) in community will recognize the truth in Dawn’s assessment. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully on the desert fathers, famous pilgrims and pilgrimages, “‘thin places’ where earth seems to touch heaven,” poetry, theology, travel, motherhood — all in a book that’s only 151 pages including notes. A smart book, a good read, and one that has given me plenty to think about.

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The former Teen the Elder is in New York this summer, and I’m glad for him. I wanted to get down to see him but it’s looking unlikely, so I’m taking a field trip of the mind instead. I picked up Letter from New York at the Five Colleges Book Sale in April, and was very excited to read it. I love 84, Charing Cross Road. Letter is a collection of six years of BBC Women’s Hour scripts (each a five minute broadcast) that Helene Hanff recorded from 1978-1984 about her “everyday life.” Much like the letters she sent to Frank Doel, they are full of her particular observations and somehow those add up to a lovely composite view of New York. Her descriptions of block parties, communal living as an apartment dweller, all the glory of Central Park throughout the seasons, the myriad free or low cost cultural opportunities in the city, doormen who drive little old ladies to the beach, and more will make you nostalgic, even if you, like I, have never lived in NYC. It’s just a charming book, a slice of Americana, from a witty and thoughtful writer who captured the humanity of living in a a place many people think of as impersonal and imposing.

I’ve read Here is New York by E.B. White before; I can’t recall where I got my copy, but it’s the original hardcover edition from 1949. it’s even briefer than Letter from New York, just 50 pages. While Hanff intends to tell her BBC listeners about life as it is, White tells readers a little about the New York he’s visiting during a heat wave, and also reminisces about a New York he knew as a younger man, before the Depression and World War II. In fact, as this small book ends, he reflects on the recent advent of advanced airpower and its potential to “quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers . . . The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.” He predicted that “In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning,” “New York has a certain clear priority” as a target.  He predicted 9/11, in 1949.

So Hanff’s book is less frightening, but both books are a delight for people who love words. Hanff, describing her good friend’s Old English Sheepdog, Bentley, in Central Park after a blizzard: “Bentley loves the snow, but the drifts were high enough to bury him, and he had a special technique for surmounting them. What he did was, he hopped over the snow like a vast furry rabbit, his huge bulk curving high in midair, his four feet landing lightly and then leaping onward.” White, on a summer night, also in Central Park, “In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language.”

They both emphasize that New York is special because it is such a diverse place, teeming with people from everywhere doing everything. Or as White so eloquently describes, “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive.” Makes me want to hop on a bus or train right now!

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of New Hamsphire authors Sy Montgomery and Howard Mansfield. I’ve written about their work several times on the blog and in the Mindful Reader column. Recently my good friend and fellow book lover Juliana gifted me with The Good Good Pig: the Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. We each had piles of books in our arms in the checkout line of The Five Colleges Booksale and when I exclaimed over her finding Sy’s book, she let me buy it instead of buying it herself. If that’s not friendship I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I’ve been reading my own “to read” books instead of library books lately, partly because I bought a lot of books this spring, and partly because I was changing jobs, and thus libraries. Last week was kind of an unsettled one, with some stressful stuff happening (such as becoming a library director) at work and at home, so I wanted a book I knew would feed my soul, and given that, I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Sy!

The only problem with The Good Good Pig is that I want to move to Hancock, New Hampshire, and since Concord is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose (we lived in Oklahoma twice, but only because the USMC sent us there both times) and The Computer Scientist says he is not moving any more boxes ever again, but instead will live here until he is the one being moved in a box (he has a morbid sense of humor), that’s not likely to happen. Really I just want to be Sy’s and Howard’s neighbor.

So, The Good Good Pig isn’t just about Christopher Hogwood, the runt piglet they adopted who lived to be fourteen and a valued member of their community. It’s about the many ways Christopher taught the people in his life all kinds of things — how to play, how to savor the sunlight and grass on a nice day, how to truly enjoy delicious foods, and simply, as one of Sy’s former neighbors explains, “how to love.” Sy notes that by living a long life, Christopher Hogwood showed everyone who knew him that “We need not accept the rules that our society or species, family or fate have written for us.”

This is not just a fascinating book about animals, peppered with interesting anecdotes about some of the many creatures Sy has loved, researched, communed with, written about, and felt an affinity towards, from pink dolphins to tarantulas and man eating tigers. It’s also a book about two people who fell in love with each other and the writing life and created for themselves a home and a community that fully embraced them and their work. And it’s a book about family in many forms — not only in the traditional sense of the people we come from and often find ourselves challenged by, but the family we make for ourselves, human and inter-species. Sy’s writing about her relationship with her mother is moving and inspiring — she is a model of radical acceptance even in the face of challenges, and the world would be a better place if more people were able to love their way through hurts the way Sy does.

The Good Good Pig  was just the book I hoped, soul filling, life affirming, smart, and thoughtful. We have so much to learn from animals, and although I can’t claim I am as connected to other creatures as Sy is (not many people are!) I am often impressed that my cats are so tuned into my feelings. For creatures who get a bad rap for being aloof, they can be remarkably supportive when I need it, especially the small grey tabby who will curl up against me or on me if she can sense I need her calming presence. As my Facebook friends know, she is also my zen master, running to the meditation cushion after dinner to remind me it’s time to sit and joining me as I meditate. So I totally understand how a pig could be “a big Buddha master” to his friends and neighbors.

I leave you with two peaceful cat pictures, because how could I not? They’re no 750 pound pig, but I think there are probably city ordinances against hog husbandry in Concord anyway.

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Cork Boat is one of the titles I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale. Yes, I am going to read The Scapegoat; it’s our June book club pick. It hadn’t arrived yet, anyway, so I decided this would be a good distraction from the various stressful things in my life. I was right.

John Pollack was a political speechwriter when, disgusted by the gridlock in Washington (sadly, about twenty years ago), he decided to take some time off to pursue a boyhood dream: building a boat made of corks. In Cork Boat he tells the story of how he organized dozens of people — friends, relatives, neighbors, and even strangers — to help him and his good friend Garth Goldstein bring the boat to life. Along the way, he took a job writing speeches at the Clinton White House, returning to his previous job working for Michigan Congressman David Bonior after the election, and even taking a job writing for an expedition to Antarctica. None of this kept him from pursuing his dream boat, and when it was finished, getting it shipped to Portugal where he and Goldstein and an assortment of friends and family members helped them travel from Barca d’Alva to Porto on the Douro River.

It’s an enjoyable book, one that might make you want to travel off the beaten path, or cause a little wistfulness for whatever you dreamed of as a child. It’s also a good reminder that in a world often fraught with conflict, hardship, struggle, and hardship, we could all benefit from paying attention to the cork boats in our lives. Maybe no one you know is doing something on this scale, but you probably know someone who is pursuing a hobby or past time just for the joy of it, or to prove to themself that they can reach a particular goal, or to bring people together around a common purpose. If you seek those stories, they’re out there to enjoy among the din of political rancor, intolerance, and human suffering. Cork Boat is a decent place to start.*

Quick aside: for May, my book club read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. It’s written in a style I didn’t enjoy — very brief chapters with questions at the end of each, which makes it kind of choppy and occasionally repetitive — but it was thought provoking, and led to a good discussion about white privilege and racism. We decided we’d recommend it to people who haven’t really explored these issues.

*Good News Network isn’t a bad place to look, either.

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