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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

LoverWhat are books all about? No, not the plots, but the culture of books and readers. Are the books we choose a shortcut to our identities via our fantasies and fears? Are they instruments to demonstrate our superiority or to hide our inferiority, raise our children by, choose our friends with? If anyone’s qualified to take on these questions, it’s reader / blogger / tech geek / woman-about-town Lauren Leto.

In a series of short essays, Leto writes about testing new romantic prospects by taking them to bookstores, or by starting a conversation, and laments that the growth of e-readers makes it impossible to cover-snoop. (Barry and I used to do that at airports to pick out the librarians. Not for romance, mind you, but to see if 50 Shades of Grey went with the shoes.) Where you read what you read is another clue, as are the books and tchotchkes you’ve got on your bookshelf. And how you handle challenges from readers you don’t know – lie about reading the book? make a snarky comment dismissing the author as a hack? try one-upping the person until one or the other reveals themselves as a reading fraud? – is as important as the literary quality of your actual reading.

Leto’s writing is fresh, funny, and insightful. She is unabashed about her enjoyment of fun books, but maintains focus on the kinds of books that people who talk about books talk about. Along the way, we get some great ideas for our personal reading lists, and quite a few cutting one liners about both literary wunderkind and bestselling popular authors. (The whole book is copyrighted, but if you memorize a few and trot them out at your next dinner party, Leto probably won’t catch you. Any fair use attorneys out there?) There are entries that can make you puff your chest out one second and ponder the hole in your soul the next if you don’t follow Betty Rosenberg’s First Law of Reading, and secretly cheer when you don’t follow Orr’s Corollary to the First Law. Best of all, there’s a clarion call to change the reader’s mascot from the lowly worm to a higher form of life.

Like most collections of comic essays, these are best taken in chunks to maximize the laugh value. Some are short enough that you can read several at one sitting; others long enough that you can read comfortably at one sitting. Either way you take it, Leto’s reading life is mirrored by everyone who comes across this blog. Read it and have a blast.

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good bookIn a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God.  However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)

Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors,  begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?

One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen?  Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.

It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)

The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years.  But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.

Check the catalog for Good Book

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mayesFrances Mayes nurtures a sense of home wherever she travels and writes, frequently envisioning herself buying the rented house and settling in even while just visiting. Literal homes seem to blend and expand with a myriad of temporary residences as she reflects upon flavors, tastes, scents, scenes, poetry, cultures, and histories. She and husband Ed explore a rich variety of exotic as well as ordinary destinations, sweeping a wide radius from their Tuscan epicenter through a European, Mediterranean, Asian, and African playground.

Everything I pick up seems to lure me away. … A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home.

The memoir hints that this year’s travel in the world is a means for Frances and husband Ed to escape the dust and chaos of the ongoing contracted work at their perpetually-being-restored ancient Tuscan home named Bramasole. Or maybe it’s the growing sense of danger, with the possibility of random violence invading their domicile in northern California that pushes them away from home.

I didn’t know how deeply refreshing the landscape could be. The place does seem familiar, perhaps at a genetic level, but in a a nourishing way. Or maybe I’m just familiar with these friends, and when one is at home with friends, the surrounding world becomes friendly, too.

Whether traveling with newly made friends or rendezvousing with dear old friends, Mayes reflects on their friendships and fond memories, predicting potential relationships with new acquaintances or expressing relief that she won’t have to sit next to such boors as some of the cruise ship passengers at each meal. I found her most humorous when describing the absurdities of cruise ships and their tendency to transform passengers into cattle, driven through crowded tourist traps. Mayes’ first choice for travel is definitely not the cruise, preferring to rent homes and literally plant roots for a while in one village.

My early impressions of A Year in the World were tainted by my annoyance with what seemed constant obsession with food, especially meat and meat by-products, all forms of dairy and excessive indulgence in pastries on the part of Ed. I could assume he is quite rotund, despite his apparent energy and enthusiasm for daily excursions, even long strenuous walks in extreme heat such as their daily hikes to see the architectural and earthly wonders along Turkey’s Lycian coast. Could they possibly eat such meals while at home and shouldn’t they be more cautious with regard to health? My perspective did begin to soften once I reached the chapter on the British Isles—as they romped through English garden after English garden, I became so interested in garden tours. I love, and now wish to adopt, their habit of taking notes for use in the improvement of their home veggie, fruit, and flower growing techniques and varieties of plants. She describes serendipitous moments, such as finally coming across roses similar to a mystery species thriving in their Tuscany garden that was inherited after 30 years of neglect.

The book comprises about a dozen or so travel essays. Each may be dipped into separately or in sequence, yet it’s not the type of book you’ll read straight through. I started it months ago and picked the book up for just a chapter or two at a time, escaping to fascinating travel spots such as Andalucia, Scotland, and Mani. Mayes’ brief yet insightful reviews of books she travels with tempt me to add her inspired selections to my personal reading list. You may find it surprising that the title belies the format; you’ll seldom be aware of the month or year of her travels, and it’s never clear whether each of these trips occurred within a single year. That doesn’t matter, since you will be mesmerized by the poetic and lyrical way in which she transports you to a place and a moment, enveloping you in her experiences.

Check the WRL catalog for A Year in the World.

WRL also owns this title as an e-book.

 

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StuffMattersCoverHave you ever wondered why, despite putting one in your mouth every day, you don’t taste your spoon? I had never considered cutlery’s marvelous properties that mean it is simultaneously malleable in production, slow to corrode and unreactive in our acidic mouths.  In fact, I had never considered the properties of the millions of unregarded everyday objects that we live in, drive on, sit on, eat and use every moment of our lives.  That is where scientist Mark Miodownik comes in with this wonderful book about material science. It sounds like a dry topic and I would never have guessed that such a book could be fun, but it entertains enormously as it informs. Remember that “everything is made from something” but even Mark Miodownik  couldn’t cover everything, so he has limited himself to ten substances and written a chapter named after an intrinsic quality of each, so “Trusted” for paper and “Fundamental” for concrete.

My favorite chapter has to be the one about chocolate, which is of course “The most deliciously engineered material on earth.” Beware, though: you won’t be able to read about the “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavors” without getting an urge for a Little Something.  ( I will admit that I had to partake and “Flood [my] senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of [my] brain.”). If chocolate is not your thing you can read Stuff Matters for the explanation of why the sky is blue on page 98 and how this relates to the “Marvelous” substance  aerogel, which “is like holding a piece of the sky”.

Stuff Matters is a great book that I recommend for everyone. It is accessible enough for middle school and high school science classes, with lots for the students to learn: “The definition of the temperature of a material is, in fact, the degree to which the atoms in it are jiggling around.”  It is very readable for everyone while also being accurate, up-to-date science written by a scientist. Try it if you liked the fascinating nonfiction of The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, or the intersection of science, history and society in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. You should also read it if you have ever been in a concrete building or wrapped a gift in paper that is strong, colorful and creasable.

Check the WRL catalog for Stuff Matters.

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hornbyI am feeling very meta-…, writing about a book that is about writing about books, some of which are about writing. I have a great affection for essays and my library at home has lots of examples from Montaigne to Abbey to McPhee to the Whites (E.B and Katherine) and many more. When I came across this collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read, written originally for The Believer magazine, on the new book cart, I checked it out, immediately realized I needed to own it, and went to the bookstore and bought a copy.  Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” has been running more or less monthly since 2003 and covers just that–books that Hornby has read in the past month. Each essay begins with a list of books purchased that month and then a second list of books read. Hornby then proceeds to discuss those two lists and anything else that comes into his agile, inventive, and always entertaining mind.

There are two ways to read books like this. First, you can look at the lists the author offers, and count how many titles you have read, or at least heard of, reveling in your superior literary tastes. This is the competitive, ego-driven option. Or, you can step back, read the essays, and start making your own lists of titles mentioned that you ought to go right out and get and read. This is, of course, the more mature way to read the book. OK, I did both.

Hornby is a font of great ideas for books to read as his interests, his own protests to the contrary, go beyond football (by which he means soccer) and rock-and-roll. From all types of fiction to a fascinating array of nonfiction, Hornby’s descriptions of his monthly reading are filled with titles I want to read right now. As The Believer‘s “About” page indicates: “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” So the reviews here are generally positive, and that is great. I would much rather hear about why I should be interested in a particular book or writer than why I shouldn’t.

This is also a book about what it is to be a reader, and Hornby captures all the ups and downs of the reading life–those times when you just cannot get through a book and the times when you start a book and the next thing you know it is 3 a.m. and you are still reading. Hornby understands and conveys with humor the times when life gets in the way of reading. Spouses, children, deadlines, one’s own work, and, yes, the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, all have a way of derailing our reading time. That being the case, it is great to have a guide as thoughtful, eloquent, and passionate as Nick Hornby to offer some possible titles to get you back on the road to reading.

Check the WLR catalog for Ten Years in the Tub

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All this week, Mindy reviews books about art theft, starting with two titles about some of the more sensational cases:

Museum of the Missing (2006) and Stolen (2008) are very similar booksboth have introductory material written by Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a tool used worldwide to authenticate artworks and aid in the recovery of stolen art. Some of the true crimes described in the earlier work are also in Stolen. Both include pages filled with color illustrations of lost art and the fascinating stories detailing what is known about their thefts. (Those who are tracking the fluctuating state of art theft cases may also want to follow current events. One way that I have been doing that is with a Google alert that sends newly published articles and blog posts to my email inbox daily.)

These art crime stories range from sad, disturbing, and shocking losses of our cultural heritage to hilarious and often audacious stupid-crook capers. The good news is that a number of stolen works of art have been recovered by art crime investigators, often working in undercover sting operations designed to thwart criminal schemes. It’s delicate work, often prioritized in favor of recovering works of art unharmed rather than on locking up the culprits who stole them. Appeals to the public are often made, with rewards offered, without fear of prosecution if involved.

The reality is that the high-priced art world often makes the headlines with record-breaking art sales. This attracts thieves who can’t seem to resist. What thieves unfortunately fail to calculate is the market for fencing their loot. Thus, they’re sometimes stuck with stolen art, and without backgrounds in art history or an acquired taste for fine art they seldom show any concern for its preservation. Thieves who couldn’t find a buyer have sometimes destroyed the stolen art in order to eliminate the evidence of their crime. Sculptures are stolen for their metal content and melted down for scrap.

Houpt and Webb each do an excellent job of storytelling about these intriguing art thefts. They also provide a great deal of insight into the history of art and what has made stealing it such an irresistible crime. A nice shelf to browse for more titles like these is located in the true crime area of 364.162.

Check the WRL catalog for Museum of the Missing

Check the catalog for Stolen

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MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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