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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ 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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veniceIt’s the dream of a lifetime for so many – pick some wonderfully historic city or region and move there for an extended time. Live elbow to elbow with the locals, find the hidden restaurants and best shops and become one with the people who lived there since the city was founded. Learn the byways and hidden jewels and play host to the friends who visit you bearing their not-so-secret envy.

That’s what Polly Coles thought she was headed for when she and her partner packed up their four children and moved from England to Venice. Ahhh, Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, hub of world trade, cosmopolitan, her ancient canals filled with … human and animal waste, garbage, enormous cruise ships, and lollygagging tourists taking all the seats on the vaporetti. A city not designed for moving your household unless you have both Atlas and Charles Atlas to carry your valuables. And when the seasonal high tides (the acqua alta) come in, your wellies had better come over your knees or you’ll be slopping through who knows what.

Perhaps worst of all is the attitude of the Venetians. There is a definite pecking order, starting with the people whose families have lived there for hundreds of years, to the newcomers who’ve only been there around a hundred years, to the people who live there but weren’t born there. Bottom of the heap, of course, are those who are only visiting for a few hours.  On the other hand, there is an egalitarianism within the city itself – rich or poor, you have to walk the streets to get anywhere, and the woman in the subdued colors next to you might be a Baroness. (When you go out to the Lido, where all Venetians holiday, it’s another story. A beachfront capanna goes for around $20,000 for the season, or you can go in with your neighbors for around $7000. And the beachgoers know exactly where everyone belongs.)

There are also other currents in the social stream, including the foreign workers who commute from the mainland to the beggars who crouch humbly on the pavement and wait for alms. Coles makes an effort to understand these people, and does a wonderful job portraying the tragedies and small victories of their lives. She also delves into the culture of the common spaces, precious in a place that can’t grow outward or upward, and to the fabulous interiors hidden behind fortress-like walls and doors. And forget Carnival. Real Venetians have a much more varied festival season to mark the long history of the city, including a thanksgiving for deliverance from the Black Plague which killed 50,000 people.

There are some shortcomings: Coles frequently talks about the Venetian dialect, which is different enough from “standard” Italian to make it difficult for non-natives, but she never really explains the difference. She also repeats some of the regular complaints about tourists, which can start to grate on the reader. But her strengths shine through, from her description of the obstinate bureaucracies to some beautiful descriptions of the setting and the residents. She also follows the debate about who is a “real” Venetian, and comes to an insightful answer. Still, it makes me rethink wanting to go to a place that has become a caricature of itself, at least until I can worry about where to hang my laundry.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Politics of Washing

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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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Life ItselfIf you discovered movies as I did, coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, then you probably also had a love/hate relationship with Siskel and Ebert. Delivered from a darkened theater balcony, first on PBS and then in syndication, their television reviews brought us news of the latest films, but both critics could infuriate us with a snarky comment or an inappropriate thumbs up or thumbs down. While other great film journalists had come before them, Siskel and Ebert brought criticism into the mainstream of American culture.

As a young film buff, I was never a huge fan of the reviews, but over the years, I couldn’t help but come to respect the two, both because they were passionate advocates for film and because both battled premature health problems nobly before succumbing to too early deaths in 1999 (Siskel) and 2013 (Ebert). Before his death, Ebert wrote a memoir, Life Itself, which is destined to become a classic of the form.

Life Itself follows Ebert from his youth in the 40s and 50s, through his rise in the world of Chicago journalism, into his battles against alcoholism, his surprising journey into television and fame in the film world, the blossoming of a late-life marriage, and his struggles with the cancer that took first his jaw and ability to speak, and ultimately his life.

This is a book that even those who don’t care much about film will find worthwhile. Ebert approached life with self-effacing humor and a healthy sense of his own good fortune. Running in circles of big egos and beautiful people, Ebert was full of a sense of his own abilities, but also with a sense of humor about his own shortcomings. He was a regular guy with a great journalistic talent who made the most of the opportunities life gave him, and over the course of his autobiography, you’ll come to appreciate his quirky outlook, his work ethic, and the way in which he learns from his experience. Life Itself is full of charming diversions: Ebert isn’t afraid to spend a few pages describing the merits of his favorite fast food restaurants or London streets. He weaves other familiar names into his narrative but always in a bemused way that can’t help but make you grin. His descriptions of the most important relationships in his life —his difficult mother, his rivalry with and deep respect for Siskel, and his connection and love with wife Chaz Hammelsmith — are each moving in a different way.

Try Ebert’s book and you too will end up with a greater respect for an unusual man and for Life Itself.

Check the WRL catalog for Life Itself

Or try Life Itself as an audiobook on CD

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Shadow DiversNearing its first decade in print, Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers is a nonfiction classic that will be read for many years to come. That’s because Kurson finds an elegant way to combine so many subjects of interest: the exciting adventure of deep-sea diving, the poignant war history of the German U-boat submarines, the detective story of how the divers figured out which wreck they were exploring, and the interesting character portraits of the divers involved, some who sacrificed relationships and even their lives in the pursuit of their obsession.

The story began in 1991, when a boatful of recreational divers explored a new wreck and discovered something that wasn’t supposed to be off the coast of New Jersey, a U-boat. Even that first dive seemed to be shrouded by bad luck and mystery, with the death of one diver, but two men in particular, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, began a six-year adventure as they tried to identify what they found.

The diving scenes are spectacularly exciting in Kurson’s tale, but he finds a way to make the library work that the two men did just as riveting. Both the U.S. and German governments still classified some of the information they needed, and many documents that Kurson found turned out to be inaccurate historical cover-ups that had to be disproved before the hunt could progress.

Adding one more fascinating level to the tale, Kurson recreates the last days of the men aboard the submarine, following them from their selection into the U-boat corps (at a time in the war when such duty was nearly the equivalent of a death sentence), researching journals and interviewing family members to discover their decidedly non-fanatical political beliefs, then telling the tale of their last farewell from families and what can be recreated of their final journey. This is a marvelous blend of diving ethics, deep sea adventure (and sometimes terror), strong personalities in clash, and historical mystery that should please almost any reader.

Check the WRL catalog for Shadow Divers

Or listen to Shadow Divers as an audiobook on compact disc

WRL also has Shadow Divers in ebook and audio ebook formats

 

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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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Children are from HeavenMore than any other parenting book that I read and used while raising my now teens and young adults, this classic title made the most impact on my family’s life. Because of communication techniques learned from John Gray, my children commonly ask, “Mom, what may I do to help you?” Better yet, I often return home to find delightedly that the dishes are washed, the laundry done and put away, and the floors vacuumed or swept without even having asked the children to do it! They have learned to observe what needs to be done and to proceed to take ownership of the task. A household then becomes more efficient much in the same way a business may foster efficiency through employee ownership. Furthermore, I have found that my children love to be of service to other individuals and organizations without expectation of rewards or reciprocation, just for the joy of giving their time and effort for the benefit of others.

Something very significant in child rearing can be achieved simply by respecting kids’ opinions and viewpoints in the manner you would like to be treated, accepting who and what they truly are, listening to them well, and regarding them as innately benevolent beings who want to behave well and do the right things in a positive atmosphere. Most people realize that negative parenting can harm kids and may only achieve temporary control over children who learn to anticipate the age of 18 with a vengeance so that they can finally live the life they want! On the other hand, Children are from Heaven helps parents guide children toward a better quality of life and healthy relationships through encouragement, clearly described expectations, and positive statements that never shame, order, or demand in unreasonable tones. Children just cannot bear yelling without slipping toward rebellion. They’d truly rather be in your good graces.

A great example of how Gray’s book can help parents to elicit cooperation from their kids: “Ask but do not order.” This translates to avoiding a command such as “Don’t leave that there” by replacing it with a more positive request such as “Let’s now put our things away. Would you please put that away?” Instead of demanding, “Stop talking,” to gently say, “Let’s be quiet and listen to your mother. Please stop talking,” elicits a more enduring and peaceful compliance. Little by little, this style of communication becomes highly effective. Gradually, you discover that you no longer have to ask for good behavior as often; you simply witness it in action and will be praising your amazing children frequently! You find that this sort of gentle guidance works to develop children who begin to think on their own about how to live more peacefully and helpfully without waiting to do what they are told.

John Gray, a very experienced family counselor, happened to become a father and shares examples from the challenges of raising his children. The lovingly effective communication techniques he applies to parenting utilize much of the same psychology found in his bestselling marriage and relationship book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. In fact, using some of the advice I read in Children are from Heaven proved quite effective in improving communication with my spouse too! There are a few tricks found here that really work well when you have a “honey-do” list and want life-changing results. I am confident that this parenting book can help you to realize the great joys of parental involvement and to enjoy a higher quality relationship with your precious children.

Check the WRL catalog for Children are from Heaven

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