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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

petersonAt first, it sounds like some sort of NPR show or something, but All Things Reconsidered is actually a delightful collection of essays that Roger Tory Peterson published in Bird Watcher’s Digest over the last decade and a bit of his life. Peterson’s name is a household word among birders, and his Field Guide to the Birds can be found all over the country, often in tattered, field-worn condition (my personal copy is taped together and dates from ornithology class at William and Mary ca. 1982).

In addition to being an excellent illustrator, Peterson is an engaging writer, with an obvious affection for and appreciation of the natural world. Whether writing about confusing fall warblers, birding in Kenya, or the renaissance of the Peregrine Falcon, Peterson’s clear prose style and narrative line are a delight to the ear, and the photographs and drawings are a delight for the eye. These are personal stories, introducing the reader to many of the characters of the bird world, both avian and human. They also are a fascinating look at the environmental and citizen science movements over the years, as seen through Peterson’s life and work.

Another great collection of stories to prepare you for observing spring migration.

Check the WRL catalog for All Things Reconsidered

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TheOldestLivingThings

Several months ago a group of us here at Williamsburg Regional Library presented The Top Five of Five for Non Fiction at the Virginia Library Association Conference. I was assigned science books, and one of the trends I reported on was “Guide Books Plus.” Over the next three days I will be reporting on some science Guide Books that are Plus, Plus, Plus! I think they expand the definition of guide book and that they are superbly readable, informative and visually stunning books. The first one is the loveliest book I have seen for a long time with a quirky and fascinating angle on nature: The Oldest Living Things in the World.

Rachel Sussman spent a decade travelling around the world finding, researching and photographing these enchanting, odd, and sometimes poignant organisms. Everything in the book is over 2000 years old and they go up to tens of thousands of years old. Animals, apart from primitive ones like sponges, simply don’t live that long, so most of the photographs are of plants, but there are also fungi, lichens and coral. Sadly, as the author says, “being old is not the same as being immortal,” so some of the organisms, like Florida’s Senator Cypress tree, are listed as “Deceased.”

Some of these organisms have become so old by using unusual survival techniques, or in everyday language by being very strange, for example the underground forest of southern Africa. The landscape is so dry and devastating fires so common that most of this plant grows underground. The photograph shows reddish desert dirt with an unassuming low-spreading plant with olive green oval leaves—just your average weed, except that the part showing is just the crown peeping through. If a fire rips through, it is only like having your eyebrows singed off and the tree will survive.

This is a large format book (27 x 30 cm according to our catalog) that is worthy to grace any coffee table. The exquisite photographs of varied landscapes from the fjords of Greenland to the rain forest of Eastern Australia to African deserts are dazzling enough to attract the attention of an art photographer, while the text about the organisms is personal and engaging. Rachel Sussman often describes how she heard of some of the more obscure organisms, how she traveled and what adventures she had in all corners of the world. About 3000-year-old Chilean desert plants she says: “Every once in a while you see something so ludicrously beautiful that all you can do is laugh.” Armchair travelers will thrill at seeing some little-visited parts of the world.

This is a great book for readers who like unusual science books with beautiful photographs like The Snowflake, by Kenneth Libbrecht  or quirky guidebooks like The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger. And read it if you find yourself ruminating on the brevity of our allotted three-score and ten.

Check the WRL catalog for The Oldest Living Things in the World.

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fadimanThis week started with a book on books, reading, and libraries, and here, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris continues the theme. Fadiman may be best known for her 1997 award-winning nonfiction title The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This collection of essays on Fadiman’s life as a reader takes a lighter tone and is a joy to read.

The 18 essays collected here offer reflections on Fadiman’s family (her father reviewed books for the New Yorker, was a promoter of reading on radio and TV in the 1950s and 60s, and authored The Lifetime Reading Plan), conjoining libraries after marriage (how do you decide on shelving and dealing with duplicate copies?), and the pleasure that can be attained through attentiveness to grammar and spelling.

Above all though, Fadiman celebrates the joy of reading, of re-reading, and of living a life of words. Anyone who has ever spent time noting errors of punctuation in restaurant menus, of playing word games with your family, or coming back to a favorite childhood book will find something to like in this witty and delightful collection.

Check the WRL catalog for Ex Libris

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manguelManguel is one of my favorite writers about books and reading, particularly for the connections that he makes using history, his own reading life, and a broad knowledge of books and literature. I find this book of his particularly appealing for the way it brings libraries into the mix.

Here, Manguel’s fifteen essays look at libraries of all kinds, prompted by his own building of a new library for his house in France. From personal libraries to state libraries to libraries of imaginary titles, Manguel brings his lucid prose style and his restless imagination to them all, moving easily from individual titles to cataloging systems to shelving. This is not a history of libraries, but rather a personal journey through the realm of books, with Manguel as a superb guide.

Anyone who loves books and reading will find something to enjoy here. Reading any of Manguel’s essays is like sitting down with a well-read, but never pedantic or overbearing, friend and talking about literature. I can think of no better book to start off the year with. It is just the thing to prime the pump for an excellent reading year in 2015.

Check the WRL catalog for The Library at Night

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handI work on a public service desk, so I see lots of people from all walks of life and economic classes. When they ask for computer help, or to use the phone, it is impossible not to see or hear what they’re doing. (The cardinal sin of librarianship is denying them service based on those observations.) But when I hear someone reeking of cigarettes negotiating a payday loan, or see a woman with a toddler and a baby bragging about her sexual adventures on Facebook, it’s hard not to mentally question their choices. Linda Tirado has given me 191 pages of smackaround for my presumption in asking those questions.

Tirado came to international attention when her essay on the bad decisions many poor people make went viral. Based on that attention she was able to get a book deal to expand on the post, and to share the experiences of other people she knows. Those people might as well be the ones I see coming in the door of the library, because they face the same problems: minimum wage jobs where they rarely get 40 hours, second jobs that frequently conflict with the first, unreliable cars, uncertain housing, lack of resources or time to buy and cook fresh food, and difficult choices about prioritizing the little money they earn.

So why do poor people smoke? Wouldn’t you, if it cut down on hunger, gave you a jolt of energy, and allowed you some break time at work?  Why do poor people live in such lousy housing? Wouldn’t you, if you had to come up with first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit on a place that goes for more than a few hundred bucks a month? Why do they pay sky-high interest rates on short term loans? Wouldn’t you, if your car broke down and it was still a week until payday? Why are they so poor at planning for the future? Wouldn’t you be if a supervisor, a manager, a district supervisor, and corporate policy all dictated when you could go to the bathroom?

Our prejudice towards the poor is enshrined in our public policy, which begins with an automatic suspicion that poor people can be divided into the worthy poor and those who are to blame and ought to pay the price.  And I’d bet you couldn’t get 10 regular people, much less the 21 senators, 51 delegates and 1 governor in Virginia to agree on who is worthy. Tirado’s writing is conversational and often funny, but her humor doesn’t negate the anger in her voice when she talks about those policy-making individual and political prejudices. And her name couldn’t be more perfect for this book – it’s a cross between a tirade and a tornado, demanding that we listen and pay attention.

Check the WRL catalog for Hand to Mouth

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trillinThe art of essay writing is one that requires a sharp eye, a command of the language, and a wide-ranging interest in the human condition. Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite contemporary essayists, has all of these in abundance. I first encountered Trillin in the 1980s as a writer about food and eating, with the delightful collections American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Helpings, now conveniently collected as The Tummy Trilogy. Later, I discovered his clever and pointed political commentary (in verse) for The Nation, where he has the enviable post of “verse columnist” (see Deadline Poet for examples). Next came Trillin the novelist, as I found Tepper Isn’t Going Out on the shelves here. So you might say I am a Trillin fan across the board.

Quite Enough of offers readers new to Trillin an assortment of his writing on food, sports, politics (and especially politicians), science, languages (especially Yiddish), and his own life. Originally from Kansas City, Trillin retains an affection for barbecue even as he revels in the food opportunities he encounters in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he has lived for many years.

Like others of my favorite essay writers Trillin excels at writing about people’s lives. He clearly has an affection for the characters about whom he writes (even when he also clearly disagrees with them), and lets their voices come through. His short political poetry often skewers politicians for what they say and do, but Trillin writes with a certain playfulness that if it does not blunt the sword at least makes the blow a bit tempered.

This collection is a great place for readers to start who have never read Trillin before (though readers of The New Yorker, The Nation, and other magazines may have come across some of these pieces in their original publications). With four decades of pieces to choose from, there is really something here for everyone. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.

Check the WRL catalog for Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin.

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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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