On Libraries

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me: I absolutely love the library. Sometimes it strikes me just how much of an incredible social good public libraries are, how lucky we are for such a concept to exist and for it to have lasted so solidly all these years. Think about it – a free service which is available to everyone that provides nearly unlimited entertainment, enrichment, education. (It also blows my mind to think about how many materials would be in the library if their entire inventory was in the building – if no books were taken out, all of them arrayed on the shelves, how packed would the place be!) These days, the entertainment industry is one of the most profitable out there, willing to go to great lengths to make a buck. We are forced to pay ridiculous amounts of money to see a film projected for one time only while surrounded by tons of strangers who may or may not ruin the experience for us. Netflix, Spotify, Youtube, and similar services provide some modicum of entertainment- and media-sharing service at low to no cost, but there are plenty of limitations to the size, quality, depth, and breadth of their catalogs, not to mention the fact that you need an internet connection and a computer to access them in the first place.

The education industry isn’t much better, with colleges and universities (American ones at least) charging their students what equates to a middle class person’s annual salary for a service that our national dialogue insists is necessary to achieving the American dream. Post-secondary education is supposed to enhance critical thinking skills, prepare young adults for careers, and provide them with experiences to launch them into successful lives, but it also leaves many of them in insurmountable debt with unmarketable or impractical degrees in subjects that could have been mastered just as easily for free via self-guided reading. The piece of paper attained at the end of a four year education holds way too much weight in society, in my humble opinion, since it signifies more about a student’s social class standing than their intelligence or knowledge base.

But we can satisfy our needs for plot, story, character, knowledge, theory, and thought at no cost in every community. We can expand our minds on our own time without paying a penny of tuition (think Good Will Hunting).

Without a doubt, I would be flat broke if I had to pay for the countless books I’ve read courtesy of my local library. In considering this, I feel nothing but the deepest gratitude for those brilliant souls who insisted on instituting the public library way back when. This incredibly powerful and valuable social institution allows me, at absolutely no cost, to do the things I love most in the world: to read, to enter another world, to engage with a story, to stir my mind.

In this day and age, if the concept of the library had never previously existed, if it was only being suggested for the first time that we create a free book and media lending service, I am extremely confident that the public library scheme would not be implemented. Our national values are so misplaced, so profit-driven and individualistic, failing to see the vast benefits of providing people with certain basic social goods and services. And this fills me with great sadness (and the desire to give my local library a huge hug) but it also leads me to wonder if the future of the public library truly is in danger. It seems so anathema to what many political leaders value, I fear that it may become a more serious target of their budget-cutting and profit-prioritizing in years to come, especially as forms of media beyond the type so associated with brick and mortar libraries become increasingly valued over paperbacks. These fears may be totally unfounded in my lifetime – I really haven’t done the proper research on how imminent the end of the library may be if it is in fact a true likelihood – but I did some digging and found more than a few articles that piqued my interest on this topic. For further reading, check out the links below.

The Week: What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books: An interesting read on the importance of physical libraries as social meeting spaces and the site of helpful, brilliant librarians. Plus a smattering of library history launched off of Tim Worstall’s horrendous recommendation that everyone be given a Kindle with unlimited subscriptions so we can shut libraries down (has he seen the bad publicity e-reading before bed has gotten lately???)

Slate: What will become of the library? – An overview of the burning of the Library of Alexandria and other historical instances of biblioclasm as they relate to our modern-day predicament. Also looks at trends and changes in the form and function of libraries, including the fascinating Snead Bookshelf Company’s design of library shelving in which the shelves themselves are load-bearing such that their removal would literally compromise the structure of library buildings.

Knight Foundation: Future of Libraries – Interviews with library directors regarding how they are transforming their services to fit the needs of the modern world and what they envision the future role of libraries will become.

Go to Hellman: Are public libraries in a death spiral? – In response to library budget cuts and the suggestion of limiting library hours in 2010, a fellow blogger argues for enhancing the service and programming aspect of the local library, an aspect of the brick and mortar institution that online resources cannot replace.

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On All Your Worth

It didn’t take much for me to fall in love with Elizabeth Warren. Her progressive politics, her earnest concern for the plight of all Americans, her frustration with policy decisions that routinely reward big finance over honest people, her ability to shut down detractors with facts and heart, her near-obsession with the stories of bankrupt families in an effort to figure out how we can help them… she just makes me swoon.

Warren’s memoir, A Fighting Chance, left me quite smitten with the Massachusetts senator. It also lead me to an even earlier work of Warren’s entitled All Your Worth that has the potential to transform the way most Americans handle their money for the better. Written with Warren’s daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, All Your Worth is a financial how-to for the average working American. The two Warren girls set out strict but clearly outlined (and thus, easy to follow) rules for the way we should spend our money in order to maximize the value of both our saving and our spending. I don’t usually write about (or read about for that matter) financial books, but I couldn’t fail to provide some humble promotion to a book as rare, useful and comprehensible as All Your Worth (and much more practical than the lottery or a Mr. Money Mustache lifestyle). Plus I think a book like this, one that is so unfaltering in its commitment to helping everyday people, proves yet again why Mrs. Warren would be a wonderful leader of this country if she ever decides to take the Presidential plunge.

The basic formula set out by our authors is a 50-30-20 balance between our Must-Have expenses, our Wants spending, and our Saving, respectively. Challenging the way we conceptualize need in 21st century America, Elizabeth and Amelia define items in the Must-Have category as things you cannot cut out, the bills you would still pay without fail if you lost your job or faced a major financial downfall. So no, cable TV, an internet connection, and dinners out do not fall into this category. But beyond tightening the circle of need, Warren and Warren Tyagi explain methods to downsize on those Must-Haves that seem fixed in stone. There’s a very thorough beginner’s guide to refinancing your mortgage with a large emphasis on questions to ask a lender when shopping for new loans. There’s advice on how to tackle daunting credit card debt – lots of advice. There’s straightforward methods for lowering your insurance costs, exploring every possible option to get those Must-Haves to 50% of your monthly take home pay or less. And there’s clear and simple explanations as to why 50% is the magic, practical balance.

Then come the Wants. Trips to the movies, a trip to the local pub, subscriptions to HBO, vacations overseas, birthday and Christmas gifts. All those things, big and small, that make life a little more pleasurable or exciting or relaxing after the mortgage and the doctor’s bills are paid. What’s more, the Warren ladies make it super simple to track these types of expenditures. Just use cash. I know, it can be difficult to pay for everything you want with cash due to the proliferation of so many online marketplaces. And true, maybe that credit card company wants to reward you with goodies for a certain level of spending. But the only way to have a fast and hard idea of where you stand with your budget is to use good, old-fashioned cash for the things that aren’t budgeted for, the bright little spots of fun in your spending. I haven’t been one to use cash ever since I received my first debit card. I used to cringe at the thought a pocket full of twenties despite the eye rolls when I told people I only carried plastic. My mother, the kind of woman who is infamous for her ability to render exact change from her wallet, has stopped asking me for money when she’s at the register and needs a spare one-spot. But reading All Your Worth forced me to challenge my assumptions about this longstanding method of financial transaction. When looking at my bank account statements, it’s really a headache to parcel out where my spending diverges from my spending on wants. And of course I won’t stick to a Wants budget if it isn’t easy, or downright effortless, to do. So I’m trying cash for the first time in ages, just a budgeted amount I put in my wallet each week. If there are any leftovers, I’ll put that cash to the side in a little rainy day fund, ensuring I’ll have something to pull on when I want to buy a pricey concert ticket, take a vacation, or shower my mom with a really thoughtful Mother’s Day gift. The more I think about it, the more doable it seems. I may be required to pay with a card every now and then, but it won’t be difficult to remember to detract a certain amount from my weekly cash allowance when plastic purchases are made so sparingly. So far, it seems simple as pie.

Finally, there’s the savings category. I was actually a little surprised by the low budgeting – only 20% – to savings. But All Your Worth really stresses the importance of having a good chunk of Wants spending to enjoy life – and saving smartly to make your 20% grow it something much more than the face value of what you initially put in. The world of investing seems impossibly daunting to me. As often as I see my elderly housing clients barely subsisting on their monthly Social Security checks, I’ve kidded myself into thinking that smart saving will be enough to supplement that inevitable fixed monthly income. But the Warren ladies bring the world of investing out into a more accessible light, with overviews of what type of stock options to seek, defining all those acronyms like IRAs, explaining all the means of growing a retirement plan. They don’t even need to devote that many pages to their savings advice because it’s reduced to the simplest, most user-friendly tidbits that readers need to know before their money is off and running. After 15 minutes of research on my bank’s website (and of course reading All Your Worth), I set up a retirement account that I’m confident is a small step towards a more comfortable life when my working years are over. And once a down payment on a house is out of my pocket, even more of my savings will be invested in the type of investment options that are safe and just plain smart for someone my age. Thanks Warren girls!

If nothing else, All Your Worth gave me more confidence in myself as a financial powerhouse. Maybe that’s strong language, but I feel like I can get there someday. I know what to look for when mortgage shopping, something that was previously so scary as to make me reconsider my dream of home-ownership. I know how much money I should keep in the bank and how much to invest. I know that I’m doing what I can on a daily basis to make managing my money easy and effortless. I know how to still enjoy myself without a wracking sense of guilt every time I spend money on me. I know how to have difficult financial conversations with my husband even. All Your Worth lays out an incredibly easy plan for reducing debt and reducing worry, for building wealth and building financial happiness. The book is really more of a kick in the butt, than anything else, reminding us of our personal responsibility in our own financial security but also highlighting the often obscured ways we can exercise that responsibility. It’s unnerving to hear Warren hearken back to the days when there weren’t foreclosures in every neighborhood because the bank wouldn’t even think to lend you the money on a home you could not afford. While the financial rules and regulations certainly don’t make it easy for people to hold on to their hard-earned money, we as educated consumers can do just fine avoiding the loopholes and debt that banks and credit card companies prey upon. And if there’s one person that can elucidate everything a consumer needs to know about his or her money, I don’t think it could possibly be anyone other than Elizabeth Warren.

On This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

 

Image retrieved from annpatchett.com

I’m a sponge for stories. I love to consume them in whatever format they’re presented to me – in a book, on film, or from the lips of a performer. But one thing I’ve never had the knack for was telling them myself.

I remember an 11th grade English class assignment that required I compose a short story. I felt completely unprepared to take on such a daunting task, and the finished product felt flimsy, shallow, and absolutely unreadable to me. Looking back, I can forgive myself that awful attempt at fiction on account of my youth and lack of guidance. I was such an avid reader back then as I am today, so I’m certain I judged myself too harshly against the shining paradigms of fiction which I poured over on a daily basis, the carefully crafted work of inspired and wizened and older professionals. It’s hard to say why this one high school homework assignment sticks with me so vividly even a decade later, especially when my inability to create plot, evoke emotion, coherently string together events, and engage an audience is not confined to the written word – I can’t tell a story (or a joke for that matter) to save my life.

But reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes it seem so damn easy. Not the writing it down part, but the creative element of storytelling. One of the longest and earliest essays featured in this collection recounts Patchett’s method of composition, how she creates an entire story in her head before ever putting pen to paper. She argues that developing a story is one of the easiest parts of fiction writing; all you need is a character or two and then you simply ask questions about those characters, put them in situations of all sorts, delve into their past experiences to understand why they are however you imagine them to be. You will find that you begin to write what you know, argues Patchett, but it won’t be long before something of interest develops too. In Patchett’s able voice, the construction of a novel sounds like a lovely pastime, a sort of daydreaming on a higher level. While I envy her ability to so effortlessly create interesting and engaging fiction, I have no desire to become a novelist. Nonetheless, it sure was interesting to read about and I almost wanted to try my hand at a short story or two. That’s the power of Ann Patchett.

Although entitled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett’s essay collection is not solely about marriage and relationships, nor confined to her love of writing as the beginning of this review may suggest. Prior to picking this volume up, I knew little of Patchett and that is probably a large part of why I found this collection so intriguing. Essays are one of my favorite forms – I love how one writer’s nonfiction, read in close succession, can provide such a strongly nuanced feeling of a person. Every essay collection I’ve had the pleasure to read has been brimming with wisdom and left me feeling delightfully inspired and positive about life. Although there are certainly staple essay topics found in most volume across writers, each collection retains a highly specific and undefinable feeling in my mind, wrought by the particular author’s sensibility, writing style, and choice of topic.

Patchett and I don’t share nearly as much in common as I do with some other beloved essayists on my list, like Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Franzen. A child of divorce, a divorcee herself, a Southerner, a lover of Los Angeles, childless, and a product of a Catholic school education, Patchett’s upbringing and life experiences could not be further from my own. Voyeurism of sorts played a role in my fascination with this book. Her first marriage, doomed before it even began, is at once entirely foreign and alarmingly familiar, the type of relationship that someone could so easily fall into and, unlike Patchett, never emerge from. She explains her marriage as being ground in divorce in an essay that she wisely placed at the end as it trumped all the other relationship woes and advice previously disseminated. The close friendship Ann develops in later life with the nun who taught her to read and write in primary school is touchingly funny and still unfathomable to me, the child of vaguely Catholic parents who only shared horror stories about nuns during their Catholic school days. I find myself thankful for her account of training for the Los Angeles Police Academy, one of those experiences I’d much rather read about than try my own hand at. And of course, I was complete won over (and nearly brought to tears) with meditations on Patchett’s beloved dog Rose and her deeply adored maternal grandmother, a woman Ann cared for in the later years of her life.

Her friendship with Lucy Grealy is the subject of a controversial but touching convocation address at Clemson, leading into Patchett’s arguments for the right to read. Though she later goes on to admonish herself for the naivete of her speech, Patchett’s words rung so true to me: “A college education is about expansion. It’s about seeing many different viewpoints, hearing many different voices. You will find that the more you learn, the more complicated many things get, because you will have the intelligence to recognize many aspects of a single idea.” Maybe I was particularly drawn to this bit of wisdom because it sums up my hunger for essays, especially the type that Patchett composed and compiled in this book. I find myself eager to read anything of this form as a means to learn from people similar to and different from myself. The essay has a fairly express purpose of making a point, not veiling themes in metaphor and symbolism as a more artful novel would, but explicitly structuring anecdotes and arguments in thoughtful ways to evoke an idea.

I’m not sure what I can say to adequately prepare readers for this collection without denying them the pleasure of discovering and evaluating Patchett’s wisdom on their own. As Ann suggests, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes my world delightfully more complicated. Her engaging essay collection marks one more contribution to the multitude of ideas, big and small, planted in my head by a wide range of thinkers and writers. This book is a brilliant example of why I love to read.

On The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Image retrieved from techliberation.com

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains not only confirmed some of my deepest anxieties about the internet, it gave me new ones to consider. Nicholas Carr blends neuroscience, biology, psychology, computer technology, and philosophy into a fascinating account of how the internet age is altering the ways in which we think, read, write, socialize, conceptualize the world, remember our days, and experience our lives. Digressions on the changes wrought by the internet age are supplemented by discussions of memory-formation, the evolution of reading behavior, Google, artificial intelligence, and so much more. Well-rounded and surprisingly entertaining, I finished The Shallows eager to write about all the ideas Carr planted in my mind.

At its essence, Carr’s book suggests that we need to be cognizant of both the good and the bad that a change as vast as the internet guarantees. As he states in the final pages of the book “[w]e shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.” Though Carr is careful not to outright denounce the internet, his explanation of the changes that have accompanied its expansion certainly lean in favor of the good ole days. The argument is not simply that the internet makes us stupider, shallower, or otherwise stilted, but that it we must pay careful attention to the ways in which it alters our memory, knowledge, wisdom, and attention spans.

The Shallows begins with a discussion of the brain’s plasticity; it’s almost as though the author wants to remind us that the ability of an external technology to reshape our brain chemistry (the argument he proceeds to make) is already well proven. One of the most alarming ways in which our brains are subject to alteration by the internet comes in the form of our attention spans. The internet (and Google in particular) thrive on interruption and distraction – following hyperlinks are a mainstay of internet activity that make it so addictive and useful. Carr devotes a lot of attention to changes in reading behavior as it relates to the internet and e-readers. I was fascinated to learn that, initially after the advent of the written word, people regularly read aloud. This was at once a mainstay of previous oral traditions, a product of how words were written at the time (without any spaces between them, requiring the sounding out of letters in order to ascertain the architecture of words within), and the context within which reading was conducted (from scrolls and parchments, often in public). Once spaces were introduced between words and the portable book took hold, reading became a more solitary and quiet pursuit. Silently reading by ourselves allowed the human race to develop skill as deep readers and thus, deep thinkers. The internet reverses this trend, continually grabbing our attention, then forcing it to be diverted and redirected. Sure, we can peruse many pages this way, but we are less able to ponder, internalize, remember, and learn from each website. And even e-readers, many of which allow readers to link to the internet in the midst of their reading, encourage less deep and uninterrupted reading than a traditional tangible book. Our ability to deeply maintain focus on tasks is compromised and we thrive on a constant influx of stimuli both on- and offline.

This pattern goes hand in hand with the glorification of multitasking. I could digress on this subject for quite some time, but I’ll try to keep this brief. I’m no stranger to multitasking – in fact, I’ve spent much of my lifetime thinking it a skill worth mastering. But recently I’ve come to recognize the evil of doing two things at once – as well as three, four, or even five things at once. Our modern world is so focused upon markers of success, high levels of productivity, and an ability to do it all, that we miss out on the joy every moment, even those consumed by small tasks, can bring.

A high premium is placed upon multitasking in our society; it’s considered an essential skill that the modern woman must perfect to achieve success at home and in the workplace. I regularly try to challenge that notion, to suggest that practicing presence is a more deeply satisfying, albiet less socially-valued talent. It seems to me that simplifying our lives will both contribute to and be made easier by practicing presence. This simplification could occur with tangible items – when we have fewer physical things to attend to, our minds are clearer, we have fewer unnecessary attachments, and more mental space is available to focus our energies elsewhere. It could occur with relationships – practicing true presence with others illuminates our relationships in such a way as to allow us to evaluate them. By focusing on how the people in our life make us feel, we can determine if our friendships need work and if they are worth preserving or even letting go. And in terms of the internet, it could occur with having our hands in fewer social media spots, spending less time on the internet as a means to provide our minds with some calm, or challenging ourselves to read articles in full, rather than allowing hyperlinks to speed us through one page and onto the next. Over time, practicing presence ensures that those things which are most important, whether in the form of relationships, tasks, or experiences, rise to the top while distractions are weeded out. And it guarantees a more full and satisfying life in the form of simple awareness – something we so often fail to achieve in our day to day lives.

Beyond my own digression, I did find it telling that Carr referenced a question proposed during an initial reveal of the “window” system whereby multiple computer applications could be opened in different windows at one time. An audience member queried why someone would want to be distracted by email pop ups and other windows during the course of their work. Many others took this position at the time (during the mid-1970s), but his hesitations seem to have lost favor. Now we allow ourselves to be distracted not just while working on a computer but also while socializing, spending time with our families, exercising, watching movies, etc. And when we are attending to multiple things at once, our mental processes occur on a more shallow level. We operate with less creativity, wisdom, reflection, and mindfulness because no one thing is fully capturing our attention.

I’ve always been adamant that the internet and its ubiquity (especially as we make it more portable via smartphones and tablets) reduces our presence in the real world. An interesting observation of Carr’s pertains to why people, especially teenagers and young adults, are so tied to their internet personas. Their use of social media provides allows them to be immersed in the social world via their profile on a particular site. But beyond allowing them a means of display, social media can be a source of great anxiety due to its fast pace. With a near-constant stream of updates comes the fear of missing out and being left behind. Social media ties us to others but, if not used frequently enough, can also push us out of social groups too.

Others argue that the internet is a huge boon for society by putting all the world’s information at our fingertips. And this is where Carr introduces discussions of memory formation and artificial intelligence. While the internet makes it exceedingly easy to retrieve whatever piece of information we would like, the cacophony of the internet makes it less likely for us to very deeply know, process, and store that information once located. The internet serves as a vast library, but if we rely on it too heavily, our muscles for memory-storing and knowledge generation will likely whither. We have increased access to knowledge but we individually know much less. Wisdom and culture are bound to suffer if we place all of our basic knowledge into the hands of a machine, not blessed with the human capabilities of meditative thinking, learning, and contemplation.

While Carr’s book is ripe with amazing examples of how the internet affects our brains and our lives, I’ll highlight one final fascinating point. Following the advent of digital publication, one would imagine that scholarly articles would have a higher number of citations than their print-only counterparts. After all, information is not only more readily accessible via the web but there is also a higher volume of material available on the internet than in a single library. But a study of citations in scholarly articles across print and digital mediums actually found some counterintuitive results. Digital-age articles not only cited less than print articles, they also utilized a much narrower scope of sources. Because of the ways in which search engines are structured, popularity is favored, providing researchers with easiest access to the most recent and most popular research. The scope of scholarship, in the form of academic publications, has actually been confined by the internet.

If nothing else, The Shallows raises important questions about the way that internet technology alters both our individual lives and our society at large. In Carr’s review of previous technological advances, it becomes clear that what at first was met with hesitation and fear often led to increased efficiency, quality of life, and productivity. But one thing Carr fails to expound upon is the new rate of change. The internet has altered our world in such a dramatic way throughout a relatively limited period of time. The printing press, books, even computers were slower in coming – the internet has taken hold and grown exponentially. Though I’m sure that some of Carr’s worries (and my own) won’t pan out to be as problematic as they currently appear, we cannot ignore the potential dangers that accompany the vast progress of the internet.

On My Love Affair with Nonfiction

I’ve always been a reader. While growing up, I was the kind of girl who would rather be at home with a good book than nearly anyplace else. I would gladly have forgone high school dances, movie theater trips to see cheesy chic flicks, and middle school slumber parties for a good book. Isolating myself with a novel was always the thing that made the most sense to me.

My love affair with non-fiction most accurately began as a direct result of an ex-boyfriend’s commentary on my extensive collection of novels. “You have a lot of fiction,” he noted in a tone that let me know my bookshelves were severely lacking in his opinion without any nonfiction in the mix.

I don’t want to waste too much time on this guy since he did play a large role in encouraging some profound changes in my life. In addition to not-so-subtly encouraging me to pick up some non-fiction, this particular ex also made a passive, if not joking, dig at my domestic skills, or lack thereof. This was in high school, mind you, so at the time, I had given little thought to food nor demonstrated any particular inclination to become the next Julia Child. But I took his comment as a challenge and forced my way into the kitchen, discovering a whole new world of passion within.

But I digress. Nonfiction had been starkly absent from my avid reading life and, when this fact was brought to my attention, I quickly righted the situation. My first foray into non-fiction was Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Goffman’s book provided an extensive overview of countercultural movements, from Socrates up to the punk music scene. I was initially drawn to the book because of the subject matter; countercultures and social movements felt impossibly cool and I held little doubt that this first piece of nonfiction would start to steer me in the right bibliophile direction. I adored Goffman’s book and so proceeded to seek more options that were not fiction at all.

A smattering of memoirs and biographies soon followed but my undergraduate workload kept me from reading much of anything for a few years. There was the occasional Chuck Klosterman collection of essays and Prozac Nation after struggling with depression. But when I did find the time to delve into a new book, I was more likely to treat myself to absorption in a well-deserved, if not rather mindless novel than an arduous piece of carefully crafted non-fiction. When life finally offered me another opportunity to read as I chose, Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone and Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple collections of essays. It was these writings that taught me about how meaningful and personal nonfiction could be. At the time (and probably still to this day) there was no piece of writing that I related to quite as much as the title essay of Franzen’s book, a thoughtful piece on reading and solitude. Kingsolver’s essay collections (one of which I reviewed here) were what first made me seriously consider writing. Though essay collections may not be the most profitable ventures, her books made me realize that personal essays and well constructed arguments on topics of all kinds can be elegantly tied together in a single volume. Reading Kingsolver’s nonfiction produced in me a powerful desire to follow suit; I wanted to write like she did on topics as varied as hers in such wise ways.

From there, I followed my interests and found plenty of nonfiction to read on food, agriculture, and health (think Michael Pollan). As I continued to explore the realm of nonfiction, it became increasingly apparent that such books are not inherently boring, nor do they necessarily lack plot, sentimentality, theme, or story. I always imagined that a book based on reality or containing research would be unimaginative and dull. But Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals proved to me that books about real life topics, in this case human’s carnivorous habits and how animals get to our plates, can be highly entertaining and follow a remarkably narrative path. Warren St. John’s Outcasts United is easily one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in the past few years and the story of a refugee soccer team was made more powerful and engrossing because it was true. Bill McKibbin’s The Age of Missing Information is dense but raised more than a few topics for consideration, things I had to think about deeply in order to determine my own stance on them. And there are few books out there, fiction or not, with more heart than Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

The range of work which falls under the nonfiction categorization is impossibly vast and largely delightful for readers who indulge in what is of interest to them. Nonfiction does not necessitate writing which lacks personality, interest, or excitement, but it is something which becomes most meaningful when carefully selected by a reader. Despite the sense of inferiority and shame I initially felt when my ex commented on how little nonfiction I owned way back when, I am now rather grateful that he vocalized this judgment, because it introduced me to a whole world of valuable reading materials which I may never have considered otherwise.

On God, Sex, Drugs, & Suicide

I first knew Joshua McCarthy as a cast member of the little known film “The Life and Times of Andrew Quinn.” The movie was my then-boyfriend, now-husband Mike’s first effort as writer and director of a feature length film. At the time Mike was already hard at work on the script for his next film and Josh was a long-time friend. I knew Josh as a struggling actor based in New York City, a reliable and constant friend to my husband.

I’ve only known Josh for a few years, but it wasn’t until his novel was published for e-readers that I knew he even had aspirations to become a novelist. I was a bit disappointed to see that God, Sex, Drugs, & Suicide was only available for virtual consumption as I am unwaveringly partial to books in print. Luckily, I only had a short wait until the novel was published in traditional book form and available for purchase via Amazon.

I was equally excited and nervous to read Josh’s novel when it arrived at our house. Whenever a creative friend asks you to partake in one of their amateur efforts at their craft of choice, I think it’s only reasonable to have a shred of fear that it will be a valiant but god awful effort. I’ve been lucky to experience only a select few instances of lying through my teeth in encouragement of a friend’s art (and they’re mostly humorous memories now). But from the first few pages of Josh’s novel, I knew that nothing but pure praise would be in order. It was easily one of the most imaginative and engrossing novels I had ever read. And to think it was all born from the creative capacities of someone I knew personally was even more mind blowing to me.

God, Sex, Drugs, & Suicide is about just those things listed in the title. We meet a series of characters throughout who come to their untimely end and encounter God in the pre-afterlife. God  is different in appearance to each member of this colorful cast of characters and far from the image any church-going, Bible-reading American would conjure of the Lord. He constantly has a “God’s Finest” cigarette, which light themselves, hanging out of his mouth  and encourages his disciples to partake in a variety of activities (including sex and drugs) that by most definitions would be considered sinful. He believes that most humans are pan-sexual, that people should conduct themselves in life as in a feast, that human beings are wildly ridiculous in the vast majority of their decision making. He has a standing weekly squash game with Nikita Khrushchev and owns a dog named Santa who wrecked havoc on the Garden of Eden (a gross miswriting of history which lead humans to mistakenly conjure up the idea of an evil Satan).

But there are some familiar aspects of God’s characterization in this world. He is still an omnipotent God and has a son named Jesus. And while he grants humans free will, God encourages the lucky few who get to meet him to act in accordance with what is best for the themselves and the world despite their fears and unease. His advice is not morally motivated but rather is tuned to the particular needs of each of the six humans who encounter him and are offered another chance at living their lives right. He is an eccentric existential God and I’d like to think that McCarthy’s characterization of the Almighty is a bit closer to reality than what we’re taught by most religions.

The stories of this motley crew of characters, including a lesbian nun, a WWII veteran, a single father, and an unapologetic prostitute, are largely distinct from one another, but the content and purpose of their meetings with God are the threads that carry this novel along. We meet each individual just before their death (many of which occur in dark, dingy bars but my favorite being a death by drowning in a bar bathroom urinal) through their meeting with the Almighty and their return to earth for another chance at living.

God, Sex, Drugs, & Suicide provides a razor-sharp commentary on modern day life packaged in a bizarre, humorous, absolutely original story. It was easy to become enveloped in this off-beat, alternate world, experiencing the post-life pre-afterlife non-purgatory through the eyes of these six disparate individuals. Witty and entertaining, intelligent and engrossing, God, Sex, Drugs, & Suicide made me feel quite fortunate to know such an ingenious writer as Mr. McCarthy and I’m anxious to see what he comes up with next.

Get your copy here.

On Raising the Peaceable Kingdom

When I first picked up Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s Raising the Peaceable Kingdom, I really had no intentions of writing about it, especially not here. I mostly was drawn in by the book’s tagline “What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Tolerance and Friendship.” As of late, I’ve been an even more staunch animal-lover than usual, so this appealed to newly invigorated animal sensibility. With this book Masson essentially documents his journey of socializing seven animals from five different species to uncover truths about love, friendship, hatred, and the inborn nature of these deeply felt sentiments.

Masson attempted to bring into his household 5 different species of animals in as close a period of time as possible so they could grow together and, hopefully, forge relationships as deep as those of soul-mates. With two rats, a bunny, two chickens, a dog, and a kitten, along with his home’s two mature cats, Masson and his family were consumed with feeding, walking, entertaining, cleaning up after, observing, and learning from and about their new pet friends.

The majority of Peaceable Kingdom is spent in chronicle of advances and observations made, friendships forged, barriers crossed, and lessons learned about these varied creatures. Though entertaining at times, some of the passages grew a bit tired; I continually heard about conflicts between the adult cats and the rats, about the kitten’s unparalleled and good-natured disposition, the rabbit’s preference for solitude, and the chickens’ various demonstrations of love and trust of their owner and perceived protector. However it seemed that many of these accounts were repeated over and over again in different words. At least the book clocks in at a relatively short 170-some pages so it stands as a quick and easy read, allowing me a bit of forgiveness to Masson for his reiterations of already-established animal personalities.

Even when I had reached the last formal pages of the book, I wasn’t really sold. Mostly I felt content about having nearly reached the end and grateful for the few new insights into animal nature and behavior provided within the book’s pages. With the epilogue, however, Masson finally brought his project full circle, back to the insights into human nature that had set this story in motion and had so intrigued me when I first came across the book. Masson takes no time at all to lay claim to what he feels to be the greatest distinction between humans and all other animals: “Humans are the only animal to engage in wars, genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity.”

All too often when humans are colloquially compared to animals, they are analogized to the wildly, beastly nature of undomesticated creatures. When we use the phrase that someone “behaves like an animal,” what are we really saying? To whom are we really making a comparison? Surely not with any animal I know. True, I’m mostly accustomed to spending my time with domesticated animals, but even the wild ones I come across in my hikes, travels, and even everyday activities in settings from rural to urban rarely display the sort of deep-seated animosity, ruthlessness, and gratuitous hatred that inhabits the hearts and minds of humans. As suggested by Masson, our assessment of animals, most specifically when utilized in comparison to the worst of human nature, seems to be entirely inaccurate.

Sure hunting, killing, and territoriality are common to the animal kingdom but only in the context of need. For animals, there is no mass murder within or across species, whether motivated by differences real or imagined, pure cruelty, or hatred. Rather, we primarily see animals take one another’s lives in the name of food. Ultimately predator-prey relationships can explain nearly any and all of the deaths incurred to animals by animals, for the only reason they have to kill is to feed themselves or their pack.

Humans, on the other hand, have an outrageously and shamefully heinous history of killing with motivations much less fundamental, integral, and honest. Masson points out how many of the tyrants behind acts of genocide conceptualized the people they aimed to make extinct as animals, as belonging to another species. The reason that humans are able to wreak such mass destruction on animals is, as Masson wisely notes, the underlying “assumption that humans are always and everywhere entitled to eliminate any animal species they choose.” The self-serving human attitude that this world and all of its inhabitants are here for the taking perpetuates travesties not only across the species boundary but also among those of our own kind.

Within the epilogue of Peaceable Kingdom, Masson makes a heartfelt observation about our incomprehensible capacity for hatred on grounds imaginary, exaggerated, and unjustified. Following a brief review of the mass murders, genocides, exterminations, and massacres of the twentieth century, Masson contemplates those most simple incidents of dislike on an individual level, such as the way people from different regions of the very same country, or even the very same city, could house such deep hatred of one another for reasons invisible to the outsider, and even the sparing parties themselves. For animals outside the human race, such incidences and emotions are virtually unknown. Mice aren’t born with an innate hatred of cats, they don’t even learn to hate cats, but rather they fear them as only prey could fear a most dangerous predator. In the wild, animals don’t harbor murderous intents but instead follow their hunting instincts when hunger strikes, and in most cases, only then.

Another interesting point included within the final pages of Masson’s work: Much national symbology exalts predatory animals (think eagles, bears, lions) but in reality, these animals don’t wage war the way we do, they don’t kill with merciless and savage intentions. As Americans, we have so much pride in the bald eagle. Why don’t we mirror more of the majesty, honor, and beauty that this raptor embodies, rather than mistakenly manifest his predatory instincts in needless war and unwarranted cruelty.

Far too many of the ways we conceptualize violence, cruelty, hatred, and more are wrongly associated with animals. I’m having trouble writing this without resorting to synonyms that harken to wrongful characterizations of undomesticated animals – savage, wild, beastly. Sure, a lion could act in a savage and brutal manner when stalking its prey, but the killing is out of necessity and not spite. “Inhumane” is a more apt word to describe much of the hatred and cruelty that people from history and in the present demonstrate. Rather than comparing our wrongful thoughts and actions to the beasts, we need to conceptualize them as sub-human, as in opposition to humanity. I’d like to believe that our history of hatred is the result of a mistakenly learned behavior, a turn humanity took for the worse somewhere along the line, rather than an inborn capacity for depravity. I’d like to believe that, like other animals of all species, our actions are not meant to be motivated by loathing, animosity or cruel and baseless intentions.

If seven animals spanning five different species in a home on the beach in New Zealand can achieve such peace, such friendship, even soulmate-status as Masson’s kitten and rabbit ultimately did, what can the human race say for itself? How can we justify our history of inhumane actions and continue to erroneously believe we are better than other species of animals when we are unable to achieve such simple things as peace and kindness which Masson has demonstrated are attainable in merely a year in the animal community?

I think Masson’s point was best made by the example of his two-year-old son. He compares the ability of small children and animals to feel compassion without thought, hesitation, or equivocation. When out to eat at a sushi restaurant, two-year-old Manu asked what type of sushi a certain roll was and his mother told him it was cooked chicken sushi. Given Manu’s fondness for the chickens living in his home on account of his father’s peaceable kingdom project, Manu strictly declared he would not eat his friends. Even as a toddler, Manu decided to become a vegetarian after he made the connection between his love for two members of another species and the food on his plate. This isn’t a plea to stop eating meat – though I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism, I have done so for reasons other than animal cruelty, for there are ways to eat meat that don’t require ruthless slaughtering, inhumane conditions, and miserable lives for the animals before they reach your plate. Rather, I’m hoping to emphasize the connection that Manu made at a sushi restaurant and the point that his father hoped to explicate with this book. Manu knew those two chickens as people, he didn’t view them as another species, and he had yet to share in the feeling many humans have that other species are theirs to do with entirely as they please. Masson’s son demonstrated the peaceable, compassionate, and thoughtful nature that, I would like to believe, is ultimately innate in all human beings. But it’s interesting to note that he didn’t just demonstrate this love and feeling for another human, he felt it for an animal of an entirely separate species. So maybe it is only by channeling the innocent and pure love, kindness, benevolence, and friendship of a toddler that we can hope to overcome the strength of hatred, the terror of genocide, the heartlessness of humanity.

The animal kingdom is not full of brutal beasts and killing-machines as some humans are wont to believe. In fact, these phrases more aptly describe certain examples of human behavior than that of wild animals. I’m not saying all, or even most, humans are evil beings. I know plenty of people whose lives and work are defined by compassion, kindness, selflessness. I do feel that there are been gross atrocities committed at the hand of men to inflict uncalled for pain and suffering upon other men – and I feel that we have to do what we can to right these wrongs. Though we can’t make up for the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, or any of the other devastating actions, big or small, that have damaged the human race, we can set a new track for the future. By exercising generosity and understanding, by recognizing the cavernous need plaguing our neighbors near and far, by not turning a blind eye or rushing to feelings of indifference or hatred, we can help erase the face of our brutal human past in order to create a more gentle and promising world, not unlike the world in which Masson’s seven animal friends existed. Through Masson’s critical eye on the misconceptions and realities of the animal and human worlds, I hope that we, as humans, will attempt to create a more peaceable kingdom come by the example of animal nature, a nature in which humans have a large share.

On The Lacuna

Mrs. Kingsolver has done it again! I don’t even know how to begin to describe this novel for it is so elaborately written and tells a vast story. I will admit, as often happens when reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, I found it a bit laborious to get through the first 50 or so pages of The Lacuna. But once I read my way further into the stuff of the book, I was completely hooked.

The story begins in 1930s Mexico. A young Harrison Shepherd and his mother take up residence with an oil magnate living in Mexico whom the latter hopes to marry. Given the variety of circumstances that Harrison’s mother finds repulsive and fearsome, she off-handedly tells her son to write down everything that happens to them in Mexico for posterity’s sake. From then on out, Kingsolver provides us with Harrison’s journals and correspondence to track his story.

Under the tutelage of Leandro, the resident cook in Shepherd’s potential father-in-law’s home, Harrison learns the basics of authentic Mexican cuisine. These skills he applies to plaster preparation when he encounters a formidable Diego Rivera, attempting to complete a two-story mural with sub-par assistance. Shepherd corrects the hired helps’ hopeless ways, making quite an impression upon the famous painter. From there, Kingsolver draws a historic and remarkable life story for Shepherd. The boy works in the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, foments a unique relationship with the celebrated female painter, and inadvertently becomes immersed in international political conflicts when exiled Marxist and Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky takes up residence amongst Diego and Frida.

Though he considers himself rather apolitical, Harrison can’t help but find himself in the midst of great political upheaval, especially once he settles in Asheville, North Carolina as an accomplished novelist, only to fall under suspicion of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His true passions lie in Mexican history, as is evidenced by the content of his compelling and widely-read novels. But Harrison’s life story is such that his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, finds it impossible for the novelist to avoid writing a memoir – especially given his extensive collection of personal journals which would make such a task immensely less daunting.

The Lacuna is by no means an easy read and I imagine that, were I to revisit this book in a month or two, I would find thousands of new things to take away from it. Part of the reason I find this novel so compelling is the mere density and complexity of it – the way in which history is so seamlessly woven throughout, how Harrison’s past experiences in place and time craftily dovetail with the present moment, the grand beauty of the language that only further heighten Kingsolver’s storytelling.

And a great part of it’s charm is the mystery inherit in the story. As Shepherd repeatedly says “The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.” Kingsolver proves this to be true by offering only the subtlest of hints at certain important pieces of the grand puzzle of Shepherd’s life. She omits a select few of Harrison’s journals and purposefully conceals periods in his life that prove consequential in his future – all in a captivating effort to demonstrate Harrison’s point that the omissions are often the most crucial points of a story.

Complete with historical, social, and political commentary, The Lacuna is undoubtedly one of the most well-crafted and gripping books I’ve picked up in a while. If nothing else, readers can appreciate this novel for the sheer talent required to create something at turns so challenging, entertaining, engaging, and astonishing. This is definitely another one to add to Kingsolver’s ever-growing list of accomplishments!

And here are a few tidbits from the novel to give you a little taste of what you can expect from this one.

“Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?”

“This household is like a pocketful of coins that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on a counter to pay a price. The pocket empties out, the coins venture back into infinite circulations of currency, separate, invisible, and untraceable. That particular handful of coins had no special meaning together, it seems, except to pay a particular price. It might remain real, if someone had written everything in a notebook.”

“You are a writer, employed by the American imagination.”

“You’ve never seen anything as dramatic as these American trees, dying their thousand deaths. The giant beech next door intends to shiver off every hair of its pelt. The world strips and goes naked, the full year of arboreal effort piling on the sidewalks in flat, damp strata. The earth smells of smoke and rainstorms, calling everything to come back, like down, submit to a quiet, moldy return to the cradle of origins. This is how we celebrate the Day of the Dead in America: by turning up our collars against the scent of earthworms calling us home.”

On Dogearers

I’m a self-professed book worm, but I stand apart from a majority of bibliophiles in one respect – dog-earring pages. I’ve heard countless people revile the dog-earrer, the person who, by turning down the corner of a page, marks the whole beautiful book, renders its pristine perfection obsolete. I, for one, would like to make an argument to the contrary.

I ear-mark pages like no one else I know. I don’t like to mar my books with notes in the margins unless they’re for strictly academic purposes. Instead most of the thoughts that a particular volume generates in my mind are likely to find life on a blog post, within the pages of a notebook, or in a Word document filed away on my computer. But while it is highly unlikely that you’ll find me notating the margins of library books, I love to revisit passages that were particularly well-put, enlightening, or poignant. A well-phrased sentence is to one of the highest forms of art and I have a profound appreciation for this type of accomplishment. So I dog-ear the pages containing noteworthy passages in order to allow myself the opportunity to revisit these words again and again.

I have plenty of books on my bookshelf that are particularly thick at the corners from folding and prodding – and I like them that way. A well-worn book is as comforting to me as a warm fire around the holidays. I find great beauty in the ways a book can wear its love, especially when that expression of love was demonstrated by a reader other than myself. And this is why I love dog-earred library books. I love to imagine who was the previous reader and what made them fold down the corner of a particular page with such care. Were they, like me, the type of reader to fold important passages in lieu of annotating a volume that did not belong to them? Or did they simply use the ear-mark as a sort of bookmark, a method of picking up exactly where they left off? And if so, why this particular point – were they growing bored with the story or was it simply time to make dinner, answer a phone call, or doze off for the night?

To some, these ponderings probably sound like a waste of time, if not entirely antiquated in a day and age when libraries are increasingly unpopular and more words than ever are printed on screens rather than tangible pages. But I hope that at least a small few of you out there will understand what I mean. Maybe you hate dog-earrers (sorry!) but maybe you can appreciate a well-loved book, the musty smell of   old volumes and the struggle of deciphering a stranger’s long-ago notes in the margin. Maybe you have a love of words and find strength, joy, and clarity in revisiting them again and again, as do I. If nothing else, I hope that those anti-dog-earrers out there can recognize my behavior as a sign of love and affection, of being engaged and provoked by a book, rather than one done in ignorance and lending itself only to imperfection.

On The Dirty Life

Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life began as an assignment for a magazine. Kimball set out to rural Pennsylvania to interview farmer Mark for a piece about the increasingly popular local and organic food trends. Little did she know, the New York City writer would fall in love with the idealistic yet grounded farmer who was to be the subject of her work. The Dirty Life recounts not only the couple’s burgeoning relationship but also Kimball’s unanticipated love of farm life.

From the very first, it is obvious how Kimball fell in love with this man so drastically different from any she had ever encountered before. Maybe she overly romanticizes Mark as a testament to her blind love for him, or maybe her idolized descriptions of her future husband are simply a reflection of her aptitude as a writer, as one who artfully encapsulates a moment or a feeling in words. Whatever the case, I don’t think that a single female reader, no matter how accustomed to city life, luxury, or glamour, could not find Mark deeply appealing through Kimball’s written portrait. Kristin honestly and earnestly recounts her earliest introductions to both Mark and farm life. The two are positively intertwined, rendering the man and his work almost inseparably appealing to the reader. After just 15 pages, I was yearning to find a real man’s man to labor alongside of in the heat of the summer sun on a lovingly tended patch of farmland. That’s the power of Kimball’s storytelling abilities, though I must admit, I am a bit partial to the feel-good aftereffects of some old fashioned manual labor.

But don’t worry – while Mark may sound like a woodsman prince charming dream come true, Kristin doesn’t take long to bring us back down to reality – or at least, as close to reality as possible when you’ve just moved in with your fiance who opposes the use of electricity in a fully-wired home, creates a composting toilet located smack-dab in the center of your living room, dreams of fashioning homemade boar bristle toothbrushes, and constantly picks up new traditional crafts, such as spinning wool. Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of reducing our reliance on electricity, finding more efficient and natural ways to deal with human waste, and recovering some of those long-forgotten skills that were second nature to our ancestors before the rise of industry. At the same time, it is quite a transition to go from apartment living in the Big Apple one day to shacking up with a sustainably-minded, Eustace Conway-esque live off the land kind of man the next.

After all the introductions, Kimball takes us to the real heart of the story – the purchase, and start up, of a neglected farm in Lake Champlain based on the CSA (community supported agriculture) model, but bigger. Most CSAs provide vegetables to members on a weekly basis for a nominal fee. Mark’s idea went beyond the more traditional produce portion of our diet to also include grains, meats, eggs, and even sweeteners. This ambitious and innovative idea is a daunting challenge for any farmer, let alone one located in a rural farm-based community, working this land for the very first time.

When Kimball and Mark finally settle down, the real adventure begins. We are offered a glimpse of their first cautious look around the farm, one that almost ended in a defeated ride home until Mark came across a patch of coveted silty loam, a welcome contrast to the clay soil that dominated the landscape for the majority of their tour. We follow Kristin as she learns to milk their first cow Delia, until she masters the art of efficiently coaxing generous portions of milk from Delia’s delicate udders. From the deaths of some animals to the births of others, the mastery of certain time-tested horse-drawn tools to the necessity of neighborly generosity during tough times, Kimball helps us see all that farm life encompasses. And despite the early mornings and late nights, the back-breaking work that offers not a single spare moment of time, the total and complete dedication required of farm life, you can’t help but envy Kimball at least the slightest bit. For all the trials and stresses of this life she has chosen, she ultimately has a more fundamental relationship to the earth that sustains her and the people around her, including her trying but devoted husband Mark.

As Kristin says herself a “farm is a form of expression, a physical manifestation of the inner life of its farmers. The farm will reveal who you are, where you like it or not. That’s art.” I’ve always been a believer in the necessity of outlets and expression but never really considered a farm as such. Kimball’s story now has got me thinking otherwise.

I just wanted to share a few other tidbits of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Kristin and Mark. First of all, in urban areas, though we’re physically located so much closer to our neighbors, our encounters with them are desperately lacking in quantity and quality. For the rural town, despite the miles that may separate next-door-neighbors, everyone knows one another and takes the time to get to know each other. Relationships are close and common, regular and constantly evolving as opposed to those common to city-dwellers whose primary neighborly encounters consist of angrily demanding one another to turn down the volume on the TV.

When you’re engrossed in a venture that matters to you, words like success and failure just aren’t relevant. Things like these can’t be measured in terms like those because all that matters is are you heading in the right direction? Are you working toward something that is good and meaningful and right in your mind? That’s the only measure you need.

Kristin also meditates on marriage for some time and I could relate to some of her concerns about making such a commitment. She comes to recognize that “marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.” Don’t get me wrong – I’m getting married next month and couldn’t be more excited to become Mike’s wife. At the same time, there are things of which we must let go when getting married and that’s not always easy to come to terms with. There’s that sense of who you’ve been before and who else you could have become that must be dealt with as well. Kristin captured that small glimmer of grief trailing alongside the large and joyful commitment of marriage in such a way as to make my own feelings startling clear.

And finally, Kimball ends on a note with which I think plenty of people can relate at a time like this. When uncertainty sets in, we as a people tend to head back to the land. In the face of economic downturns, more people than ever pick up agriculture. This could be the manifestation of some deep-seated desire to prove one’s own self-sufficiency – as a demonstration that, no matter what may come, those most essential of needs can be met. But working the earth is also a seemingly simple and authentic way of life. When chaos erupts, staying centered and finding meaning is much easier when you are, both literally and figuratively, grounded by your work.

Though one of the main characters in this story, Mark, reads much like the Eustace Conway and Chris McCandless hero figures common to plenty of popular literature these days, the book is a personal account of a specific relationship and a unique initiative in someone’s life. There are elements of romance of course, but not without a good dosing a reality. The Dirty Life offers a well-balanced helping of the makings of some of my favorite literary elements – the society-eschewing male hero, a good underdog story, anecdotes of small town life, foodie non-fiction, a profile of success sustainably-minded enterprise, memoir, and the list goes on and on. Kimball’s story is well- and wisely-told, full of mistakes made and lessons learned and infused all throughout with passion for the dirty life she has chosen.

On Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name has been on my to-read list for quite some time now. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, or what source recommended the novel in the first place. I think part of the reason it stuck with me was the lure of the title – I’ve always been drawn to the aurora borealis and the novel’s title, taken from a poem by Marry Ailoniedia Somby, conjured enticing images of the majestic natural phenomenon that I couldn’t resist. Once I finally delved in this book, I devoted an entire night to reading it, finishing the novel in the space of a few hours. Vida’s story drew me in with ease and effortlessly compelled me to reach the last page in a single sitting.

The northern lights play a large supporting role in this story primarily located in the Arctic Circle. Upon her father’s death, Clarissa Iverton discovers that the man she always called Dad was not, in fact, her biological father. Though her mother left the family when Clarissa was just fourteen years old, the man she believed was her father, Richard, raised her to adulthood as any true parent would have. When she reveals the truth about Richard to her fiance Pankaj, Clarissa grows even more bewildered to learn that Pankaj was privy to, and withheld, this secret for years. Fueled by a sense of betrayal and confusion, Clarissa journeys to Helsinki where the father listed on her birth certificate lives.

On her frigid northern quest, Clarissa comes to terms with the reality that Richard is dead, that her mother deserted the family, that she never knew her real father. Through cities that hold untold secrets of her mother’s past, the parallels between mother and daughter become increasingly apparent. Though she set out to uncover the identity of her father, during the course of her travels Clarissa learns more about her mother than anyone else. And with this newfound knowledge, a semblance of understanding takes hold. Befriending members of the Sami community, lying beneath the magnificent northern lights, living out days entirely devoid of sunlight, spending a night in the famed Ice Hotel, the rather vague personal intentions with which Clarissa originally sets out take more rigid form as she is welcomed to the Arctic Circle and narrows in on her origins.

Amidst an arresting frozen backdrop, Vida instills a refreshing sense of adventure into the somewhat tired story of uncovering tightly bound family secrets. Though this novel deals with some of the most painful discoveries that a daughter could possibly make, it is appropriately touched with levity and as miraculous and stunning as the northern lights from which it takes its name.

On Mountains Beyond Mountains

I finally got around to reading the incredible Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder as recommended by my friend Sarah, and I can’t figure out why it took me so long to get to reading this! I guess sometimes I have to be in the mood for non-fiction but I don’t think I ever could have fully prepared myself for this incredibly moving story of one man’s mission to cure the world wherever he could.

Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains documents the unparalleled work performed by Dr. Paul Farmer in locales from Haiti to Russia in one compelling and absorbing volume. A leading expert in infectious disease, Farmer’s contributions to the medical field go above and beyond mere contributions to science. For he has devoted his life to providing medical care to some of the most impoverished nations in the world, fighting tuberculosis worldwide, bringing life-saving modern medicine to individuals on the brink of death. Dr. Farmer’s influence is nearly impossible to quantify – even Kidder’s 300 page book could not possibly list all the lives Farmer has touched. From the individual patients the doctor runs into wherever he goes to his international fight for addressing global health issues, Farmer has truly done everything within his power to devote his life to saving those of others.

Kidder aptly explains early on that Farmer isn’t out to educate the world – he wants to transform it. Though he aims to provide sustainable and culturally relevant medical aid whenever possible, Farmer’s work is positively unrepeatable and absolutely impossibly to imagine without the doctor himself behind it all. He sometimes makes seemingly cost-ineffective decisions to aid people that others would disregard as lost causes. He provides expensive, essential care and worries about attaining the funds later.

The man travels tirelessly between his professorial post at Harvard, his medical center in Haiti, his wife and child in Paris, and the myriad other locations where he has medical projects, relations, conferences, speaking opportunities, and fund-raising initiatives. He makes house calls through rural Haiti, traveling hours by foot to reach the homes of single patients to ensure they are still alive and well. He confers with the United Nations’ World Health Organization on fighting tuberculosis in the destitute communities where it still rages. Despite generous funding from Boston-area developer Tom White, it is primarily through Farmer’s tireless devotion and footwork that Partners in Health, the organization under which Zanmi Lasante, Farmer’s Haitian medical center, is housed, has flourished in such a relatively short period of time.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is profile the charismatic and endlessly energetic doctor’s work, work ethic, and philosophy in a way that imparts Farmer’s passion and urgency to readers. Harvard-educated, Dr. Farmer’s background was in medical anthropology. When he first traveled to Haiti, Farmer’s anthropological perspective allowed him to understand the Haitians’ medical issues in ways that brought about more effective results than ever before. He spoke with the locals about their belief in Voodoo. Rather than disregarding a system of beliefs that he had yet to fully understand, Farmer attempted to reconcile the Haitian belief in Voodoo with their experience and understanding of disease – and medicine’s ability to cure them. Farmer never fails to account for all the factors impacting individual, community, and national health – politics, social circumstances, economics, living conditions, family life.

In the words of Farmer’s favorite medical figure Rudolf Virchow “The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should be largely solved by them.” Farmer carries out this aphorism to the extreme on a daily basis. He recognizes the role that the United States has played in the dismal poverty of Haiti, the national health impact of existing under a harsh military regime, the importance of a patient’s religious beliefs in curing disease. No matter how far their needs may fall outside the medical realm, the doctor never fails to do anything within his power to help the poor of Haiti.

I could list all of Farmer’s remarkable accomplishments or summarize his work at Zanmi Lasante, but I think that would be doing Kidder a disservice. The author does an excellent job of profiling Dr. Farmer’s work in a compellingly readable and inspiring book. Though I could go on at great length about the doctor himself, I would never have learned and been inspired by his work if not for Mountains Beyond Mountains which tells Farmer’s story, and all the relevant political and social history, so well.

So I’ll leave you with a few insights and tidbits from Dr. Farmer (and trust me, there are plenty to take from this book). Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains will leave you galvanized and inspired, appreciative and amazed. This is certainly a book (and Farmer is certainly an individual) I will never be able to forget, and here are just a few of the reasons why.

“The fact that any sort of religious faith was so disdained at Harvard and so important to the poor – not just in Haiti but elsewhere, too – made me even more convinced that faith must be something good.”

“She thought [Farmer] had never experienced true depression, a freedom so enviable she almost resented it. “I’ve never know despair and I don’t think I ever will,” he wrote [Kidder] once. It was as if in seeking out suffering in some of the world’s most desperate locales, he made himself immune to the self-consumming varieties of psychic pain.”

“[Farmer] said patients came first, prisoners second, and students third, but this didn’t leave out much of humanity. Ever sick person seemed to be a potential patient of Farmer’s and every healthy person a potential student.”

On My American Unhappiness

I was first drawn to Dean Bakopoulos’ second novel because of the title My American Unhappiness. This phrase sums up a lot of what I spend my time thinking about – how convenience, consumption, expansion, and similar American values deemed good by the population actually wreck havoc on our happiness and sense of content. I was pleasantly surprised by what I got out of this novel. A meditation on this unhappiness is definitely included, along with a bit of humor, some romance, and a touch of nostalgia. It’s a well-balanced novel that provides a bit of everything in a pleasing and enjoyable to read package.

Meet Zeke, the Executive Director of a Midwestern humanities nonprofit and the man behind “The Inventory of Unhappiness Project.” A widower following a short-lived and rather young marriage, Zeke is romantically uninvolved, though occupied with the unhappiness project and his beloved orphan nieces. The story unfolds appealingly with pieces of Zeke’s life being released bit by bit, making for a character that continues to grow on readers as the more appealing and endearing aspects of his personality are revealed. Though he ultimately makes some poor decisions in work and the romance department, at that point we’re already invested in this guy and rooting for him despite the odds.

So the unhappiness project. Funded by Zeke’s nonprofit, this inventory receives interviews, messages, and the like from citizens across the country who are asked one major question “Why are you so unhappy?” Zeke is intrigued by respondents’ willingness to share their discontent so readily with strangers, as well as the fact that so few respondents really deny the sad fact that they lead unhappy lives. Responses are littered throughout the novel and they ring with all the hollowness that comes from the consumer-driven, franchise-friendly state of our nation of lonely citizens. Zeke’s musings and reflections on life in America are honest and range from the heartfelt and nostalgic to the hopeless and dismal. I found his attitude toward President Bush (the novel is set in 2008) to be particularly spot on. He recognizes Bush as a leader estranged from and unable to help his people because of his failure to recognize and understand their unhappiness. He looks back at our nation’s finest leaders and identifies a common thread of darkness, melancholy, and depression, while Bush seems to sleep easy at night, out of touch with the problems pervading the nation under his leadership.

But apart from the political observations included, Zeke story includes his own share of family dramas, a quest to find love, and delusions of job security despite the fledgling economy and his secretary’s warnings. This novel packs a pretty mean punch, providing a little bit of something for everyone. It constantly entertains with its quirky characters, unpredictable scenarios, and of course those other situations that are inevitable to the reader, but rarely to Zeke himself. There’s plenty of levity within, but great depth can also be found, particularly in Zeke’s passion project, the Inventory of Unhappiness.

I finished this novel deeply satisfied. I was in the market for a book that would challenge me, make me think a little bit and maybe lend some insight to the state of American society, or at the very least to my own personal life. And it did just that, and then some. I was highly entertained as well as challenged; My American Unhappiness made me laugh just as much as it made me think of things in a new light. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it to anyone in the market for a good read. It’s the kind of novel that’s both satisfying as a beach read, but also stimulating enough for the non-vacation sect.

On Shopgirl

The more I learn about him, the more convinced I am that Steve Martin is the ultimate Renaissance man. I read his most recent novel, An Object of Beauty, a few months ago and was impressed by his authorial talents, as well as his knowledge of great art. Though Shopgirl is a piece of his from a bit further back, I was even more enamored of this short novel brought to the world by one of our most accomplished actors, comedians, and writers.

Straightforward and concise, I loved Martin’s writing style in Shopgirl. He draws perfectly mismatched, matter of fact characters with great clarity and brilliance. In contrast to the almost cold and distant third-person narrative style Martin employs, the story itself is quite tender and touching. Mirabelle works in Neiman’s at the glove counter, a job with which she finds herself quite content, despite a lack of customers or excitement in her day to day. When an elegant older man named Ray Porter finds himself drawn to the glove shopgirl, the two embark on a mutual navigation of intimacy and relationships. Mirabelle, the mid-20s woman with little experience in love and Ray, the divorcee who still has yet to discover how to treat a woman.

Martin’s Shopgirl is a sweet if not slightly melancholy story of love. Touched with the subtle wit and humor you would expect of a comedian, Shopgirl is a distinctly different piece of art from much of the work for which you probably know Steve Martin. It is nonetheless an enveloping story full of heart that is not to be missed.

On The Summer of the Bear

Bella Pollen’s The Summer of the Bear was an absolutely incredible novel. I read all 430 pages in a matter of three days, so enraptured was I with the story Pollen beautifully wove out of the tragic suicide of Nicky Fleming, an English diplomat stationed with his wife Letitia and three children, Georgie, Alba, and Jamie, in Berlin.

Nicky’s sudden death sends Letty and her children to the Hebrides, the sparsely populated Scottish islands where Letty grew up. Though she imagines a return to her childhood home and favored relaxation spot will help heal the wounds of widowhood, Letty realizes that her decision was rather brash and potentially at odds with the wishes of her grieving children. Nonetheless, Letty wallows in grief at her seaside home, damaging her relationship with her children in the process. But thorough investigations from the British Embassy into Nicky’s death force Letty to question the circumstances of and motives behind her husband’s suicide. As Letty grows more suspicious of the man she thought she knew so well, she further distances herself from the children who hold the greatest potential as sources of both happiness and truth about Nicky.

For teenaged Georgie, the Fleming’s stint in the Hebrides is simply transitory as she hopes to attend college in London and enter the world of dating and intimacy. A classic middle child, difficult and stubborn Alba incessantly picks upon both of her siblings. No one is spared her harsh criticism and biting sarcasm, until Georgie crafts a deal with Alba that she cannot refuse, one that protects Jamie from Alba’s meanness for an entire month. And young Jamie stumbles through the world of fatherlessness, lost in his imagination and inability to process the death of Nicky. So confused is Jamie by the euphemisms employed by family and friends to protect the youngest Fleming child from the reality of his father’s death that he begins to question whether his father truly is dead, if he can return from heaven, and what elaborate mission has kept Nicky from his family for so long. But all of the children demonstrate a great fondness for their late father, from the imaginative stories he told his children to the fascinating way he had of making them each feel like his special favorite, Nicky was a very attentive and present father despite his high-powered political post.

The entire story is situated against the tense backdrop of the Cold War, the bleak environment of Scotland’s northernmost islands, and the mystery of a grizzly bear who has supposedly inhabited the island. Though there have been numerous sightings by island natives prior to the Fleming’s arrival, it is Jamie who continues to hold out hope that the grizzly is still prowling the land long after the rest of the Hebrideans reason that the bear must have perished. And the cast of island characters are themselves a wellspring of great intrigue, each one presented with their own unique story and all of them devout believers of island legends that frame the Flemings’ story.

Jamie’s imaginative and colorful theories about the fate of both his father and the bear are juxtaposed with the unapologetically realistic portrayal of an insensitive Cold War era investigation into the lives of a grieving family. The Summer of the Bear seamlessly transitions through the various Fleming family members’ anguish; from Jamie’s immersion into a fantasy world built upon reticence and denial to Georgie’s desire to break free from the bonds of her sorrowful family, from Alba’s hardened facade which requires constant reminders to be maintained to Letty’s anger as the facts reveal Nicky to have been an incomprehensibly different man from the one she knew. Pollen demonstrates an enviable talent for storytelling and construction, for balancing the stuff of childlike imagination and more mature and weighty content.

What’s even more, Pollen’s novel isn’t heavy or daunting. Though the story itself is far from lighthearted, the narrative is engaging and as easy to navigate as a bestselling beach read. Pollen has a way with words, crafting the most tantalizingly apt descriptions in her own mellifluous but intricate style. The world of the Hebrides and the Fleming family tragedy is one that Pollen quickly reels readers into almost without their knowledge. I found myself completely hooked by the time I reached page 10 and surprised to see that I had made it nearly a quarter of the way through in a single sitting.

The Summer of the Bear is not to be missed and I imagine that Pollen will continue to be source of great fiction in the future. This novel reminded me a lot of the Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and I can easily see Pollen finding her place amongst writers of Kingsolver’s distinction. I only wish that I could get my hands on one of Pollen’s four prior novels, especially Hunting Unicorns which was a bestseller, so as to spoil myself with another spectacular read by one of my new favorites Ms. Bella Pollen.