Five Audiobooks

I’ve certainly been reading, if not blogging. Recently, I’ve increased my page count by using my library’s great little app called Libby to listen to audiobooks while I commute. Here are some  thoughts on recent ear reads:

The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

Magdalena, a native of Andalusia, Spain, is a horticulturist at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in England. He is absolutely bat-shit crazy in love with plants and believes we all should be, too. His mission is to conserve as many species as possible, and has taken it as a personal challenge to figure out how to propagate those species deemed “impossible.” The book is part autobiography (he had an interesting upbringing and irregular trajectory to his current career), part travelogue, and part botany crash course. It’s a surprisingly uplifting read, despite also describing how dreadfully wrecked by human indifference and ignorance so many of our ecosystems are. 5/5

The Maze at Windemere by Gregory Blake Smith

This reminded me of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but unfortunately, it’s not as successful. Five stories are layered throughout the book, each at a different point in history, but all set in Newport, R.I. at the site of (or what will be the location of) a grand estate called Windermere. In the present of 2011, a hot tennis pro woos Windermere’s wealthy heiress, who suffers from cerebral palsy and bipolar depression–it’s an unlikely pairing at best–and the only story told in the third person. All the others are narrated in the first person and they include an aging fin-de-sieclè homosexual social climber trying to secure his social position and secret by marrying a wealthy widow;  a young Henry James keeping a diary about a lovely young woman he’s fascinated by; a creepy, anti-Semitic British officer in the 1700s who becomes obsessed with seducing a young Jewish woman; and a recently orphaned Puritan teenager who finds the mettle and ingenuity to secure herself a promising future. All the stories are about love, sexual attraction/seduction, and often, deception. I liked listening to this as an audiobook because each story had its own narrator and I’m sure it added drama to how I envisioned each story. I also liked the layering of the stories throughout time and the book itself, but I don’t think the stories resolved well individually or as a complete work–which really let me down. 3/5

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This was a gigantic book to listen to on audio–about 23 hours worth. It was also a super entertaining and often piercing satire of American culture and politics. Samuel, a bored young English professor, was abandoned by his mother as a boy and spends most of his days dealing with irritatingly self-entitled students and playing video games instead of writing his overdue book manuscript. When his mom resurfaces in the nightly news as an unlikely political lightning rod after hurling a handful of rocks at a politician, Samuel is strong-armed by his editor into reuniting with her and writing a sensationalist exposé instead of that academic manuscript. It’s a wild, sprawling ride through Samuel’s story, his mom’s back story, video game culture, and lots of political and social history that Hill slashes to tatters with his sharp observations and wit. I was utterly entertained and at the same time, I really wish his editor had reined him in a tad. 4/5

Commonwealth by Anne Patchett

I listened to this a while ago, and my first impressions are quite blurred now. Two couples who are friends divorce, and two of those divorcées marry each other, thus blending the children of both families into one. The story introduces us to the children as adults and how their lives have been affected not only by this family shuffle, but also by the death of one of the children one summer day . I enjoyed the book thoroughly — and it is the only book I’ve read by Patchett except Bel Canto, which I also enjoyed.  But recently, one of my students who is a nurse pointed out two crucial errors Patchett makes with the medical events in the book. It’s rather messed up my impression of both stories — and my interest in reading more Patchett. Still, 4/5

L’appart by David Lebovitz

If you like food blogs, you probably already know David Lebovitz because he practically invented the food blog. This book recalls his travails buying and renovating his Paris apartment. I’m not quite done listening to it, but I am amazed by how many bad choices and dodgy deals David made and survived for le remodel. Every time his contractor says “Pas de problem, David,” I want to scream, C’est un grande fucking problem, Daveed! Don’t do it! This says a lot about how the book is written — David really winds the reader up over and over. You can hear the Jaws theme booming every couple of paragraphs as some fanged real estate gets ready to double deal him or his contractor sends him on a wild goose chase all over Paris for a nonexistant style of doorknob. It’s written with big-D drama for sure, but it’s strangely less stressful than listening to current politics on NPR while driving in Bay Area traffic, so I am looking forward to finding out how he finally gets the job done.



Prairie Fires

Several years ago, I read a fantastic article in the LA Times Review of Books called “Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Wolves.” Around that time (2012), a number of books and articles were published  discussing LIW’s possible Libertarian politics and whether those politics were inserted into the Little House books either by LIW or her editor/daughter Rose.  Fraser’s article takes on the politicization of LIWs works, and particularly how her works were being used in contemporary politics to forward conservative policies and agendas.

Fraser lays out a compelling argument that LIW was more interested in the wild open places and the freedom and beauty of wild creatures that she has seen disappear from the West in her lifetime than politicking. She writes, “Lost in the discussion of whether she was a libertarian or a mere purveyor of liberty is the Wilder who rejoiced in wilderness.” When I’d finished I thought, who is this Caroline Fraser and where can I read more?

Turns out Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America’s two volumes on Laura Ingalls Wilder and a former staff writer at the New Yorker. At the time, she must have also been reading and researching all things LIW to write the brilliant Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, released at the end of last year.

Finally, in Fraser, Laura Ingalls Wilder has a scholarly biographer who doesn’t seem to have a completely personal or overtly political agenda. In Prairie Fires, Fraser situates the events of LIW’s life (those in and out of the Little House books) in the broader historical, political, and environmental context of the times. Fraser especially emphasizes how LIW’s outlook and choices were in most ways defined by extreme poverty and hardship. She started writing because she needed money to supplement the meager income she and Almanzo eked from farming. But LIW’s poverty and hardship was not unique to her or her parents. The settlement of the American west, fueled by the much romanticized homesteading act, almost guaranteed hardship for the thousands of pioneers it enticed west. Their farming efforts destroyed the prairie grasslands, brought drought and natural disasters, and ensured that they would not and could not succeed and rise out of the poverty that had driven them westward.

LIW started writing to make money to supplement her meager farming income at Rocky Ridge farm. She wrote a column for local paper and then later, began to record her family stories. I was really struck by how Laura’s desire for financial security played such a big part in her starting to write. I started to say “in becoming a writer,” but from this book, I am not sure LIW ever considered herself a writer.  She was a farm woman whose daughter was a glamorous (if incredibly difficult) writer and editor. But it just so happened that she had witnessed firsthand the great changes in natural world brought on by people just like her and her pioneer family, so she wrote them down. Rose helped her shape them into the quasi-autobiographical gems of American writing they have become. The royalties from the books did make Laura money and bring her financial security by the end of her life. But she lived her whole life on a farm in one of the poorest cities in the U.S.

Fraser seems to have read and traveled widely to research the book. Thought she doesn’t complain, she does wonder: why isn’t there a dedicated museum or archive to one of our most celebrated and uniquely American writers? LIW’s manuscripts and artifacts are scattered from the Ozarks to Iowa to Minnesota to southern Kansas to South Dakota. Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult lives but now a museum, has never had a professional curator. The people who work there are volunteers. If LIW had been a male writer, I am sure we’d have had serious effort to assemble a serious, conserved, scholarly archive of her works and letters by now.

This is Fraser’s last paragraph in the book, but I don’t think my quoting it here will spoil anything:

Critical or adoring scholars and readers might agree about one thing: the Little House books are not history. They are not, as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them. The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is there, if we look for it — embedded in the novels’ conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfaction, their astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security. Anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them.

library copy

Two Volcanoes

My reading topics have really come in pairs this year, like my last post, Two Mysteries. But the choice to read Volcano by Shusaku Endo and Krakatoa by Simon Winchester nearly back to back was a bit more deliberate. I thought it would be interesting to read one fiction and one nonfiction books ostensibly about the same topic.

I picked up Volcano because I had been so blown away (no pun intended) by Endo’s Silence last year.  Like Silence, Volcano is set on the southern island of Kyushu, but Volcano is set in contemporary times in the city of Kagoshima, which is right at the foot of the real-life volcano Sakurajima.

In Volcano, Sakurajima is called Akadaké, and it is a looming symbol of evil and wretchedness in the story. One of the main characters, Jinpei Suda, has spent his life working at the local weather bureau which overlooks Akadaké. He developed such an obsessive interest and knowledge of the volcano that he’s known as the “Demon of Akadaké.” He’s arrogantly confident about his knowledge of the volcano, asserting that it is dying and won’t erupt anymore. But Suda is a dilettante. His blindly follows the theories of a now-deceased scholar, dismisses contrary scientists, and ignores obvious signs of impending eruption when he visits the island. His whole life is so wrapped up in his work and the self-importance of his so-called expertise that he is blind to reality — the reality of the volcano’s dangers, the reality that he is not as widely respected as he believes, and the reality that he has failed to develop meaningful relationships with his colleagues or even his own family.

Just as Suda is about to retire, Father Sato, the young local priest, wants his expert assurance that the volcano is dying and won’t erupt anymore. Sato has used the church’s precious funds to buy a plot of land at the foot of Akadaké where he wants to open a spiritual retreat center. Of course, this would be a very poor idea if Akadaké were still active. Father Sato turns to the Demon for his “expert” opinion, and the Demon ignores all evidence to the contrary and reassures the priest. But as he is cast adrift in his retirement, he is consumed by guilt and loneliness.

The Western counterpart to Suda is the old priest  Father Durand. Father Durand is ill and near the end of his life. As he sits by his window looking out over the volcano, he recalls an earlier time when he was arrogantly confident in his religious beliefs and his feelings of superiority over how the Japanese live and follow Buddhist customs. At that time, a young female doctor came to him for help with her sickly, frail only child, but he was convinced that the only thing wrong with the boy was being indulged by the mother. He harshly scolded the doctor, and convinced her to let him put her son in Catholic mission boarding school. The child detested the school and Durand and eventually fell ill and died, devastating the mother. For all Durand’s religiosity and confidence, he has no answer for the boy’s mother as to why god let the boy die. Now, in old age, he is consumed by guilt:

But in his own case, whatever he tried in wanting to do God’s work had ended up ironically in disaster, in tragic consequences. Moreover, God was always silent. God did not answer his prayers. God was only trifling with Durand.

…’Go ahead and explode! Go ahead and explode!’ Durand was actually hoping that some day without warning the mountain would vomit its fire and smoke, retch with its lava, destroy everything — as he had destroyed it all with his own life.

Endo chases around his obsessive themes about the arrogance of Christianity while the great Akadaké/Sakurajima looms in judgement over the characters in the book. It was a powerful symbol to center the novel on.  I visited Kagoshima and drove around the perimeter of Sakurajima about 10 years ago. It’s beautiful and rather scary — the volcano regularly erupts and always has a thick plume of smoke drifting up from the crater. It feels crazy to drive around on it! I think it added to my enjoyment of the novel because I could really visualize this volcano.

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester is everything you ever wanted to know about the world’s biggest and baddest recorded volcanic explosion on August 27, 1883. Krakatoa island, situated in the strait between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, blew itself out of the water and out of existence that day, but the effects of its demise were felt globally for years afterwards. Winchester explains the geologic history and chases down vague reports of earlier possible eruptions. He also explains the social, economic, and technological reasons why this particular explosion in 1883 was poised to be so widely observed and studied, and the impact the explosion had on the global economy, the scientific understanding of the proliferation of species, and even, possibly, the spread of Islam in Indonesia. And be warned: a new volcanic island, the restless Anak Krakatoa or Child of Krakatoa, has already been born from the waves in the same spot.

Possibly one of my favorite nonfiction genres is this kind of study of natural phenomenon and its  social, scientific, technological, artistic, economic, historical and whatever-else impact. Krakatoa was on my TBR for about 5 years. I am so glad I finally read it!

Copyright 1959
personal copy

Copyright 2003
personal copy



The Snow Leopard eats, prays, loves

The Snow Leopard

It’s only after a few days finishing The Snow Leopard that I have started to think of its similarities to Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. But whereas I found Eat, Pray Love largely insufferable, I enjoyed The Snow Leopard, even if Matthiessen’s journey is, in many ways, just as an earlier and more rugged version of Gilbert’s.

In the early 1970s, Peter Matthiessen lost his wife to cancer. About six months later, he joined his friend, the celebrated wildlife biologist and conservationist George Schaller (referred to in the book as simply GS), on a trek through the Nepali Himalaya to the border of Tibet. Schaller, a fit, driven, and taciturn man, was off to study the Himalayan bharal, a goatish mountain sheep or sheepish mountain goat. That was the point — the animals had not been studied enough to understand where they fit in the evolutionary tree. GS wanted to watch the rut, which takes place late in the fall or very early Himalayan winter, to help understand if the animals rutted more like goats or sheep. Matthiessen, a long-time student of Zen Buddhism, joined GS for the chance to visit a place of significance to Buddhists: the Crystal Mountain and its monastery, Shey Gompa. If GS and Matthiessen were lucky, they might also catch a glimpse of the elusive and rare snow leopard. Continue reading

Let It Stand


This is not the cover of the copy I read, but I love this photograph of her!

Stet: An Editor’s Life is yet another book that’s been in my TBR for some time. I don’t read a lot of memoirs or biographies, but as a reader, I find the work of editors fascinating. These days, I also find employment as a proofreader for advertising, so the topic is even more of interest to me than before.

Diana Athill is known as one of the great British editors of the 20th century. She worked with writers such as John Updike, V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood (!), Jack Kerouac, and Mordecai Richler, to name a few. The publishing firm she helped found, André Deutsch, also published blockbusters like Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The firm no longer exists, but Athill was there from its inception through its heyday, and much of her memoir centers on it.

Athill writes in a breezy, confident manner, with just the right economy of thought and wit. More than half the book is given to how she found her profession and helped establish André Deutsch, and is peppered with anecdotes about love affairs (without name dropping), writers and industry insiders, travel, and the day-to-day of the publishing world from roughly the 1950s through the early 1980s (she retired in her 70s after 50 years in publishing). Continue reading

Time Reading Program: The Sea and the Jungle

Cover illustration by Leo & Diane Dillon.

Cover illustration by Leo & Diane Dillon, a prolific husband and wife illustrator team. The Dillons won numerous awards for their illustrations of both chapter and picture books in their long 50-year career, including the Caldecott (twice) and the Hugo.

My latest read from my ever-growing pile of Time Reading Program books is a travelogue, The Sea and the Jungle by H. M. Tomlinson. Written in 1912, it recounts the journey of the author from the drudgery of his rainy, gray London life across the stormy and unpredictable Atlantic on a steam ship to Brazil, where he then travels 2,000 miles by same ship up the Amazon into the jungle. The route he took was a malarial hotbed and many did not survive this particular stretch of river. Luckily, he lived to tell about it.

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My First MOOC: On Laura Ingalls Wilder & Her Works

LIW A writer's lifeLike so many young girls over the past 80 years or so, I was completely enamored as a child with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I always felt the books were extra-specially mine, as both the character and the author are my namesake and I was born and raised in Kansas. When people have asked me what I enjoyed so much about them, I have often said that I loved reading about how people lived and made things in the 19th century. I still do attribute my love of hand sewing, patchwork, pickling, and so forth to my reading of these books (though in reality, it is probably the influence of my mother, a crafting whiz) as well as my fascination with the prairie and the wide open skies of the west.

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Time Reading Program: Cross Creek


Cover art front and back by Jim Jonson. Jonson was a noted illustrator of mostly athletes in action. His work was published in Sports Illustrated, Time Life Books, Ski, and others.

It was difficult to decide which one, of my current 57 Time Reading Program Special Edition books, to start reading first. Somehow my finger landed on Cross Creek by Marjoire Kinnan Rawlings, and I gently pried the cover open about 30 degrees (the covers are so stiff that it is not possible to fully open the book without breaking them off) and peered in.

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Memories of Silk and Straw

Memories of Silk and StrawFinally a non-fiction read this year, and a very good one. Memories of Silk and Straw is an ethnographic study by a Japanese doctor, Dr. Junichiro Saga, published in the 1980s, a decade of super affluence in Japan. He interviewed lots of elderly people who grew up in a small village about 100 miles north of Tokyo and asked them to recall life, trade, daily activities, etc in the early days of the 20th century. These days most resembled life in “old Japan,” and he wanted to record how people lived at that time. Most of those interviewed were born around 1900, and a few prior to that. He interviewed everyone from midwives to dyers to geisha to farmers. Some of the stories are astounding. Continue reading