So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

And Now For Something Different!

Hi there!

As all eight of you know, this blog is where I try to talk you into reading the books I like. Now, in the new year, let’s do it the other way around at least once. You tell me what to read—and if I agree, I’ll tell everybody else. It’s a sort of a contest, except I’m not sure how many people will win—maybe everybody will.

Here’s the way it works. If there is a book you want more people to pay attention to, shoot me an email (or comment on this post). Include the full name of the book and the name of the author. If the book has more than one edition, be sure to indicate which edition you mean. Tell me why you think everyone should read the book—just a line or two is fine. If it looks interesting, I’ll read it. If I agree the book is awesome, I’ll post a recommendation on it. If I at least read the book, I’ll give it a tweet or two.

You’re allowed to suggest books you wrote, or books your friends wrote, though you can also just pitch something you read and liked. Any genre is ok, but I’ve got to warn you I like some genres better than others. The book does not have to be in print, but it does have to be publicly available. Old, out-of-print books are fine, as are self-published works you’re printing to order, but there must be some way for readers to find the book. If it’s sitting on your computer, it doesn’t count. The book also has to be either written, or translated into, English. If you pitch a translated book, be sure to let me know which translation you want me to read.

If we have an interesting conversation about the book, or if you have an interesting story to tell about it, I’ll post about that, too.

Basically, this is free advertising, either for your book or for the book you want to champion. I don’t have a lot of readers yet, but I do read a wide variety of books, and I talk to a wide variety of people. If everyone who talks me into reading a book tells their friends to check out my blog, then not only do more people here about my writing, but people find out about books they might not otherwise have heard of. So it’s a win all around.

We’ll see how it goes. I expect the whole contest to be kind of small. Next year I’ll do it again (if the world doesn’t end first, of course), and we’ll see how the whole thing grows.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas

This is a book that should not be seen so much as heard, and I have a story about hearing it. It is to tell the story that I am recommending the book, though you should read the book, too, when you get a chance. It is fantastic. Here is the first sentence;

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

I mean, really? Just read that aloud, or, better yet, find a man to read it to you. It has to be a man, some poetry is made for men’s voices, the slow, dark resonance only they can have. Also, you have to get a man who knows how to read aloud well. Not just any man will do. He’s got to get the rhythm, the cadence, right. Better yet if the man you get to read this to you is older, middle-aged at least, and somewhat grumpy. Yes, go find yourself a grumpy old man with a honeyed voice to read this to you, and then fall asleep listening to it when you are six, staring at Christmas lights.

But that is not my story.

My story begins when I was fifteen years old, and sent away to boarding school. I was an odd kid, and that was an odd school, and I was particularly odd when I was in it, though perhaps somewhat less so afterward. I used to describe it as “a military school run by Willie Wonka.” Not that I’d ever had any experience of a military school. What I meant was that it was very strict, and in some ways demanding, and yet all the strictness, all the rules, were filtered through the judgment and personality of a headmaster who didn’t quite agree to live in the same world most of the rest of us do. He was genuine, caring, and yet not quite safe; think of Willie Wonka by Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp. Think of the scene in the Half Room, particularly. That was A. Michael DeSisto.

It was not quite fun to be there. A lot of kids ran away, or tried to. But—man, did they know how to do Christmas. I had no particular interest in growing up in those days, and I was leaving childhood unwillingly, with no clear idea of what might happen next. I liked the particular feeling of childhood traditions to a child, for instance, though time and adolescence were blowing them away from me like smoke. My first year at school, I could not go home for Christmas, and I feared not being able to, for surely not being at home would end Christmas as I knew it, make the last shreds of childhood drift away? I needn’t have feared it, for on Christmas morning itself there was snow, and fresh deer prints outside of my dorm. And there was A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Before the winter vacation started, and the kids who could go home did, there was a formal dinner for students and faculty. You had to dress up, and the tables were dressed up with red table cloths and a multi-course meal, and there was a series of performances on a little stage built in the front of the dining hall for the occasion, and caroling afterward. One of the performances was the Dylan Thomas poem, read by Michael, assisted by two boys ready to voice boys, a woman to voice women like Miss Prothero, who asks the firemen if they would like anything to read, and a bell. I think there was a bell, to voice any bells in the story. I remember that Michael did this every year, but also I remember only one iteration of the performance. A trick of memory, perhaps akin to not knowing if the snow lasted for six days or twelve.

Michael was in his mid-fifties at the time, the same age my husband is now, and hence not an advanced age, but some people are born old. If you say it with love, that’s actually a compliment, albeit not one you would actually tell most recipients. Michael was also not exactly grumpy, but he read grumpy very well. No one else could reply to the small boy who says "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea," with a “but that was not the same snow,” that could wither flowers. Clearly, no modern snow could measure up.

Dylan Thomas’s poem begs inevitable comparison to Gene Sheppard’s A Christmas Story, except the former is what the latter might aspire to be when it grows up. A Christmas Story is great for quotes, a touchstone of popular culture—when my husband reads out “fra-gi-le,” intentionally mispronouncing by pronouncing the “e,” I am always ready to observe “it must be Italian!” But there is little magic or poetry there, and little to attract anyone who does not share the same nostalgic memories. A Red Ryder BB Gun is not quite universal. The Prothero’s cats are.

After the tale was read, and the students whose turn it was to be waiters had cleaned up and finally gotten to bed (somehow I always seemed to be a waiter on Christmas. It was the same way on my birthday. Entirely unfair) there were several days of fairly ordinary campus life, minus any school work and the students who had gone home, before Christmas itself. I remember that year, my first Christmas on campus, away from home, how we were allowed to wake up late and go out, in our pajamas, past the deer prints in the snow, and up to the Great Hall, the room in the Mansion that looked, really, like a small version of something from Harry Potter. Campus had once been a well-to-do horse farm, and the old building flanked by elm trees lent the place a kind of romantic grandeur. On Christmas Day we were allowed to leave the somewhat bare and barren strictness of boarding school, and enter that grandeur in our pajamas.

Little gift bags for each student had been lined up, all along the walls, and we ran around in groups and found them, searching for our own names on the cards. Then there were presents, real presents, from our dorm-parents, except I hadn’t known we would get any from them, and they were signed Santa, so the surprise made the mystery as good as real. I got a Deep Space Nine calendar. We had breakfast and hot chocolate in our pajamas on the Great Hall floor, by a huge Christmas tree, a real tree, decorated in gold and white ornaments and tiny, white lights. There was nothing else to do all day but play with our toys, until it was time to go back to our dorms and get ready for dinner. When we returned to the Great Hall, all the detritus of Christmas morning was gone, and there were tables with red and green table cloths and another formal dinner.

We were all teenagers, some of us legal adults, but it felt, wholly and completely, like a child’s Christmas. And it never has again.

But that was enough.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales;

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin Seligman

You know how they say not to judge a book by its cover? Well, this is the book they were talking about. The chirpy title splashed across the blue skyscape background actually curves into a smiley-face. But, no matter; ignore the cover. Open it up and read. I mean it.

This book is not gimmicky, and it is not just somebody’s pet explanation for all human behavior. It won’t promise to solve all your problems in just three easy steps. You don’t have to take the author’s word for anything. This isn’t pop psychology, it’s psychology written for the popular audience, and there is a difference. The information here is backed up by large, scientific studies, which the author describes clearly. The advice is given with the injunction that if a technique doesn’t work for you, don’t waste your time with it. Authentic Happiness is rather like an owner’s manual for the mind. For years, whenever my friends and I have fallen to talking about mood and happiness, I have quoted this book to them. Personally, I’ve been happier since I read it.

As a manual, the book is not perfect. The first third of the book proved the most useful to me, for its descriptions of how happiness works, what really makes people happier and what doesn’t. There are some real surprises. Most kinds of childhood trauma do not make people any more likely to be unhappy as adults, for example. Expressing anger does not actually make the anger go away. Being in a good mood will make you more generous and more solution-oriented; being happy is an important part of being there for others. At the same time, being kind to others has a stronger influence on mood than pleasure does, suggesting that if you want to cheer yourself up, buying your friend an ice-cream cone gives you more bang for your buck than buying yourself one.There are also self-scored tests and various simple exercises aimed at improving happiness. I’ve used those exercises, some of them, anyway, and they work.

But much of the rest of the book is concerned with identifying one’s “signature strengths,” and while I like the idea (that if you know what you are good at and find a way to do it you will be happier), none of the options Dr. Seligman offered really sounded like me. His attempt to offer a kind of atheist’s spirituality wasn’t helpful, either—of course, I am not an atheist, but not all attempts at atheist spirituality leave me puzzled, and this one did. In my opinion, he could have, and should have, just left that section out.

The atheist’s spirituality section suggests one further weakness of the book, one that is not Dr. Seligman’s fault as a psychologist or a writer, but is important to keep in mind. As a psychologist, Dr. Seligman’s job is to understand how the mind works. He can therefor state that religious devotion is important, psychologically. People who are devoted to something larger than themselves are happier than those who are not. But what the something larger is or could be is not a matter for psychology; it’s a matter for philosophy or religion. Perhaps a good analogy would be to an auto mechanic. A mechanic can tell you how to maintain your car, but not where to drive. In this sense, the book is not a complete treatment of its subject, because what a person is devoted to is not irrelevant. But as long as you don’t expect Dr. Seligman to be a philosopher, he can be a very useful psychologist.

He has at least one other book out on a related subject; Learned Optimism. It is an older book, and Authentic Happiness re-uses a lot of its material. I expected Learned Optimism to be a more focused treatment of the subject, so I read both books, but actually the best of the earlier book ended up in the later book. Unless you really like reading (and you might; I do), Authentic Happiness is the one of the two to get.

Seligman, M. (2002.) Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to

realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York City: The Free Press.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, by David Quammen

I had no idea why I was in that circle of chairs in that airy room.

I was at grad school Orientation, a rather disorienting process, and my academic adviser was only the latest in a long series of people I’d met whose roles I didn’t fully understand and whose names I was almost certain to forget. There were a group of us meeting the same adviser, and since he coincidentally had all of us in class, he took the opportunity to tell us that he’d updated the online syllabus (there’s an online syllabus? Where? Help!), replacing the textbook with the book by Quammen—

“Song of the Dodo!” I said reflexively, as though I’d been squeezed, as though I were a squeeze-bottle of ketchup and the name of the book was that first splat that overshoots your lunch and lands on your napkin.

“Yes, that’s the book,” he acknowledged, looking rather nonplussed by the interruption. I’ll bet he was; I later asked him to be my thesis adviser, and he is a man of great authority and dignity. I wouldn’t interrupt him now, and I didn’t mean to do it then. But, disoriented as I was, at least there was one other person at my new school with good taste in books.

I’d read Song of the Dodo for pleasure the year before. A colleague of mine had a copy and had left it lying around. As you might guess, I read rather compulsively. I also have excellent recall, I don’t know why, but being able to remember that book saved me both time and money that semester. Time and money are always in short supply for grad students, or I would have happily read it again. It’s beautifully and entertainingly written, and—my teacher was right—it is an excellent introduction to many of the main concepts and people in conservation biology.

See, there is no reason whatever why science writing should be so dry as to kill cows at a hundred paces. No, science writing should be full of…fresh grass and sparkling water and cool, spreading shade trees. Or spiders. One of those fun and fascinating things.

Ecology is full of fun an interesting things. Environmental disaster is scary and sad, and it's actually much worse than most people realize, but you don't really get depressed about it. First, there isn't time, second, because there is so much awesome stuff to pay attention to. A nature geek is a kid in a candy-store all the time. Song of the Dodo is one of the few books that captures not just the content but the flavor of science. But that's not the primary reason why I have put it on my list. This is also another book that makes clear several basic, important ideas.

Here is an example; size matters. Say you isolated Lower Manhattan in some kind of impervious bubble so nothing but air and water could move in or out—no people and no money (this is my analogy—I won’t spoil Quammen’s for you). Would you then have protected this financial and cultural hub for all time? No, of course not; the place would very quickly fall to ruin, because Manhatten is an island only in the geographic sense. Culturally and economically, it is part of a system as big as the globe. As a species, investment bankers need access to a wide range of resources, and will die out from any isolated area. Granted, if some cataclysm were about to befall the world and you had a magic bubble that could protect a few square miles of human habitat, you might well decide to put it over Lower Manhattan (or the Bronx, or, say, my house, depending on your conservation priorities), especially if you thought the cataclysm might be temporary. The occupants of your little Manhattan park could save the world, if they could hold out till the coast was clear. Noah didn’t have to live on the Ark forever, after all. But the situation would be far from ideal.

Where this metaphor is going is probably too obvious by now to bear articulating. I don't mean nature preserves are bad, I mean they aren't enough. They aren't a place to stop and rest for long.

As Quammen points out, the actual song of the dodo is something lost not only to the world, but also to history. Dodos get a bad rap; often blamed for their own demise on account of their supposed stupidity, dodos were perfectly adapted to the world as they knew it. The world simply changed. After contact with humans (and egg-eating rats) they went so fast that no one who heard the sound actually took notes on their call. It is possible it was a sort of a coo, and that their name was onomatopoetic; “do-do, do-do.”

But, other songs still exist. As a therapist of mine used to say, the present is the future’s past.

Quammen, D. (1996). Song of the dodo: Island biogeography in an age of extinction. Touchstone: New York, NY.