Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 #4: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

The real take-away here is in Armstrong's final chapter: "The mythos of compassion tells us what to do. Instead of becoming depressed by our repeated failures, we should remember that constant practice does indeed make perfect and that if we persevere, we too can become a force for good in the world" (192). Armstrong's big picture targets compassion as a force that has the potential to bring about peace on a global scale. Whether or not this is true is hardly the point--a case for everyday empathy is relevant no matter what the context. Her most valuable insight is that it is difficult and takes practice. She includes practical exercises for empathy and compassion, and avoids the patronizing and moralistic tone that so many books of this nature seem to adopt. She extends the work of Joseph Campbell from the theoretical to the practical.

Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 #3: Astray by Emma Donoghue

I cannot honestly remember when I have so enjoyed a collection of short stories. Donoghue has so many voices inside her--each one unique, yet all united by sojourns of the soul and spirit. From the pages of history, Donoghue develops characters who are flawed in ways that we can recognize when we look in the mirror. I found this collection of short stories to be an excellent companion to A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit (review here). I'd recommend this strongly to travelers, whether their journeys are literal or figurative.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 #1 and #2: The Circle (Eggers) and Salt (Kurlansky)

50 books has proven to be too much, so I'm setting a smaller goal this year: 25. So far, on January 1st, I have two checked off. I'm being generous and counting books that I started in 2014, obviously.

TITLE: The Circle
AUTHOR: Dave Eggers
PUBLISHER: Vintage Books, 2013 (paperback)
PAGES: 497

Unfortunately, the "protagonist" (if one can even call her that) in Eggers' novel is so unbelievably ridiculous that it detracts from the value of the dystopic message. In contrast to a book like Fahrenheit 451, The Circle lacks subtlety. No one with enough brain cells to pick this book up in the first place needs to be hit over the head with the message. Mae is such an unlikeable character that I didn't want to spend time reading about her. And I think that was Eggers' true misstep here. He could have achieved the same transformation, but she could have had more questions and could have been more dimensional. The last 25 pages of the book were rather chilling and redeemed some of the more dry narrative. I like Eggers as a writer very much, and there are descriptive passages, particularly of San Francisco Bay, which are exquisite to read. Part of me believes that the contrast between the nature scenes and the scenes inside the Circle is part of Eggers' plan, but there's not enough balance. And it is when The Circle robs Mae of her time on the bay that I found the character the most unbelievable.

I will say that the book is unsettling enough that it made me question how much time I spend online and how much I share. While Eggers' vision is one that I think is ultimately hyperbolic and probably not very likely, it does ask us to consider how much we are willing to concede for transparency, and whether "transparency" is the cost of social interaction in the digital age. In short, the book probably could lose at least 100 pages, and still retain its message. Ultimately, the "story of one woman's ambition and idealism" (back cover) never materialized--instead it begins (and ends) as a story of one woman's naïveté and low self-esteem.

TITLE: Salt: A World History
AUTHOR: Mark Kurlansky
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books, 2002 (paperback)
PAGES: 497

"A Turks and Caicos designer drew a crest [for the flag] that included Salt Cay saltworks with salt rakers in the foreground and piles of salt.  Back in England, it was the era of Arctic exporation, and, not knowing where the Turks and Caicos was, the English designer assumed the little white domes were igloos. And so he drew doors on each one. And this scene of salt piles with doors  remained the official crest of the colony for almost 100 years, until replaced in 1968 by a crest featuring a flamingo." (Salt, 432)

This book is peppered (hah) with little anecdotal gems like this. The history of salt is indeed the history of so much more, as Kurlansky aptly demonstrates. Chapter 21, which details the significance of salt in Gandhi's resistance in India, was particularly interesting, as were the early chapters of the book. The book's biggest weakness is its organization, or lack thereof. In fairness, Kurlansky really didn't have that many options, given the topic. A straightforward chronological approach would not work, but the book does not negotiate the back and forth of the narrative as well as it might. I found myself losing track of the different methods, although I will admit this may be due in part to the large gaps of time in between my readings, which is obviously no fault of the book. It is certainly eye-opening in that we take for granted those little grains and what they mean for economics, for social justice, for history. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in world history and/or food.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

50BC14:#2 Clavell's Shogun & #3 Coelho's Manuscript Found in Accra

This year's 50 Book Challenge is actually going to be a 20 book challenge as I am starting in August.  I actually finished both of these books before the Solnit, but forgot to blog them.

Shōgun (Asian Saga, #3)Shōgun by James Clavell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Epic is as good a description as any to describe this novel--not just for its length, but for its scope. There are moments of real beauty in the scenic descriptions and the cultural tapestry woven by Clavell. It is an art to reveal culture and history through fiction with finesse, and Clavell excelled at this. Blackthorne is a most excellent figure in that the reader learns as he learns, and we realize that in some sense, we are Clavell's pawn much as Blackthorne is the pawn in a larger game. Some of the political strategy and inner-thinking can feel long-winded, and if you are looking for a book full of action and plot, this book may not give you wa.

 Manuscript Found in AccraManuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This has a lot of the same lessons as The Alchemist and many of his other books, but lacks the same beauty simply because of the format. There are some timeless aphorisms and beautiful nuggets of wisdom, but the poetry is missing. I felt the book was tedious in the final two lessons from "the Copt," save for the last two pages of the book. That's where the real wisdom is, and it is made all the more effective, actually, if the reader finds himself/herself mildly frustrated by the formulaic approach. Those last pages save the book.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

50BC14: #1 Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

A Field Guide to Getting LostA Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is quite possibly one of the best books I have read in the last ten years. Rebecca Solnit weaves together threads in a tapestry of colors that may seem unrelated, but then you step back and realize what an amazing and beautiful work she has created. From Simone Weil to the Clash, Solnit takes you on a journey of getting lost, with the markers of her own experience to guide you. She engages in what she calls the "delicate work of awareness" and invites the reader to do the same, but without artifice, psycho-babble, or reaching too far out of reality.

As a historian, I found this passage particularly stunning and resonant:

A man once told me that much of my writing was about loss, that that was how I imagined the world, and I thought about that comment for a long time. In that sense of loss two streams mingled. One was the historian's yearning to hang onto everything, write everything down, to try to keep everything from slipping away, and the historian's joy in retrieving out of archives and interviews what was almost forgotten, almost out of reach forever. But the other stream is the common experience that too many things are vanishing without replacement in our time. At any given moment the sun is setting someplace on earth, and another day is slipping away largely undocumented as people slide into dreams that will seldom be remembered when they awaken. Only the continuation of abundance makes loss sustainable, make it natural. There are more sunrises coming, but even dreams could be emptied out.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

50BC2012 #2: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man's Search for MeaningMan's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My only regret is that I didn't read this book earlier in life. The seemingly clinical detachment with which Frankl writes clears the way for the meaning of his words. it is the lessons he draws from his experiences that are so valuable, not the recollections of the experiences themselves. He recounts harrowing and heartbreaking stories from his personal experience during the Holocaust, but to hold it up as an example of suffering that everyone at least intellectually understands, if not viscerally. The concept of "unconditional meaningfulness" and it's connection to Frankl's Logotherapy is a powerful one. William Winslade's afterword in this edition is a wonderfully concise and informative biography of Frankl, and helps to summarize some of ideas espoused in the first part of the book. Frankl's search for a "tragic optimism" underscores the journeys of so many, and I do think that this is one of the most important books of the twentieth century, and likely beyond, as I think the search for meaning will always be part of what it is to be human.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

50BC2012 #1: A Whole New Mind--Daniel Pink

It isn't that I haven't read any books since 2011 (my last post). I have. That said, two full-time teaching jobs and one consulting/independent contractor job have pretty much consumed my life, so if I read, I don't have time to blog. My cooking blog and musicology blog have both suffered this fate--and I promise that I have cooked dinner occasionally and I've certainly had lots of interaction with musicology. I think I'm destined to be a "summer-only" blogger for awhile, but remain hopeful that my schedule will improve with each academic year. So, with this post I inaugurate Summer Blogging 2012 and this year's 50 Book Challenge (better May than never!) I will post some books that I read between January and May, but we'll start with the most recent.

 A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the FutureA Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a healthy suspicion of hype, and this book fell into that category as everyone I know seemed all a-buzz about it with commentary that bordered on hagiography. That said, when something hits the mainstream conversation in academia, I feel obligated to check it out. I was pleasantly surprised. As is so often the case, the title, "Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future" is a bit misleading. Pink doesn't advocate for right-brain over left as much as he calls us to recognize its value and how it helps foster a creative economy.

On a personal level, the book actually made me think more about my left-brain, as that is the part that isn't immediately obvious in my profession. I liked Pink's writing style--it is accessible, but not patronizing. At the end of each section he lists very helpful resources and "portfolio" activities to help stimulate the right-brain. I definitely advocate Pink's vision--a society that honors art, passion, and laughter as much as technology and science. I don't sense that who "rules the future" is so much his point as it is to use underdeveloped skills such as metaphor and visual design to "go beyond the self" and embrace the totality of the future.