Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Do you ever listen to “StoryCorps” on NPR? Here it Kalamazoo, it airs on Friday mornings and I’m frequently within listening range as I’m getting ready for work. I’ve read several of the books that Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorp, has put together from transcripts of some of the recordings.
This new one, Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps, is a treasure. The very short, very personal stories are all good reminders of how we are connected to each other and how those connections bind us together in so many interesting ways.
Ties That Bind Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps
I recently read accounts of two long solo walks. One was fictional; one was a memoir. One takes place in England; the other transpires on the west coast of the USA. Still, both books drew me right in, and I found intriguing similarities in the stories.
Harold, the unassuming hero of Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, leaves the house one day to post a letter to a dying friend. Suddenly, his feet take off and before he knows it, he’s headed across England to see her in person, convinced that his journey will keep Queenie alive. Cheryl Strayed was still reeling from the death of her mother and the end of a marriage, when she set off hiking across the Pacific Crest Trail, weighted down by much more than her far-too-heavy backpack.
Harold and Cheryl are both compelled to continue, day after harrowing day, despite torturous run-ins with ill-suited footwear and other gear. Strayed starts off Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail with a punch. We learn that she has just lost one of her hiking boots down the side of the mountain. They never fit well, anyway, and what good is one boot without the other? Her reaction, then, is to heave the other out into the abyss, and we are left wondering how on earth she made it safely home, without hiking gear for her feet. (Read the book to find out!)
Strayed and Joyce each give excellent descriptions of nature discovered, and human connections created, along the way. The people they meet enrich their experiences; however, ultimately both the heroine and the hero find the strength to complete their journeys solo, facing down inner demons in the process.
Wild: from lost to found on the pacific crest trail
Are you interested in modern art, but don’t know quite what to make of it? Do you just keep your mouth shut, because you don’t want to come across as stupid? Do you wish you had taken the time to take the Art Appreciation class in college instead of rushing through, taking only classes that fulfilled degree requirements?
Well, What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz can help you out a bit in all three of these cases. Gompertz was the director of London’s Tate Gallery and is now the BBC Arts Editor. He introduces you to dozens of artists and art movements from Impressionism up to the present, showing how each fed off those that came before and often were rebellions against the ideas of the earlier artists. My favorite part was a fun story about Robert Rauschenberg asking Willem de Kooning for a drawing so he could erase it. It’s interesting how many of the names that we use to categorize different movements were taken from derogatory reviews of their work.
The book includes some color plates of art work in the middle as well as some black and white images sprinkled throughout the text, but you will find yourself searching the internet for many of the works of art that are discussed, but not depicted. You will want to see what he is talking about and you might find yourself making your own explorations online.
This is a really easy to read and fun introduction to modern art.
What Are You Looking At?
Author and essayist Chuck Klosterman examines pop culture like nobody else. He seems to revel in each just-right cultural references and to thrill in the depth of his arguments about the shallowest areas of our culture. In his latest collection of essays, I Wear the Black Hat: Grapling with Villians (Real and Imagined), Klosterman takes on the concept of villainy and in quintessential Klosterman style he gleefully examines the role that bad guys play in our culture. To the uninitiated, Klosterman’s rants can get tedious at times and to many readers going on for pages about the gangster rap group N.W.A.’s use of the imagery of the Oakland Raiders professional football team and how both organizations cultivated the image of themselves as bad guys to great success, might seem a bit much. But sticking with Klosterman is well worth it, he is funny and smart and you get the sense that he would probably be writing all this down regardless if anyone actually reads it or not and that kind of commitment to ideas is always worth checking out. As I’ve been reading the essays in I Wear the Black Hat on and off for the past week, I’ve also been reading Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the greatest sports conspiracy ever, by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell. Nobody illustrates the hero to villain archetype better than Armstrong, O.J. Simpson might be close, and his very public swapping of white hat (or yellow wristband) for black is fully illustrated in Wheelmen. While reading all the sordid details of Armstrongs cheating, I couldn’t help but think of Klosterman’s assessment that a villain is the person who “knows the most, but cares the least” and apply it Armstrong.
I wear the black hat
I have just finished reading A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life by James Bowen, a true account of the author’s remarkable relationship with his best friend, the feline Bob. At the time of their first meeting, Bowen is a struggling street musician, who has to carry the additional burden of trying to shake off a heroin addiction problem. Day to day survival on the streets of London was his only preoccupation.
One gloomy March evening, James notices a ginger cat curled up on a doormat outside a ground floor flat. Having always had a soft spot for cats, and seeing the same cat on several subsequent occasions, James decides to give him a little loving attention; something which the poor puss seems to crave. Upon closer inspection, the cat appears to be a real beauty with memorable, piercing green eyes. But its obvious that just like James, he too has been somewhat down on his luck of late. His coat is in poor condition, thin with bald patches in places. And one of his back legs, which the cat holds in an awkward manner, is clearly in need of medical attention.
James tries to find the cat’s owner, but no one wishes to claim or take responsibility for him. So James makes up his mind to transport him back to his own threadbare flat. He offers the tom some milk and a bit of tuna mashed up with biscuits which is enthusiastically wolfed down in no time. After the meal, the cat settles in a comfortable spot near the radiator moving only when James goes to bed, whereupon he wraps himself up into a ball by James’ feet. James is pleased with his new company; something he hasn’t had a lot of recently. And the cat seems to enjoy what must be very fine accommodations compared to what he had experienced in recent times, and with the added bonus of a gentle soul and kindred spirit for a flat mate.
At first, James attempts to heal the animal’s abscessed leg with a home remedy. This does not work, and he ends up taking the cat to see a local vet. After paying twenty two pounds for the visit out of the total thirty he has to his name, he decides to name the cat Bob, after a favorite character in the Twin Peaks series called “Killer Bob”. Although James enjoys Bob’s company, he doesn’t want to form a close bond with the feline, because he plans to return him back to the streets after he is healed and neutered.
Following the neutering operation, James tries to implement his original plan to set the tom free, but Bob would have none of that. He becomes James’ shadow, following James wherever he goes, often by sitting on his shoulder and looking out the window of a double-decker bus as they travel around London.
James was a guitar playing busker in Covent Garden. Ordinarily, no one would exchange a look with James, much less try to engage him in conversation. He was just another grubby London panhandler that most people don’t see; a person to be avoided and even shunned. But with Bob by James’ side or on his shoulder, people would stop and broad smiles would break out on their faces. Seeing James in the company of the cat softened him in the eyes of the public. Coins and pounds were dropped into his guitar case, sometimes even before he began playing his guitar. Bob was indeed a charmer and that first day busking with the feline was the most lucrative of James’ career up to that point. With time, people started to bring Bob tidbits of food, homemade knitted sweaters, and even asking to purchase Bob who was definitely not for sale. The cat gave the man back his dignity and identity as well as a chance to get back on life’s right track. In James’ eyes, Bob was truly priceless.
James has now lived with Bob for several years, and they are still going strong. James believes in karma – that what goes around, comes around. And he believes that Bob came into his life at an exact, crucially important moment. Bob became the best mate who guided James towards a different, more productive way of living. He states in the last two lines of the book, “Everybody needs a break, everybody deserves that second chance. Bob and I had taken ours...”
Anyone who loves cats or animals will be drawn to this feel good book, about the power of love between a man and an animal. Bob is one remarkable cat who did save James’ life. This read will put a smile on your face and maybe produce a few tears of joy as well.
Long live Bob, James and the human/animal spirit!
Follow Street Cat Bob on Twitter, Facebook, and his blog.
A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life
While I was listening to a Sunday news program and looking at today’s Sunday newspaper both brought to my attention that on this Tuesday (10/8/2013), Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, I Am Malala will be released. You will remember that one year ago, Malala was shot by the Taliban.
Masked Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus and shot her in the head and neck. Malala was targeted for her activism. She spoke out about education for girls and against the Taliban faction that controls many parts of Pakistan. The Taliban believe that girls and women should be restricted to their home to serve their husbands and family. Malala’s father started and ran the girls school that she attended.
When Malala was 11 years old, she started speaking out for girls’ education. She gave speeches and wrote blogs for the British media. Malala wrote about the war around her between the Pakistani military and the Taliban. She was supposed to be silenced by the gunmen. But Malala lived and she is sharing her story through her recently published book.
All this reminded me of a book I read earlier this year by Deborah Ellis. My Name is Parvana, is the sequel to the book, The Breadwinner.
In My Name is Parvana, Parvana is now fifteen. She remembers the horrors of the last 4 years of her life. She remembers her struggle to survive while she is separated from her family, her home and the life she had known. This story picks up with Parvana being reunited with her Mother and sisters. They have been living in a village where her Mother has finally been able to open a school for girls. Attending school has been Parvana’s dream but her dream doesn’t last. Her story tells of the hardships they all face when starting the school, trying to keep the school running and the girls safe when the war in Afghanistan is far from over. Both the girls and the school are targeted and Parvana’s story is not unlike Malala’s. Both girls’ show unbelievable strength and courage. Life is hard and sometimes it is so hard you cannot understand how either of these young girls carry on and survive.
My Name Is Parvana, is a story that will long stay with you. It is such a strong story, you will be reminded of these brave young women often. Both books, The Breadwinner and My Name is Parvana should be on your reading list.
My Name is Parvana
1. The Tolstoy Connection: After reading The Kingdom of God is Within You, he admired the late Leo Tolstoy who became a radical Christian of non-violence and love. Indeed, Gandhi started a community that was named after Tolstoy. Gandhi also read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and was very interested in the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.
2. He was obsessed with making clothes. Not only to be self-reliant, but as a way to free India from the British textile industry.
3. He had a guilt-complex about sex. Imagine the very young Gandhi at his father’s death bed. Lust, he says, pulled him away to his 13-year-old wife. His father dies as he indulges the pleasures of the flesh. He was not there at the most important, most sacred moment of his father’s life. This haunts him his entire life. Of course this doesn’t fully explain why he took an oath of celibacy (apparently his wife was okay with that), or why he would sleep next to young women simply to “test” his faith, or why he abstained from alcohol, drugs, fancy dress, fancy food, fancy everything. It was a religious virtue for him, a tradition he got from the Gita and the Gospels. He loved disciplining his body; fasting made him giddy.
4. He was a Christian. Well, actually he was a Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Jew, etc—a religious pluralist. “The Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart,” he said. But he was very partial to the teachings of Jesus, so much so that his fellow Hindus would accuse him of being a secret Christian (they were missing the whole point obviously). In the mud hut he lived in, he had one thing on the wall: a picture of Jesus that said “He is our Peace.”
5. At times, he was not a very good husband and father. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he was forced to marry at a very young age. He was controlling, jealous, and cruel. He left his family for long periods of time, both for professional and spiritual pursuits (many religious figures have this issue unfortunately). He was a task-master, raised the bar way too high for his sons, and treated them just like everybody else in terms of affection. His eldest son became a drunk that would slander his father in the papers. Yet he loved them all, just as he loved all Indians, all people. Just as he even loved the person who shot him in the chest three times, as he gasped his last breath: “Oh, God.”
And that’s the whole point of Gandhi; it's not about the flaws and pecedillos, it’s what you already know about Gandhi. Like Jesus, Mother Theresa, and St. Francis of Assisi, he really loved people as much as he possibly could. That's his legacy.
Gandhi the man, his people, and the empire
For all those Malcolm Gladwell fans out there (which seems to be everyone considering how long his books have been on the bestseller list), you will be happy to know that he has a new book coming out on October 1st. In David and Goliath, Gladwell examines the lives of individual and team underdogs, illustrating how some disadvantages may lead to advantages in the long run and vice versa.
We already have many copies on order so you can put it on hold today.
David and Goliath
The story of the building of the atomic bomb is often told from the scientific and decision making perspective. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, is the story from the perspective of young woman, many from the neighboring area in Tennessee, who went to work at Oak Ridge. They would not know until Hiroshima what they were working on, what part they were playing in the war effort.
The nine women highlighted here are each unique yet share a common bond. They are seeking an adventure or a way to better their lives, a commitment to the war effort, and a blind faith in their small part of a larger, unknown to them, project.
Equally interesting is the story of the companion effort underway in Los Alamos, New Mexico: 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the City of Los Alamos published in 2005.
The Girls of Atomic City
Although Zealot got attention mostly for the intriguing back story of the author Reza Aslan--a Muslim turned Christian turned Muslim--it should get attention for its excellent, smooth writing style, its clear portrayal of the history of the times of Jesus. What was it like back then? In a word, chaos; complete political turmoil, revolutionary, messiahs popping up left and right and getting killed by Rome left and right. In this regard, I enjoyed the book thoroughly and learned a lot.
But then there's the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. This is where the Christ that most people love exits stage left, is drastically different than the Jesus of history that Aslan proposes. According to the book, Jesus wasn't a very nice guy. His most defining act, the act that clarified "his theology," was when he went into the temple and started flipping over tables:
"So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation” (p. 73).
What happened to "turning your other cheek" and "love your enemies" Jesus? The author thinks these teachings were embellished and "abstracted;" he probably meant love your fellow Jews (not Romans or the Jewish priestly class, who were enemies). Remember the Garden of Gethsemane scene? Aslan says they were hiding, "armed," and had a "bloody" tussle with the arresting party. When Jesus claims he's the Messiah, it's sedition and worthy of death under Roman law. Remember when Jesus preaches the kingdom of God is "within you" or "at hand" or "like a tree with many branches"? "The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution," says Aslan, "plain and simple” and “God’s rule cannot be established without the destruction of the present order” (p. 119-120). And that's why they killed him.
Of course some will argue he is merely selecting those passages of the Gospels that fits his theory (after all, when it comes to the historical Jesus the Gospels are basically all there is). But he will argue that historians can figure out which passages are more historical than others. I'm not a historian, so I won't go there. But I will say there's an awkward disconnect going on between Aslan's portrayal of Jesus (violent) and what he says about Jesus at the end of the book. He laments that we have lost the historical Jesus because he is someone "worth believing in." He also says in interviews that he is a "follower of Jesus." Really? Which teachings? From reading the book you don't get it. But what I think he means is that he follows the Jesus who spoke "truth to power," a force of social justice who cared about the poor and did something about it; who ultimately defied the odds of history by somehow starting one of the greatest world religions ever known.