The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Algonquin 2010. When the author contracts a life-threatening illness that confines her to bed for months on end, a friend brings her a common forest snail to reside at her bedside. What seems at first an odd choice of “pet” allows Bailey the opportunity to observe closely what turns out to be an amazingly complex little creature, a species that has survived far longer than humans. Who would have thought that an “everyday” snail could provide, in miniature, such a profound lesson on nature and life. This is a quiet book, well researched and a lovely meditation on the imaginative, innovative nature of this earth we live on.
Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon
I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, Gail Storey. Mountaineer Books 2013. This highly entertaining book, winner of the Barbara Savage Award, is the story of two determined people—the author and her husband Porter—and their adventures during six months on one of the most challenging trails in the United States. They find that some days outdoors are a joy, while others force you to question your sanity. The couple “sizzles in the Mojave Desert, nearly drowns fording a swollen river, wades through High Sierra snows,” and along the way they confront their essential selves, their physical and mental reserves, and the depth of their relationship. Storey, a writer with a well-developed sense of the absurdity of everyday life, shares her story with love and humor, but doesn’t spare herself in the telling. This is an extremely honest portrayal of the adjustments and sacrifices people make to encounter their true natures. It makes you question how far you would go to help your mate realize his or her dreams—and what you might lose or gain in the process. In the midst of one of the hardest things she might ever do, Gail reaches out and grabs Porter’s outstretched hand: “There was a grace to it, this wilderness minuet, one we’d do over and over again. The love with which he thrust out his arm, the trust with which I took it, would become the defining gesture of our hike.” BUY now at Amazon
For more about the author, for hilarious videos and great photos, and a listing of upcoming events, visit Gail Storey’s website
My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor. Knopf 2013. The first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sotomayor is living proof that hard work, intelligence, and a never-remitting sense of purpose and persistence—with a bit of luck thrown in—can take a person born with many societal strikes against her to the top. I found her story inspiring and honest and, more than ever, she has my deep admiration and respect. BUY now at Amazon
Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, Eva Hoffman. Dutton 1989. In 1959, thirteen-year-old Eva Hoffman took a voyage with her sister and parents from Poland to a new life in Canada. It was the beginning of her life-long search to regain a sense of “home” and belonging such as she had felt in the country of her birth. Hoffman explores what it means to be an immigrant from a viewpoint seldom heard. She finds the nuances of the language she was born into so different from those of the language in her new life and it’s both confounding and isolating. From struggling with Canadian sensibilities, to the informality and superficiality she finds in college in Texas, to the intellectual circles and conversations she finds herself immersed in in Manhattan, there is a sense of tragedy and loss surrounding Eva. She learns the “moves” of fitting in but it is never quite second nature. This is the immigrant’s quandary—always longing for a life, that homeground feeling of the past, always searching for a place where one can be understood without words. For most immigrants, that place they long for, like the past for all of us, no longer exists. Here is her very poignant description: “Memory can perform retrospective maneuvers to compensate for fate. Loss is a magical preservative. Time stops at the point of severance, and no subsequent impressions muddy the picture you have in mind. The house, the garden, the country you have lost remain forever as you remember them. Nostalgia—that most lyrical of feelings—crystallizes around these images like amber. Arrested within it, the house, the past, is clear, vivid, made more beautiful by the medium in which it is held and by its stillness.” BUY now at Amazon
If you like this book, you may also like her novel Illuminations
Mortality, Christopher Hitchens. Foreword by Graydon Carter. Afterword by Carol Blue. Twelve 2012. Straight talk about dying from the Duke of Doubt. A tough read and an unblinking look at how an avowed atheist looks at questions of faith as he comes face to face with his own mortality. BUY now at Amazon
Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up, James Hollis. Gotham 2005. This book started out pretty academic and dull, but I just skimmed those pages and became glad I stuck with it. Once I got into the meat of the topic, I found some thoughtful analysis of how important it is to become our true authentic selves as we age. Meaning comes through living closer to your own bones rather than trading that in for acceptance in an ever-material, celebrity-oriented culture. It comes from making choices that work toward developing our greatest human potential rather than falling back into old patterns that have kept us sick at heart. I especially like what he says about religion and how there are other ways than through organized versions of it to transcend our individual concerns and reach toward a sense of higher purpose. There’s some solid food for thought here. In sum, Hollis says, “Growing up spiritually means that we are asked to sort through the possibilities for ourselves, find what resonates for us, what is confirmed by our experience not the consensus of others, and be willing to stand for what has proved true for us. For this reason, the twin tasks of finding personal authority and finding a mature spirituality are inextricably linked.” BUY now at Amazon
A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, Robert R. Fowler. HarperCollins 2011. I think this is a must-read for anyone who wants to more clearly understand the viewpoint and character of religious extremists. Fowler, a Canadian diplomat, was kidnapped along with a colleague, Louis Guay, in December 2008 while on a mission to Niger. The primitive, grueling conditions of their imprisonment make page-turning reading, but, perhaps more importantly, they also reveal why these groups are a continuing threat to those in the West. Fowler writes well and is articulate and insightful as he relates how the two managed to survive, often only through luck, in a setting surrounded by angry zealots with their trigger fingers always on their AK 47s. His analysis as a long-time diplomat and UN representative has once again drawn attention as much of what he forecasts about the AQ situation in northern Africa has come to pass. The continuing threat to the West is real and it is dire. From a human perspective, how two men, not in the best of physical shape, survived, avoided beheading, and what they came to know about individuals within the cadre of their captors makes for a fascinating read. NPR review. BUY now at Amazon.
Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild, Tom Montgomery Fate. Beacon Press 2011. Fate hails from big city Chicago where he is a husband, father, professor, and active community member. But he often takes time away in a cabin in the Michigan woods where he communes with nature, lives simply, and reads for inspiration. He says he’s exploring “the possibility of enough in a culture of more.” He contemplates solitude in a very personal way, reading Thoreau’s Walden and considering how nature affects his own place in the universe. Some lovely writing. He quotes Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” While Thoreau’s intermittent misogyny is a problem for me, he does provide a good beginning point for thinking about our place as a part of a living tapestry that includes much more than simply humans. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe. Knopf 2012. This is truly a book for those who, like me, love books and find them a never-ending way to connect with people and a lifelong resource for solace, inspiration, learning, and broadening awareness of all that goes on in the world. It’s a memoir of sorts, a vignette of Will Schwalbe’s relationship with his mother during her last illness. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, almost always fatal within six months or less, Mary Anne Schwalbe’s days are filled with waiting—waiting to see the doctor, waiting to receive chemo, waiting for the results. And Will and his father and siblings take turns waiting with her. The Schwalbes are a family of readers and their tastes range broadly. So it is natural that in a lull in the conversation early on Will says to his mother, “What are you reading?” As all bookies know, this does not necessarily mean what are you reading right this minute but is an acknowledgment that both of you probably have several books underway at any time and it’s a prompt to discuss them. That question is the start of Will and Mary Anne’s private book club in which they choose and share an eclectic array of books and indulge themselves in their mutual passion for books, words, and ideas. I found myself jotting down titles and you will, too. The story is not so much about dying as it is a celebration of living and learning, of staying engaged until your last breath. BUY now at Amazon.
At Seventy: A Journal, May Sarton. Norton 1984. Drawn by the title and wanting to read something by this renowned author and poet, I very much enjoyed this book. It is a simple, quiet record of her day-to-day events and concerns written from her home, her haven, in Maine, as she entered the first year of a new decade. It’s a tale about daily pleasures such as the changing state of her garden, her friendships, and her work—those things that keep us moving steadily on through life. It was, over all, a positive view emphasizing things of beauty and inspiration. Yet it was very real. A couple of quotes that caught my eye:
“In the middle of the night things well up from the past that are not always cause for rejoicing—the unsolved, the painful encounters, the mistakes, the reasons for shame or woe. But all, good or bad, painful or delightful, weave themselves into a rich tapestry, and all give me food for thought, food to grow on.”
“One thing is certain, and I have always known it—the joys of my life have nothing to do with age. They do not change. Flowers, the morning and evening light, music, poetry, silence, the goldfinches darting about—”
“[the poem was about] coming to a place where life has grown more important than ambition and what she longs for is the self she is becoming and time to experience its needs and joys.”
The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen, Jennifer Steil. Broadway 2010. In one of those serendipitous events that occasionally bring unlikely people together, US journalist Jennifer Steil is invited to teach a journalism class to the staff of the English-language Yemen Observer in San’a, the historic, ancient capital of Yemen. At a time when most women might be very concerned about being on their own in a conservative Middle Eastern city, Steil finds the invitation irresistible. An independent, free-wheeling single New Yorker, she is ill-prepared for the conditions she encounters with the newspaper’s “reporters.” They know little English, have only rudimentary journalistic skills, and are not used to the demands of fair and objective reporting or meeting publication deadlines. In addition, the women reporters are held to strict rules about who they can talk with, must never be alone in a taxi, and are unable to be out at night. All must be covered from head to foot, including Steil, to avoid scandal and/or constant harassment from men. At the end of her workshop, Steil is surprised when the newspaper’s owner offers her a one year contract offer to work for the paper as its editor in chief. To her own surprise, she accepts. This is the story of how she met the job’s unique management challenges, learned to thrive in spite of cultural and political differences, and fell in love with a country and its people. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, Deborah Davis. Tarcher/Penguin 2003. Perhaps the most famous (notorious may be the more correct word) painting by Sargent is the one titled Madame X, which hangs today in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The portrait of the period’s “it girl,” Virginie Amélie Gautreau, depicts its subject in a dramatic black gown with one strap falling provocatively off her shoulder. As mild as that might seem today, at the time it set off a scandal that rocked French society. Davis draws on previously unexamined family papers discovered in libraries and private collections and runs down fresh leads to give us a greater understanding of the events surrounding this work. It’s a fascinating story that not only illuminates the Parisian art scene of the 1880s, but reveals more about this brilliant artist, his life, his loves, and those who posed for his portraits. A Discussion Guide from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. BUY now from Amazon.
Hotel Mariachi: Urban Space and Cultural Heritage in Los Angeles, Catherine L. Kurland and Enrique R. Lamadrid. Photographs by Miguel A. Gandert. University of New Mexico Press 2013. In spite of its too-academic subtitle, this is a fascinating story about Kurland’s family and an historic hotel built in 1889 in Boyle Heights, gateway to East Los Angeles. If the sound of a Mariachi band tuning up makes you feel energized as it does me, you will enjoy learning how this hotel came to be a residence and gathering place for musicians for more than half a century. Kurland is a descendant of the entrepreneur who built it and she shares family’s stories handed down through the generations and intertwines them with extensive research into the Mexicano presence in early California. Lamadrid adds texture to story with his extensive knowledge of mariachi music, poetry, and fiestas, and the part Los Angeles played in their development, and Gandert’s black-and-white photographs help us to envision the scene. BUY now from U of NM Press