Reading Round-Up: October 2018

As it’s November 15th, this post is pretty belated compared to usual — nevertheless, here’s a look at what I read in October:

  1. Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear (Kim Brooks)
  2. Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik)
  3. Mandy (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  4. Step Aside, Pops! (Kate Beaton)
  5. Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Curt Thompson)
  6. The Fourth Bear (Jasper Fforde)
  7. The Last Light of the Sun (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

Small Animals was already treated in its own post.

My only other nonfiction read last month was Dr. Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul, which took me most of the month to get through, reading it piecemeal in between other things. I will be the first to admit that the title makes it sound like total New Age woo-woo, but the opposite, in fact, is true. This book is a fascinating peek into developments in neuroscience related to the brain’s relative plasticity (or ability to change over time, something that was once thought impossible), attachment theory, and their intersection with traditional Christian spiritual disciplines/practices. Thompson talks a lot about how the way that things functioned in our families of origin can follow through our lives — unhealthy relationship patterns, modes of (non)communication, etc. — and how we can actually re-wire our brains with an understanding of how they work and the help of the Holy Spirit. He includes many exercises which one can complete singly in small groups. I think it’s a tremendously useful book for anyone who feels stuck in old patterns; it is helpful and hope-full. Even with that title.

For the rest of October, I glutted myself on fiction. Hey, sometimes a girl just needs to read about some fantasy Vikings, you know? In no particular order:

Mandy is another children’s novel by Julie Andrews Edwards, which I grabbed from the library after re-reading her The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles back in late September. It’s a sweet tale of an orphan girl named Mandy, who discovers a cottage on the estate abutting her orphanage. She determines to fix it up herself as a secret place, but trouble starts when her best friend wants to know where she goes by herself. There is a lot of good reflection on friendship, truth-telling, and similar moral lessons without ever being heavy-handed about it. And of course, the requisite happy ending!

I picked up a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at a thrift store, in part because I already own The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and thought I might as well make it a set, and in part because I hadn’t read it since grade nine or so and wanted to give it another go. This is a controversial novel, not least because of its copious use of the n-word to describe Jim and the other slaves who appear in its page. Does having racist characters¬† make it a racist book? I don’t know. Certainly the reader is brought on a journey with Huck as his eyes are opened to Jim’s fundamental humanity and they embark on what I do think is a real friendship. Twain shows us a lot of racial ugliness, but I don’t think he condones it. It’s a funny book, and a profoundly sad one in many ways as well. I had forgotten, however, that Tom Sawyer is an insufferable twit — I’m glad that he was only present in the last few chapters.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian fantasy writer whose work I have read and admired for many years; The Last Light of the Sun takes place among the aforementioned fantasy Vikings, as well as the Celts. And the Britons. And fairies. And lots, lots of bloody swordfighting. The Last Light of the Sun is set in the same world as The Lions of al-Rassan (one of Kay’s absolute best, for my money) and the duology of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.

Step Aside, Pops! is a collection of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant comics, which have stopped running but are still accessible on her website. It’s mostly historical and literary silliness; here’s Charlie and the Marvelous Turnip Factory, and some Canadian stereotypes.

Jasper Fforde writes some wonderful books — I first found him through the (incredible) Thursday Next series, which starts with The Eyre Affair and goes on for… another five? or six? I’ve lost count. Anyway, he has also written a spin-off series of Nursery Crime novels, featuring detective Jack Spratt and a zany crew of literary costars, including an incredibly dull alien named Ashley (aliens have come to earth and it turns out that they are boring). The Fourth Bear involves a missing journalist known as Goldilocks, human/bear political machinations, a giant homicidal gingerbread-man, and nuclear cucumbers. It’s a fun ride.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to Spinning Silver, the latest of Naomi Novik’s fairy-tale-esque books. I read her Uprooted a few months ago, and promptly put Spinning Silver onto my library holds list. It’s a broad retelling/resetting of the Rumpelstiltskin story, with ice fairies and fire demons and it was so immersive that I read it in a day, and probably would have read it in one sitting if I hadn’t had to keep stopping to do things like feed my children. As one does. Spinning Silver was perhaps even better than Uprooted — and that, I think, is saying something.

Reading Round-Up: September 2018

Happy October! This is one of my favourite times of year — when it finally really starts to feel like fall. The weather is cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, we’ve got a string of family birthdays coming up… it’s a good time of year! I’m looking forward to some good reading this month — but first, here’s what I got to in September:

  1. Educated (Tara Westover)
  2. The Whistler (John Grisham)
  3. How to Think (Alan Jacobs)
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
  5. From A to Bee (James Dearsley)
  6. Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)
  7. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (D. Watkins)
  8. China Dolls (Lisa See)
  9. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
  10. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  11. The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America (D. Watkins)
  12. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)
  13. Sourdough (Robin Sloan)

This month was pretty heavy on memoir; it’s a genre I’ve really been enjoying these days. Human beings are endlessly fascinating! Now, some of these books were pretty heavy, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading them as closely-spaced as I did; I found my mood plummeting after reading The Cook Up, and then China Dolls (not memoir, but saddish fiction), and then Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass all in a row. It was, how you say, a bummer. Worth reading… but not exactly uplifting.

Previous posts have touched on The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, A Gentleman in Moscow, and Narrative of the Life and The Beast Side.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist, “sovereign citizen”-esque, anti-government Mormon parents in the Idaho mountains. She and her brothers were kept home from school, not vaccinated, and spent most of their time either working their father’s junkyard business or prepping for a government assault and/or the end of the world. She didn’t even get a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It’s really crazy stuff. But with the help of one of her older brothers, Tara made it out — she got accepted (by the skin of her teeth) to BYU, and later went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge. It’s a powerful story, and I appreciate that she didn’t try to tie a neat bow on everything at the end. She is estranged from half her family; things are unresolved; it’s clear that her story has not ended.

Two memoirs on the fun side of things were James Dearsley’s From A to Bee and Mindy Kalings Why Not Me? Dearsley’s book is his account of his first year as a beekeeper; it’s clearly just a blog shoved between two covers, but it’s an interesting read and made me consider beekeeping as a possible future endeavour. (That lasted about fifteen minutes.) Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book; this one is more personal, I think, than Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? (And Other Concerns), looking at career and personal turning points in her early thirties. It’s a fun read. Oh, and she meets Bradley Cooper.

D. Watkins’s memoir The Cook Up was an incredible read, although not for the faint of heart: it opens with his brother Bip’s murder, and the going doesn’t get easier from there. The Cook Up is ultimately a story of redemption, of Watkins’s journey from a life of crime on the streets of East Baltimore to his current position as a college professor. I would recommend this book over The Beast Side if you want to start with Watkins; because the latter is a collection of essays it reads as fairly disjointed. The Cook Up shows Watkins’s skill as a storyteller; I’m sure this will not be his last book.

Alan Jacobs’s How to Think was the only other nonfiction I read this month. It’s a quick and insightful read. What I remember best is Jacobs’s point that thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; when we learn to think differently of something it’s usually because we are learning to think with different people. Similarly, when we say that someone has is “finally thinking for themselves” what we usually mean is that they’re “finally thinking like me.” He ends the book with what he calls “The Thinking Person’s Checklist”, which I abbreviate for you here as a useful resource:

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.
  2. Value learning over debating.
  3. As best you can […] avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to […] realize that it’s not a community but an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate … toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with.
  8. […] assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Be ware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

On to fiction! First on the list was The Whistler by John Grisham, which was pretty mediocre. I like Grisham, but this wasn’t anywhere near one of his stronger efforts. I’d give it a pass.

After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I knew I would want to read more from Lisa See, and so China Dolls was my second venture with her. The novel tells the story of three young Oriental women (as they were then called) working in San Francisco’s Chinese nightclubs in the years surrounding the Second World War. It’s a fascinating look at a world I never knew existed, exploring some big questions about friendship, race and nationalism, and loyalty.

Finally, we come to Robin Sloan. I had read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore some years ago — long enough to just remember the broadest of outlines — and decided to re-read it after stumbling across something or other online that reminded me of his books. Mr. Penumbra’s is a super fun read about books and technology and secret societies and the quest for unending life. There are puzzles galore and his characters are satisfyingly quirky without going overboard. Sourdough is his second novel, following Lois Clary as she moves from to Michigan to California for a programming career, only to find her life turned upside down when she is gifted a (sentient?) sourdough starter and is drawn into the weird world of California food culture. There’s a lot about humanity vs. technology, what makes a culture, and microbiology (really). It’s super strange and super interesting, and I’ll definitely be reading it again one day.

Whangdoodle

I have loved this book since I first read it as a child, and not just because it was written by Mary Poppins.

Siblings Ben, Tom, and Lindy are at the zoo when they make the acquaintance of a strange, but very kind, old man — who turns out to be the great Professor Savant, a geneticist at the local university and Nobel Prize winner. But the professor has another project besides his university work: he is trying to get to Whangdoodleland, ruled by the last of the Whangdoodles, where all of the fanciful creatures who once populated earth retreated when man stopped believing in them. To get there, he’ll need the children’s help — for travel to Whangdoodleland happens only by power of the imagination. Of course, every good story needs an antagonist, and so they find that they must struggle against the traps set by the Prock, the Prime Minister of Whangdoodleland, who most assuredly does not want them to complete their quest.

This is a great book. It’s a really fun story, it has a compelling plot, and Whangdoodleland is very Ozian in its fantastical elements. Where I have to give Edwards extra credit, however, is for the way she manages to sneak in both scientific and moral instruction in a way that feels very matter-of-fact. It’s not shoehorned in, at all — it might seem so a bit in the example below, but that’s in part because I’m pulling it out of context. In the book, these things arise quite naturally simply because the professor is a thoughtful man and the children are curious and teachable; the instruction is true to their characters. On the scientific side, the children get casual lessons in genetics, evaporation, carbonation, DNA and RNA, and the way plants draw liquid through their veins. The professor also helps them to process and interpret their experiences in Whangdoodleland, as in this example:

Lindy brightened a little. “We did do it, didn’t we?”

“You bet we did,” the professor replied enthusiastically. “And we learned a valuable lesson from our experience with the Sidewinders.”

“What was that?” asked Ben.

“If you remain calm in the midst of great chaos, it is the surest guarantee that it will eventually subside.”

“But those creatures were really gross,” said Lindy, “and the Prock said they were just a beginning.”

“Yeah, what else could he come up with?” demanded Tom.

“Well,” the professor answered, “what weapons has he left? Powerful ones, you may be sure. When all else fails he will resort to using things that can do us most harm. Things like the weapon he used today, which was fear. The Prock banked on the fact that we would be afraid. Tomorrow he may use greed, envy, superstition, pride, lust, or selfishness. Not only will he play on our vices, he will undoubtedly use our virtues as well.”

“How could he do that?”asked Ben.

“Oh, by relying on your generosity, or sentimentality, or even your sense of humour.” (98-9)

In the end, the Prock does just that — playing on the children’s virtues as well as their vices as he tries to stop them from getting to the Whangdoodle’s castle. (He does not succeed; this is a children’s book, after all! But there are some tight scrapes along the way.)

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles had a profound effect on my imagination as a child: it, along with Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, really taught me a new way to look at the world. Life, they say, is in the details, and this book showed me how to see them:

The children looked. They saw nothing.

“Can’t you see the cluster of red berries hanging up under the leaves?”

The children looked closer. Suddenly, as if the focus were being changed on a camera, the red berries came into their view.

“Why didn’t I see them?” Tom was bewildered.

“Because you weren’t looking,” replied the professor. “There aren’t many people in this world who really know how to look. Usually one glance is enough to register that the grass is green and the sky is blue and so on. They can tell you if the sun is shining or if it looks like rain, but that’s about all. It’s such a pity, for there is texture to everything we see, and everything we do and hear. That’s what I want today’s lesson to be about. I want you to start noticing things. Once you get used to do it you’ll never be able to stop. It’s the best game in the world.” (47-8)

I agree with the professor; noticing is one of the best games in the world, and I am grateful to Edwards for teaching me how to play it. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles is a marvelous book, and just as much fun to read as an adult as it was when I was nine.