A Short but Important Pile of Books

Today I heard the beloved Alex Trebeck died, and his biography is in a small pile of books accumulating by my television – all nonfiction. The white book on the bottom is the reverse cover of Woodward’s “Rage.” I am done being angry but don’t want to forget how easy it would be to slide back into that emotion.

Although this is only a sampling of books on my shelves, they are front and center when I watch the news.

  • David Attenborough’s “ A Life on Our Planet”
  • Alex Trebeck’s “The Answer Is…”
  • Maxwell King’s “The Good Neighbor”
  • Bob Woodward’s “Rage”
  • Ina Garten’s “Comfort Food”
  • Pete Souza’s “Shade”
  • Bryant Johnson’s “The RBG Workout”

Reading Through the Noise

Sometimes the noise of politicians and news broadcasts can be overwhelming, and turning off the dial and turning into a book can be a salve.  A few books I’ve read lately:

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

Halloween may be the same for those in denial, but for many who are cautiously protecting themselves and their loved ones, the old traditions of partying or trick-or-treat from house to house are over.  Witches prevail, however; they are everywhere, both good and bad, and Alice Hoffman reminds readers of their trickery and power as well as the history of their persecution in colonial Massachusetts and seventeenth century England.  In Magic Lessons, Hoffman focuses on the ancestors of the characters from Practical Magic, famously converted into a movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock.  The story combines historical fact with fictional lives, complete with spells and potions, as well as romance, intrigue and betrayal.  If you are a fan of Hoffman’s other witching stories, you will find yourself happily submersed, as I did, in an old world with magical possibilities.

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by Sir David Attenborough

Writing a book at ninety-four years of age is in itself an accomplishment, but Attenborough’s short tale, complete with pictures, not only recalls the highlights of his amazing adventures through the lens of the tragedy facing the environment and the world, he also proposes a solution.  After chronicling how the world was and how it became desperately what it is today,  Attenborough leans into his own experiences to define the planet’s evolution within his lifetime.   I had expected a large heavy book, and was surprised when the small tome of under three hundred pages arrived.  Attenborough is his usual charming and succinct self, not wasting words or emotions, but calling attention to the world’s dilemma and what we can do to save it.

Leave It As It Is by David Gessner

I listened and watched a zoom discussion of Leave It As It Is sponsored by Powell Books with David Gessner in conversation with Teddy Roosevelt (played by an actor).  As they bantered about Roosevelt’s comment at the Grand Canyon (“leave it as it is”) that lead to creating national monuments throughout the West, they brought the discussion to the environment and the future of caring for the land.

Gessner mentioned the 1906 Antiquities Act,  used by Presidents to designate national monuments that reflect the full measure of the country’s history. President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act into law, created 18 monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Olympic National Park in Washington, totaling more than a million acres. Since then, sixteen presidents have used the act for preservation and protection.  The Trump administration is now trying to rescind Obama’s declaration of Bears Ears in Utah as a protected area.

Like Attenborough, Gessner wants to motivate readers to be aware of the importance of preserving the natural beauty of the land, with the same urgency Teddy Roosevelt felt for future generations when he said: “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

I downloaded a sample of the book, and it follows the same conversational tone the author established in the zoom interview, often including Teddy Roosevelt quoting his own famous lines. Gessner and Teddy Roosevelt on the zoom call were entertaining as well as educational.

More reviews of books by Alice Hoffman:  Alice Hoffman 

 

A Quick Inventory of Books

You know where the road to good intentions leads and I seem to have been on it for a while.  Although I have renewed online library books from the Libby site, more often they are returned unread.  How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell is the latest ebook I have on my Libby shelf, but I think maybe I’ve already figured it out.  The list of books returned stays on the site, admonishing me for neglect, and I’ve forgotten why I decided to check out the titles in the first place.  Have you read any?  Should I try again?

  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma
  • The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin

I have read and finished Bob Woodward’s RAGE, and it offered more than I wanted to but should know.  Things are worse than they seem.  I followed by watching the new not so fictionalized cable presentation of The Comey Rule and my appetite for facts ignored by the general population gave me indigestion.

My books from Powell Book Store finally arrived by slow boat, but Trust by Susan Choi was disappointing.  I have hopes for Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life, with a review from Elizabeth Berg promising magic.  I could use some.

The Authenticity Project by Claire Pooley is an iBook on my phone, as well as The Secret Book and Scone Society, recommended by a friend.

On my to read list (I still have good intentions):

  1. Monogamy by Sue Miller (on the NYT Sunday Review
  2. The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey (a favorite author)
  3. The RBG Workout by Bryant Johnson

Daisy, Madeleine, Oona, Sartre and Others

One of the good things about not being able to go anywhere is that you have permission to stay put and not go anywhere.  For me, it means I don’t have to make excuses when turning down invitations, and can feel content staying in to read or nap.  It’s not always easy to find a book when browsing is limited but good friends and family usually pass along a few titles, and there’s always my stash on my shelf, thin paperbacks I had planned to take with me on a plane before my travel stopped, or heavy hardbacks I keep putting off until I have the time or inclination.

What are you reading these days?     Here are a few I’ve read lately:

Daisy Jones and the Six

Someone suggested Taylor Jones Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six was a feel good novel to read, so I downloaded the ebook.  Reid’s fictional oral history of a seventies rock band based on Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks was a good distraction, but I couldn’t help stopping to look for the characters in real life, and listening to the real music.

With some of the best lyrics ever written, Fleetwood Mac’s songs resonate still and finding old favorites played live by the band over the years (thanks to you tube) did lift my soul.  Based on the lives of the band members, it’s sometimes hard to remember the story is fictional.  Using the construct of oral history, Reid lends more credibility to the story, and not all the characters match reality, but when she deftly records how the same incidents are remembered differently by the band members, I wondered what had really happened and had to pause to look it up.  Who knows what was going on inside the heads of Lindsay Cunningham and Stevie Nicks, but the Daisy Jones character comes close to having the reader believe Reid knew.

Friends and Strangers

This was another zoom book for me – a book discussion with the author sponsored by an independent bookstore.  I read Friends and Strangers quickly to be able to make the deadline of the meeting, so I may have missed some of the nuances, but J. Courtney Sullivan charmed me as she was interviewed by the bookstore owner in Cape Cod, with the sound of her young children playing in the background.

Ron Charles wrote an incomparable review for the Washington Post you can read by clicking on the link here.  Like many women, having been both a mother who depended on babysitters and a babysitter myself, I connected to both perspectives in the story.  But Sullivan hits on many more issues as she explores class differences,  age disparity in friendships, and immigration.

Hell and Other Destinations 

I have been having breakfast with Madeleine – not the sweet French girl who romps through Paris – but the formidable former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  In her latest memoir, Hell and Other Destinations, Albright has a conversation with the reader about the latest chapter in her life.  The lesson learned is a familiar one – it’s not over until you say so.

Although Albright has authored several books, I have not read one until now.  With the country reeling from the virus, the demonstrations, and the barrage of news, this seems like a good time to listen to a woman who has the voice of reason in her timbre.  Of course, I found the pictures in the center of the book first.  My favorites were Albright sharing a laugh with television’s Madame Secretary, Tea Leoni, and a young Albright ready for college in 1958.

Albright introduces each chapter with a humorous lesson-filled anecdote before chronicling her experiences. In 2001, Albright retired as Secretary of State but continued reinventing herself as an author, a professor, a speaker and a supporter of the Democratic Party.  She takes this memoir through both of Hillary Clinton’s runs for President, remarking on her friend’s abilities as she goes and using her famous line for her book title.  She ends in 2019 with Trump but before the pandemic changed everything.

Her career has had the benefits of networking and connections, but Sanger in his review for the New York Times noted her frustration in the current political climate when he ended with:

” {Albright} got a call in 2017 from Mike Pompeo, the incoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who would soon be promoted to her old office at State. Albright had long served on the C.I.A.’s external advisory board. ‘He thanked me for my service,’ she writes. ‘Then he fired me.’ “

Ooona Out of Order
Margarita Montimore’s age-swap story sometimes had me feeling off balance.  Oona time travels every year on her birthday but not chronologically.  At 18, she travels to her life as a middle aged woman, beginning her quirky adventure. Each year she hops through decades, picking up much-needed stock tips to maintain a life style without working,  but Oona is still a young woman on the inside while changing on the outside.
If you can resist trying to decipher why she is time traveling, and can ignore the obvious anachronisms, you will enjoy Oona’s struggle to adapt to the eighties and nineties and the twenty-first century while she is still mentally back somewhere in the seventies.  The moral of the story is of course to live in the moment and appreciate every day.

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
I became a fan of author Sarah Bakewell while reading How to Live: or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  If you have not read the book, now is the time.  Check out my review HERE.
Over a few of my own cocktails while reading At the Existentialist Cafe, I found myself swept away by thinkers – so rare in these times – Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger.  Don’t worry if you slept through Philosophy 101 in college and barely recognize some of the names. Bakewell’s narrative will have you appreciating how exciting it is to think and ask questions.

A Book Recommendation from Its Author – The Sword and the Shield

I had to admire Peniel Joseph against the backdrop of bookshelves proudly displaying multiple copies of The Sword and the Shield – not the spines, but the covers lined up on a wall of bookshelves behind him, as he discussed the controversy of tearing down monuments with Judy Woodruff on the PBS News Hour.  What great publicity.  Of course, I had to find the book and of course he is the author.

In a review of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,  Mark Whitaker for the Washington Post notes:

“Joseph, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, has made his name studying the Black Power movement and wrote the definitive biography of Stokely Carmichael, the mercurial leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In turning to King and Malcolm, he ventures into far more densely covered historical territory… {and}  for the most part he smartly zeros in on the relatively brief period during which King and Malcolm actively influenced each other, even if they had no personal contact. It is a fascinating story, full of subtle twists and turns, that unfolded in three phases.”

The New York Times offered an excerpt from the book – you can check it out here.

This might be a good time to revisit their lives by reading the book.