‘What are you reading?’ he asked
I once read (and I can’t remember where) that a man greeted friends and family not with the usual, “How have you been?” but with, “What are you reading?” I thought it was a brilliant place to begin a deep and insightful conversation about what someone is thinking. And if it’s not the first thing we ask people, it usually comes up fairly quickly.
We just spent a week with cousins Patsy and John Grady, two of our favorite readers, and shared many suggestions that were quickly typed into our iPhone notes under Books Not Yet Loved.
We read on our iPads, digitally checking out books from our Scottsdale library, and from “real” books we bring with us from our holiday book exchange, and others we pick up in our travels. And we read aloud to each other, me reading to Tom while he’s driving or cooking, Tom reading to me at night, because my voice instantly puts him to sleep.
What are we reading? Get out your iPhone. Here’s some of them:
The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, by Meghan Cox Gurdon. It extolled the virtue of reading aloud to children even after they learn to read themselves, how it increases vocabulary, creates a feeling of order and stability, helps with math (which uses words, of course), but it also talks about reading aloud to adults, which seems to help stave off dementia and comforts those who are ill. There’s something about a loved one’s voice that is so soothing. Try it. You’ll love it.
The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. 1865-1896. This is written by Richard White, a professor whose lectures we swooned over during my fellowship year at Stanford nearly twenty years ago. It’s a weighty tome but we’re learning about the failure of Reconstruction, conceptions of family and home in the post-Civil War America, the rise of wage labor and corporate titans, the fall of railroads and ineffective unions and epic corruption in Washington and on Wall Street.
The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin: I picked this up at the Prairie House Museum in South Dakota, where we saw one of the few remaining original sod houses. It details the horrific blizzard of 1888, which killed hundreds, many of them children caught trying to walk home from their one-room schools in the Dakota territory. Laskin, a Washington Post reporter, weaves in descriptions of prairie life, weather prediction and politics of the time, and how blizzards form, this one of the worst in history. Note: snow need not be falling for a storm to be labeled a blizzard. If the wind is blowing snow already on the ground, that’s enough. Who knew? Not me. I grew up in Hawaii, which after reading this seems brilliant.
Heart Earth: A Memoir, by Ivan Doig. In my last post about reading, I wrote about my utter joy at discovering Ivan Doig when my nephew David sent me This House of Sky during our Christmas family book exchange. That memoir, about how Doig’s father and maternal grandmother come to a detente in order to raise Ivan after his mother died, remains one of my absolute favorite reads of all time. The lovely writing, deep expression of love and description of Montana’s beauty conspired to break my heart. Heart Earth is a prequel of sorts, written after Doig’s uncle dies, leaving a stack of letters from Doig’s mother, letters that he never mentioned as Doig was writing his first book and begging family members for their memories. It includes missives from Arizona, where Doig’s parents moved briefly during World War II, in an effort to ease his mother’s asthma. His father worked in an Alcoa factory that turned bauxite into aluminum to make bomber skins, something I was unaware of, despite living in Arizona. They lived in Alzona Park, a public housing project built by the federal government to house defense workers. Using the letters, Doig paints a deeper picture of his mother’s thoughts about her life, her husband and her son.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker. Pinker makes the case for optimism about the world, using statistics to show that people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and arguing that the issues we face are problems that have solutions if we use reason and science. I hope he’s right.
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. This biography of Hamilton brought to life this brilliant, flawed, sometimes petty father of our nation. From the description: “Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States. Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife, Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.” It is an epic book about an epic leader in epic times.
Educated, by Tara Westover. This amazing autobiography details Tara Westover’s life with survivalist Mormon parents in the mountains of Idaho. She eventually breaks out, enrolls at Brigham Young University, then Harvard and, eventually, Cambridge. As the daughter of educators, I took education for granted. I never will again.
The Overstory: A Novel, by Richard Powers. We were about halfway through this amazing book when our library reclaimed it and we had to get back in line to get it again. It is perfect for Tom’s addiction to trees, and an amazing read.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder. Just started this one about the new, low-cost labor pool who have given up houses to survive in RVs and converted vans while roaming the country in search of transient jobs. We’ve met many of these people in our travels. It’s a fascinating read.
The Corfu Trilogy: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, The Garden of the Gods, by Gerald Durrell. I started reading these three charming books after binge watching the British television series The Durrells while I was back in Arizona. It’s based on the true story of an English family that, after the father dies, decamps to Greece to escape the rotten British weather. It’s told from the viewpoint of Gerald, who was 10 at the time and fell in love with the flora and fauna of the islands. I loved the oh-so-British, deadpan humor of these wacky characters and their adventures, particularly the mother, as well as the beautiful, detailed descriptions of bugs, birds, fish, donkeys and people that Gerald so carefully observes. And don’t you need a dose of charming.
Handywoman, by Kate Davies. This one I had to order from Scotland. I ran across a description as I looked for knitting patterns. It’s a fascinating story of Davies’ life, from her childhood, during which her mother and grandmother ushered her into the handmade world to her stroke at 36 that forced her to relearn how to walk, braid her hair and knit. I loved her perceptive descriptions of the effects of stroke on her mobility, thinking and auditory processing. I have had several family members suffer strokes, and her candid discussion was illuminating. She shares her joy at finding a device to help her stand and pivot to transfer from bed to chair, giving her a tiny slice of independence when she had so little. The pivot device so touched her that she eventually visits the company that created the device, interviewing the creators about their creative approach to helpful design. The path led to a successful career as a knitwear designer, independent publishing company, author and her own line of yarn. Her bravery and perseverance makes me want to woman up and tackle one of her lovely, intricate yoked sweaters.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson, an attorney, is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and I picked up his book at the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, which documents the unprosecuted, officially sanctioned, serial lynchings across the south. We visited the memorial in Montgomery earlier this year. Just Mercy details Stevenson’s fight to free Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit, weaving in other disheartening stories of the wrongly convicted, unfairly sentenced and poorly represented. Statistics show that most of those in prison who shouldn’t be are people of color. When I was director of communications at Arizona State University’s College of Law, I wrote about efforts of the students to help those wrongly convicted, and the frustration and rage at the dispassionate, read unhearing, system has never left me.
Gifts of the Crow, by Tony Angell, and Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Henirich. I just started these. I’m on a corvid kick since I read The Atomic Weight of Love (a wonderful read) and learned of the amazing intelligence of crows. I heard from National Park rangers how crows learn to open nearly any lock or barrier, can recognize faces and teach their young to recognize the same faces. I’ve since learned, by reading Kaeli Swift’s blog, Corvid Research, that they mourn and have funerals, become attached to humans and form neighborhood relationships, attack people who treat them badly, including pooping on their cars, and bring gifts to those they like. I want to know a crow that will bring me gifts.
Along with wandering, I’ve been on a reading journey since 2015. I snap up book recommendations from friends and fellow travelers and pull titles from the Guardian’s 100 best novels and its more inclusive reader’s alternative list.
Bend in the River, by VS Naipal, is the story of Salim, a coastal trader of Indian ancestry who flees to a store in Africa’s interior. The unspecified nation, river and town, once Arab, then colonial, is dominated by a mercurial Big Man. He builds a grandiose academic community nearby. Salim, apolitical and smitten by the wife of an intellectual, navigates insecure middle ground between white elites, politically powerful blacks and those struggling to survive at the bottom of the social order. It’s Darwinian struggle in post-colonial chaos.
The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. Thomas Dyja’s cultural history of mid-century Chicago is must reading, if you are a child born in the 1950s whose father grew up on the Near North Side. Dyja’s thesis: Chicago, which led the nation in architecture, improv comedy, commerce (McDonalds and Playboy), blues and gospel and racist housing policy, was eclipsed in the 1960s by New York and Los Angeles.
One book leads to another. Third Coast led me to Chicago author Nelson Algren. I picked up a copy at Powell’s in Portland on the way east. Algren, maybe best known for his romance with Simone de Beauvoir, chronicles the regulars of Division Street in the Man with the Golden Arm. It’s all about underclass in Chicago’s Polish ghetto in the 1940s, lives exploited and dehumanized, ignored by acceptable society. Frankie Machine, card dealer and addict, and his girlfriend Molly Novotny, a stripper, descend into hopelessness. Head Bednar, a righteous policeman, loses his way in a corrupt city where drugs, gambling, and prostitution get a wink and a shrug.