Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

Is my insistence on reading certain books to the end healthy? This book lured me with the bait of lyrical descriptions of nature and (best of all) spending time alone appreciating the seasons. If it had stuck to that path, it may have been worth the effort, but she attempts to mine her own biography for details that I simply didn’t care about. Ho hum, a tomboy whose military family bounced around a lot and whose abusive dad ended up splitting the family. Yawn, her obsession with trusty dog companion (although this reminded me of Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman) who she loved more than her dying mother. Zzz, sleeping through her tales of dating in a small Colorado town and especially snoring once she finds true love on OK Cupid. She deals with a cabin fire in the beginning, and I wonder how she chose to structure it as such. What if she built up to the fire and described the calm and the seasons, then peaked with burn drama and wrapped with lessons learned from getting rid of all your possessions?

Bottom line, there are much better memoirs and much better hymns to the natural world.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

I wanted this book to be as interesting as the interview the author gave to Ezra Klein (“Is modern society making us depressed?“). Unfortunately it falls short, Hari being a much better interview subject than writer. It’s not a complete waste of time, though, as it reinforces his message over hundreds of pages: society now makes us isolated and has us focused on the wrong values, which end up making us depressed. To solve this, don’t just pop an anti-depressant but dive to the root of the problem—connect with your neighbors, find meaningful work (e.g. bike shop co-op), practice loving kindness and meditation, stay off the internet and stop watching as much TV. Exercise, because we’re animals. Get out in nature. Universal basic income. You know, the usual proscription to solving modern ills.

Clock Dance

The prolific Anne Tyler keeps chugging away but it seems like her punchy writing is becoming diluted. The message remains the same, no matter how old you are you can make a change in your life (usually it’s an older woman who fantasizes about leaving her unappreciative husband). The main character in this is Willa, sent scurrying to Baltimore to care for her son’s ex-girlfriend and that woman’s daughter after the ex was accidentally shot. Willa’s first husband was conveniently done away with in a road rage incident, and her second is a grumpy older man who resents Willa’s willingness to drop everything to tend to this stranger. In the end, Willa flies back to Tuscon but it seems like she’s going to leave him. Is this some sort of fantasy that all older women have?

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Excellent book by Richard Rothstein detailing the systematic, de jure segregation imposed on America by its institutions (not de facto but rather de jure, or enforced by law). He layers example after example on you, each page weighing the argument more and more, drumbeats that refuse to back away from this egregious history. Citing examples in San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, etc. he builds his argument from decades of research.

Lots of other crazy bits are inside, like the 1917 campaign promoted by the Department of Labor in response to the terrifying 1917 Russian revolution: an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign where “We Own Our Own Home” buttons were handed out to schoolkids and pamphlets distributed saying it was a patriotic duty to stop renting.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Zora Neale Hurston tried to get this published in her lifetime to no avail, and here it is almost 100 years later that it finally gets printed. She interviewed Cudjo Lewis (Kossola, his African name), the last survivor of the final shipment of the illegal slave trade right before the Civil War broke out. The best parts of this were when Zora inserts herself into the story, obliquely, unobtrusively. She ends up bringing him gifts like peaches and ham and watermelon and they become friends chatting in the shade of a hot Alabama afternoon as he leads her down his memory hole to what life was like in Africa, how he was captured, what life became for him in Alabama. The hardest part for her was coming to grips with the fact that Africans themselves sold out other Africans to the slave trade.

Everything is Flammable

Is Gabrielle Bell always this whiny? I’ve read several of her graphic novels which detail her autobiographical dilemmas, best of which is Truth is Fragmentary: travelogues and diaries, but I don’t remember feeling annoyed by her tone in those. Maybe it’s my mood.

There are good parts, like the bus ride wherein she’s trapped with an ex-con who’s a bit too talkative and her seatmates all combine to ignore this guy, “as if the 3 of us were arbitrarily given the task of babysitting a large, unpredictable, scary, nasty child who should have been aborted.” The story tips from coast to coast as she travels from New York to northern California to help her mom after a fire wiped out her mom’s cabin. Luckily her mom’s community comes to the rescue, and she’s donated clothing and various supplies. Gabrielle helps her find a tiny home and the guy who’s living on the lot helps her build a bathroom extension. There are bears and dogs and PTSD from abusive relationships in California and tomato plants and homeless bikers camping in her backyard and friends who donate dish racks that are carted across the country in New York.

Why Art?

Eleanor Davis pokes and prods at the question of why we need art in a book you can zip through in 20 minutes, introducing us to various artist types and then spinning a world wherein the creators are manipulating their creations but to what end? Not a book for anyone looking for a meaty answer, more of a frothy jaunt contemplating this major question in the manner of a daydream.

Noah’s Compass

A sixty year old man is pushed out of his teaching job and downsizes his home to a shoddy apartment to make ends meet. On the first night at the new apartment, he’s burglarized and wakes up in the hospital without knowing what happened (he was conked on the head). A swirl of family eddies around him, his three daughters and an ex-wife, his youngest daughter Kitty coming to live with him. He becomes obsessed with the fact of his lost memory of the night, then becomes obsessed with a helper woman who “keeps the memory” for her older employer. He arranges to bump into them, and begins seeing the woman, Eunice, who’s 22 years younger and (oops!) married, but he only finds out about the marriage after he’s behind her mother at the grocery and introduces himself as someone who’s dating her daughter. In the end, it’s happily ever after on Christmas Day, alone in his apartment with a good book, a chicken warming in the oven, slippers on.

Saint Maybe

Thank you, Anne Tyler, for giving me something to take my mind off the drama swirling around, something to sink into away from the day-to-day. This one is her usual formula of good writing and likeable characters. The point of view shifts as it usually does in her work from one character to the next. It’s set, as usual, in Baltimore. The story begins with a happy family, a beloved son who gets married to a woman with two kids and soon has one of their own, only his brother raises questions about the legitimacy of the baby one drunken night when the father ends up suiciding his car. Ian, the brother, ends up raising all the kids after the mother kills herself. Weird plot twist to make Ian turn super religious, but the other characters stay a very healthy skeptical. We see the kids grow up, come back to take care of Ian.

Digging to America

Anne Tyler is excellent when she writes what she knows, even when it’s colored with highlights from a foreign culture, like this one. An Iranian-American grandmother navigates her son’s life, dealing with her daughter-in-law and their adopted Korean baby, along with the Donaldson family who they met on Arrival Day with their own Korean adoptee. Maryam is the widowed mother, fiercely independent, who ends up falling for the grandfather of the other baby, but has an awkward rejection of marriage because she can’t imagine being married to an American. Delicious.