Books of 2019 – Numbers 33 and 34 – Journey Inward by Jean Craighead George and Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball by Molly O’Neill

Last weekend, the New York Times Book Review published an article noting the fifty best memoirs published over the last fifty years (that would be since 1969!). I am a lover of the memoir, so I was a little chagrined that of the chosen books, I have only read nine of the selected books. The last two books I read fall into the memoir genre, but neither made the NYT list. I, nonetheless, found them both to be captivating accounts of women who lived lives which were, in turn, charming, thrilling, melancholy, and, above all, memoir-worthy.

The book, My Side of the Mountain made me want to run away from home and live in a tree. Jean Craighead George wrote a novel for kids that kindled the flame of adventure and independence that I loved. My Side of the Mountain is the story is of a boy named Sam who runs away from home. He is unhappy in his city life and he seeks the nature and peace of the mountains. He is on his own for a year. The book describes his day to day existence and his reliance on a peregrine falcon for both friendship and survival. My Side of the Mountain was one of the first kid’s books that Jean Craighead George wrote, but it was not her first book. During her marriage, she and her husband co-authored several nature books and articles while gaining firsthand experience. Through their early years of marriage, they lived in tents in the middle of wilderness. As a young wife in the 1960s, Craighead George felt the need to boost her husband’s career, and in doing so, she abdicated much of her own credit. When family financial stress pushed her, she found her own voice and began to write the classic books that would ultimately win her the Newbery Award for her book, Julie of the Wolves. Journey Inward is Jean Craighead George’s story of becoming a writer and becoming a whole person. She is honest about the struggles of marriage to a dreamer who won’t live up to his potential or understand what it means to have a family for which he is responsible. She is honest about raising kids in the 1960s when society seemed to be changing by the minute. She is honest about the fear and loneliness and doubt that came with divorce. Through all of it, however, she writes of her connection with nature and her bringing her children up and into adulthood with hearts that always were open to creatures in need. It was a terrific book and made me order a new copy of My Side of the Mountain. I now need to read it again and I can’t seem to find my old copy!

The food writer and cookbook author, Molly O’Neill recently died. Several years ago, Molly needed a liver transplant. The liver that was removed was found to be cancerous, and that cancer had spread.  Her final book that she was working on at the time of her death was to be titled, Liver: A Love Story. I am not sure what is to become of that one, but the love story that she wrote her family, Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball, is wonderful. Molly was the oldest child of six. She was the only girl in a family where baseball was drilled into the family DNA by a dad who didn’t get his opportunity to play in the majors. Her descriptions of her tale-telling Dad, her opinionated mom, and her gregarious brothers are delightful. You get the feel of the energy and tension that continuously surrounded that family. You watch Molly serve as a surrogate mom to her herd of brothers and yearn to be her own person. Molly finds her way out through art, literature and food. Cooking for her family gave her a path that led to jobs on the East Coast cooking for a who’s who of personalities. In her memoir, she weaves her rise in the culinary and literary world with what is going on with her family. On occasion, some of her brothers find comfort and new skills by moving near her. Always, her parents struggle financially. Finally, a brother does what was meant to be and becomes a major league baseball player. Her dad dies and leaves a complicated relationship. The family bond remains strong.

Being a woman; being a wife; being a daughter – these are complicated roles no matter what timeframe you are talking about them. Both of these books are telling stories when women were less. Reading them today, the world that these books paint is bracing. The women that come out of them, however, are wonders.

 

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Books of 2019 – Numbers 19, 20 and 21 – Hold Still by Sally Mann, Graphic Medicine Manifesto, and Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

After this group, I think I am due to take on something a little lighter for my next read. I do have volume 2 of Barnaby waiting for me…

My latest reads were all quite good. I have had the Sally Mann autobiography, Hold Still for a while now and had even started to read it once. I have no idea why I didn’t finish it since she is not only a beautiful writer, but the book is interspersed with photos and bits and pieces of her life as a person of the South and as a photographer. That kind of book format is hard for me to not love. If you know Sally Mann and her work, probably one thing that you will remember about her is the controversy about photographs that she took and published of her children – without clothes or partially clothed. She discusses that period quite a bit and she recounts how the photos and the reaction to them impacted her family. She also tells compelling stories of both hers and her husband’s families that make for page turning reading. 

Graphic Medicine Manifesto is a compilation by several writers (many healthcare professionals) who have been integral in the initiation of the graphic medicine movement. The focus of this effort is to bring graphic story telling into medicine to both help the professionals relate more to the personal narrative of those they care for, but also as an outlet for difficult conversations, events, and feelings. The book is a combination of academic discussion of the rationale and examples of the compelling works that are now being used in medical schools.

Say Nothing – A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Keefe writes a history of the re-initiation of the IRA in the 1960s and 1970s. He introduces the reader to a group of young people initially wanting to follow the peaceful message of Martin Luther King to protest the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in British-ruled Northern Ireland. When attacked and seeing no other way, this peaceful movement morphed into a paramilitary organization that was ruthless in its mission to change history. The violence from all sides was horrifying and ever-present during the decades of the conflict. Keefe centers the book around the disappearing of a widowed mother of ten children who is taken from the family apartment and not seen alive again. Beginning in the 1960s and reporting up to a revelation made while writing the book, the story is compelling and chilling.

Books of 2019 – Numbers 16, 17 and 18 – Gmorning, Gnight! by Lin Manuel Miranda, Feast by Hannah Howard, and Radical Candor by Kim Scott

I have a little catch-up work to do here with three additional books to add to my list. These are my books 16, 17 and 18, which puts me 35% of the way to 52 books this year. That compares to today being the 103rd day of the year which is 28% of the way through 2019. I am feeling pretty good about my progress, but I need to keep digging in and keeping up the pace.

I did so love book number 16,  Lin Manuel Miranda’s and Jonny Sun’s Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You.  Friends gave me this as a gift and it really is a gift! The book publishes Lin Manuel’s real life Twitter feed. where he writes morning and evening pick-me-ups to those who follow him. For the book, the artist ,Jonny Sun accompanies the tweets with charming drawings. I read one set of the declarations each day. There were days that the pep talk was exactly right for starting my day, and consistently thee made me smile with the warmth that they hold. A few words can carry much.
Number 17, Feast, True Love in and Out of the Kitchen is Hannah Howard’s memoir of coming to terms with an eating disorder while in the midst of living a life in the overblown food scene of major cities. It is rough to read how she treats herself and threatens her health in way too many ways. She is a very good writer and writes compellingly about the naturalness of abuse that we can subject ourselves to. Weaving her own story with the life of restaurant world is quite the whirlwind.
And finally, Radical Candor, Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing your Humanity by a woman with a resume of leadership in companies like Google and Dropbox . Kim Scott’s  summarizes her approach to leadership as caring personally and challenging directly. I like a good leadership book; especially one with practical advice. Scott’s book provides an interesting and, I think, valid framework for developing teams of trust and responsibility. The leadership time commitment that she sets forth is somewhat staggering, but it gives good guidance for those of us who are trying to be both a caring leader and an effective leader. The balance isn’t always easy.

Books of 2019 – Number 14 and 15 – The Power by Naomi Alderman and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

This is probably one of the odder combinations of books to read and finish simultaneously. To be fair, I have had the Tidy book going for awhile as my insomnia/phone book, but I did finish them within hours of each other.

Naomi Alderman’s The Power is the book that my book club will discuss next month. When I put out choices for the members to select from, this was the book that got the most votes – with both men and women selecting it. I was not one of those voters. The book lives up to its press. It is written really well and the story it tells is gripping and chilling. As a reader, I turned the pages to see what could get worse in the world that she was creating, and she never disappointed. Alderman tells the story of reversal. At some point in time, women develop a power when a band of tissue –  the sheath – forms across their chests. The sheath yields power – an ability to electrically stun when it is harnessed. Some women have more power or a better control over their power, but all women come to have it. Initially, the power is used to take out bad men who hurt women, but then it begins to be used to take over and rule ugly. There is corruption and abuse and terror and humiliation and ego. The line that rings out is that it all happened because it could. That is always the answer. It was really a chilling story – Margaret Atwood dystopia turned to 11. With the world in the straights that it is in these days, I dream too often of apocalyptic events and our resulting world. The Power is a very good book, but I wish I didn’t have the story now feeding into my already active bad dream machine.

On a completely different bent was Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I am late to coming to this book, but I felt like I had to read it to understand what lots of people around me were talking about. Okay, and let’s face it, I wanted to do some tidying up. I am a person who tends to be a clutterer, but I have a real desire to be organized and neat and tidy. I love my house so much, but I like it best when things are in their place and it exudes coziness. The book did not change my life, but it provided some practical advice on how to take this magic on, and why it is important. I have a bunch of things around me that I don’t need and that do not spark a lick of joy. I am working on getting rid of them. I KonMari’d my clothes and the local thrift stores will get a nice donation because of it. I’m still working on it, and I appreciate the book for what it was.

Books of 2019 – Number 13 – Barnaby, Volume 1 by Crockett Jones

 

A few years ago, I read a biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. I knew Johnson from his iconic, Harold and the Purple Crayon and I was familiar with many of the children’s books that Krauss was involved in. I do not remember, however, if I knew about Barnaby before then.

Barnaby was a syndicated comic that Johnson drew and wrote between 1942 -1952. A unique feature of the comic is that instead of hand-lettering the dialogue, the strip used typography (Italic Futura Medium to be exact), which allowed for many more words in each panel.

Barnaby didn’t have the syndication power of some of the more popular comics of the day, but it had a fervent and loyal fanbase. Famously, Dorothy Parker wrote that she could not review the Barnaby compilation book that was published because “it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.”

Oh Dorothy, I so get you, sister! I adored reading my 13th book of the year, Barnaby, Volume 1 that covers the time period 20 April 1942 to 31 December 1943. The book is published by the amazing Fantagraphics Books that has done so much, so beautifully, to bring comics to the attention of new readers. It is beautifully done, and its format works so well with the four-panel, black and white strips that Crockett Johnson drew.

The premise of the strip is that Barnaby is a five-year-old boy who wishes for a fairy godmother. His wish is kind of granted when a tiny man with wings crashes into his room one night and introduces himself as his fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley. From there on, it is just a delight! Barnaby is adorable in his faith in his godfather, even though he is not what you would want your kid to be hanging out with. His magic wand is a cigar that is always hanging out of his mouth, he seems to hang out with a questionable crowd in some questionable places, and he is almost always unwilling (unable?) to perform the magic that Barnaby could use. There are so many clever inside jokes and political commentary intertwined in the stories. Barnaby’s parents are forever worried about his preoccupation with the imaginary O’Malley, but that never dampens Barnaby wanting to be a faithful godson to his O’Malley.  

I too can only write a valentine to Crockett Johnson.

 

Books of 2019 – Number 11 and 12 – Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Havel: A Life by Michael Zantovsky

Books #11 and #12 were quite the projects, and the fact that I read them simultaneously made their stories even more amazing to me. I actually started reading Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow when we were traveling to and in Prague, Amsterdam, and Brussels last year. I would read it on my iPad and on my phone, so when I did not finish it on my trip, it became my insomnia book at home – the thing I would read on my phone when I couldn’t sleep. I chose Havel, A Life by Michael Zantovsky to read because of those travels last year. Since visiting Prague, I have been fascinated by the history of Eastern Europe and particularly Prague. A few months ago, I read Madeleine Albright’s autobiography, Prague Winter and it just made me want to read more.

Both of these books tell remarkable stories that left me baffled that the end result was what it was. George Washington was a flawed man. He was always in debt, he doubted himself, he was proud to a fault, he made some bad choices. On the other hand, he was a leader that commanded universal respect and trust. He led an army of soldiers that seemed to be always starving, freezing, sick, and otherwise suffering in some way, shape or form. His army fought the most powerful country in the world. Somehow, with some key victories and some lucky breaks, they won. But that was not the end of the battle. Next, there was a government to form and people to convince. George Washington wanted to go back home to Virginia and rebuild his home and life. Instead of doing that, he agreed to be President of a country whose people were not all on board with this form of democracy that was being attempted. He held the experiment together with the same gravity of leadership that he had on the battlefield. In doing so, he relied on key allies like Alexander Hamilton to craft the strategy. He was the figurehead. It worked. When he refused a third term as President, his health was failing. He went home to Mount Vernon without the promise of many happy years ahead of him. He did give his life to his country.

More than 200 years later, Vaclav Havel, a playwright, led a peaceful revolution that upended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Again, this story is so unlikely. When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the country became a land of repression. The rich cultural history of Eastern Europe was smothered under Soviet Rule. The pockets of protest, however, never went away. Most often, these pockets included the artists and intellectuals of the land. Havel was a part of this for years. He spent years in prison for his beliefs. He and his compatriots were fearless in their struggle. When in 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czech people flowed into Wenceslas Square, shaking their keys and demanding their home back, Havel was chosen as the President to figure out what to do with this land that was free for the first time in fifty years. Like Washington, he was not a politician, but he was a leader. Like Washington, he was flawed, but the passion of freedom drove him.

Having a playwright as a country’s president provides rich opportunity for quotable quotes. One that stood out for me was, “Hope is not a conviction that something will turn out well, but a certainly that something has a meaning regardless of how it turns out.”

These are books 11 and 12 of my goal to read 52 books this year.

Books of 2019 – Number 10 – Eating Eternity: Food, Art and Literature in France by John Baxter

It has been a couple years since we went to Paris, but I still have a little moment when I unlock my phone and pay attention to the photo that lingers behind my screens of apps. It is the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. I took the picture while I stood under it and looked up. J’aime! Our last night in Paris, I made us go back to see it one more time.

Paris is magical like that. I chose my book #10, John Baxter’s Eating Eternity – Food, Art and Literature in France, because of my affection for Paris. John Baxter is an Australian writer and filmmaker who has lived in Paris for decades. He has written other books about France, but this is his only one devoted to food.

This was a very fun book to read. There are twenty-nine short sections – all with either reproductions of artwork or period photographs. Baxter writes about the café life in France and what food in the home (or castle) would look like. His writing about the Occupation of Paris during World War II brought to life the efforts of the chic restaurants to still delight when the food of the city was scarce. Chefs filled in the gaps by offering up zoo animals which were being sold off and city rodents. Yuck!

There are vignettes of artists Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Dali and Matisse and their relationships to food in their life and in their art. He writes of wine, champagne, chocolate, fruit, vegetables and the many ways ingredients are combined for pleasure and sustenance. I learned and I enjoyed.

The book made me want to pop into a boulangerie for a pain au chocolat, and then take a stroll to the Eiffel Tower.

Books of 2019 – Numbers 7,8,9 – MetaMaus, Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman

I’ve been down with a bad cold for the last few days, so reading time has been abundant. The last few days, I have been feeding my cold and starving my fever by plunging into the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of Art Spiegelman.

When we were in Colorado last summer, we took a daytrip into Aspen and, while there, we stopped in at the Explore Booksellers. We had been in this shop a few years ago, and I remembered the many small rooms filled with beautiful books. It had not changed. As I was browsing the shelves, my eye was drawn to my future purchase. MetaMaus is a beautiful book with a red fabric spine, and a unique cut-out on the cover represents a glass eye, but also the hole of the accompanying CD. The CD is filled with reference materials and the complete Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman. The book is filled with sketches for Maus, other Spiegelman drawings, photos, inspirations, and an exposition of how Maus came to be. I took this beauty home with me, and I read it this week. When I was done, I found my copies of Maus I and Maus II and read those too (I would have read them on the CD, but my computer doesn’t have one of those old-fashioned appendages J).

The Maus books were groundbreaking when Art Spiegelman published them beginning in 1991. In graphic form, Spiegelman tells the story of his parents’ experience as Polish Jews during World War II. There are many amazing things about what he does with this story telling, but probably the piece that got the most attention, was that the Jews of the book are depicted as mice, and the Germans as cats.

I read the Maus books soon after they were published. I loved them. In panels of black and white, he told a tragic true story with no less ethos than if it was a biography of his parents containing many more words. His drawing style (reminding me of woodcuts), his lettering, his narrative – blew me away.  From there a graphic novel fan was born (although, at the time, that term was not really a thing. Maus made it a thing).

Spending a day sick in bed getting deep into Art Spiegelman’s head when he was creating Maus may not seem like the elixir some would choose. It didn’t cure what was ailing me, but I loved it.

Books of 2019 – Number 6 – Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean

For a few months now, I have been reading Ron Chernow’s biograpy of George Washington. It is my Kindle read, so I really only read it when I am travelling or when I wake up at night and can’t sleep. Because of that, the 818 pages of the book are taking some time to get through. I just, however, read about Washington’s inauguration, his reluctance to assume the role of President, and his continual efforts to ensure the people that their government would not turn into something outside of the democracy that so many had suffered to create.

This book is quite the juxtaposition to my sixth book of the year, Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains – The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.  We are reading this one for our book club and I expect some good dialogue. Dr. MacLean is a professor of history at Duke, and her book begins in Jim Crow South. Early on it reviews the Brown vs Board of Education ruling and the measures that some communities went through to avoid the law taking effect. In parts of Virginia, it meant the shuttering of publicly funded schools from 1959 – 1964.

The book introduced me to James McGill Buchanan, a political economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on public choice economics. Buchanan’s career becomes the lens through which we see the intersection between economic theory and the billionaire capitalists who see their own success as a guarantor of the success of the country. Buchanan and his close group end up supported by the ultra-wealthy Koch family, and the mutual relationship leads to much of the neo-conservative movement that began with the Reagan Administration and continues today.

There are readers of this book who laud its content and wake-up call, and there are those who question its research and motive. What it made me recognize is that our democracy is never a guarantee. We need to pay attention. George Washington was not wrong to be nervous.

 

Books of 2019 – Number 5 – The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey

 

My book selection repertoire tends to be a mishmash of history-related non-fiction, but I also love me some self-help type books. I am open to how they make me think about how I may want to change how I think, act, do things, and generally conduct my life.

My number 5 book for the year falls in that category. Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project  – Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention and Energy, is the culmination of his year of productivity experimentation. For 365 days he put himself through a multitude of evidence-based experiments to see how and if it improved his ability to be productive. Bailey wrote about his year on a blog, and that led to the offer to write this book. The book details the winners that he culled from the experiments.

There is nothing groundbreaking in the pages of this book, but I can always use a good dose of coming face to page with the things that I know are useful, but that I slack on. My brain also benefits from a clear breakdown of why some of the things that I know I should be doing, could actually work. Time, attention and energy are the three components of productivity that Bailey identifies and highlights throughout.

Chapters of the book each focus on a takeaway and offer a challenge. One that I have tried to incorporate in my routine this year is what he calls his rule of three. Each morning – before any work is started – look forward to the end of the day and write down the three things that I want to have accomplished by the end of the day. I have been about 50/50 in actually doing this. When I do it, I think that it makes me more intentional during my day. When I don’t do it, I think I’m a loser (not really that bad, but I do wish I had done it).

Other challenges range from diet/nutrition, sleep, externalizing tasks and creating a maintenance schedule to review, and gratitude identification. I appreciated so many topics in a single book, and I have dog-eared and high-lighted what resonated with me. It definitely can’t hurt.