My Arbitrary and Unreliable List of Good Books

I have read a lot of books in my day.  And yet, I sometimes find that if somebody asks me to recommend a good book, I go blank, like a deer in the headlights.  It seems like the “search” function of my brain goes on overload and then shuts down.  Or something.  This post is an attempt to remedy that problem.

On this list are novels that I personally found to be page-turners.  They made me want to stop doing whatever else I was supposed to be doing so that I could finish them.  I want to emphasize that being a page-turner is not necessarily the same thing as having high literary merit.  There are other books that deserve more praise and are worth re-reading and discussing.

Another disclaimer is that I have almost certainly forgotten some other books I have loved because that’s just the way my memory is (not) working lately.

So, here are a few novels that I have read in the last year or so that I really enjoyed.  I am too lazy to describe what they are about so I’ll provide links to Amazon instead.

Life after Life, Kate Atkinson.  Amazon link.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn  Amazon link.

The Girl on The Train, Paula Hawkins  Amazon link

The Signature of all Things, Elizabeth Gilbert  Amazon link

Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese  Amazon link

Defending Jacob, William Landay  Amazon link

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver  Amazon link

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane  Amazon link

The Piano Teacher Janice K. Lee  Amazon link

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Watching the Moss Grow: “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert

I do not know how to write about Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things without gushing.  I really love this book!  It’s been awhile since I curled up with such a big, fat, 19th-century-ish novel and found myself swept away so pleasurably in the story.

I call this a 19th-century-ish novel for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is set in the 19th century.  The main character, Alma Whittaker, was born in 1800, so as her story progresses, so does the century.  The Signature, like many 19th-century novels, is grand in scope, covering not only the entire life of its protagonist, but also grapples with some of the century’s major ideas, most notably the theory of evolution.

Alma is an amateur biologist.  (She is an amateur not because she lacks the training or rigor of university scientists, but because she is a woman and lacks the proper credentials.)  She loves studying nature, and eventually specializes in mosses.  That may sound like a rather dry premise for a novel, but Gilbert manages to make it fascinating.  The novel is not just about moss, however.  It is also about love, sexual desire, ambition, regret, and even contains a jaunt to Tahiti.

signature_paperwiget_new

I enjoyed many things about The Signature of All Things, but I think the best part is the protagonist Alma Whittaker.  Alma is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 19th century.  Alma is not a physically beautiful woman, and men are not attracted to her.  She is, however, ferociously intelligent, and her parents encourage her to develop her mind to its fullest potential.

Because of her mind and her keen interest in studying the world around, Alma is able to find contentment and even happiness in her life.  As she notes here:

“I think I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived.  My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true.  I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me.  I have outlived nearly everyone I have ever loved. . . I have not had an illustrious career.  I had one original idea in my life—and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me a chance to be known—but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity.  I have no husband.  I have no heirs.  I once had a fortune, but I gave it away. . . I do not think I will live to see another spring. . . Surely you are asking yourself now—why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?”

“I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world.  As such, I have never felt insignificant.  This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities. . . All I ever wanted was to know this word.  I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived.  Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history—added to the great library, as it were.  That is no small feat, sir.  Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.”  (497)

It seems to me that mainstream American culture gives women the message that the path to a satisfying life is narrow.  First of all women have to be beautiful.  Or, if not beautiful, at least reasonably attractive.  Second, women need to have husbands.  Third, women must have children.  Women are allowed to have a career, if they must, but it is optional and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  The purpose of a career, of course, is to make as much money as possible. Other considerations are considered frivolous.

And that’s it.  That’s the path for happiness.  Given the extraordinary diversity of women, with all of our different interests, strengths, and weaknesses, I’ve always found the narrowness of this prescription ridiculous.  For that reason, I enjoy finding out about women (real or fictional) who defy the path and yet lead satisfying lives.  Alma Whittaker is a great example of such a woman and I think young women need to have more examples like her to emulate.

In the end, though, what makes The Signature of All Things such a great read is simply that Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful storyteller.  Her success with Eat, Pray Love was no fluke.  This lady knows how to write!

How to be a Concord New Englander in 10 Easy Steps

Central Concord
Central Concord

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town
Sarah Payne Stuart
Nonfiction, Penguin 2014

Perfectly MiserableSarah Payne Stuart

A few months ago, I spent a day visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Concord was settled by Puritans in 1635 and “is America’s oldest continuously inhabited inland town” (Stuart 10).   While there, I developed a serious “crush” on the town.  I was infatuated by its idyllic charm, its beautiful old homes, its literary legacy, and its hundreds years of American history seeping out of every crevice.  I wondered what it would have been like to grow up in Concord; surely it would have been wonderful, right?

I was delighted, then, to discover not long afterwards Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town.  Her nonfiction book is in part a memoir of her growing up in Concord, leaving it as a young adult, and then coming back to raise her own children. The most important element of her decision to both leave and return to Concord has to do with Stuart’s complicated relationship to her mother.  The book is also about some of the famous previous inhabitants of Concord–especially Louisa May Alcott and her family. Mostly, though, her book is about Concord and the quirks of the proud Concord residents.

I am not sure how well all the different strands of Stuart’s book work together; at times it seemed as if she was trying to juggle too many different topics.  I enjoyed reading about all of them, though, and I enjoyed Stuart’s sharp, witty writing style. I think my favorite parts of the book, though, are her many pithy insights on what it means to be a New Englander.

So, dear readers, if you are like me and plan to be reincarnated as a Concord resident, here are the rules you need to learn:

  1. You have to be convinced that you are a wretched sinner, but also, simultaneously, better than everybody else.    As Stuart writes, New Englanders live with  “the creeping certainty that you are a bad person.”   At the same time, you are secretly convinced that you are better than other people.  In this way, you “are like your Puritan forefathers who loathed themselves on the one hand, and thought they were above everyone else on the other” (9).
  2.  You have to have impossibly high expectations of others, and, especially of yourself. “New England is an unforgiving place.  Like the adored but disapproving mothers who populate it, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations” (10).
  3.  Although you may not like these impossibly high expectations, you are not allowed to complain about them. Stuart notes that, “The Puritans bottled up their complaints and made ‘griping’ a punishable offense” (10). Concord still lives by these rules, if not legally, then psychologically.
  4.  If you are woman living there today, you should be an industrious, no-frills, no-nonsense type of woman, preferably one dressed in L. L. Bean.  Concord is populated by “matrons of steel. . . no-nonsense women of indiscernible ages out walking their dogs, slickered and zippered against the promising weather, huffing disapproval as they go.”  Stuart also notes that “This is the first town I have lived in as an adult where most of the women, rich and otherwise, don’t work for a living. They are nicer, less pretentious than at the tony private pre-school of my friends in Cambridge. . . And yet I am far more frightened of the bustling, competent Concord mothers who have become the leaders of the elementary school, rising like cream to the top of the parent groups, as they had once risen in their professions (77).
  5.  You must be industrious at all times, even if you have nothing to do. “One of the goals of the Concord matron of my mother’s generation was to stand monument to the fact that, though never idle, she did not work for money—to prove in my father’s parlance, that she was a lady.  A feeling of accomplishment was important for a lady, as long as what you accomplished was ephemeral, like running a booth at the church fair or finishing a spring clean of a house.” (17)
  6.  You must be nice to everybody. “My parents were, in terms of their tribe, “well-bred,” as only a New Englander or a Southerner could be—meaning they were nice to everyone and especially nice to the cleaning lady.
  7.  You should be artistic, but not in a professional way. You should not expect to sell your work to anybody who does not know you.  “Since the days of May Alcott, the ladies of Concord have been sketching and painting with the clear-sighted purpose of finishing the picture to put it in a show in order to sell it to one another.  Almost every one of my mother’s peers was an artist.” (19)
  8.  You should make sure you never have too much fun because it is not lady-like. For example, Stuart’s mother gave up amateur acting because “the high she felt when she acted interfered with the person she felt she should be—a New England lady who kept herself in check.” (20)
  9.  You can drink alcohol in excess—but only for an hour a day.    Happy hour was “the one time they were allowed to relax with impunity, and…only the Protestant could drink so deeply and limit it to an hour (31).
  10.  You must be really messed up about money. This is probably the most important criterion for being a true Concord resident.  Stuart devotes a significant amount of space to explaining how Puritanism affected New Englanders’ relationship to money, even today.  There are so many contradictions in this ethos that I had a hard time understanding it, to be honest.  Here are a few of her quotations to illustrate:
    • “For New England Protestants, appearances are everything: they must look like they have money (and therefore clearly belong to God’s Elect), and yet they must seem to care nothing for it.  At the root of the tangled New England neurosis is a deep respect for the money it loathes.
    • The anxiety that Puritanism produced about money still shakes my hometown. By the time I was growing up, moralistic conflict about money had pretty much taken the place of religion.  I don’t remember if my parents ever used God in a sentence when I was little, but I certainly heard plenty about the value of a dollar on the one hand, and money as the root of all evil on the other.  As a result, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. . . I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor; frugal, extravagant, or generous.  I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.  (109)
    •  Money and one’s attitude toward it is so intrinsic to the New Englander’s identity that it is nearly impossible for him or her to have objectivity toward it. As moths to the flame, old-moneyed Yankees are drawn to bemoaning their lack of money even in front of, say, the person who cleans their house.  Having money was nobody’s business, in this complicated culture, but not having it (as long, of course, as you actually did have it) was a subject suitable for any audience.   So, if I understand correctly, a good New Englander will have inherited wealth, which makes him or her feel superior to the rest of the crowd. However, he or she will feel guilty both for having this inheritance and for this feeling of superiority over others, so he or she will try to hide the wealth from others. The one exception to this rule is that the Concordian needs to buy as big and beautiful a house as possible—but then to keep it as threadbare as possible on the inside.
      •  A large house wasn’t just permissible in the Protestant ethic, it was a sign of election.” (22)
      • So the one luxury the old money permit themselves is a well-proportioned house in the right part of town, big enough to allow its owners to complain that they can’t afford to live there. The bedroom floors are ice cold with a strip of thin, fraying carpet for one’s feet to land upon from the tall, creaky inherited bed (with its original mattress); the towels are balding with hanging threads; the ceilings are high, and the temperatures low in the winter and stifling in the summer; the food is plentiful, but plain and predictable, a rotation of meals handed down from generation to generation.  But the houses—one gasps at the sight of their pillars and the breadths of their front halls.”  (22)

OK, I need to stop right here.  My Concord fantasy is now over.  While I still think the town is charming, I would find it really hard to live by some of these rules.  Being nice to other people is great.  Not selling any of my artistic or literary output works well for me since nobody seems inclined to buy them anyway.  However, as much as I like L.L. Bean, I find these stern, industrious Concord matrons scary.  I do not believe in being busy just for the sake of being busy. (I work because I need the money and I enjoy my profession.)  And the money part is just too complicated for my simple Midwestern brain.  If I had a lot of money, I would spend it.  If I had a big, old, house and money in the bank, I would certainly furnish it and decorate it to my heart’s content.

I guess I’m just not a Puritan at heart, much less a lady.

One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.
One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.

P.S.  This is my first North American entry for my Reading Around the World Challenge, 2015.  I chose it because it is not only written by an American author, but also because it is about a uniquely American subject.

Changing Seasons Photo Challenge: March

Cardinal Guzman hosts a Changing Seasons photo challenge.  (Click here for more information.)  The challenge is to pick a place near one’s home and post 5-20 pictures of it once a month in order to highlight the changing seasons.  My focus is  on Murphy Hanrehan Park, which is very near my home.

For January’s entry, see here.

I skipped February because it was just too darn cold to go for a walk in a park.

Today is March 12, and we are having a spell of Spring Tease.  It’s been unusually warm outside.  It’s not the prettiest time of year, but it is so nice to have weather in the 50s and 60s in March!

Reminds Me of Bethlehem

(This is my “Asia” entry for my Around the World Reading Challenge. https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/around-the-world-reading-challenge-2015/)

It seems that the only news we in the U.S. hear about Syria (or the Middle East more generally) is of war, terror, chaos, refugees, and other forms of suffering.  For that reason, I am always happy to find published works that portray everyday life in the Middle East, especially everyday life during less chaotic times.

I discovered the memoir Road To Damascus by Elaine Rippey Imady recently in a new, local bookstore focusing on women’s works, international works, and works about human rights. The store, located in St. Paul, is called Daybreak Press http://daybreak.rabata.org/.   (A fun fact about Road to Damascus is that, as I discovered when I bought the book, it was written by the mother-in-law of the owner of the bookstore.)

Road to Damascus

Road to Damascus is written by an American woman who moved to Damascus, Syria in the early 1960s to be with her Syrian husband, Mohammed.  She lived there happily the rest of her life (or at least until the book was published in 2008).   Imady’s memoir provides an intriguing glimpse into Damascus as experienced by one American woman, a point-of-view I haven’t seen much before.

Elaine Imady

Elaine Rippey Imady

One of the pleasures of the book for me was that many of Imady’s descriptions of Syrian culture reminded me fondly of my experiences in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) when I was there in 2012.  More than 50 years had elapsed between my stay and Imady’s, and Bethelem was in a different country, but the culture struck me as very similar.  This shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, since the country boundaries are artificial, and Palestinians and Syrians are both Levantine Arabs.

I have reproduced below some excerpts from Imady’s memoir, followed up with my own more recent memories in Palestine.

  • Our friends “had a terrible time finding us because we had no phone, and although they had our address with the name of our street and the number of our building, Syrians are accustomed to a different way of locating places, what I called ‘the landmark method.’ A Damascene would give direction to our home by saying, ‘The Imady building is one street up from the tram street in Mohajareen. Walk up one block from Abu Saoud’s drugstore at Shutta Street, and then turn left.  It’s the tallest building on the block.’  (37-38)

This anecdote made me laugh because I had the same experience with the rental apartment where I stayed for six weeks.  Before I arrived in Bethlehem, I asked my landlord (via e-mail) for the address of the place I’d be staying.  He said it was just a few houses up the street from Abdul’s Bakery.  I was confused and repeated my question, saying it was for mailing purposes.  He repeated the same thing about Abdul’s Bakery.  I gave up.  He may have had a street address with the number of the home and the name of the street, but nobody ever used it.  I used taxis all the time to get around, and I always told him it was near Abdul’s Bakery or gave the name of the local grocery store, and that always worked.

  •  “I found the main thoroughfare lined cheek to jowl with small shops. Most had some of their merchandise on display outside, either piled up on the sidewalk or hanging above the shops on “clothes lines.”  But the merchants didn’t stop there.  They sent young boys out into the crowds to entice you into their dens with insistent cries of “Tafuddily.”  (Come in.) . . . In ten minutes of walking in the souk, we saw for sale wooden clogs, slippers, children’s clothes, underwear, perfume, head coverings for men and women, brass rays, gold and silver jewelry, chess boards, lutes, rugs, prayer carpets and rolls of fabric of all kinds—but no pots and pans.  Beguiling and exotic smells wafted through the air.  There were fragrant scents from the perfume and attar shops, pungent odors coming from the spice market and the distinctive smell of tanned skins from the leather souk.”  (46)

 To me the souks and small “hole-in-the-wall” shops are a major pleasure of travelling in the Middle East.  They still exist in Bethlehem,  but in some major cities, they are being replaced by Western-style shopping malls.  I suppose the malls are more comfortable, but I do think something important is being lost with their triumph over traditional souks.

shops

Small shops in Bethelehm

market

Small shops in Hebron

  • “Characteristically for desert weather, the temperature could drop twenty-five degrees Fahreneheit or more from noon to midnight, and the tile floors, high ceilings and drafty windows meant bone-chilling rooms at night. I had never been so cold indoors before: no central heating, and only one room of my in-law’s five-room apartment had a heater.” (42)

I live in Minnesota, which is known (rightly so) for its cold winter weather.  Yet, I have NEVER been cold for any length of time while inside a house.  Our homes are all well-heated, and we take this heat for granted.  Therefore, I was surprised to find out how cold my Bethlehem apartment was.  When I first arrived, they were having a cold, rainy spell.  I spent several days shivering under the blankets.  The home did have central heating, but the cost of heating was high, and my landlord only turned on central heating for about an hour a day.  He let me use a space heater in my bedroom, but even then, I was supposed to ration it to a few hours a day.  Fortunately, the weather warmed up after a week or so; otherwise, I don’t know how long I could have lasted in that ice-box!

  • ‘Referring to some visitors to their home, Imady writes, “Sometimes the voices of two or three guests would rise, their faces would look agitated, and they would gesture excitably. I would be sure they would be furious with each other or that something was wrong and would worriedly ask Mohammed what was the matter.  He would laugh and explain that it was nothing, that Syrians were simply more vehement, fiery and emotional than Americans.”  (37)

My landlord was a mild-mannered man when he spoke English (at least to me).  He spoke it fluently, by the way.  I noticed, though, that when he spoke Arabic, he often sounded angry to me.  Perhaps he was angry, but I did notice that Arab speakers were more likely to be loud and emotional than we reserved Minnesotans are/

  •  “Fat-tailed sheep crowded the narrow road, and sometimes our car had to stop while young boys or girls shepherded their flocks across the road.” (35)

Bethlehem is in most ways a modern 21st century town.  The streets are full of cars; everyone has cell phones and computers, and so forth.  And yet, it was not at all uncommon to see flocks of goats and sheep crossing the street—in the middle of the city.  I never quite got used to that sight.

feeling sheepish

a young shepherd with his flock

  • “I could hardly believe that Lamat went on this picnic wearing a good suit, stockings, and high heeled shoes. Her heels sunk in the plowed furrows between the trees, but she didn’t seem to mind.”  (35)

One of my favorite pastimes while in Bethlehem was hiking.  One day I joined a public hike that focused on Sufi shrines.  Both Western tourists and local Palestinian women were on this hike.  The Westerners wore casual pants and hiking boots.  The Palestinian women wore street clothing and shoes—the type of clothing one might wear at an office job.  None of them wore athletic shoes or hiking books.  I have to confess I found their lack of proper clothing irritating, because they slowed down our pace considerably. 

Scene from Sufi hike
Scene from Sufi hike

Perhaps the most significant commonality between Imady’s Syria and my experience of Palestine, though, is the warm hospitality she and I encountered everywhere.

I have never been to Syria, and I would like to go there.  Now is obviously not a good time.  Watching the devastation their country is going through now is heartbreaking.  I hope they can resolve their conflicts soon.

Have any of you been to Syria?

IT’S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?

Sheila at Book Journey hosts a weekly meme in which we share what we are reading that day.  Ideally, we will get ideas from each other on some intriguing titles we hadn’t heard of before.

Shop Class

I am reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.  In this book, Crawford makes a strong case that we as a society have gone in the wrong direction by steering young people away from skilled trades and into four-year colleges to become “knowledge workers.”  He believes that many office workers (what he calls “knowledge workers”) often feel a sense of meaninglessness because we have lost the connection to the material world.  Instead, he thinks more people should be encouraged to experience the intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges of skilled manual labor.

He emphasizes that he is not speaking in his book about rote assembly-line work, but about skilled workers such as electricians, carpenters, and mechanics.  In fact, he point about that skilled tradespeople often experience more cognitive stimulation than many “knowledge workers,” whose work has  become more and more rote over the years.

I think Crawford makes a strong case, and I completely agree with him.  I think it is misguided to insist that everybody is better off with a four-year college degree or to believe that manual trades are somehow “less” than “white-collar work.”  I think this argument needs to be made more often, so that more people get the message.

My main critique of Shop Class as Soulcraft has to do with the style in which it is written.  Although Crawford has worked as a mechanic and electrician, he also has a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy. This book is written by a philosopher, which gives it depth and richness, but also a certain inaccessibility.   I have nothing against academics in the humanities (being one myself), but I do wish he had tried harder to remove the “academic-ese” from his book so that it could reach a larger audience.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is an example of his style:

Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political.  Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.”  The craftsman’s habitual deference is not towards the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft.  (18)

Couldn’t he have gotten his ideas across in a more accessible style?

Despite my reservations about his academic style, I do appreciate what Crawford is doing in this book.

What are you reading?

Midtown Global Marketplace

Alas, I have not traveled anywhere since November, and I do not have any travel plans for the foreseeable future.  This makes me restless.  I have decided I will have to focus on “travelling” in my local community; I will visit and highlight places, events, etc that have a multicultural/international theme.

Last night I visited the Midtown Global Marketplace in Minneapolis with some friends.  I love this place! It is an indoor shopping center devoted to the businesses of local merchants from around the world.  For more information, click here.

After having margaritas at a Mexican restaurant and buying spices at the Holy Land, a Middle Eastern shop, my friends and I had an amazing dinner at the Rabbit Hole, a Korean restaurant.  The last time I was at this place, I had a camel burger at a Somali restaurant.  All of this was under one roof, so we did not have to brave the arctic winds.

Did I mention that I love this place?!  Below are a few snapshots I took while walking around the marketplace. Minnesotans:  I definitely recommend checking this place out if you have not already been there.