The first ten books can be seen here.
20. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar (2012) (4/15/16)
This book, first published in 1973, was written as a family project, but when it was published it provided an eye-opening take on the injustice of those few years, which most Americans knew little if anything about. Written in three parts, it tells the story of Jeanne, who lived at Manzanar between the ages of seven and eleven. She begins by describing the removal and relocation to the camp, which was still in the process of being built; the second part tells about more settled life; and the third tells of Jeanne's difficult readjustment to "normal life" after the war's end.
I especially enjoyed the telling details of camp existence, such as:19. BK Loren, Animal Mineral Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food (2013) (4/7/16)
"I heard laughter. It was almost dusk, the wind had dropped, and I saw old men squatting int he dirt, Papa and some of his cronies, muttering and smoking their cigarettes. In the summertime they used to burn orange peels under gallon cans, with holes punched in the sides, to keep the mosquitoes away. Somteimes they would bring out their boards to play goh and hana. The orange peels would smolder in there, and the men would hunker down around the cans and watch the smoke seep out the holes."
Or: "Gardens had sprung up everywhere, in the firebreaks, between the rows of barracks—rock gardens, vegetable gardens, cactus and flower gardens. People who lived in Owens Valley during the war still remember the flowers and lush greenery they could see from the highway as they drove past the main gate. The soil around Manzanar is alluvial and very rich. With water siphoned off from the Los Angeles–bound aqueduct, a large farm was under cultivation just outside the camp, providing the mess halls with lettuce, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, string beans, horseradish, and cucumbers. Near Block 28 [where Jeanne's family lived] some of the men who had been professional gardeners built a small park, with mossy nooks, ponds, waterfalls and curved wooden bridges. Sometimes in the evenings we could walk down the raked gravel paths. You could face away from the barracks, look past a tiny rapids toward the darkening mountains, and for a while not be a prisoner at all. You could hang suspended in some odd, almost lovely land you could not escape form yet almost didn't want to leave."
Mostly, the book contains pleasant memories, which befits a young girl. She does describe tensions between her parents; between her proper father (a Japanese citizen) and an older brother over the matter of serving in the U.S. army; between her father, whom some considered an inu, or dog (a collaborator), and other residents. In a brief chapter, she discusses a riot that occurred at the end of 1942: though too young to witness any of it, she writes, "I remember the deadly quiet in the camp the morning before it began, that heavy atmospheric threat of something about to burst. And I remember hearing the crowds rush past our block that night. Toward the end of it they were a lynch mob, swarming from one side of the camp to the other, from the hospital to the police station to the barracks of the men they were after, shouting slogans in English and Japanese."
It's an interesting, well-written book, necessarily a bit thin because written thirty years later and dependent on childhood memories. It underscores for me how difficult it is to recreate the complex, charged life of such a place.
The thirteen essays in this volume, of varying length and subject matter, exhibit deep honesty and vulnerability, sensitivity and seeking, wonder and wisdom. They are all very personal, and very often about loss: of innocence; of language due to aphasia; of her home in the Loma Prieta earthquake, though that loss showed her the way back to her own lost center; of her mother to Parkinson's disease, and of her brothers, though they not to death; and over and over, of essential wildness.
Throughout the writing is at turns straightforward and lyrical, closely descriptive and metaphorical—but never sentimental. Nor does Loren shy away from contradictions, in the world or within herself. As when she goes hunting with her beloved older brother:
"If you're not a hunter, what happened next may disturb you. It disturbs me. Because it was beautiful. I swear it felt for a moment like Roy and I had stepped into the crack between two worlds. For no apparent reason—no difference in sound or movement or mood—the deer stopped grazing. They became as still as Roy. Then there was the shot and the scattering of the deer that ran like seeds might blow across the land, and one doe fell to her knees. Then to her neck. Then to her side.
"The click of the gun cocking, the blast, the sound of the doe falling, and the crash of the rest of the herd taking off were all one sound. Time layered, no sequence.
"Then we snapped back to this world. It was no longer beautiful. I was watching a living being die. It was ugly, as death is always ugly. And it was mean, and it was hard, and it was bloody, and life wanted to hang on; it always does."
Loren is able to bridge the gap between our lived world and something larger, more encompassing. There is both yearning and appreciation, awe even. Her view is often philosophical. She concludes an essay called "The Evolution of Hunger," in which she describes the deaths of a homeless man and of her father, the vanishing of her younger brother, and the celebration of Thanksgiving, with this lovely paragraph (one that begins to explain the "food" of the book's subtitle):
"In the morning I wake to a world that pulses beauty in its sunrise veins, but whose little cells of people seem doomed to repeat rather than evolve. I am among them, the déjà vu of centuries, millennia, the wars of eons, of gods, of islands blasted to barrenness. But the sunrise is still saffron, melting above solid mountains, and the beauty drips from the sky onto the human mess of us all. And after centuries, millennia, eons of eating—of stuffing my privileged self to the gills that I no longer have—I wake hungry, achingly starved to become more human: the beautiful animal in the core of me craving the evolution of it all."
I marked many passages that I thought particularly lovely: lyrical, potent, keenly felt. This book is something of a prayer, by one who professes no religion but who knows what is sacred, who knows how to stop and listen for "the ragged beauty and reason of everyday life."18. A. X. Ahmad, The Caretaker: A Ranjit Singh Novel (2013) (4/5/16)
There are so many beggars, but only the Lord can give17. E. B. White, Charlotte's Web (1952) (4/1/16)
He is the giver of the soul, and the breath of life
When he dwells within the mind, there is peace
The world is a drama, staged in a dream, played out in a moment
Some attain union with the Lord, while others depart in separation
Whatever pleases Him comes to pass, and nothing else can be done.
16. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2015) (3/30/16)
I have read many of E. B. White's essays and have always enjoyed his down-to-earth, slant way of looking at the world. This book follows that style, with humorous depictions of humanity and animals (I laughed out loud in the chapter that had the repeated refrain, "The geese cheered") as well as several sublime passages that ponder the passage of time and the beauty of simple things like barns, rope swings, fairs, buttermilk baths, and morning slops (well, beautiful if you're a pig).
Then there's the beauty of a life-saving friendship between the lonely (but also terrific, radiant, humble, and quite some) pig Wilbur and the very talented spider Charlotte.
As I neared the end of the book, knowing Charlotte must die—but that Wilbur would be saved thanks to her efforts—I expected to be sad (which I was), but there is also something comforting about the naturalness and ongoingness of the world that White describes.
"The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer's ending, a sad, monotonous song. 'Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.'
"The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—the days when summer is changing into fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
"Everybody heard the song of the crickets. Avery and Fern Arable heard it as they walked the dusty road. They knew that school would soon begin again. The young geese heard it and knew that they would never be little goslings again. Charlotte heard it and knew that she hadn't much time left. Mrs. Zuckerman, at work in the kitchen, heard the crickets, and a sadness came over her, too. 'Another summer gone,' she sighed. Lurvy, at work building a crate for Wilbur, heard the song and knew it was time to dig potatoes."
But then comes spring:
"The snows melted and ran away. The streams and ditches bubbled and chattered with rushing water. A sparrow with a streaky breast arrived and sang. The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte's old web floated away and vanished."
Change happens. It's sad and hopeful both. And friendship helps us through.
15. Mark Doty, Deep Lane: Poems (2015) (3/19/16)
The book is organized, loosely, by exemplary species, beginning with a Panamanian frog, Atelopus zeteki, a sort of "canary in the coalmine" for the mass extinctions that are now ongoing. Kolbert then presents the history of our fairly recent "discovery" of the very phenomenon of extinction, via Mammut americanum (mastodon), Pinguinus impennis (great auk), and Discoscaphites jerseyensis (ammonites). Here names familiar from the history of science appear—naturalist Georges Cuvier; Charles Darwin, of course; geologist Charles Lyell; and more recently, geologist Walter and physicist Luis Alvarez—together with their conflicting theories of how extinctions occurred (uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism) and how evolution has played a role. The coining of the word Anthropocene (the term for the geologic era we now inhabit, an era profoundly influenced by the activities of humankind) is told via a tiny marine organism called a graptolite (Dicranograptus ziczac) that survived a major ("natural") change in climate during the Ordovician (about 450 million years ago).
Kolbert then shifts focus to take on various ecological systems of the earth and how human-made climate change is impacting them. Here she looks at ocean acidification (the poster species being a limpet, Patella caerulea, and a coral, Acropora millepora); the changing composition of rainforest communities (Alzatea verticillata, a unique tree); the creation of rainforest "islands" (Eciton burchellii, an army ant, together with its codependent species); our de-diversification of the planet through modern interconnectedness (Myotis lucifugus, or little brown bat); and our killing off of megafauna starting as long as almost 50,000 years ago (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, the Sumatran rhinoceros, along with our cousin Homo neanderthalensis).
That's just a superficial overview. It is a vast, complicated, fascinating story she tells, as she travels all over the globe (and into its waters) to witness scientists' work and hear their thoughts and prognostications. To conclude, I will quote a bit of her final chapter, whose species of note is, inevitably, Homo sapiens:
"Though many of the preceding chapters have been devoted to the extinction (or near-extinction) of individual organisms . . . my real subject has been the pattern they participate in. What I've been trying to do is trace an extinction event—call it the Holocene extinction, or the Anthropocene extinction, or, if you prefer the sound of it, the Sixth Extinction—and to place this event in the broader context of life's history. . . . What this history reveals, in its ups and its downs, is that life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so. There have been very long uneventful stretches and very, very occasionally 'revolutions on the surface of the earth.'
"To the extent that we can identify the causes of these revolutions, they're highly varied: glaciation in the case of the end-Ordovician extinction, global warming and changes in ocean chemistry at the end of the Permian, an asteroid impact in the final seconds of the Cretaceous. The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption but 'one weedy species' [i.e., humans]. . . .
"The one feature these disparate events have in common is change and, to be more specific, rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky in a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn't much matter whether people care or don't care. What matters is that people change the world."
And have been doing so, the evidence suggests, in dramatic fashion ever since we started moving out of Africa. Though now, presumably, we have greater agency to know just what the heck we are doing, and try to at least slow down the change. Because in the end, we may become our own victims as well.
14. Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (1998; rev. ed. 2015) (3/10/16)
These poems are achingly beautiful, precise, full of feeling—the sorts of feelings that we all feel: loss, despair, desire, joy, hope, wonder, vulnerability, regret. His focus is on the everyday, on home, his own life. In one, "This Your Home Now," he writes of going to the barber. There, he thinks of "layers of men, / arrayed in their no-longer-breathing ranks" and muses on how well he has lived in his grief for them; he ends:
. . . Could I be a little satisfied?Many of the poems are titled "Deep Lane," after the place he lives on Long Island. These poems often feature his golden retriever, Ned, or his garden or the local cemetery. They are deeply intimate and sensory, such that you almost forget you are reading a poem; rather, you are in the poem with Mark, marveling as he marvels, feeling as he feels, stopping time for that instant. For example:
There's a man who loves me. Our dogs. Fifteen,
twenty more good years, if I'm a bit careful.
There's what I haven't written. It's sunny out,
though cold. . . .
Trying to pick radishes before the rain begins,
though the verb's not right: pick's a quick and singular jab
of an action, when what's required
is to squat and peer among the ragged leaf-towns
for dome-tops risen dusty ruby or scarlet, eggshell or violet,
and then to grasp the whorl at the base and yank
upward, lightly, so the whole plant lifts
in a sweet-scented loose clump,
good mineral dirt falling from the white roots
and the accomplishment at their center: jewel-toned,
Russian somehow, artful, varied, contradicting Leonardo,
who wrote that nature does nothing unnecessary;
how would he account for this two-toned cylinder,
voguish red giving way, near the tip,
to a ghost-swath of muslin . . .
Then the first unsettling rumble
through the spatter
that's begun to muddy
then wash our hands, gathering body
until it suddenly seems to pass, like a wave, through the clutches
of radishes we're holding,
and then we can feel it, in our own hands:
the force that rings the air,
drives through silt possibility from nothing into wet dirt-speckled presence:
the two impossible bundles of thunder we're holding.
13. John Lawton, A Lily of the Field (2010) (3/8/16)
The book incorporates ten lessons that she teaches in writing workshops: the sound of your writing; punctuation and grammar; sentence length and complex syntax; repetition; adjectives and adverbs; verbs: person and tense; point of view and voice (an especially valuable chapter, to my mind); changing point of view; indirect narration, or what tells; and crowding and leaping. Each chapter also includes a valuable, thought-provoking, often multi-part exercise.
Also interspersed are "opinion pieces." I love her opinions. Here, for example, is a comment on the passive voice:
"Too many people who yatter on about 'you should never use the passive voice' don't even know what it is. Many have confused it with the verb to be, which grammarians so sweetly call 'the copulative' and which doesn't even have a passive voice. And so they go around telling us not to use the verb to be! Most verbs are more exact and colorful than that one, but you tell me how else Hamlet should have started his soliloquy, or how Jehovah should have created light."
And here she is considering changes in point of view:
"In fiction, inconsistent POV is a very frequent problem. Unless handled with awareness and skill, frequent POV shifts jerk the reader around, bouncing in and out of incompatible identifications, confusing emotion, garbling the story.
"Any shift from one of the five POVs outlined above to another is a dangerous one. It's a major change of voice to go from first to third person, or from involved author [aka 'omniscient narrator'] to observer-narrator. The shift will affect the whole tone and structure of your narrative.
"Shifts within limited third person—from one character's mind to another's—call for equal awareness and care. A writer must be aware of, have a reason for, and be in control of all shifts of viewpoint character.
"I feel like writing the last two paragraphs all over again, but that would be rude. Could I ask you to read them over again?"
And finally (and then I'll just leave you to get the book and read her other pearls of wisdom on your own), there's this:
"Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.
"Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing."
12. Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011) (3/3/16)
At numerous spots I had to stop and marvel at the prose. Here, for example, is a description of the Trinity atomic bomb test, as witnessed by a Hungarian physicist:
"Im Anfang war das Wort? Nein. Im Anfang war die Tat . . . and the deed of the Lord was a silent flash that seemed brighter than a thousand suns. Nothing he had imagined came close. Night became noon.
"And although his scientific training told him that light would race ahead of sound, he had not anticipated such silence.
"A gut instinct overtook his curiosity and momentarily he put his face down in the sand. When he looked again, white light had turned to colour and a giant mushroom cloud was rising, twisting leftward, corkscrewing into the sky. The skeleton danced.
"He had imagined this so often—but he had thought in pale monochrome. The colours had been unimaginable so he had not imagined them. Now they rolled out, in half the colours of the painting box . . . clouds of red and pink, darting flames of orange, yellow, scarlet, and green, an arc of iridescent blue, a billowing mushroom in deep, threatening purple.
"Then the shock wave hit, and the boom of the explosion, bouncing off the mountains in an endless repetitive echo that seemed to him as rhythmical as the beating of some red Indian drum.
"A war dance? Why not? This was war. A mile into the sky, a three-thousand-foot mushroom danced its dance of death."
A miniature ruby-studded Fabergé gun that shoots tiny silver bullets; the notorious London fog with "the weight and texture of wool"; a devastated apartment building in postwar Vienna; the interiors of pubs—never mind the cavalcade of characters: Lawton brings a former world alive, but painted in somber colors as Europe struggles to right itself again. It's a generation before the Cold War tales of John Le Carré, and the general social and historiogeographic atmosphere conveyed by the two writers is accordingly quite different, but they both do a great job of driving one thing home: it's not always clear whom (or how) to trust.
11. Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) (2/27/16)
For example, the first chapter, "Come, Japanese!," begins:
"On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we'd been wearing for years—faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on."
The book continues like this, in a somewhat incantatory, poetic style, providing a vast array of details on how these women arrived and settled in, becoming wives (often disappointed ones) and mothers and workers; how they strove for a better life; how they changed over the years. The last three chapters take in World War II and the internment. The book's title comes from a chapter called "Last Day" in which it is explained just how these women left their homes:
"Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. . . . A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed. . . . Iyo left with an alarm clock ringing from somewhere deep inside her suitcase but did not stop to turn it off. Kimiko left her purse behind on the kitchen table but would not remember until it was too late. Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day. . . . Misayo left out a pair of wooden sandals on her front porch so it would look like someone was still home."
The haunting final chapter, "A Disappearance," is told from the point of view of the neighbors, after the Japanese had vanished.
Though a small book, it encapsulates an entire world.
In this book, he outlines how our attitude toward death and dying has changed—and also how it hasn't. Fortunately, the changes have been large enough that the way most Americans die has improved greatly, with fewer of us ending our days in a hospital's ICU and more dying at home helped by palliative care givers and, ultimately, hospice.
Even before the end game, many of us become debilitated, either physically or mentally (or both), and conditions have improved for that stage of life as well, with the rise of assisted living facilities and services.
And yet, our options remain vexingly complex, and professionals' skills in helping us navigate them uneven.
I will quote from Gawande's epilogue at length, because it summarizes both his thinking and his sensitivity:
"Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.
"We've been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?
"The field of palliative care emerged over recent decades to bring this kind of thinking to the care of dying patients. And the specialty is advancing, bringing the same approach to other seriously ill patients, whether dying or not. This is cause for encouragement. But it is not cause for celebration. That will be warranted only when all clinicians apply such thinking to every person they touch. No separate specialty required.
"If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions—from surgeons to nursing homes—ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits. Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person's life. When we forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric. When we remember it the good we do can be breathtaking."
Gawande has always impressed me with his willingness to explore not just what medicine can do, but what it cannot do—and what to do about that. This book gives me reason to be optimistic.