Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best Reads of 2013: Non-fiction

A splendid, divergent list this year.

1.  Reza Aslan, Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth  (This is a well-researched view of Jesus, the historical man, executed for sedition as were many, many others before and after him.  His brother James carried on his teachings which spoke of helping the poor, not the rich temple priests whom he defied.  But it was Paul who later shifted things around by calling Jesus the Christ.  As for being the (or a) messiah, that term meant an anointed one who would restore the land to the glory it had had under King David.  In fact, no one came along to do that and the Romans eventually destroyed Jerusalem and either killed or dispersed its inhabitants.  The author says that with the Holy Land destroyed, there was no longer a "mother assembly" to spread the original teaching which lay in the Law of Moses and came from the Jewish religion, so Paul's manufactured version took over.  A good presentation of the history of the times ... with debunking of various myths and a more accurate telling of the probability of what happened in this man's life.) 

2.  Alexandra David-Neel, My Journey to Lhasa, The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City  (Here in great detail is this French/Belgian woman's 1923-1924 eight-month journey when, at the age of 56, disguised as a pilgrim, she and her adopted son, a lama, walked from China, through Lhasa, to India.  They slept on the ground out in the open and lived on tea and barley flour tsampa.  Because her presence as a foreigner was forbidden, she wore a yak-hair braid and darkened her skin with Chinese ink and soot from the bottom of cooking pots.  Fluent in Tibetan, she could carry on a good discussion about Buddhist philosophy.  A classic tale, indeed!)

3.  James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, Why He Died and Why It Matters  (Thoroughly gripping, well researched account of Kennedy's murder which the author says was planned and executed by those who, shall we say, disagreed with his foreign policy.  The thesis is that he sought winning the peace without taking lives, but they sought winning the Cold War with invasions, assassinations, and nuclear first strikes.)

4.  Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing, Connecting Life With Language (Combining Zen meditation with regulated writing and lots of no-nonsense instruction.  She's a dedicated writer, teacher, and Zen practitioner who lives in Santa Fe.  This must be the fifth or sixth book of hers I've read.)

5.  Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World  (Here is a vivid description of the race these two young journalists engaged in in 1889-1890 to circle the globe--largely in British ships--in less time than Jules Verne's fictional hero did it in 80 days.  Bly took 72 days, 6+ hours with Bisland not far behind.  An historically accurate adventure tale.)

6.  Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart, A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life  (This is the sort of book I mark up as I make notes of wonderful passages.  For instance, page 45, "... a deeper kind of healing takes place when instead of sending aversion and aggression to wounds and illness, we bring loving-kindness."  A wonderful book by a shining teacher of American Buddhism.  Make yourself a cup of tea, find a good chair, and open it any place.  It's all good stuff!)

7.  Mabel Dodge Luhan, Edge of Taos Desert, An Escape to Reality  (This and the following are must-reads for those who love northern New Mexico.  A friend of D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe, she describes her life in Taos when she arrived in 1917 and came to know and love Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian.  Splendid.)

8.  Mabel Dodge Luhan, Winter in Taos  (Very pastoral, very gentle, a love song to Taos with beautiful resonate descriptions of that magical land.  Though framed around one winter day, she describes every season as she ruminates on her home, her life, her husband, loving it all--riding horses, taking the dogs up into the hills, knitting by the fire, watching August thunderstorms, planting and harvesting alfalfa, opening the acequia (irrigation channel) for the growing season.  It's the sort of book that makes you want to live only there, no place else.)

9.  Lynne Olson, Citizens of London, The Americans Who Stood With Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour  (Though the author speaks of other Americans as well, she concentrates on Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman, and our Ambassador, John Gilbert Winant.  Extraordinarily moving with an emphasis on London and the British, their dignity, work ethic, and stubbornness in not giving in.  Good descriptions of Churchill--a lion of a man with a deep emotional sentiment--and FDR who seemed to assume American superiority over Britain though at that point, we hadn't done all that much.  Very moving passages as, on D-Day, when the English went out with their flags and table-cloths and waved to the planes flying overhead to France.  Highly readable.)

10.  Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde, My Ultimate African Safari  (Less a safari in our sense than an overland journey through--largely--Namibia and Angola.  Having already made the overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town for another book, he was hoping to travel from Cape Town up the West Coast of Africa this time but extremists and xenophobia blocked his way, so he turned around in Angola where the wealthy elite ignored its own people, leaving them hungry and unemployed.  Even the wild animals were gone--either killed to be eaten or killed by land mines planted during Angola's war.  Theroux is not one to skip slums but seeing an entire country of the abandoned living in squalor, he felt the cities were simply "transit camps for people wishing to flee.")

11.  Justin Webb, Cheers, America, How an Englishman Learned to Love America  (Sensible, amusing, and a lot of fun.  The author was a journalist working for the BBC in Washington, D.C., for eight years.  Quick and enjoyable reading, very chatty, with wonderful Brit/Yank comparisons of just the sort you want to know about.  )

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Best Reads of 2013: Fiction

It's that time of year when I look at the books I read (48 this year) and talk about those I considered the best.  As it happened, I seem to have read more non-fiction this time--many of them truly excellent.  So rather than try to fit both fiction and non-fiction into the same posting, I'm giving each its own space with non-fiction following next week.

My favorite works of fiction this time happened to be three I'd read many years ago but enjoyed enormously on second reading.  (I've put an asterisk by them.)  In alphabetical order:

1.  *James Agee, A Death in the Family (An autobiographical novel set in Knoxville in 1915 when his father was killed in an automobile accident.  It is beautiful, heart-felt writing that, to me, could not better describe the loss so powerful and immediate to the author as a six-year-old and to the entire family.)

2.  Gerbrand Bakker, Ten White Geese (A dying Dutch woman who renames herself Emily moves to rural Wales to live out the rest of her life and then die in a way that fits Emily Dickinson's poem, "A Country Burial."  Very spare writing by a Dutch author.)

3.  *Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris (Set on a single February day in post World War I Paris when two children spend the day together--the girl to go on to visit her grandmother, the boy to meet his mother for the first time.  Intertwined is the boy's story of his parents' lives before he was born.)

4.  Maria DermoĆ»t, The Ten Thousand Things  (Translated from Dutch.  Set in the Dutch East Indies and fictionalized, the narrator tells of her life and the lives of others there.  According to Chinese thought, each of us encompasses a unity of 10,000 things.  Places, too.  Very sparkly writing.  Published in 1951 when she was 63.)

5.  J. G. Farrell, The Singapore Grip (Singapore before and during the Japanese invasion in 1942 as it relates to a few families in the rubber industry.  Amusing, ironic, and warm if over-long.  The general theme concerns the pursuit of self interest over the common interest.  One in this Anglo-Irish author's Empire Trilogy.)

6.  Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (Translated from Italian.  A woman falls into "a void" when her husband leaves her and then struggles to get herself out, back to normal.  A difficult book, her journey is almost caricatured.  Excellent for showing rather than telling.)

7.  *Graham Greene, The Quiet American (Wonderful.  Early CIA shenanigans in Vietnam and the idealistic, "innocent" Americans who do harm by having no real understanding of the area ... all compared to the sardonic, seasoned, and uprooted English protagonist.)

8.  Penelope Lively, Passing On (After a domineering mother dies, her two still-at-home middle-age children find her only finally receding from their lives when the daughter decides against the wrong man and the son realizes he's gay.)

9.  Wallace Stegner, Remembering Laughter (An early novelette.  Lovely descriptions but a sad Calvinistic tale of repressed love.  One of my favorite authors.)


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Seventy-five Years

What does one say on reaching the three-quarters-of-a-century mark as I have now done?  What are the words of wisdom?  What is it we see for ourselves at this point?  What is it we've done in these past 75 years ... or not done that we thought we would?  The one constant, it seems to me, is to remain as flexible as possible whether that's in espousing new ideas, keeping one's body mobile, or "simply" expressing a consistent gratitude for life however it shows up.

I've now lived longer than either parent, my only sibling, and my spouse.  I certainly can't say that I still feel, say, 16.  No, in a way, I feel ancient, yet still perking along.  I do find that though I always thought of myself as "a person of projects," that seems to have ebbed as a degree of stamina has given way.  Also, I always thought I'd want to continue to "see the world."  That, too, seems more trouble than I care to put into it anymore, including all that mish-mash at airports, cramped seating on planes, extra charges, and jet lag.  And then my favorite mode of travel--by ship--is now a thing of the past.  (Also, having no warm soul to go with ... or to meet at the other end now seems important though I used to go places on my own.)

I think my mind and memory are doing pretty well but I do find myself sort of "skipping" things sometimes as if, after so many years of concentrating and wanting to take everything in, I know what all that's like and feel I no longer have to be quite so conscientious about it.  It's a bit as if I'm skimming over the tops of things rather than always having to get down into them and fit things together.  Maybe I'm getting lazy.  After 75 years, you have a good idea where conversations are going ... or how the news is going to be reported ... or what book and movie plots are like, etc.

When I think back to the year I was born--1938--it feels as if it were part of some period drama, as, I guess, it now was.  Back when cars looked classically old-fashioned, when women wore silks and satins, high heels and stockings, when you wrote (and received) letters from friends and relatives with stamps that didn't say "Forever" on them.  Back when we looked things up in books or card catalogs not having all this info at our finger tips.  Back when the news was broadcast on the radio for a short period each day ... and life didn't seem so frenzied despite the aching problems and continuing conflicts that persisted.  When holidays were celebrated on the days themselves, not the nearest Monday.  When you drove over hill and dale to visit your cousins along two-lane "surface roads" bounded by walnut groves and orange orchards that were being bulldozed even then.

Here's something I just learned.  This 75th birthday is known as one's dodranscentennial.   That is, 100 with 25 taken away from it.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why Am I Surprised?

I just finished an eleven-week survey of the cost of food per item.  I used to think you could take a $5 bill into the grocery store and come out with several items.  "Several" isn't the operative word anymore.  One or barely two would be more like it since I found the average cost per item to be $4.  Okay, $3.96.  And that with my coop's 10% senior discount ... and no meat since I've been getting mine from the local farmer or the local butcher shop and don't count that into my shopping tab.  (Yes, mine is a casual survey.)  The least expensive item was a single banana--and organic, at that--for a quarter.  The most expensive was a container of good-quality (free-and-clear of all fragrances) laundry soap for $17.99 but that supposedly provided some 60+ washes.

I bought one head of cauliflower for $8, then had to pick through it for bugs, resorting to breaking it into very small florets and soaking them in a bowl of water.  You'd be surprised how many bugs I found.  Then I bought another less buggy cauliflower--which cost the same.  I divided that into eight $1 piles.

Here, then, is $1 worth of cauliflower

I was going to do an apple pie comparison--the cost if I made one as opposed to the cost of purchasing one at the farmers market, but the pie lady apparently died this past winter.  And then I was off gluten and sugar for awhile so I chucked that experiment.

When I gave a little dinner party recently--there were four of us in all--I figured it cost around $100.  Two bottles of wine, fresh apple cider, plus two nice cheeses for a cheese and cracker platter.  Some little munchy nibbles.  Four bone-in chicken breasts.  Cauliflower, chicken broth, half and half with which to make soup.  Spinach, potatoes, onions.  Ice cream plus a couple of bakery-made lemon bars.  The maple liqueur which we poured on the ice cream--yum!--had been a gift, so I figured that was free.  Of course, if we'd gone out to eat, the entree alone (with soup and dessert extra) would have come to around $28 each.  That plus tax and tip, and I dare say the cost would have risen by another $100.  So, I guess I saved $100 by doing the cooking and serving.

Actually, I don't find that people give dinner parties anymore.  If they get together--other than lunch or a summer outdoor barbecue (do people get together anymore to eat?)--it seems to be pot luck.  Casual.  "What can I bring?" they say when invited.  No, I want to reply--I'm doing the food; you're my guest.  It seems a bit of an odd concept these days.  Or, I'm finding that to be the case.  But don't you think it's fun to be invited out to dinner?  You dress up, you take a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates as a house gift, and you let your host/hostess prepare the evening.  Then, when it's your turn, you do the same for them.  Pot lucks have their place.  But so do dinner parties.