Book I’ve Been Reading – October 2018

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron De Hart

With Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a modern-day heroine for these times, it’s no wonder there are two movies and a spate of books about her life. This book is a full-length biography that provides the facts and arc of Ginsburg’s life without the analysis that would have been a welcome accompaniment. Still, it IS Ruth Bader Ginsburg and so it’s worth reading because her life choices, partner and experience have been so rich and illuminating.  I like what writer Linda Greenhouse wrote in her review of this book in the New York Times: “She has objected. She has resisted. She has dissented,” the text reads. “Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes. This is how Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed her life — and ours.” It’s almost as if, were we not lucky enough to have Ruth Bader Ginsburg among us in this troubled time, we would have had to invent her. Icons, it seems, are made as well as born.

Adrienne Rich: Essential Essays: Culture, Politics and the Art of Poetry, edited by Sandra M Gilbert

Getting up close and personal to Adrienne Rich’s writing feels like a political act. For anyone not familiar with her work, her writing is SO good.  This book is an immersion experience of her speeches, public and private accounts, criticism and essays. In her writing, Rich is clear about the importance of speaking up, even when we’re still figuring things out. “We can’t wait to speak until we are perfectly clear and righteous. There is no purity and, in our lifetimes, no end to this process.” Her own ‘wokeness’ demands that she speak, and she sees an intellectual life, a political life, as one in perpetual motion, arriving at thoughts and perspectives yet remaining dynamic and in flux.  Her poetry is a revelation and is also on this same continuum– my favorite book of poems of hers remains the Dream of a Common Language. More than anything this book provides insight to the depth of Rich’s intelligence and her political take on the world. She is writing from the margins and her own points of vulnerability, which in itself is an act of courage.

Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds by Joy Adamson (Re-read)

I had a yearning to re-read Born Free and the great thing about my local library is they had a first edition. What joy and revelation in reading it!  Since I last read the book many moons ago, I hadn’t picked up on the subtleties that Joy Adamson recorded when she was capturing Elsa’s life in Kenya in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  For instance, that Elsa sought out solitude regularly, away from people, away from her cubs. She seemed to need the quietude and time to herself. I hadn’t thought of a lioness being attuned to solitude and silence at key times the way many of us seek out this time alone, however, of course, why not? It’s also fascinating to read of how Elsa really did live between two worlds, the world of humans and the world of the wild. And how she raised wild cubs that stayed essentially wild their entire life, while Elsa retained her close connection to Joy and George Adamson as well as the wild until her untimely death from tick fever at the age of five.  I feel like I’m carrying Elsa’s spirit in my heart long after my hands have left the book.

Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks by Stephen Davis

I must admit I only skimmed this book yet I wanted to check it out, given that Fleetwood Mac recorded at The Record Plant, the legendary studio based inSausalito where I live. This bohemian village still feels like classic Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac territory. So, I was curious about the biography. In some ways, the book is a classic rock and roll biography and it’s also a story of a rockin’ woman of substantial songwriting talent rising despite the odds stacked against her. It’s also a classic #Metoo tale of how Nicks fights back against those seeking to minimize and diminish her. Of course, the drugs she takes place her on a collision course with her talent and it’s the Betty Ford Clinic that helps her address her cocaine addiction and support her to rise again as an American legend.

Betty Ford: First lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin

Betty Ford’s courage in facing and sharing her breast cancer and then later her addiction to painkillers and alcohol made it possible for many others to get checkups and seek treatment.   This book is also a love story between Betty Ford and Gerald Ford and is the backdrop for all that they faced, individually and together. Betty Ford was candid about her opinions on topics such as sex, abortion and marijuana from the time her husband was running for President.  She was also smart, funny, unpretentious, a dancer, and an outspoken advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, among other issues.  She used her voice to make change possible and the Betty Ford Center has been her enduring legacy in supporting many others with addiction problems.

Being A Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster

I adored this book. Especially the chapter on Charles and his eight-year-old son, Tom, becoming badgers, or at least badger-like.   Its divine to explore humans literally imitating animals and seeking to get as close to being in their skin as their physical bodies and imaginations allow.

There is a serious message to this seriously funny and deeply profound book. It’s that we’re disconnected from the wild in ourselves and from the wildness around us. And Foster tackles this in a way that no other writer I’ve read seems to have done.

Foster sets out to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, a stag and a swift to be steeped in their ways and thus understand their lives better and our own. He does this by setting up residence in different places and moving across landscapes as a stag, foraging through dustbins as a fox, attempting to fly like a swift and dwelling in hillside setts as a badger.

So, we’re taken on a shaman’s journey, one where Baker is clear about the boundary between himself and animal. He’s an evocative writer, an eccentric writer in the best tradition, and he’s also bluntly honest about his failure to success in this grand experiment.

His message is also that wonder is in the detail. “Only those blind to the velvet flow of a caterpillar’s legs and deaf to the grunt of a crocus as it noses out of the earth don’t worship.”

It’s an exhilarating read and one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Walker is a great advocate for getting eight of hours sleep a night and he makes the case that we’re in the midst of a “silent sleep loss epidemic” that poses “the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century.” His credentials are impressive – he’s Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science.  Walker tells us that “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.” One of the many stories he shares is a conversation with a composer who tells him that sleep often gives him the answer to an unsolved piece of music he wrestles with before he falls asleep.  Walker tests this theory and finds much truth in it.  A good night’s sleep comprises both REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep, and NREM (non-REM) sleep, a deeper sleep state that predominates in the first half of the night. NREM sleep is crucial to memory retention, and to acquiring and refining our motor skills. REM sleep plays a role in our abilities to deal with negative feelings, read other people’s emotions and solve problems.  Our last two hours of sleep are vital, so we shouldn’t sacrifice it for exercise because we sabotage the biggest health benefits.

Other fun facts: You’ll have a harder time falling asleep after reading a book on an LED device than you will after reading one printed on old-fashioned paper; the blue light emitted by an iPad suppresses your brain’s natural release of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleepiness, by over 50 percent. And adults aged 45 and older who get fewer than six hours of sleep a night are 200 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or a stroke than those who get their full sleep allotment. The most straightforward recommendation from Walker is to “Establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends.” It’s a book to keep on your nightstand.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’ve only just started this book and I’m engrossed in reading it already. Stay tuned for next month’s book list for my review.

Books I’ve Been Reading – September 2018

Books I’ve been reading – September 2018

Since I’ve not shared an update since January this year, this list captures some of my reading over the last eight months.

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan – for anyone who loves Helen Garner’s writing, this book is a valuable companion. Brennan is clear that this is a “literary portrait” rather than a biography. Even with that distinction, it’s a terrific and insightful book that explores Garner’s work and her complexity as a writer. I read it in one sitting.

Island Home by Tim Winton – I read this by the sea in Adelaide and it felt like a homecoming. The connection to land, and to a way of understanding self, culture, identity and expression is so strong. 

This book is the whole package, coming from one of the most gifted writers of our generation. It’s a geographic and a metaphysical journey in search and celebration of home and what it means to be Australian today. 

It’s also (rightly and) inherently political in its advocacy for environment and justice.

The Storm by Arif Anwar – is a stunning debut that reminds me of Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace in its storytelling ability.  Its epic story traverses four countries: Burma, 1942; India, 1946; Bangladesh, 1970; the United States, 2004 and involves a diverse cast of characters. This includes Claire, a British doctor stationed in Burma is in the middle of World War II, Rahim, a wealthy Indian Muslim who, together with his wife Zahira, flees to Bangladesh after partition, at the height of the religious riots. There is Jamir, a fisherman barely subsisting in Bangladesh, together with his wife, Honufa, their young son and who are facing a major cyclone. And then there is Shahryar, the main character who is from Bangladesh and living in America, who is facing expulsion with his visa about to expire, and the prospect of leaving behind his young daughter, Anna. It’s a compelling and magical read. A modern-day hero’s journey.

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams – a re-read because I gain from  this book each time I read it.  A month after her mother dies, Williams discovers her mother’s journals in her family home and, settling down to read them, finds them all to be blank. This book is Williams’ journey in coming to understand and accept this and, in so doing, it becomes her exploration of voice and expression by others famous and not-so-famous. This includes the famous silent piano piece “4’33” by John Cage and the voice of her late friend and mentor Wangari Maathai, leader of the Green Belt Movement. Williams also evokes her own acts of remembering such as this: ‘And each night the smell of orange blossoms and sea salt ignited sunsets into flames slowly doused by the sea. Not a year of my life has missed a baptism by ocean. Not one.’

River Notes: The Dance of Herons by Barry Lopez is a poetic and mystical book about the life of a river and part of a trilogy that begins with Desert Notes. I first read this book more than two decades ago and its message and beauty have stayed with me all these years. If you’ve never read Barry Lopez, this book is a great introduction to his fine writing on nature and humanity.

What Are We Doing Here by Marilynne Robinson is an intellectual journey as much as anything.  The Guardian got it right in calling the pieces in this book, ‘uncompromising essays.’  And a ‘call to seriousness’. They were originally composed as visiting lectures during the Barack era, before the Age of Trump, delivered before Donald Trump’s election. One of the essays that most captivated me is one on Hope which Robinson defines as loyalty. She invokes this quality as one that informs our human-ness and humanity by being “creative, knowing, efficacious, deeply capable of loyalty”. It requires serious attention to read these pieces and the rewards are persuasive arguments on important issues while also illuminating an author who writes such magical and strange fiction.

The Hour of the Land: A personal topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams:  I’ll read anything new by Terry Tempest Williams. In this book, she traverses 12 American national parks – from Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Acadia in Maine to Big Bend in Texas – in a literary and physical exploration of place that I found both centering and lyrical.

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively – a gorgeous book for lovers of gardening and Lively’s writing. She lives up to her name – settle in with a cup of tea and shortbread for this book which is informed by the two central activities Lively says have informed her life, alongside writing – reading and gardening.  And so Lively’s sharing of horticulture and gardening is spliced with vibrant snippets  from a range of nonfiction and fiction writers and poets writing about gardens and gardening. This includes evocative gardens from the Egyptian oases of Moon Tiger to those of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and theAmerican prairie of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather.  As someone who spent many childhood days reading in the garden, and who returns to visit my favorite tree (the Bottle Tree) in the Adelaide Botanic Garden each year, this book is both remembrance and a delight.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magunsson – for anyone committed to creating physical and mental space — living on a boat, it’s a necessity – this is spare, clean writing reflective of the topic. Not a death wish, or even a death task, more a constant practice for living well.

Reporter by Seymour Hersh – A riveting read by a journalist who has covered a lot of ground, broke a lot of stories and writes extremely well.  It’s as much a deep dive into the practice of investigative reporting as it is the stories themselves. The New York Times has referred to Hersh as ‘perhaps the most notable lone wolf of his generation.’ That seems right from reading this book. Equally evident from this reading is that Hersh has a huge ego and temper and maybe they were needed to achieve what he has managed to do in a lifetime of reporting. This includes some of the most important stories of the last 50 years — from the My Lai massacre in 1968 to the inhumane treatment of detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Luiselli Valeria – this is such an important read at this time by a writer who is Mexican, gifted and compelling in her telling of a tale of migration and dislocation.  It’s a slim book that packs a mighty punch.  The book is based on Valeria’s experiences working as an interpreter for many child migrants who risked their lives crossing Mexico to the US and now must be vetted by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a vast, impersonal bureaucracy. These children must answer 40 official questions that will determine their fate. This heartbreaking experience is told with Valeria’s own story of her journey to secure a green card and to stay in the US. For this reason, it’s a personal journey of hope as much as it is a polemic against the sustained injustices experienced by so many children. I wish everyone could read this book.

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton – I typed in swimming in my library index to find books about swimming and this popped up! It’s a book drawn and written by Shapton where she shares her swim journey to the Canadian Olympic trials while recalling the pleasures of swimming.  Her writing is poetic and an invocation to all of us who love to swim to find ways to do so regularly. For instance, here’s Shapton’s description of being underwater: the “loud then quiet, loud then quiet” of one’s head rising above the waterline, how “a chorus of warbled pops and splashings bursts against the sides of your cap.”

Swim: Why We Love the Water by Lynn Sherr – another book on swimming!  This one is an enchanting exploration that navigates history, myth, adventure and personal experience with swimming coupled with gorgeous maps and images. Sherr also includes vibrant accounts of open-water swimming and phrases like these: “Swimming is the chance to float free, as close to flying as I’ll ever get . . . a time of quiet contemplation…The silence is stunning.”

No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters by Ursula Le Guinn – here is an immensely gifted writer whose short stories are arresting.  One of my favorites is a chapter on the art of eating soft boiled eggs. As someone who grew up loving the ritual of eating soft boiled eggs, and the equally compelling ritual of making a proper pot of tea, I so related to Le Guinn’s description. The whole collection is a joy.

Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu – For any fan of Desmond Tutu, this is a great book to understand his personal journey and the many sacrifices and challenges Tutu faced along the way, together with his wife and family, to become the great peace maker and peace broker he’s renowned for today.  My favorite book featuring Tutu remains the Book of Joy – conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

An Elephant in My Kitchen: What the Herd Taught Me About Love, Courage and Survival by Francoise Malby-Anthony and Katja Willemsen – for anyone who read the earlier The Elephant Whisperer, by Francoise’s late husband, conservationist, Lawrence Anthony, who passed away in 2012, this book is the sequel. For any lover of elephants, and for anyone committed to protecting elephants from the ivory trade, this book is a love story to the elephants whom we’re introduced to in this book as much as a reality check on what’s happening and what’s required to keep them alive. Francoise Malby Anthony is managing director of Thula Thula, the Empangeni game reserve and safari lodge in South Africa and which recently launched a conservation drive involving volunteers from across the globe.

From Elfland to Poughkeepsie by Ursula Le Guin – suitably elflike size for this jewel of a book that tells would-be writers how to stay real in the writing and validates the right of readers to demand authenticity in storytelling.

Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself by Mark Epstein:  I was drawn to the subtitle of this book. It reminded me of a cartoon pinned up on my wall of a woman in a crowd with a thought bubble coming out of her ‘What if it’s not all about me?’  This book is like Buddhist mindfulness meeting M Scott Peck’s book, Road Less Travelled. I found Epstein’s book immensely helpful, for its application of the essential Buddhist precepts for ‘right living’ with the stories of people in therapy and how they navigated the issues they faced. 

Joyce Rupp: Essential Writings by Michael Leach (editor) I came to Joyce Rupp’s writings late, and in the form of the pilgrimage Rupp undertook with her beloved friend and priest, Tom Pfeffer, in her beautiful book, Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons on the Camino. It’s a walk I plan to do in the next few years and I hope I can do it with Rupp’s grace and grit. In the meantime, this  book gathers some of Rupp’s best prose and poetry in a journey of body, mind and spirit.


Books I’ve Been Reading – January 2018

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I Read In January

Women and Power:  A Manifesto by Mary Beard This slim book is compelling in its message that it’s power that needs to change and not women.  Beard makes the case that that there has been a long tradition in Western culture of silencing women and keeping them from the centers of power.

The book draws from two lectures that Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, sponsored by the British Museum and the London Review of Books.   Beard’s central premise is that the myth of the weakness of women speaking to power has been perpetuated through generations beginning with Homer’s Odyssey through to the failure of Hillary Clinton to assume the US Presidency.

At the end of her book, Beard says that if she were starting again, “I would find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong.” This raises the question of what politics and power would look like if there was more forgiveness for human fallibility, greater generosity in supporting a diversity of views and voices and zero tolerance for violence against women.  With the rise of the # me too movement and the 2018 mid-term elections in the US which will attract many female candidates for political office, this book is a timely manifesto for those seeking and critiquing power.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett Krista Tippett is an award-winning host of the beloved US public radio program On Being.  Her book made me feel like I was absorbing wisdom by osmosis. Tippett’s writing style is like an extension of her radio sessions and the book captures the perspectives of many important thinkers and leaders in theology, science, and the arts including the Dalai Lama, the poet Mary Oliver, the Irish writer and priest,  the late John O’Donohue, and the physicist Brian Greene and how they are navigating issues of spirituality, technology and what it means to be human. It’s an absorbing read and, ultimately, an uplifting one too. The sections are organized around five themes: words, flesh, love, faith, and hope and this works well in guiding the inquiry, reflections and stories in this deeply wonderful book. 

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner Back in Australia, I needed a Helen Garner fix. She’s one of my favorite authors and I particularly love her short stories and essays. Is it strange to say that Garner’s writing connects me to Australian-ness? It’s the combination of whimsy, fierceness, irony and tenderness that makes Garner’s stories unique. Chapters in this collection spin from dogs, dancers and grandchildren to Jane Austen, prisoners and life after marriage.  Several stories center on attitudes toward women and are spiky in their telling. Then there’s Garner’s love affair with the ukulele, and with Elizabeth Jolley’s and Janet Malcolm’s writing, and her deeply affecting piece on Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita and the film made from his book, Romulus My Father. This collection’s a keeper.

A Life Underwater by Charlie Veron Charlie Veron is renowned globally as a coral reef expert.  His has been a lifelong commitment to coral reef conservation in Australia and across the globe. Along the way, he’s been a researcher, writer, participant in film projects and a lifelong activist. It’s a terrific read –  the kind of book that you begin at the start of the weekend and only get up to do the essentials before returning to the story. Veron has dived many of the world’s coral reefs, has been a leader in organizations including the Australian Institute of Marine Science and has named more coral species than anyone in history.

Veron tells of his growing love of marine life and his journey to becoming a coral specialist and activist for ocean ecology and coral reef protection.  He describes his kamikaze life exploring off the map wild coastal waters and then leading groundbreaking research including on the impact of climate change and reef depletion. What makes this a great read is that it’s a book about science without being a scientific read. Instead, it’s a very personal story of a life fully lived with all its elements of love, loss and personal discovery.   In writer Tim Winton’s words, “Charlie Veron isn’t just a coral scientist, he’s a pathfinder, a scout who’s been sending back dispatches on the future of the planet for decades. If ever there was a moment for Australians to listen up and act on what he’s learnt, it’s now.”

Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather by Karen Lamb The names of Thea Astley’s books have always been a draw for me:   It’s Raining in Mango; Reaching Tin River; Hunting the Wild Pineapple; Girl With A Monkey. And so, curious about the author I was excited to find that there was a biography of Thea Astley and it’s a good one too. Astley was a Catholic girl from Brisbane, and both religion and geography had a magnetic pull on Astley throughout her life. She called Queensland her ‘‘dream country’’, the verdant, emerald green North of the imagination.  And as Karen Lamb depicts in her biography, Astley was resolute in her ambition to be a writer and yet always uncertain of her own worth. This biography provides a fascinating insight to the times, to Astley’s desire both for marriage and independence, to her sustained love of music and her aversion to conformity and how she built her career and reputation as a writer.

As the literary critic, Geordie Williamson wrote, ‘Astley climbs from its pages a flawed human with a gift that has been discounted in recent years. Until the recent republication by UQP of A Descant for Gossips, a few dusty warehoused copies of her wonderful final novel Drylands were all that remained in print. We can only hope that Inventing Her Own Weather will renew our fascination with a writer who was marvellous because she was difficult, groundbreaking because she was conservative, and deserving of celebration because of the author’s own uncertainty regarding her worth.’

Talking to My Daughter About the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis World-famous economist, Yanis Varoufakis, seeks to answer a question from his daughter, Xenia, ‘Why is there so much inequality?’  To answer this question, Varoufakis draws on mythic tales and contemporary culture as well as his own childhood experiences to provide an astute analysis and antidotes.  

This includes references to Faust, Frankenstein, The Matrix and Oedipus to illustrate the drama of economics and power and how it is playing out in our world. It’s a highly personal and accessible book that helps to illustrate how we got into this mess and what’s needed to rebalance the world. In doing so, Varoufakis equips us with new knowledge and vocabulary so that we can reclaim our power rather than deferring to economists. It’s a stunning read and an important one.

“Varoufakis’s brief history of capitalism unspools with characteristic fluency and verve … those seeking to better understand the ‘black magic’ of bankers should look no further.”                                               Financial Times

That’s it for this month

Books I’ve Been Reading – November 2017

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I Read In November

In Jodhpur, India, I walk into a tiny and mighty bookstore, and one of the staff ask me what I’m looking for. “Writing to better understand dimensions of inequality in India.” “What writers or books do you like?” he asks.

“Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, everything Arundhati Roy has written, Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Glass Palace’, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.”

“Okay, here’s some ideas…” Which is how I came to read the following books:

Untouchable: The author, Mulk Raj Anand wrote this slim book in 1935 however it’s as relevant today as it was then. Over the course of one day, the book follows Bakha, an Untouchable in India’s caste system, who is a latrine cleaner and street sweeper. We are privy to the humiliations he suffers at the hands of higher castes and the way the class system defines him totally and denies him any other existence. Bakha’s fierce desire to become part of a larger world and his smoldering, seething anger as injustice upon injustice is thrust on him makes him unforgettable in his realness, and utterly devastating as a portrait of an India whose class system remains as cruel, inhumane and entrenched as apartheid. Anand brings fire, vitality and the power of witness to this book – which reminds us why he is one of India’s most important writers this century.

Everyone Likes A Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts by Palagummi Sainath
Sainath is a journalist whose focus is the rural poor, and this collection is perhaps the most admired collection of reportage published in India in the last two decades. He is meticulous in his reportage on people on the margins written between May 1993 and June 1995. He is also a storyteller, and the way the book is constructed makes it easy to dip into both the stories and the analysis in easy to read bites. Sainath is scathing in his analysis of the impact of the withdrawal of agricultural subsidies and ill-conceived budget cuts in rural areas. His adroitness with language makes this book a dream read – and an important one since the crisis in rural India has continued to grow since this book was written, forcing millions of farmers to abandon their plots and seek employment in cities. Meanwhile, most journalists in the country focus mainly on city problems and the elite, ignoring the lives of the rural poor and the potential for a different world.

I also picked up:
Jhumpa Lahiri’s, The Clothing of Books: ‘If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening,’ is the magnetic quote on the back of the book, making it an irresistible purchase. This 80-page memoir spans Lahiri’s reflections on how a book cover impacts the potential reader and how the book cover reflects on the author; “The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel the world, on their way to keep their appointment with my readers.” Lahiri reflects on how book covers are an integral aspect of the book and they become a statement about the author even though many authors have little say in the cover chosen. She shares that even if she does not like the publisher’s choice “the covers become a part of me.”

Indira Gandhi and Nature by Jairam Ramesh – I must admit I was drawn to this book by a combination of compelling cover and title. Then there’s the subject herself. The book is really well written and it’s one to curl up with for Thanksgiving as it traverses Indira Gandhi’s life in a wholly original and satisfying way. As the author writes, ‘The environmentalist in her has never got the acknowledgement it warrants from her biographers… A cohesive ecological narrative extending right through her life based on written records has been missing.’ The result is poetic and political and important. We learn of Indira Gandhi being singularly responsible for the tiger conservation program, ensuring the protection of vast tracts of environmentally sensitive areas and pushing through Wildlife (Protection) Act, Forest Conservation Act, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. It makes me think she would have a very different response to the current air pollution issues in India if she were Prime Minister today.

Beyond India…I dipped into:
Adam Curle: Radical Peacemaker by Tom Woodhouse and John Paul Lederach: Adam Curle was a Quaker and peacemaker whom I was fortunate enough to meet him before he died – I climbed up to his apartment where he was caring for his wife who was very sick and he was generous with his time and patient with my questions. Here, two intellectual giants in the field of peacemaking have collected Curle’s powerful and astute writings for this book. Curle’s work was informed by his ideas on resolution, mediation and conflict transformation, all of which are illustrated by real-life situations Curle dealt with, and his approach to inner peace as much as the peace with justice he sought and practised in the world.

What I found in a Thousand Towns by Dar Williams. The subtitle is A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time. This is such a great book – you may feel like I did – variously wishing I’d written this book and that I could go hang out with Dar Williams while she makes great music and interviews people with such sensitivity and insight. She has a bit of that Studs Terkel magic in the way she interacts with people and in her clarity about what contributes to and constitutes urban renewal.

Williams brings to this book both a curiosity and clarity about what it takes to sustain community. This is a book fused with joy and hope. In short, it’s a keeper.

The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen (re-read): coming home from India, I craved cooking fresh vegetables and dishes for myself so brought out this trusty favorite companion volume to the Moosewood Cookbook, and timeless in its some 200 recipes. Katzen’s is a truly wonderful approach to food, nutrition and happiness.


Books I’ve Been Reading – October 2017

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I Read In October

Here are some highlights …

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers: This book takes its title, and its cue, from the casual comment made by a Governor’s staffer that captures the reality of people, politicians, policy makers seeing people with mental illness as those to be contained, pitied and treated with suspicion rather than helped.

This book is also intensely personal as Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winning author based in Vermont, details the journey his sons go through with both suffering from schizophrenia, one committing suicide and the other trying and surviving, and how Powers and his wife, Honoree, deal with what happens.

I almost didn’t check out this book from my local library because I thought it would be too depressing. I’m glad I did, both for what I learnt and because, thanks to Power’s fierce and fearless writing, I came away feeling hopeful and determined about what we can do rather than feeling helpless in the face of what we’re dealing with here and elsewhere.  

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris

I was drawn to this book as one that suggested respite from a culture where everyone seems to have their heads down, checking their phones, rather than eyes up to experience now life in the now.  The promise of the book, written by journalist, Michael Harris, was his poetic take on what future generations won’t miss – the loss of lack and of quietude and day dream time due to the demands of constant connection.

Harris shares his own experience of being digitally connected and then unplugged however he’s continually pulled back to how others are experiencing technological change and in exploring other people’s experiments with technology.

I guess I was hoping more from what someone deliberately switching off from the ubiquitous social media and internet presence might discover however the book is less a meditation and celebration of slow self than it is a wrestle with these different ways of being.

La La La by author, Kate DiCamillo, and illustrator, Jaime Kim

This almost wordless book has striking illustrations of a girl singing ” La La La,” in various natural scenes involving trees, leaves, sun and moon. The girl always gets sad though because she receives no song in response to her singing and so she finally wakes up to the moon singing La La La back to her, and later, and finally, the sun.

The author said she wrote it due to the intense loneliness she felt as a child until her sister was born, and in celebration of the connection she now has with her sister. I’m not sure how young children will respond to this book – I think the message of hope may resonate with those who are going through a difficult time and in some ways, it seems more a book for young adults or adults than for children.


Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjeon

My Mum used to give me Celtic fairy tales to read when I was young and this book has that same magical quality.  

Elsie’s life is filled with fairies and other children and Elsie’s talent at skipping rope results in a marathon effort to save a village from a greedy landowner who agrees to what he thinks is an easy win for his plans to build a factory on a hilltop where fairies and children jump rope.

Elsie’s skill, determination and love of life makes for a wise and affirming book for all little people – and big people too.

Gwen Harwood – Poems

Gwen Harwood (1920-1995) is one of my favorite Australian poets and this is one of her best collections, together with her Poems Volume 2.  Here’s an excerpt:

Could one seize and move
the stubborn words to yield and sing,
then one would write as one makes love
and poems and revelations spring
like children from the mind’s desire,
original as light and fire.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

For any lover of Mary Oliver’s poetry this book is a treat as it contains some of her best work from the last fifty years. Oliver has chosen and curated these pieces and they follow her journey from the age of 28 to her most recent work in her collection, Felicity, published in 2015.

Within these pages there’s so much of Oliver’s acute observation of the natural world and insight to the human condition. Having it close and dipping into it is like an everyday act of meditation and prayer.

Salvation Creek by Susan Duncan – re-read

I’m surprised this book was never made a movie -or if it was, I must have missed it. I even treat this book like a favorite movie – returning to re-read it when I feel the need, or when I feel homesick for Australia.

At 44, Susan Duncan was living the dream. She was an editor of two top-selling women’s magazines, had a happy marriage, enjoyed a jet setting lifestyle covering stories across the globe. And then her husband and brother die within three days of each other. Duncan keeps going until she can’t and then she’s diagnosed with breast cancer.  

While this storyline might sound like a descent to depression it’s far from the truth. Duncan is a gifted storyteller and she’s also very funny, aside from being very honest. The journey she goes on is rich and uplifting and the place she finds in herself — and physically in a natural idyll — is deeply affirming.


Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg

Having just seen Billy Bragg perform (check out his website and see if you can find a performance that isn’t sold out near you – his performance is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant) I wanted to read this book. While I’ve just begun reading, it has already won me for the style of writing as much as the substance.

The book tells the story of the rock and roll movement in 50s and 60s England. It was called “skiffle” as a parallel movement to that in the US.  Bragg documents the rise of the skiffle movement from when young Brits developed a guitar-led rebellion against the jazz movement of the day and of skiffle being the precursor to so much of the great British music which followed.

It’s an easy read and so typical of how Bragg interacts with his audience on stage. Bragg is a natural storyteller and as Bragg said up on stage, the pleasure is in the telling as much as the story.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

I read this book in one sitting and I’d stand and hand it to every person in the street, if I could. It’s that good. Solnit says in her introduction to the book that a revitalized feminist movement is changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice and representation. In this book, Solnit dives deep into what this means and what’s at stake and how we need to respond.

It’s a natural follow on from her last book, Men Explain Things and in this writing Solnit calls on men to challenge silence and end violence and join with women and those of all gender identities in transforming gender norms and behavior that perpetuates violence and silence.

What’s powerful about Solnit’s writing is that she really takes us there – her humor is powerful and her hammer of fury is a call to arms, which is really what this book is.