Blogs: Books & literature

I recently got a Fitbit, a wonderful little device that tracks how much you walk, and I’ve become a little bit obsessed with seeing how many steps I can walk every single day. I’m not quite as obsessed as David Sedaris is about walking (or maybe it’s because I don’t have nine hours every day to devote to walking the way Sedaris says he does). I know that I’m somewhere on the obsessive-compulsive scale but I really do try not to let my slight ocd tendencies affect those around me (though my husband, when he’s washing the dishes as I’m hovering about in the kitchen cleaning up after him, might disagree with that last statement).

The Man Who Couldn't Stop bookjacketDavid Adam does suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. For the past 20 years, he has had an irrational fear of contracting AIDS, and in an effort to understand this, he has written The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought. It’s my favorite kind of memoir - personal, poignant, heartbreaking stories of the author mixed with everything I’ve ever wanted to know about a bigger subject. This is an immensely down-to-earth, accessible book about a difficult subject. I came away with an understanding of the definition of OCD, the possible causes, the treatment of OCD and a huge amount of empathy for all those that lean towards obsessive- compulsive disorder.


 

I am secure enough in my nerdiness to admit that I once owned a copy of that famous poster Fox Mulder had on the wall of his basement cubicle in the X-Files. The one with the spaceship and the words "I Want To Believe." (I also had Mulder and Scully action figures and a pet cockatiel who whistled the first measures of the show's theme song in an endless loop, but we don't need to go there.)
 
If you've never seen the show, all you need to know is that Mulder believes in aliens and Scully is Catholic. I gravitate to characters grappling with religion in any form because the complexity of human belief brings out the most compelling stories. (And if those stories involve government conspiracies and alien-human hybrids, all the better.) 
 
Religion can show us the very best and worst in human nature. It's sort of like a church basement potluck--the good and the terrible gathered together on one table, saints and serial killers ready to mingle like so much green jello salad and funeral potatoes.
 
A Song for Issy Bradley book jacketA Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray is the story of what is lost and found in the wake of the unexpected death of a child. When Claire loses her youngest child to a sudden illness, faith is also lost. The Bradley family revolves around their Mormon church membership but Issy's death cancels gravity. The orderly planetary orbits of each family member spin out of control in their own unique ways. Religion acts as both anchor and buoy as the family struggles with Claire's behavior in the midst of their own turbulent journeys. Can they catch her before the tide of her bottomless ocean of grief washes her permanently to sea?
 
What if you lived in seventh century Britain, caught between two belief systems? The power of the old gods is on the wane as the title character in Nicola Griffith's Hild manages to make her way as the seer of her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, in a politicallHomeland dvd covery fractious time; Christianity is rising and war between small kingdoms is always on the horizon. The brutal and fascinating Anglo-Saxon world comes to life in this illuminating and painstakingly researched novel about the woman who eventually becomes St. Hilda of Whitby.
 
If you've not yet watched the television series Homeland, I will warn you now that it is addictive. It is a political thriller but what I found most fascinating in the first three seasons of the show is how the fate of one character and those around him is so directly tied to his religion--a faith missed by government surveillance and undetected by family and friends. It is faith that both saves and condemns, and faith that raises more questions than it answers.
 
The truth is out there.

The letter D in ornamental scripto you like beautiful scenery? Beer? Constant, simmering warfare? Then you need to visit Anglo-Saxon England!Cover of Hild by Nicola Griffith

I fell in love with this setting after reading Nicola Griffith’s recent novel, Hild. It follows the coming-of-age of a young girl named Hild, the seer to Edwin Overking, an Anglisc lord in the early 7th century. She is continually called upon to predict the future of her kingdom, with the constant threat of death should she ever guess wrong.

Hild is a beautifully written book, with characters that take up residence in your mind, but it was the setting that really blew me away. Anglo-Saxon England is a combination of cultures: there are the ruling Anglo-Saxons who began migrating from Germany and Denmark in the 4th centuries, but there are also the Irish, the Welsh, the Picts, and the Christian missionaries. There are ruins of the Roman civilization that had only recently spread across the island. The people speak multiple languages, and they worship multiple gods.

Of course I can’t actually visit England circa 1,400 years ago (although someday I would like to visit the land that it has become!) but there are plenty of books to take me there. Here are some of the best reads that I could find for booking a longship voyage back through time to the England of the Anglisc.

Call out to all you Conspiracy Theorists (yes, all y'all on the down low too). Here's a great follow-up to Santa Olivia by Jacquelyn Carey.

Imagine a world where a spell of forgetfulness sits like a fog over everything, rendering the past incomprehensible; where an ancient knight in rusted armour swears to defeat a dragon; where two people set out on a quest through a country divided by clan loyalties and war.

The surprise is that I am not talking about George R.R. Martin or Tolkien, but Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

Ishiguro sets The Buried Giant in an age of decline. The idealistic reign of King Arthur is a distant memory and chivalry is, if not dead, then mostly gone. An elderly couple makes their way across a ravaged landscape on a quest to reclaim something important but long forgotten. Though Axl and Beatrice are old, they are naive, having subsisted in a hovel in the ground with their fellow villagers for as far back as they can remember, which is not very far. Their journey is one of children in a strange world, wide-eyed at the ways of outsiders. As they travel, bits and pieces of their past lives come back to them. These memories fortify them sometimes, and burden them at others.

Ishiguro has crafted an odd and beautiful combination of adventure and psychological drama. It's also a study of love, forgetfulness and forgiveness, companionship and death. It's Joseph Campbell's the hero's journey redone in a totally unexpected way. This book will very likely find its way to my top picks for 2015.

Do you stay up at night wondering how much longer the North Korean government can survive or how much their average citizen knows about the world beyond their borders? I do.

It’s not that it's unusual for my reading habits to snowball into mini research projects. The perfect puff pastry, Mormon fundamentalism, abstract expressionists- they’ve all occupied months of my life. But who would want to read deeply about a loathsome totalitarian state with an abhorrent human rights record and a comically absurd dynasty of dictators?  Well I would for one and certainly I'm not alone. Whether you're interested in global issues, survivor stories or political satire that crosses over into reality, when it comes to North Korea, there are countless avenues to explore.

If like me, you're curious to understand what life is like in one of the world's most closed off countries, start with Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.  Her book follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years, providing an extraordinarily comprehensive view of the country and a great meshing of politics and history with moving personal stories.  It also happens to come highly recommended by David Sedaris.

Looking for a little more insight into the Kim family regime? Check out A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress and A Young Dictator’s Rise to Power. It's a first book by film producer Paul Fischer and among the most suspenseful true life thrillers I’ve ever read.  Long as it is, the title only begins to suggest the unbelievable journey this surreal story takes you on. 

Curious to know more? Check out this list for more recommended books and documentaries to further your understanding of North Korea.

I am a philosophy professor and chair of the Philosophy Program at Southern Oregon University. Having been trained in both Indian and Western philosophy, my reading covers a wide spectrum. For the last several years I have become interested in issues in political philosophy, the role of scientific literacy in modern democracy, and issues at the interface between science and religion. I see reading as a walk I am taking with a friend while exploring a subject. Depending on the topic, the conversation can be calm or passionate. Either way, the dialogue almost always enriches my life. This has required me to buy a few more bookshelves.

Here are some reflections on a variety of books I have been reading. Please feel free to send me your questions and comments.

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen

While there are thousands of volumes written about the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence from as many perspectives as one can imagine, the pages of Princeton philosopher Danielle Allen’s reading of the Declaration are filled with rigor and passion. Allen walks us through the document, helping us understand and appreciate the significance of various ideas and making a case the true freedom is not possible without equality. Each chapter is nicely organized in manageable lengths for easy reading.

I highly recommend reading the book, especially today as we are working through several social and political challenges.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

In this book, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of the New York Times bestseller Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, takes up some of the moral dilemmas we are encountering more and more in our society -- fighting wars, selling admission to colleges, drug testing -- and subjects them to moral scrutiny. Sandel argues that in the end, to separate markets and economics from morality “is not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”

The book is an excellent resource to get us thinking about the issues we face today. It also illustrates how philosophers go about doing philosophy.

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel

Is everything, including mind/consciousness, ultimately reducible to material/physical substance and process alone? Or is there something more to it? Philosophers and theologians have been debating this question for centuries, if not longer. Ever since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the debate gained new life, especially with those who pushed to explain mental phenomena in terms of material processes.

In Mind and Cosmos, renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel, makes a provocative proposal that arguments to reduce mind/consciousness to a physical foundation is, as he puts it in the title, “…almost certainly false.” The book has given rise to some interesting and, in some circles, even acrimonious exchanges. In reviewing the book, the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that Nagel’s thesis is the “…shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

Human beings may be unique in facing moral dilemmas. While historically there have been answers galore as to how one ought to behave, modern cognitive science and neuroscience are challenging and offering new insights into what constitutes morality and where we get it. In fascinating book, Harvard social scientist Joshua Greene explores how the human brain processes morality, shaped by evolution and cultural forces. In this very accessible book, he offers a moral framework, to help us examine and inform our moral quandaries.

The book will be of interest to all those who are interested learning about how new sciences can and are shaping our sense of morality.

Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science by Sissela Bok

The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being by Derek Bok

The last few decades have seen increased interest, attention, and research focused on happiness, a fundamental human emotion. While philosophers have discussed the concept for centuries, new research is shedding fresh light on how happiness can enhance and shape our wellbeing in society. In Exploring Happiness, philosopher Sissela Bok offers a philosophical overview of happiness from Aristotle to what neuroscience is telling about this subject. In The Politics of Happiness, Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, offers a broad survey of how new research on happiness can help us address some of our vexing social and economic problems. He touches on such challenges as income inequality, marriage and families, and quality of political leadership.

The Boks articulate a complex subject clearly and I recommend the books to anyone interested in understanding the present human condition, and perhaps why we need to rethink our approach to solving some of our personal, social, and political challenges.

Here are some other books on my bookshelf (outside of my professional reading):

Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life by Daniel Klein

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O Wilson

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris

For more reading recommendations customized for you, try the My Librarian service.  My Librarian and our featured guest readers are made possible by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to The Library Foundation, a local non-profit dedicated to our library's leadership, innovation, and reach through private support.

I have a degree in history and, admittedly, can be something of a snob about it. If the facts aren’t right, well, I mumble under my breath and toss the book aside. Unfortunately, that eliminates a lot of popular history; work written for a broad audience. While often dramatic and exciting, these books can often be overly simplified or simply historically wrong. That means I read mostly dry, academic works that may satisfy my intellect but fail to stimulate the senses. There are exceptions, however.

Perhaps my favorite author of exciting, accurate history is James D. Hornfischer. His three books about the naval war in the Pacific possess more action and drama than most Hollywood films. His works focus on those moments during WWII when the outcome was less than certain and the Japanese had the advantage. This allows him to imbue the story with real peril. Hornfischer is especially adept at bringing any historic figure to life, whether a gunner’s mate or fleet admiral.

Last Stand of the Tin Can Soldiers book jacketLast Stand of the Tin Can Sailors focuses on one element within the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. It tells the story of a group of small US warships that successfully fought off a much more powerful Japanese naval force that threatened the American landings in the Philippines but at a terrible cost. Few works highlight the bravery and sacrifice of men in battle more than this book.

Ship of Ghosts tells the story of the USS Houston, an American heavy cruiser. Stationed in the eastern Pacific in December 1941, theShip of Ghosts book jacket ship joined a motley assortment of other Allied vessels in a futile attempt to halt the Japanese advance through the East Indies.  When the Houston sank, most of her crew became POWs and endured unimaginable hardships. Few works capture the POW experience better than this book.

Neptune's InfernoNeptune’s Inferno, Hornfischer’s most ambitious work, tells the story of the naval campaign surrounding Guadalcanal in 1942-43. The U.S. Navy, still reeling from the losses at Pearl Harbor, suffered some of its greatest defeats ever, but ultimately broke the Japanese Navy and paved the way for Allied victory.  Few works demonstrate the uncertainty of victory in the war's early stages as graphically as this book.

So, if you’re leery of reading history but like great adventure stories, give James Hornfischer a try. I’m confident you’ll like what you find.

Our Souls at Night jacketWhat's it like to be inside someone else's head, looking out? That's a nut technology has yet to crack. Luckily we have fiction. Everything I know about what it's like to be...a young gay man in a repressive society, an elderly woman looking back on her life, a Japanese man struggling with identity... and on... I learned from reading fiction. With each book, I push a little outside the known world of myself.

Kent Haruf was one of those writers who could take you directly into the experience of another. In language that is deceptively simple, he describes the emotional and often isolated lives of people living in the small towns and country of the west. He died in November of last year, and so sadly, there is nothing more to read except for his last book, Our Souls at Night.

Louis and Addie live a couple houses away from one another in a small town. They know each other to say hello at the grocery store, and of course, because it's a small town, they know the rough landscapes of each others' lives - how forty years ago, Louis had an affair; how Addie and her family lived through a tragic accident. Some believe that small towns have a stronger sense of community, but in fact, it's just as easy to be isolated and removed from life in a small place as it is in a large. Addie makes a decision to poke at this loneliness by inviting Louis to be her bed-mate, to come over each night and lie in the dark with her and talk. After some initial awkwardness, they settle into a quiet joy in their companionship. Their contentment is shared out to Addie's grandson, who stays with her when her son's marriage begins to disintergrate. But the solace they find in one another will be tested by the bitterness and anger of others.

Haruf's story is heart-rending in its simplicity, and if you have older parents, it will challenge you to think about how aging, and loss, and the judgement of others affect our elders. And it will make you mourn for the loss of this great writer.

 

I’m struggling to find a term for this. I don’t think it’s metafiction (according to the online definitions I’ve found), but if it’s not that, then what do you call a novel where the author has taken as her/his fictional universe a fictional universe created by an earlier author?

Mr. Timothy book jacketLouis Bayard, in Mr. Timothy, and Lynn Shepherd, in The Solitary House, both clearly know (and love) their Charles Dickens, a master of 19th century plot, setting, and people. A Dickens universe is filled with vivid atmosphere and memorable characters, so why not borrow them for your novel? Bayard sets his novel 17 years after the events in A Christmas Carol, and features a Timothy Cratchit all grown up and the inheritor of E. Scrooge’s substantial estate.  No longer needing that crutch, Tim finds himself weighed down by the love and trust of his late benefactor.

Shepherd, on the other hand, opts for a mystery set slightly before the tumultuous events of Bleak House, where that novel’s villain, The Solitary House book jacketSir Edward Tulkinghorn, requests the assistance of private investigator/“thief-taker” Charles Maddox to determine who is threatening one of his clients.

In both novels, half the fun (for this reader) is anticipating and recognizing how the sort-of remembered details of the originals are incorporated into the homages. It doesn’t hurt that both authors happen to tell a rattling good story on their own.

In Bayard’s subsequent historical fiction, he has switched his settings to actual events and characters (Edgar Allan Poe at West Point, Theodore Roosevelt in the Amazon), while Shepherd has stayed with fiction (killing off a Jane Austen heroine, placing mysterious bite marks on the neck of her hero).

And, if you like your Downton Abbey served with a slice of cheerful snark, don’t miss Bayard’s recaps of each episode in the New York Times.

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