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I have managed to get some reading done in between watching episodes of a particular TV show I was hooked on… here are the books I’ve been looking at lately:

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hidden america

Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Ms. Laskas is a journalist and author – she’s written six other books, was a regular columnist at the Washington Post, a feature writer for GQ, and a contributing editor at Esquire. She’s been around for a while, but I’d never heard of her. She first came to my attention when a certain JM sent me a link to an article she’d written about Air Traffic Controllers, going ‘behind the scenes’ and writing about their world, their lives. It turns out, that essay was collected into this book. Hidden America is all about people who you don’t really think about, but whose jobs are an essential part of making our daily lives not just better, but basically liveable.

She spends time with American coal miners, blueberry pickers, oil drillers, long-haul truck drivers, garbage dump workers, and more. It’s a fascinating account of lives and industries you interact with, depend on, need… without knowing, without thinking about. Definitely worth checking out!

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inpersuasionnation

After reading a NY Times review about George Saunders, I decided to check out some of his works. In the article, he speaks lovingly of Raymond Carver, whose short stories I am a huge fan of. I got a copy of his In Persuasion Nation and read about half of it. He’s a good writer, and combines science fiction-ish ideas with human absurdity in interesting ways…  but much of it is disturbing. He likes to show people how messed up they are by picking and picking at an idea, and then digging his fingers into it.

The story I finally put the book down at was about a TV family – in this story, the characters know they are characters in a TV show, but that’s all they are – they are not actors, they ARE the characters – they disappear into a gray fog when they’re written out of the script. And this show’s ratings are bad, so their lives (and physical layout of the backyard) are changing to try and suit the pleasures of the audience. It’s a strange tale, and I think it’s meant to push your buttons, to make you uncomfortable and force you to take a good, harsh look at your own life. I appreciate that, but only in small chunks. I’ll return the book, and will probably pick it up in the future, or one of his others… maybe. He’s one to take a little bit at a time.

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otherkingdoms

Other Kingdoms by Richard Matheson. I saw the movie, “I Am Legend,” really liked it and so read the book. It was… different from the movie. Enough so that I didn’t even compare the two – I was able to enjoy them both separately, equally. So when his latest novel, Other Kingdoms, came out in 2011, I was intrigued – I checked it out, but never got around to reading it. I saw it on the shelves the other day, checked it out again, and this time opened it up… I read the thing in one day. I was drawn into its world, I suspended disbelief (it’s about faeries. And a witch.). It’s a fairy tale for grownups. It’s really good, when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. It’s told from the point of view of an old man telling his life story, a short time that he spent in WWI and then ended up in a village in England that was next to a woods that were filled with faeries. The introduction is from this made-up character, and there’s a bibliography that I think is made-up. I like that complete absorption into a different world. The Princess Bride, the  book, is like that. It jumps into this made-up world, adding layer upon layer, to really get you into the story. If you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, I’d definitely recommend this book. And if you like The Princess Bride, book or movie, this news story and related comments are for you.

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dreamlandA while back, I read Dreamland: adventures in the strange science of sleep, by David K. Randall. (wrote about it in a Tumblr post – was/am trying out that blogging site, too) Sleep for me is a huge thing – I never feel like I get enough of it. I feel like my daughter doesn’t get enough of it. And yet, I know it’s SOO important. This book gets into how and why it’s SOO important and but really how we know so little about what goes on while we’re sleeping. It’s a quick read, but highly informative and entertaining.

Ever had trouble sleeping? Wonder why it’s so important and what happens if you don’t get enough of it? What happens to people who commit crimes while sleepwalking? This book examines these questions and many others. It’s not a textbook on sleep disorders; it’s a personal adventure into the wide world of sleep science.  Highly recommended!

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This is definitely a mixed bag of books I’ve gone through… what have you been reading lately?

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Not too long ago, a patron requested a book she had to read for her book group – it had something to do with “mud.” That’s most of what she could remember…”mud” was in the title (maybe), and it may have won an award – it could be newish, and maybe had a female author, but she wasn’t sure.

…  …

I actually found the book she was looking for! Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.

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Well, she was pretty sure that was the book. I was proud of myself for coming up with that, at any rate.

It fit all the criteria – published recently (2008), woman author, has “mud” in the title, and it was the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction (2006), NAIBA Book of the Year – Fiction (2008), ALA Alex Award (2009). I had never heard of the Bellwether Prize, and so I started researching that.

It’s a prize that was started by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000. It’s given for “socially engaged fiction.” Now, I had heard of Barbara Kingsolver, and have thought her books sounded pretty interesting, I’ve just never been intrigued enough to actually read one. But maybe now I will.

Barbara Kingsolver, herself, seems like an interesting person. According to her website, she was named one the most “important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest. In 2000 she received the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts. Critical acclaim for her books includes multiple awards from the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association, among many others”. And she is known for her fiction as well as her non-fiction works – I’ve heard people rave about both.  I love the idea of her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

Hang on for the ride: With characteristic poetry and pluck, Barbara Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial-food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it.

It reminds me of some other books about city folk uprooting themselves and going on adventures in the country, on the farm. That seems to be a big thing these days, the transplants planting crops. But it’s a good thing – raising awareness about the food we eat can only help us and our environments.

Other city-to-farm stories:

The Dirty Life
by Kristin Kimball
Read more about the author and her farm at http://www.kristinkimball.com.

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels
by Ree Drummond
See more here: http://thepioneerwoman.com/

Righteous Porkchop : finding a life and good food beyond factory farms
by Nicolette Hahn Niman
More information at http://www.righteousporkchop.com/

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And if you just can’t wrap your head around the idea of being inspired to move to a farm, plant a vegetable garden, or raise your own chickens, then just buy one of these hen footstools and call it a day.

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Working on your novel?

 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Founded by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bellwether Prize, which was established in 2000 by Barbara Kingsolver and is funded entirely by her, was created to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.

Beginning in 2012, the $25,000 prize will be awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles. The winner will also receive a publishing contract with Algonquin Books, which will be the participating publisher for at least the next two awards cycles. The first PEN/Bellwether Prize will be conferred at PEN’s Literary Awards Ceremony in New York City in the fall of 2012.

After reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt, I wanted to learn more about early American politics – my civic knowledge is sorely lacking. A book crossed my path that looked really good – Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. It was written by Walter Isaacson, the same guy who wrote the recently published Steve Jobs biography. Benjamin Franklin is a BIG, intimidating book, but I thought I’d give it a shot and am sooo glad I did! I have a new-found admiration for the complex person that Benjamin Franklin was.

This very large, potentially very dry and boring book covered Franklin’s entire life, but did so in a way that was far from dry and boring. Franklin himself was not dry, was not boring – this bio paints him in such a way as to highlight his charm, his curiosity, and his intelligence, without glossing over his less endearing personality quirks.

When I read John Adams by David McCullough (a wonderfully well-written book about our cantankerous but endearingly earnest second president), Franklin’s exploits were touched on, and in this book, the reverse is true. Adams and Franklin had a sort of love-hate relationship, and it’s interesting to read about it from both sides.

Franklin led a full, full life – this book covers all of it. After reading this book, I’ve gotten to know better the man behind the myth. Franklin was full of nuance and depth. It seems that what we need now, in this world, is another Franklin. Someone who has a curious, practical mind, who embodies the American dream, who is a champion of the middle class and who believes in the community supporting each other. He was against “big government” but believed in fair taxes, and felt that wealthy people should give back to their communities – of their own volition, without any government regulation. He was a stickler for clear rules and regulations, but didn’t mind playing a part during a negotiation, bending the truth or leaving details out to benefit the newly forming America. He was shrewd, yet had a charming naiveté.

This book helped me understand more about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, and brought Benjamin Franklin to life – it was interesting, and very much a page-turner (which is huge – I almost never finish non-fiction works; they just fade out at the end into ‘blah’. This was a far cry from blah).

It definitely has made me want to read more about the founding fathers, the beginning of our nation, the Civil War, our presidents…. There’s so much to know, and I’m looking forward to finding other well-written books to help learn it.

After finishing The Orchid Thief, I resumed reading Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness (see previous posting about being unable to get to my book.. too cold, too far).

Witihin this Wilderness was recommended to me by my boss–she knew Feenie Ziner, and said I would have liked her. I certainly like the way she writes, what she says… I think we would have gotten along just fine.

This book was also described to me as being similar to John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, another book I really enjoyed.

It is similar, and yet, it’s not.

Into The Wild is a very compelling read because it was pieced together by a journalist and told in a clear-eyed yet sympathetic way. There is an air of mystery around Christopher McCandless, the missing man-child — Why’d he go? How’d he die? For that matter, how’d he live?  Krakauer is exceptional at telling a story around the story – putting up the frame, so that we can picture the whole house.

Feenie Ziner’s story is different, in that the tale is told by the mother of the man-child who removes himself from society. She describes her struggle–at first, to get him home, and finally, to accept him as he is.

In the 70’s, Feenie’s son, Joe Ziner, moved to British Columbia to get away from civilization and to find himself. She was able to visit her ‘missing’ son, and try to form a bond, a connection, a conversation, with him. The story comes from that tension. Will mom ever understand her son? Will he ever understand his mother? In the end, they reach an accord of sorts. It’s a beautiful story, of love in all its forms. Love for the wilderness, love between a mother and son, love for life… however it must be expressed.

Feenie was a children’s book author, had a long career teaching in the English department at UConn, and was most recently, a Branford, CT resident. Her son ended up becoming a book publisher. He did not completely disappear, the way the boy in Into The Wild did.  The story of Within is not that of “how could this person lose himself and completely disappear”. This story is one we are all familiar with–a story of acceptance of who we are, what we want, and what we must do to be happy when we don’t get it.

Within This Wilderness is also an exploration of how we reconcile ourselves to living in a world of consumption when we are, at heart, children of the land. We are all pure, yearning for simple lives. And yet, we struggle against simply ‘making do’. We humans must progress, achieve, build. Where do we draw the line and say, enough? For Joe, he opposed the Vietnam War, opposed American’s ignorance of its horrors and mindlessness, opposed immoral accumulation, opposed partaking of suburban America. His only solution to was to flee, and to set up in a minimalist shack in the wilds of British Columbia. but you can’t escape your emotions, and he had to reconcile those eventually, with himself, his mother, if not his country. As his mother wrote, “in time, everyone who undertakes a great moral journey must confront the fact that the Devil is always the stowaway.”

This book is almost 30 years old, but the emotional struggles are as relevant as ever.  Coming up next:  The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard.

Maybe it’s the falling leaves hitting my head, or maybe it’s the crazy weather we’ve had lately (an earthquake in New England, a hurricane in Connecticut, snow on Halloween, temps in the 50’s-60’s at the end of November), but I’ve been in the mood for books inspired by and embracing the wilderness.

I began with Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness, which was recommended to me by my supervisor, and began reading it, but one night I left it in my car. Not wanting to brave the cold wilderness myself that night, I looked around and noticed among my ‘to-read’ stack of books The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean.

The Orchid Thief was the inspiration for the movie, “Adaptation”,  a strange journey through the wilds of the mind of a screenwriter tasked with adapting the book into a screenplay. I had seen the movie, was unsettled by it, but plowed ahead with the book anyway….

…and was really glad I did. The Orchid Thief was a quick read, but it covered a lot of ground. Orlean talks about orchids and their history, Florida and its history, Native Americans in Florida and their history, as well as a varied cast of characters and their own peculiar histories. Orlean links all these narratives together by following John Laroche around as he tries to show her Florida’s elusive Ghost Orchid.

Being a Florida native, I loved hearing Orlean describe the wild nature of Florida–it’s ability to be nothing and everything, to be changed by humans and yet, not succumb to alteration.

She talks about the changes humans have tried to effect–draining the Everglades, blasting the ground with dynamite just to be able to farm on the land, creating beaches by dumping sand–and notes how nature, when unchecked, quickly begins to reclaim itself, undoing these changes. Florida is malleable, but like water, it seeks out its own equilibrium.

Orlean also goes into the history of the Seminole Indians. This tribe is actually comprised of Indians from different tribes in the northern states–they escaped captivity and slavery and sought refuge in the swampy lands of Florida. Over time, different battles were fought with the US Government, but the Seminole tribe, with their brave leader Chief Osceola,  never gave up, never surrendered, and now have the distinction of calling themselves the “unconquered” tribe.

Orlean also explores the nature of obsession. Her book is much more interesting and coherent than the movie that referenced it. Her writing about people and their obsessions is much more real, sympathetic, and interesting. She covers a whole sub-culture of orchid-crazed people, but is especially intrigued by her main subject, John Laroche. He is serially-obsessed, going from one all-consuming passion to the next, with no mourning time in between. Orlean never truly discovers why is he is this way, but she has a wild ride while reporting on it.

Does everyone have a secret (or not-so-secret) passion? Mine seems to be stories… What’s yours?

Coming next: Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness

There are numerous books about J.D. Salinger and this most recent one by Slawenski is an interesting account of Salinger’s life, focused mainly on his writing years. This book was somewhere in the middle of my ‘to-read’ list, but jumped up to the top after a patron recommended it. The patron is a former teacher of Catcher in the Rye, and said that the chapter about Holden Caulfield described the character just as he taught it. He actually only recommended reading that chapter, but I was intrigued by the entire book, and decided to read the whole thing.

Slawenski is a huge, HUGE Salinger fan. He says as much in the introduction, writing about his website devoted to Salinger. This love and devotion comes across in the book – his admiration is palpable. But it doesn’t detract from the telling of Salinger’s life. He presents Salinger in full light, though tending to ennoble his flaws a bit.

Prior to this, I had no idea who Salinger was, what he was like. I had read all of his books, including the short stories, but had never read anything about the author himself. His life was definitely interesting. He fought in WWII, and was in a unit that took part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. He became an intelligence officer, interrogating Nazis and their sympathizers. He wrote before, during and after the war, many of his stories exorcising his demons of war. Once back home, Salinger became an early American proponent of yoga and organic gardening. He was married multiple times and had children but was very much an independent spirit, preferring to lose himself in his characters’ lives. According to this biography, Salinger initially chose to separate himself from the world in order to produce his works; he knew he would otherwise be too distracted by his own fame, parties and fanfare. He felt he had a duty to write – to his spirit, his god. To do otherwise would be “phony”, something his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, would have despised.

This biography not only gives you a look at Salinger’s life, but describes the stories he wrote at various times, given some critical analysis in light of his life events. I’d read his books and stories over the years, and enjoyed each one. But after reading the bio of Salinger, I definitely want to go back and reread all of his works. Salinger was a master storyteller, presenting his written world through small details, allowing the reader to complete the picture. He described the trees, so that we could see the forest.

Franny and Zooey is one book I remember loving, but do not recall specifics from. It’s about a large, quirky family in New York. It was published in the 50s, but feels timeless. The story is about the relationships between family members and how they see the world. He also was a great short story writer. He wrote “For Esme – With Love and Squalor”, originally published in the New Yorker and anthologized in Nine Stories. This is a powerful tale of a war veteran and a chance encounter with a young girl who changes his life by simply reminding him of innocence.

I actually had the opportunity to hear this short story being read aloud in a coffeehouse by a friend of mine. The New Haven Theater Company presents a seasonal series of short story readings by actors called Listen Here – they do a wonderful job choosing and reading the stories. Attendance is free, the stories are priceless. In one of these sessions, Steve Scarpa’s reading of “For Esme” brought the emotions of the story to the forefront – I can say without any trace of sarcasm that ‘I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats’... If you have the chance to attend a reading, possibly in the fall cycle, I highly suggest it.

So… any stories about Salinger and his works? Where were you when you first read Catcher? Any favorites other than Catcher?