Book Corner 2021.12

by Matt Haig

“Every life contains millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations. The books are portals to all the lives you could be living.”

Thus the premise of THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY. Nora hovers between life & death, and is given the opportunity to explore the books in the eponymous library, and live bits of some of the other lives she could have lived.

“You do realize there are infinite possibilities here?” says a fellow traveler. “… It’s not about a million or a billion or a trillion universes. It’s about an infinite number of universes. Even with you in them… [T]his is an opportunity and it is rare and we can undo any mistake we made, live any life we want. Any life. Dream big… You can be anything you want to be. Because in one life, you are.”

But the real lesson:

“[M]aybe there are no easy paths. There are just paths… And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people & other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good & bad…

There are patterns to life… Rhythms. It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that could immunise you against sadness. & that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness… But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness forever.” (  )

Book Corner 2021.10

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is a spiritual nature book. I don’t normally do well with nature books; and when this one devoted an entire chapter to lichen, or the different sizes of drops of water depending on their tannic content, I was glazing over. I read it for the Native American spiritual aspect, which offers some beautiful perspectives.

The best one of all came right in the introduction:

“Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world by standing silent in the sun.” Such a beautiful thought! In snow-covered February in particular.

Here is another: what the earth gives to us is a gift, and consider how differently we often feel about an object when we have received it as a gift. Kimmerer tells of a dream where she walked through a vivid Andean outdoor market, and picked up a fresh bunch of cilantro. When she went to pay, she was gestured away. It turned out everything in the market was being given away as a gift. She found herself being careful not to take too much; and she found herself wondering what presents she might bring to give to the (non-)vendors the next day. We should view the earth that way.

Then there is the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”. Her ancestral language, Potawatomi, uses “he/she” pronouns for almost everything, certainly all plant and animal life; the “it” pronoun is reserved for things that truly and beyond a doubt have no life, like a piece of plastic. How might we feel differently if we called the trees “he” or “she” instead of “it”? She asked how one would feel if someone referred to her grandmother as “it”. “It is making soup. It has gray hair.” It would be kind of funny, and definitely disrespectful. It certainly makes me feel funny just to think about it. It’s wrong. She feels it is just as wrong to call a tree an “it”! Try thinking about it next time you wander and ponder outdoors. How might we be treating the earth differently if our language called the trees and plants and all growing things “he” or “she”?

The Potawatomi language is also very heavy on verbs. There’s a verb for “to be red.” “To be a hill.” And her favorite, “To be a bay.” Very frustrating to learn! But notice how it animates everything.

It may seem off topic, but things are converging to bring me closer and closer to a vegetarian lifestyle. I ponder her sentence, “I wish I could photosynthesize… doing the work of the world.” Plants do the work of the world. What parasites on them the rest of us are – without plants, we are doomed! What a gift to have so many plants to eat. To eat any higher on the food chain, to eat not the plants but the things that eat the plants… seems very, I don’t know, out of tune and needlessly complicated and far removed from the “work of the world.”

I find myself taking this to heart, the ‘gift economy’ that is the bounty of the earth, the animation of all things, and I find myself nightly thinking back over the day and, silly as it sounds, saying thank you, oats and banana… thank you, apple and grapes… And with 32 days till spring equinox, I long to see the plants return and do the work of the world; I’m sure I will see them with new eyes.

Book Corner 2021.9

by Mark Bittman & David L. Katz MD

This really inspired me to be more vegetable-forward.

Written in the form of Q&A, where the Q comes from a rhetorical person asking leading questions (like, “Huh?”), and the A from co-authors Mark Bittman, of cookbook fame, and David Katz MD. But they all read like they come from the MD.

The theme is sensible advice about what to eat. Sometimes it got too bogged down in nutritional science for me. And my big quibble… there’s always a big quibble, here it comes:

They make the mistake of lionizing ‘traditional’ ways of eating without addressing the whole grains issue. Traditionally speaking, for as long as humanity has been raising grain crops, we’ve been trying to come up with ways to get the yucky outer hulls off, in order to make flour with just the beautiful creamy white middle of the grain. In Asia they’ve been polishing their rice for hundreds, thousands of years? And I’ve been to Italy three times, to three different regions. I never once saw whole wheat pasta. I can imagine what the natives would say to that (namely, “Fa schifo!” – disgusting).

So yes, encourage consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Just don’t call it Mediterranean and don’t worship the ‘traditional’. The authors are constantly reminding us, after all, that we evolved to like calorie-dense foods; and they give the obvious reasons why (a few too many times). I wish the rhetorical questioner would have asked why we evolved to prefer refined grains, because we obviously did.

And what about tofu, after all? They say there “seems” to be something good about it, and call it “minimally processed.” Seems like a highly processed foodstuff to me. Tofu has such a reputation for being good and healthy, and I have no reason to think it’s not; but it seems to be a big fat exception to the rule of not eating “processed” foods.

Still and all it WAS an inspiring book. I really hope to start eating meals that are more plant-focused, and yes, more whole-grain-focused as well. I am glad to hear them encourage the eating of ‘carbs’ (albeit whole grain ones). Starches have indeed been the Staff of Life since agriculture began! (  )

Book Corner 2021.8

by Allie Brosh

Very difficult to describe Allie Brosh if you’ve never seen her work. Take a look at the cover… that’s her, the star of the show.

I’ll open up to a random-to-me page, the exact middle of the book. It’s a series of panels depicting her and her little sister during memorable childhood moments. No text. Allie’s sister ended up dying by violent suicide, so it’s heavy. That, plus some serious health problems or her own, plus a divorce leaving her living a very reclusive life, plus her basic sad nihilism, form the basis of the (lack of) story.

I feel I’m not doing a very good job of talking it up. It’s an amazing piece of work. (  )

Book Corner 2021.6

by Lauren Wolk

This is a juvenile novel I read for book club. I guess it’s OK, but I don’t feel I can judge. I don’t really like juvenile or YA fiction. I know totally well that it’s for younger people going in, and the whole time; yet when I finish I can’t help but think, “Well, that was pretty juvenile.” It just never has anything to say to me.

Book Corner 2021.5

by Nicole Lapin

Every now and then I cave and buy a shamelessly silly self-help book. It’s just kind of brain candy. Nowadays, I’ve beyond aged-out of their target demographic, so I have to take the advice with more and more grains of salt. I did get a couple of good ideas out of this one, which I’ve already forgotten. (  )

Really, I should be spending my time better.

The unfortunate title brings to mind the best part of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Super-intelligent (and wise-ass) aliens give advice to Woody Allen’s character, who wonders if he should be doing something more meaningful with his life, like “helping blind people” or “becoming a missionary.” Here’s the advice:

“You’re not the missionary type. You’d never last. And incidentally, you’re also not Superman; you’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”

Consider it generic advice when you just feel too tired to contemplate “Becoming Super Woman.” You’re not superwoman. You are what you are. Want to do mankind a service? Do it better.

Book Corner 2021.4

by Erin Zammett Ruddy

Not only practical, but at times inspirational, advice – from how to make your bed and empty the dishwasher to how to get yourself through a tough time to how to set goals.

I was put off at first by the makeup chapters early on, not only because they presume a female reader (no one said this was going to be a chick book) but because of the level of make-up use they assume. “Do your highlighter after you’ve put on the rest of your makeup” – WTF is highlighter?

But there are always going to be chapters here and there that an individual has no use for. For example, not everyone works an office job, or a job at all; and some bits are not so much practical how-to as how-to-motivate-yourself-to. There are people who really don’t empty their dishwasher for days? But then how do you run it again? Whatever. Most of the chapters would be a good read for most anybody.

I loved:
– Send an effective email
– Make your point
– Write a to-do list
– Clean a toilet (I hate to clean, I suck at it – I need all the help I can get)
– Set goals

I’m sorry, I still don’t understand how to fold a fitted sheet. (  )

Book Corner Re-Read Picture Book Edition

by Geraldine

OK, yes, it’s a picture book. But I came across it on my shelf the other day and it made me go “Awwww…. the Goat in the Rug”… and pull it down and re-read it. This book sparks so much joy in me!

It’s told by Geraldine, an angora goat who lives in a place called Window Rock, with her friend Glenmae, who is a Navajo weaver.

If they live among a community of any other people or goats, it’s never mentioned; closest we get is the fact that it is “miles” to the nearest store. It’s just Glenmae, a weaver woman, and her goat.

One day Glenmae takes out some big shears and gives Geraldine a clipping. Geraldine is ticklish, so she “kicks up her heels” a little bit.

Glenmae washes the mohair and then goes out to collect dye plants. Geraldine tags along. Thinking that all the plants being picked represent a delightful picnic just for her, she eats them all. The next day, Glenmae sets out for that store miles away to buy dyestuffs — and leaves Geraldine home.

Glenmae dyes the mohair in reds, browns, and blacks. Geraldine starts to frown a little bit, wondering if having ingested dyeplants is going to turn her all those same colors.

Glenmae spins the mohair into thread, its strength illustrated with a picture of her and Geraldine playing a bit of tug-o-war.

Finally Glenmae sets up her loom and starts to weave a beautiful one-of-a-kind rug. By the time she’s finished, Geraldine’s fleece has grown almost long enough for another rug.

I love to close my eyes and imagine being a weaver woman living all alone in the desert southwest with a pet fiber goat.

There aren’t many Navajo weavers left like Glenmae, the story concludes. “And there’s only one goat like me, Geraldine.”

Much as you remind me of my Beatrice, Geraldine, I believe that there is no other goat quite like you. Every goat I have ever known has been one-of-a-kind.

I hope you can see why I love this book.

Book Corner 2021.1

John Cleese’s memoir of his life up to the moment Python started recording its first show.

It’s a pretty low-key life, as I was expecting. But the Cleesean humor is consistently there. (Fun fact – surname “Cleese” was originally “Cheese.” So in a parallel universe, we are calling it “Cheesey” humor.)

Cleese grew up an only child in the southwest of England and had a loving father and difficult mother. He went to law school at Cambridge, and graduated, with an offer to work at a law firm; but somehow comedy pulled him away. It’s funny to think Cleese was a bona fide lawyer and Graham Chapman an actual doctor, as one watches them act out their ludicrous skits.

The happiest segment of Cleese’s life feels to me like the two years he taught various subjects to 10-year-olds at his alma mater, while waiting for his place at Cambridge to open up. His love for the place is evident… as is the other love that shines through even more, that for his writing partner and brilliant, wonderful, wonderfully “complex” and difficult lifelong friend, Graham Chapman, RIP.

The book came out in 2014 and ends with a (forgotten, by me anyway) Python reunion. Terry Jones was still alive. Cleese gets in some surprisingly sharp yet not-quite-cruel digs at Jones only at the end; and, throughout, makes very cutting remarks about Terry Gilliam – I had not heard of any ill will between the two of them, but by the end I was feeling like it was all a big joke.

The Pythons were amazing. Cleese later won acclaim for FAWLTY TOWERS and FISH CALLED WANDA, but apart from at most two or three episodes of TOWERS, none of this later work lives up to his collaborative Pythonian work. He and Chapman lent the logic that balanced the ludicrosity offered up by the other Pythons. Like the Beatles, they were more than the sum of their parts; and every part was indispensible, perhaps Cleese more than any other. Just try to watch the final season after he’d left the show. It’s like trying to listen to a Ringo Starr album. (  )