Book Corner 2022.52

by Jennifer Worth

This is categorized as non-fiction/memoir. But I would have enjoyed it more if it had been told in a more true-to-memory fashion, without all the manufactured dialog that makes it feel so “ready for TV serialization”.

I also would have liked just a little more backstory on the writer, the doomed relationship she occasionally alludes to, and how she got into nursing and midwifery. Not a ton of backstory, just a little. For the most part I appreciate her letting her own character recede into the background so often.

There is honesty in her multi-chapter remembrances of befriending an innocent Irish girl led into prostitution – she admits her interest bordered on voyeuristic. And the stealing of said girl’s child to be put up for adoption in a good Catholic home was dealt with in a refreshingly open-eyed manner. The writer is righteously and rightfully indignant, but accepts that the real evil is that there is no other course available.

Somehow the story of the non-English-speaking Spanish lady who prematurely gave birth to her 25th child (yeah, right…) made me feel ticked off. A one-pound baby and she raises it to at least six pounds (we only assume he lived a full life – her story ends when he is six pounds) simply by swaddling him close to her and feeding him colostrum and milk drop by drop. Hell, why do we have NICU’s, after all? What a waste, when it’s so easy! I don’t know why this story out of all the stories in the book annoyed me the most, but I just wanted to smack that woman when she refused to let go of her one-pound baby. I knew he would survive, given the type of book this is and how the story was set up, but I wished the poor infant ill, through no fault of his own.

Book Corner 2022.50

by Bob Dylan

You have to read this book like you would listen to a Bob Dylan song. Don’t study it and wait for brilliance and look for the nuggets of awesomeness, although they will be there. Because doing it that way you will struggle through a lot of, “Is this brilliance or nonsense?” Just let it wash over you.

At first I was puzzled, but I just had to get into the groove. Then I felt like I was listening to “Theme Time Radio Hour”. I could hear his one-of-a-kind voice rambling through it all.

I think my favorite line is, this being a close paraphrase – people always ask the songwriter what the song is about. If we had had more words to explain it, we would have put them in the song.

While I wish for the purposes of this review that I had bookmarked more great one-liners, that would have interfered with my experience.

Book Corner 2022.49

by Hermione Hoby

I feel this book really didn’t work. It’s told in a big foreboding tone, but “what eventually happened” didn’t really come across as believable or well-told.

And it was hard to read an entire story with such an insecure young narrator always doubting himself and never happy. Even when he pops into the present tense, he’s still unhappy. I think his descriptions of the wife and marriage he ended up with are cruel.

I only bookmarked one part, a passage which I guess gives lie to my claim that Luca is never happy. Describing an impossibly beautiful summer, “I felt a kind of benevolence so acute that I sometimes wanted to cry. It felt like all the days came with fat apples in their mouths. It felt like everything was made of poetry.”

Thing is, in the day-to-day passages, he is always self-doubting and never really conveys this happiness which is described above so well in theory. It all just didn’t work for me.

Book Corner 2022.48

by Marsha M. Linehan

This is not a self-help book but a memoir. Marsha Linehan was the developer of a therapy for suicidal patients called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, and was herself a mental patient, institutionalized from ages 18-20 after a sudden breakdown.

She is not a writer. Episodes repeat themselves or hit sudden dead ends. Sadly, electroshock treatment while in the institution wiped out all or nearly all of her memory of her life up to that point, and she relies on others for insights into her childhood. It is hard to make a coherent picture of her in her youth… a popular vivacious “motor-mouthed” girl, but worn down at home by a berating, fault-finding mother.

Through it all she has maintained a strong faith; a devout Catholic through most of her life, now a Zen Master. She has had mystical experiences and seems a very neurologically interesting person.

The snapshots of her life as a pious young girl resonated particularly with me “At one point I decided to sleep without a pillow, as a sacrifice to God.” This was so something I would have done. My own sacrifices veered more towards the giving up of foods. It was always Lent for me. I was skipping desserts every other day, then two out of three days… next thing you know I’m a teenager with an eating disorder. But I digress. She also quits a sorority as a sacrifice, and she feels strangely like she should not write about this particular episode, because at the time she promised God she would never tell anyone this real reason why she quit the sorority. She takes her vows seriously. Indeed, while she recognizes that life in a convent was not her calling, she takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as a kind of “lay nun.”

DBT, the behavioral therapy she developed, is described in detail. But this is not a self-help book. This is a therapy for the most difficult of cases, people who have engaged in self-harm and are a real threat to themselves.

Her life trajectory – personal, professional, and spiritual – was interesting to follow; I like reading almost any life story, and the writing doesn’t have to be great. Here is someone who went through the “hell” of mental illness, and in her words, got herself out determined to help others get out of hell too. She seems to have achieved success and I was happy to see her end in a good place.

Book Corner 2022.46

by Sofi Thanhauser

I want to give 5 stars to the chapter on wool and 3.5 to everything else. The chapter on linen I liked, because I just like hanging out with textiles and talk about old clothes; but as the first chapter, it falsely led me to believe this was going to be one of those non-fiction books that is just one well-researched fact after another. Instead, the next chapter, on cotton, was all about how terrible cotton is and has always been. That’s not my type of book either, but for a different reason. I don’t like just reading about how everything is awful, over and over. The chapter on silk was OK; but then, for synthetics, we get intensive details of various worker strikes earlier last century. I wanted to read a book about textiles, not the history of labor unions.

But then finally, WOOL! It’s interesting Thanhauser ordered her chapters the way she did; one would have expected the ‘primitive’ materials to come first and synthetics last; but I think she put wool last because it was the most positive chapter, where small mills and handcrafters save the day after all that nasty environmental damage and class warfare.

Thanhauser by the Wool chapter has proven herself a super-intelligent, serious researcher; so it was fun to see her discover my tribe of fiber-festival-goers and handspinners. She visits Fingerlakes Woolen Mill in New York, which could stand in for my own friends at Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont or any of hundreds of small-scale mills we all know and love. She visits with people rescuing equipment from the now-defunct American Textile History Museum of Lowell, Mass. And she goes to “Woolfest” in Cockermouth, England. I was seriously planning to go to Woolfest in 2012, before familial hard times hit. It does indeed sound akin to the High Holydays experienced on this side of the pond at the New York Sheep & Wool Festival in Rhinebeck or (shout-out) the Vermont counterpart at Tunbridge. Alas, “I had to admit it [as do I]: Woolfest was a gathering of old women.” So many gray heads I counted while vending at Tunbridge. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Fun fact: the University of Wyoming created a Wool Department in 1907 and for a time was the only university to offer a PhD in wool. Imagine being a Doctor of Wool – I love it!

Book Corner 2022.45

by Michael Pollan

Amazing.

I’m not sure how to begin. Michael Pollan is about my age and a materialist – an atheist, with the perspective that the physical laws of matter should be able to explain everything there is. And yet. Those who go on psychedelic journeys so often have mystical experiences – “the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed,” like they “have been let in on a deep secret of the universe, and they cannot be shaken.” William James wrote, “Dreams cannot stand this test.”

Pollan writes, “The most straightforward …is that it’s simply true: the altered state of consciousness has opened the person up to a truth that the rest of us… simply cannot see.”

Pollan then gives us a pretty long history of the research on psychedelics done in this country in the last century; and details about his experiences, which do qualify as “mystical” (a survey told him so). He trips on three different psychedelic substances: mushrooms, LSD, and “the toad,” literally toad venom. This last is the most amazing and the most difficult for him to put into words. What can definitely be said is that the effects of smoking the distilled venom of this toad kick in before the smoker even has a chance to exhale – you inhale one puff and you are transported to before the Big Bang, before there was any being at all. Pollan remarks on how often people express gratitude for “being alive” – after smoking the toad, he was on his knees with gratitude for there being “being” at all.

This actually was an interesting complement to my recent reading of LOST IN MATH by Sabine Hossenfelder. That was about the fundamental question of why we should ever expect the laws of physics to be “beautiful”, why we are bothered that quantum mechanics doesn’t seem intuitive – why should it be? There would have been no reason for our species to evolve to have a fundamental understanding of quantum mechanics or to have brains that “like” the laws of physics. Why the hubris that we should be able to know and understand everything? Maybe there are things we can’t know.

Not without physical tweaks, that is – in the form of certain pharmaceuticals, mushrooms, or toads – that change our perceptions enough for us to see something beyond what we can usually see.

Maybe there is something “beyond” after all.

The book also has a great section on how psychedelics are slowly finding their way back into medical research, and are showing promise to treat an array of disorders: addiction, depression, end-of-life anxiety. The story of the end days of the cancer patient who turned his mind around with psychedelics almost brought me to tears. The description of how psychedelics can alleviate addictions was enlightening – OK, existential dread being lifted by a mystical experience, that makes a certain kind of sense; but how and why should tripping help you quit smoking? I loved one woman’s explanation: “It put smoking in a whole new context. Smoking seemed very unimportant; it seemed kind of stupid, to be honest.”

We’ve seen such sea changes in the legalization of marijuana, in the acceptance of gay marriage – maybe we’ll live to see psychedelics taken off the list of controlled substances; maybe shrooms will start “popping up” someday in a store near you. This book made me really want to do drugs. Maybe not the toad. But some of the others, for sure.