Book Corner 2020.54

by Hope Jahren

Just a long litany of all the grim statistics: the population growth, the food waste, the melting ice, the fossil fuels, you name it – want to see statistics about every possible way we’ve messed up, this is the book for you. It really did almost nothing to inspire me. The “How We Got to Climate Change” part of the subtitle led me to expect more of a narrative arc. That, plus the word “Story” in the title, I guess. The second part of the subtitle, “Where to Go from Here”, constitutes only one measly final chapter. I need more hope. (  )

Did you stay home today?  Less than a minute inside Mama Pho. Walked up my hill and ended up helping one of my aged neighbors put a cover over his car. Outdoors but both of us maskless and it make me nervous.

What local business or charity did you support?   Mama Pho

What’s for dinner? Mama Pho… I didn’t love the pad thai as much as last time; time to move onward through the menu.

Book Corner 2020.53

My co-worker/manager/friend gave me this book because it was written by his pastor. It was very Bibley. But I gave it an honest try.

(I don’t get why Christians spend so much time studying the Old Testament. Jesus did away with all that. He replaced it with one commandment: Love Thy Neighbor. It doesn’t require much study.)

In spite of the Biblical talk, I think his main message was Unity, and I can certainly get behind that. The Christian way of phrasing this would be to say we are all members of one Body of Christ. Not much different from the visualization that helps me get along: we are all just One Big Thing. For me, that encompasses the whole biosphere. Literally just One Big Thing. So yes, I got something out of it.

Did you stay home today?  Popped into the front of JCAT to get my pickup. < 10 seconds

What local business or charity did you support?  United Way, JCAT, Phoenix Books – that takes care of yesterday, today, & tomorrow

What’s for dinner? JCAT, I get the Chicken BLT every time. Side salad if it’s a weekday, sweet potato fries only if it’s Saturday. I have very few rules left from WW days, but minimizing fries is one of them.

Book Corner 2020.52

by Virginia Postrel

Virginia Postrel writes here a sweeping overview of all aspects of textile production, something I understand normal people seldom think about.

It’s a unique book in that Postrel barely inserts herself into the story at all – no “My Year of Trying to Learn Spinning, Weaving, and Other Fabricky Things” this. She might begin a chapter or section describing her attendance at some textile-related class, or getting food poisoning in India while researching some dye method, but then poof – it is quickly no longer about her at all. Refreshing!

Not that I wouldn’t want to hear about Postrel. Long ago I enjoyed a book of hers called THE FUTURE & ITS ENEMIES, and I used to read REASON magazine when she was editor. I listened to an interview with her promoting this book a short time ago. She learned to weave & spin, too, as part of her research. She was fun to listen to.

But the book jumps all over. The chapters are: Fiber, Thread, Cloth, Dye, Traders, & Consumers; and within the chapters themselves she also does a lot of jumping. I would have preferred more depth and more narrative arc, somehow.

My favorite chapter was “Dye.” I love this observation: “‘Any weed can be a dye,’ fifteenth-century Florentine dyers used to say. But that’s only if you want yellows, browns, or grays…” Ha! That’s always my complaint about natural dyeing with things you can find in Vermont: all I ever got was yellow.

And her dye class in India: “Rinse and dump, rinse and dump – tub after tub of water gets hurled into the yard. To my drought-trained Angeleno eyes, it seems like a disturbingly thirsty process.” I’ve often thought how different my hobbies might be if I lived out west – the washing and the dyeing of fiber uses tubs full of water. Happily, I live in a place that dumps snow during the winter in ample amounts that I feel perfectly happy pulling all the water I like out of our well all summer long.

It also seemed to me that the book was a bit Eurocentric. I wished there had been an exploration of how they made calico in India – instead, all that’s discussed is how it changed fashions and spurred competing industries in Europe.

There are copious pictures and a beautiful cover. I would recommend jumping around as the interest takes you. (  )

Did you stay home today?  100%

What local business or charity did you support?  None yet – I’d better get on it

What’s for dinner? Pasta, nature’s most perfect food

Book Corner 2020.51

by Anthony Bourdain

This was a re-read for me. My book club is doing it. I have no idea how many people will cotton to it. I forgot how much profanity is in it. It’s a pretty staid group.

Now that Tony Bourdain is dead, I was hyper-alert to the plentiful self-hatred and couple of overt references to suicide. At one point Bourdain considers jumping out his apartment window; and at another, recounts a chef killing himself the night he gets fired. And then there’s all the substance abuse, even more than I remembered; that goes along with mental illness.

But this is supposed to be a FUN read! Shocking tales of what really goes on in restaurant kitchens!

I ate many times at Les Halles, Bourdain’s steak frites place, when it was on John Street steps from my NYC workplace. I always had steak frites. I loved it.

And I loved Tony Bourdain! I watched many episodes of his travel show, Nooooooooo Reservations (he used to draw out the “Nooooo” during the intro). He used to go to exotic places and eat interesting things. He’d show up somewhere, stay up late drinking and eating, sleep in, then get up and don his leather jacket and hit the streets again looking for breakfast. He was a guy even older than me, yet slim, tattooed, and beleathered – OK, I had a thing for him. He dug the Ramones. He was a New Yorker. I bet in one of my parallel lives, I dated him. What am I saying? Plain Janes like me never hook up with guys like that – we just sigh at them from afar, and watch our best friends make out with them.

But that’s all neither here or there… He’s dead now. I couldn’t believe it when I heard – this was 2018 – he had these super-successful TV shows, and a young daughter for Pete’s sake. But after this re-read, yeah, I do believe it. Guy was messed up. RIP. Hope he’s rocking out with Joey Ramone.

Book Corner 2020.50

by John Moe

Depression IS hilarious! Laugh-out-loud funny!

OK it isn’t exactly depression that’s hilarious; it’s John Moe, a Person with Depression. I’ve got laugh-out-loud funny bits bookmarked, but they tend to be scenes that go on for a little while rather than one-liners, so not ideal for quoting.

I’ve also bookmarked more Serious items which are funny in a less ha-ha way and do lend themselves to recording here. John reminisces about the group of friends he hung out with in high school. Each could be classified as the good-looking one, the rebel, the philosopher, but John isn’t sure what role he played. Maybe the funny one, but he isn’t sure. “Depression has solidly imprinted that era as a time when I was worthless, so I honestly don’t know why anyone hung out with me.” I feel the same way about my high school group! I don’t know what role I played! I feel that way about my current friendships as well! What role do I play? I have no idea why anyone hangs out with me.

OK, one laugh-out-loud funny: John has a job where he’s being expected to do the impossible. “It was like being told to build an airplane but with no blueprints and also you’re a cocker spaniel.”

Back to more Serious: John lives near the Mall of America. To people around the world, the MoA is a cartoon, a symbol, etc. To John, it’s a nearby mall that has a lot of things that sometimes he goes to. “For people with depression, suicide is kind of like” that. “It’s a real thing… we know that it’s a real place you can drive to.”

And “Comedian Mike Drucker says he can’t commit suicide because all his friends will just write three paragraphs about themselves on Facebook, and ‘someone’s going to get two hundred Likes off my death.'”

Finally my favorite: Your problems have maps. “You can’t move to Minnesota and get away from all your problems. Or New York or Los Angeles or Rome or Melbourne or Mars. Your problems have maps, and they will find you.” (  )

Book Corner 2020.49

by Corey Robin

A well-researched and thickly detailed yet not overly long book; the whole thesis is perfectly laid out in the introduction, while the rest is just supporting evidence. What do you know about Clarence Thomas? I was with most Americans: the only things they “know about him are that he once was accused of sexual harassment and that he almost never speaks from the bench.” And that he’s a black guy that always voted with the late Scalia. Hence the enigma of the title.

Corey Robin’s well-supported thesis is that Thomas is not a conservative who happens to be black. His conservatism is on the contrary rooted in black radicalism. Thomas grew up in the Black Power movement and read and listened to the speeches of Malcolm X repeatedly throughout his life. His vision is one of black separatism based on the traditional patriarchal values he grew up with, raised by an autocratic grandfather. His grandfather, a self-made black businessman, is also the basis for his vision of a black separatist capitalism and feeds into his jurisprudence on cases of economics, the free market, and decisions like Citizens United, which deemed corporate entities entitled to free speech rights.

It’s a thing to wrap your head around: Thomas is so radical he’s conservative. And yet it’s all out there in plain sight in his writings and his decisions on the Court. The book lays it out in detail. Yet somehow we don’t know this – I didn’t. We don’t see it. We see a black conservative and just kind of think, “Well, these things happen.” Robin’s book begins with a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything & anything except me.” Reading this book is exactly an eye-opening exercise. (  )

Book Corner 2020.48

by Ben Ehrenreich

Disappointing. I don’t even have any good quotes bookmarked. It reads much like somebody’s “notebooks”, and I guess I should have taken the title more literally, but I’d been expecting something a little more coherent. Ehrenreich spends about half the book reporting from Joshua Tree, and the other half from Las Vegas where he is temporarily living due to having earned a fellowship there. The book is best describing the desert; his love for Joshua Tree shines through. Naturally, Las Vegas is described as being like some circle of hell. It’s so miserable to read; I get it, Vegas is crazy horrible, but you’re presumably there for a reason, right? The institution that hired you, your colleagues, surely there is some beauty or bright spot to be found? COULD WE HEAR ABOUT IT? Likewise, the guy seems to have the biggest horror movie scrolling on his phone’s Twitter feed. He’s always putting in asides where he looks at his phone and sees somebody being decapitated or watches the polar ice caps melt before his eyes; and again I wanted to shout, STEP AWAY FROM THE PHONE, DUDE. You don’t HAVE to subscribe to these horrible things. You don’t even have to be on Twitter! Sorry, I am probably missing some deep, dark beauty enveloped in this book, but it obviously didn’t find me. (  )


I can’t wait for this book to come out. I listened to a podcast tonight about it with the author, Virginia Postrel. I’m going to be interested in every single page. I know the author from the days when I used to read Reason magazine and she was the editor. I also read another one of her books, over 20 years ago. I’m very happy that as part of her research she learned how to weave on a hand loom, and took dye classes as well. I loved sitting on the floor listening to her talk about textiles while I sorted my carded fibers.

Book Corner 2020.47

by Mohsin Hamid

I don’t know what to say about this. It wasn’t my kind of book. It went from horrifying to sad. 


Addendum: I was coming down with Headache the night I wrote this and gave it short shrift. I could at least illustrate my commentary with representative quotes.

It started as horrifying: Saeed and Nadia are living in an unnamed nation being taken over by “militants.” Regarding how life can seem to go on in a normal, mundane way even when your nation is collapsing: “[O]ur eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings & middles until the instant when it does.”

[This was particularly depressing to me in light of a piece I read a few weeks ago arguing that we are already living in a failed nation. Lots of aspects of life may seem to be going on as normal, but that’s normal even in a failed nation. The piece was allegedly written by someone from Sri Lanka, where they had a civil war.]

And after the two of them escape, we go from the horror to the sad, as we get to read about the decline of their relationship: “…not unlike a couple that was long and unhappily married, a couple that made out of opportunities for joy, misery.” Ugh.

And: “[O]nce begun such cycles are difficult to break, in fact the opposite, as if each makes the threshold for irritation next time a bit lower, as is the case with certain allergies.” Ugh.

And finally, “…tension ebbing & flowing, & when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be.”

Book Corner 2020.46

by James Meek

A wonderful story and a wonderful read. We follow the journey of a motley group of pilgrims attempting a venture from the Cotswolds, England to Calais, France, in the year 1348. Among our group:

– Lady Bernadine, daughter of Lord of the manor in the small town of Outen Green, who ventures forth to escape an odious arranged marriage and chase down her erstwhile paramour, Laurence Hacket

– Laurance Hacket, who is eventually encountered and added to the group, who turns out to be perhaps not all Bernadine hoped for and dreamed of

– Will Quate, good-looking young labourer, whose bondsman/freeman status is vague, and who journeys to Calais to join the fight against the French as an archer

– Hab, lowly pigboy back in Outen Green, who follows Will because he’s in love with him, and spends most of the book cross-dressed as his “sister” Madlen

– Thomas, Scotsman by birth, now scribe and proctor of a church in Avignon, France, to which he now hopes to return (I wasn’t clear what brought him to England in the first place)

– A band of archers with whom Will has thrown his fate, each one more grotesque and morally questionable than the last

– Cecile, or “Cess”, a Frenchwoman raped and abducted by the archers back during their last round of fighting in France, now a captive of one of them, the one who goes by the name of “Softly”

But I encourage you to Google “1348” and “plague” to see the main character of the story. OK, never mind, I’ll tell you: in 1348, the Black Death arrived in England.

The story is good enough, but what is hypnotic is the writing. Will, Hab/Madlen, and the archers speak an English untouched by any French or Latin. Bernadine’s speech is replete with French flourishes, Thomas’ with Latin. But to the lowly, words we today find mundanely English such as “doubt” or “punish” have them staring with incomprehension, protesting, “Too many French words for me”.

The story’s narration takes place alternately from the perspective of, and in the language of the archer contingent; Thomas; and Bernadine/Laurence. Here’s a random sample of the writing when the archers are the focus:

“The drum beat faster, Mad sang of a freke who went with an elf, and Sweetmouth hopped with two high-born maids who laughed so hard they had to hold each other to keep from falling over.”

And Bernadine:

“‘Had I passed Laurence a message saying I desired him to ravish me of my family and marry me in secret, I’m sure he would have responded.'”

And Thomas (whose passages are all excerpts of missives he is writing to two people back home named Marc & Judith):

“‘What, Judith, is the significance of my indulgent confession that I desired to be desired by you, carnally as well as spiritually?'”

There’s just a taste of how the story goes. I thought the switching between the different voices, which is done frequently, sometimes three times per two pages, was a wonderful device for moving the tale forward, and I delighted each time in hearing the different perspectives. The characters of Bernadine and Madlen were particularly deep; Laurence comical, seeming closest to a modern-day personality; Thomas a bit inscrutable (he’d like that word). I admit I had a little trouble juggling all of the archers’ backstories, real names, and “ekenames” (nicknames). Follow them all through the English countryside, and try not to freak out too much as you watch “the pest” (pestilence) following them as well… (  )