Saturday, November 22, 2014

Recent Reading

Like many of you, we are under the weather here.  And so winter begins, one month early.  This is the perfect season to take refuge in a good book.  And I've been fortunate to find that in a few good titles recently. 

First up is Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh.  In this book, the author does for southwestern Pa. coal country what Richard Russo did for upstate N.Y./ New England mill towns in his book Empire Falls.

Located in  Bakerton, Pa. (aka West Carroll) during the 50's & 60's, the author does a very authentic job of capturing those small towns in that time period.  It's an area I'm familiar with.  The story of the Novak family could be one of many families in that place and time.  Men go underground in the mine or off to war while the women are left to sustain themselves and their families.  The family members struggle to adapt to changing economic realities as jobs disappear and education assumes greater importance.

There are a couple  technical glitches. For example she sites a young man with a transistor radio in Washington, D.C. the week of the D-Day invasion in 1944. Transistors weren't developed until 1947 and weren't commercially available in radios until the mid 1950's.  And there is mention of an eye procedure that starts out as radiation treatment in the 1950's (believable) which somehow flips to a laser treatment (not possible for that time period) in the story.  But I attribute those glitches to a poor editor and give high marks to the author for giving us a great family saga.

Next is Moonlight on Linoleum by Terry Helwig.  This is a memoir that I picked up after reading Sue Monk Kid's The Invention of Wings, which I also recommend.  The two authors are friends and Kidd encouraged Helwig to put her story in writing. 

It is a memoir about growing up as the oldest daughter of a young, unstable mother. The story is reminiscent of Jeanette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle, but is much more believable because the writing is less fantastic. At the same time, Helwig uses language and metaphor to communicate the depth and breadth of feelings she experienced at the hand of a mother she loved but could not trust.

I won't go into the details of her story, but it is a story worth reading. And as I reflect on some of the children that moved in and out of my elementary schools in small town in the '60's, I suspect that aspects of her story are more common than many of us would like to believe.

The third book is also nonfiction: Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss  In this brief and beautifully written book Eula Biss explores the meaning and significance of the concepts of inoculation and immunity in the individual and society. Each chapter is written as an essay on various aspects of the topic. It is not presented as technical/scientific information, though there is no paucity of facts in the text. Ten pages of sources and citations at the back of the book are interesting reading by themselves.

Through facts, myths, and metaphor the author points out the importance of  a larger understanding of important concepts.  She explores how we integrate information into our systems of thought, hence the subtitle: "an inoculation".  The result is an attempt to inoculate the reader against quick assumptions based on poorly researched facts and an awareness of the impact of metaphorical language on our impressions, opinions, and ultimately our world view.

One of my favorite quotes in the book is on p. 128 citing George Orwell's observation that thought can corrupt language and language can corrupt thought:
"Stale metaphors reproduce stale thinking. Mixed metaphors confuse. And metaphors flow in two directions - thinking about one thing in terms of another can illuminate or obscure both. If our sense of bodily vulnerability can pollute our politics, then our sense of political powerlessness must inform how we treat our bodies."

Through this book, Ms. Biss effectively demonstrates the value of the study of humanities in a world that is currently dominated by technology and sound bites. Kudos to her.

So that's the book list.  And in case you missed it this week, here's a link to Ursula Le Guin's speech at the National Book Awards:  Ursula Le Guin Steals the Show 

1 comment:

  1. Those are great recommendations - thanks. I wrote them down. Sounds like Immunity should be required reading for those who are evincing unthoughtout sentiments in public these days. The Invention of Wings broke my heart but I will never ever forget it, rather like Mudbound. Important books can be hard to read.


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