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
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.
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
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:
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
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