In the High Peaks

Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday! Newish Science Books

By now you've probably figured out that I'm an eclectic reader. You might never have guessed that I'm always looking for cutting-edge science books. Unfortunately, relatively few end up in libraries and bookstores. But yesterday I snatched up some intriguing titles at Crandall Library. How many times can I say thank you, Crandall?

The human brain fascinates me. And this one, The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia--How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science by R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D. (2009), has excited my neurons, that's for sure. Did you know that 85% of brain cells are glia (meaning "glue")? The rest are neurons. For many years, scientists thought glia was mere packing material. Actually, I think it's more likely that scientists knew they didn't have a clue what glia cells did. But today it's recognized that malfunctioning glia play a role in all kinds of brain diseases and disorders. Glia are very important to the encoding of memory, for instance. I'm eager to know more. The older I get, the more precious my memory has become, as faulty as it is, and I want to know everything about it.

I have reservations about The Fatal Strain: On the Trail of Avian Flu and the Coming Pandemic by Alan Sipress (Viking, 2009). Alas, Sipress is neither a scientist nor a science journalist. He's the economics editor at The Washington Post and recently, a foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia. Ordinarily, such author credentials would make me put the book back on the library shelf. But I flipped through it, read a passage here and there, scanned the copious, detailed footnotes, and thought I'd at least see what he put together.

But you know, no book will ever beat the best book thus far written on global epidemiology, The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Took me forever to read it, but it was solid, exciting science. It's my favorite science book of all time. Yes, it was published way back in 1995, but what she wrote then still holds true today. If you like solid science writing, this is it! Scroll all the way down on the Charlie Rose interview link for the best interviews with Garrett.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


It's been a few years since I crossed the Rubicon to read a YA novel. How did I know that Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson would resonate with me? Lia is eighteen and in a desperate struggle for her life. The death of her best friend and former anorexic co-conspirator drives Lia deeper into starvation, confusion, and peril. She trusts no one, not a soul, with the fact that her friend left 33 cellphone messages for her on the night of her death--messages that Lia did not even listen to due to a break-up in their decade of friendship.

Judging by the author's note at the end of the book, Anderson wrote Wintergirls in response to years of pleas from her readers, pediatricians, and teachers to write a book about teenage girls who suffer from eating disorders.

But based on my reading of Wingergirls and my experience recovering (finally) from anorexia as a young adult, I find it nearly impossible to believe that Anderson had no personal experience with the disorder. That's how true this book is. Extraordinary research, I suppose, or the author has closer ties to the problem than she acknowledges. Of course, it shouldn't matter.
Of course not.

I would not recommend that girls or boys ensnared in an eating disorder read this book. It would, in my opinion, be incredibly triggering and would be likely to toss them ever deeper into the thrall of starvation.

I'd suggest Wintergirls for people of all ages, deep into their recovery, reading this book in the supervision of an experienced, rock-solid therapist or counselor. And, of course, for any adult who has struggled and survived adolescent angst.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The German Classic!

I'm not sure how to begin writing about the German writer Hans Fallada, or about his classic novel Every Man Dies Alone, first published in Germany in 1947 and recently republished in the U.S. in 2009 by Melville House, an independent publisher and owner of the book blog Moby Lives.
I'm intense about post-war German literature (1945-) that focuses on the era of the Nazi Regime. And all my conscious life (age 12+) have wondered how people cope with such a devastating, annihilating past and the fact that their society slaughtered millions of people. Adjectives just don't paint the picture, no matter how many I string together.

I search for answers in German literature from every generation since 1945. What is fascinating about Every Man Dies Alone, is that it was written immediately after the war, in the final months of 1946, by a writer whose consciousness, whose entire life, was enmeshed in the struggle to live within a society molded by Nazi horror.

Fallada is not an apologist, not a writer ducking the hard questions about his fellow Germans. He creates a portrait of a people that lived solely by their fears and were convinced of their incapacity to look beyond them.

Not everyone, though. Not Otto and Anna Quangel, a couple in their early 50s. Like Fallada, or Rudolph Ditzen (Fallada's real name), they decide to commit small weekly acts of freedom and treason in the hopes that they will have a frisson of impact on others too afraid to look up from the pavement.

Fallada agonized over the writings he authored at the behest of the Nazi Party in the 1930s. To compensate, he drank wine until he was psychotic, and penned works that were anti-fascist at the core but not overtly recognizable as such. These were his small acts against the Nazis.

Fallada and his family had a chance to escape very, very late in the game, but, after a long walk, he decided he couldn't leave Germany. Perhaps he couldn't walk out on all the suffering he knew was to come, that he couldn't in good conscience allow himself to escape the severe penance to fall upon the German people.

Why should you read this book?

How many novels written by people who were consenting, mature
Germans during World War II do we have? That's why you should read it. Because there aren't any others! I'm nervous about that exclamation point. Maybe there's some obscure work somewhere, but is it in English? Published in the U.S.? I think not. I'm sure not.

Monday, April 26, 2010

IPad, Kindle, Nook or by Crook

An article in the April 26, 2010, The New Yorker has prompted me to write this post. (The magazine does not make it possible for me to provide a link to the article. However, if you visit The New Yorker website, you will find the article by Ken Auletta, "Publish or Perish."

If you've grown weary of hearing how e-book readers affect people's reading habits, then don't bother to scroll down any further. Return at this time tomorrow for thoughts concerning my discovery of the recently "rediscovered" German writer, Hans Fallada.

Okay. A Kindle was purchased for me as a Christmas gift, way back when they first appeared on the market. It didn't arrive until the next February, but that was okay, because I wanted it and waiting was what I had to endure to gain possession of it.

Okay. I like the Kindle, though the first generation is full of problems. After marathon sessions with Amazon techies, they sent me a new Kindle, and it has exactly the same battery problems my first one had. But, hey.

I thought I would like getting NYT bestseller-list hardcovers for $9.99. And I did for a wee bit. Then the economy went West and spending ten bucks for a book seemed ludicrous. I then proceeded to occasionally buy the Kindle equivalent of cheap mass market paperbacks, magazines sometimes, and one or two books a year. And I'm still stuck at that level of involvement.

Why stuck? I want an upgrade but much more. I want color. No more illegible graphics. And I'm sure I'll have to sit out several more generations before I'm satisfied.

In the meantime I'm locked in a swoon over bound books. Hardcovers and paperbacks with imaginative cover art AND high-quality paper. A tight binding is a must, too. I don't mind if they're library books, not a wit, though I still want to buy them, as my previous entries have demonstrated.

Where do you stand these days?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Finds from the Best Bookstore

The Best Bookstore in my universe is Northshire in Manchester, Vermont. It has been my favorite bookshop for well over twenty years and is deserving of more praise than a mere blog can bestow. For one thing, it's huge, has two floors and a cafe, and is housed in a quaint late-Victorian building that was once a hotel. I love the way each room tumbles into the next--with books and book-related ephemera neatly stuffed into every nook and cranny. What's unique, though, is the selection. Books from the biggie publishers all the way down to the smallest of independents. Northshire has loads of backlist titles and the classics from every decade. Choosy bibliophiles become manic within its doors, and I do. Fortunately for the family pocketbook, Northshire is a bit longer than a two hours' drive.

On Wednesday, a beautiful spring day, Nancy and I ventured away from wilderness into the pastoral beauty of Vermont. I spent the most at the bookstore--no one was surprised. Here's the loot: Cold Earth a debut novel by Sarah Moss, published in the US by the independent Counterpoint Press in 2010, and in 2009 by Granta in the UK. It is extremely rare for me to insert a publisher's blurb but this one is compelling and is what inspired me:

A team of six archaeologists from the United States, England, and Scotland assembles at the beginning of the Arctic summer to unearth traces of the lost Viking settlements in Greenland. But as they sink into uneasy domesticity, there is news of an epidemic back home, and their communications with the outside world fall away. Facing a Greenland winter for which they are hopelessly ill-equipped, Nina, Ruth, Catriona, Jim, Ben, and Yianni write final letters home, knowing that their missives may never reach their loved ones. These letters make up the narrative of Cold Earth, with each section of the book composed of one character's first-person perspective in letter form. In this exceptional and haunting debut novel. Moss weaves a rich tapestry of personal narrative, history, love, grief, and naked survival. Cold Earth is both a heart-pounding thriller and a highly sophisticated novel of ideas.
The Times Literary Supplement loved it.

My next "Couldn't Put It Back on the Shelf" title: An Australian novel by Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden, published in 2008.

And my final purchase was a Penguin Classic paperback, with a gorgeous cover, Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I have never read it, though I've read all but one of Charlotte's, even the obscure ones. And of course I read Emily's. Who hasn't? It's time.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Books are Popping Up All Over

What a shock I had today when I went online to my library account. Four 2010 books on hold for me! Way too many. Why do they flood in all at once? I've got Eaarth by Bill McKibben waiting in my hometown library and Solar by Ian McEwan at Crandall Library in Glens Falls. I called Barbara, Susan's assistant, and let go of the new Elizabeth George novel. It maxes out at 550 pages plus, and there's no way I can get to it, considering it's in demand and the book in my hand is a dense 560 pages. I hated to see it slip through my fingers, but I'm relieved it will go to someone with time to read it. I'll catch up with it later.

I'll be doing a thorough blog entry on my current book, Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada in a few days. It's a triumph of post-war German literature (published in 1947 in Germany, 2009 in the UK and US). I feel privileged to be reading it. More to come.

Early this morning I finished a book that did not measure up to my expectations. The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine, though it received an excellent review in the New York Times (How did this piece of mediocrity do it?), was plodding at best. Stereotyped characterizations, humor that often fell flat, a few light moments that didn't satiate my hunger the way Schine's The New Yorkers did. And Schine made her Westport, Connecticut, setting so dull!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Margaret Elphinstone--My First Scottish Author!

I've spent part of the day (and late yesterday) researching Scottish writers for the Scottish Literature Challenge (see yesterday's post), and I've happened upon an author and a book that I simply must read--The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone.

I'll admit it's true that Elphinstone was born in Kent and is by birth and upbringing English. However, and this is a crucial point, she has spent her entire adult life in Scotland and is considered by many, if not most critics, to be a Scottish writer. Aside from that, I can't wait to read The Gathering Night! It's set in the wilderness of Mesolithic Scotland. This title is not available from any library in the upstate New York region (though her other titles are), so here's what I propose to do. The cover is so beautiful that I'm not tempted by the $9.99 Kindle price. I'm splurging on the paperback with my $25 Amazon gift certificate. Yes, it's a pricy paperback at $24.95, but there it is. I want this book in my hands and can't wait to read it.

I'll also confess I was pushed along by a photo of Elphinstone in a canoe (I'm sure they don't use the Native American term in Scotland) and she looked to be a woman I could absolutely relate to! She's a conservationist as well, and that made me feel a kinship immediately.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Modern Scottish Writers?

I investigated the Scottish Literature Challenge, initiated at Wuthering Expectations. I was mystified when I first heard about it at Rebecca Reads. Thank heavens, Katrina, the blogger of Pining for the West, who lives on the east coast of Scotland, directed me to Wuthering Expectations for more information.

Although the challenge requires a read published before 1914, I'm more interested in the work of 20th-century Scottish writers, and, perhaps most interested in Scottish novelists publishing after 1990. This gives me a quest to sink my teeth into. I suspect that I've assumed that many Scottish writers are "British" writers, and I will say, here and now, that...Please let me rephrase this mess. I would like to put forth a theory that modern writers (and, of course, those from earlier eras), who are native Scots have a sensibility or a unique identity or characteristics that are distinct from English writers. I would like to pursue this theme as my own Scottish Literature Challenge. Am I crazy or am I on to something? I will confess that my ancestors came from England, Ireland, and Scotland, in that order proportionally, which may be partially motivating me. In any case, I hope to learn much more than I know now. That should not be a difficult goal.

Ann Cleeves sets her novels in Scotland but is English. I read her Raven Black and, more than the mystery, I luxuriated in the Scottish setting--moody with the kind of rough weather I love.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Saturday Update to Friday Finds

Just wanted you to know that I revised my Friday Finds post to include a fascinating review link for each of the new books discussed. Last evening I was in a race to finish the FF post while cooking dinner and unfortunately the meatloaf won. Anyway, all's up to date now. Enjoy the surf!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Finds!

This is the first time I'm participating in Friday Finds, a compendium of books that have crossed my path this week as books I must read, a phenomenon created by MizB at Should Be Reading.

I phoned Susan, the librarian in our small town of 2300 people, and asked if she planned to order Matterhorn, the brand new, highly acclaimed Vietnam War novel that's now on the NYT bestseller list. She said she'd ordered it, but Baker & Taylor hadn't sent it, which surprised her. But she assured me it should be in soon. You'll find an extraordinary review at Kaboom War Journal, written by an officer serving in Iraq.

I espied the new Elizabeth George novel This Body of Death on Susan's "Not on the shelf yet" New Books Cart today. My greedy fingers reached for it. After all, the novel looked all set to go, but, as these things happen, it can't be borrowed yet because it's not due to be released until April 20th. There are rules! (Not library rules, but publishing policies.) I put myself on the hold list, even though I had misgivings about Careless in Red, George's previous novel. (More on this topic in my post tomorrow or Sunday.)

More new books, More, More! Okay, I'm waiting for Sue Miller's latest, Lake Shore Limited. I've loved most of her fiction, so am eager to read her latest. A brief review is in tomorrow's NYT Book Review.

And last but not least, did you know I'm fascinated by books about the brain? This obsession came about in recent years when I noticed I was losing my mind, so I'm always on the lookout for books that might offer some insight into what the hell is going wrong up there. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Brain by Barbara Strauch. NPR's Fresh Air interviewed Strauch on April 14th, and I can't wait to listen to it online!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Eaarth is On Order!

New book alert! Eaarth:Making a Life on a Tough New Planet is waiting for me. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, is a hero of mine, an environmental visionary who sees far beyond what occupies most scientists. McKibben and his wife, the author Sue Halpern, and family used to live about four miles from where I live. But before I came here in December 2005, he and Halpern moved to Vermont, where they both teach at Middlebury College. Lucky Middlebury! I wish they had taught there when I was there. I stayed only for my freshman year, in 1971-1972, and the school was nothing compared to what it is today. Can you believe my English professor slept with my roommate in our dorm??? But I didn't leave because of that. After a top-notch high school education that had me happily working my butt off, Middlebury was a disappointing walk in the park. When I learned that there was only one female professor, I left. Again, Middlebury has changed. A lot.

How did I come to live in the Adirondacks? One answer. One author. One book. I didn't know it, but I was already ready to leave my city life behind, but this book pushed me into "Get to the Adirondacks Right Now" mode, to do everything possible to preserve wilderness. Wandering Home has been one of the most influential, life-altering reads of my life and the impact of that reading experience continues to affect every day of my life.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ian McEwan & Michiko Kakutani

I simply must confess right here and now that I rarely see eye to eye with Michiko Kakutani, the eminent, and yes, hot, New York Times book critic. I know it's blasphemy to say it, but she has a big problem reviewing the books of fully mature writers.

I couldn't disagree more with her assessment that Ian McEwan "has long had a penchant for creating unsavory, disreputable characters: children who bury their mother in the basement (“The Cement Garden”), a Machiavellian sadist who preys on a pair of middle-class tourists (“The Comfort of Strangers”), a dead woman’s conniving former lovers (“Amsterdam”), an adolescent girl who makes false accusations against a man that will alter his life and the life of her entire family (“Atonement”)."

Sorry. In Atonement, the girl was a bit younger than "adolescent." Absolutely. Did Kakutani read it? She was neither unsavory nor disreputable. She plunged head first into an action that had repercussions she'd never dreamed of, and, when the tragedy played out, she forced herself to pay for it, for decades after, far beyond what the sin was worth. Furthermore, McEwan never wavered from his sympathetic portrayal of her.

Notice that Kakutani does not mention any of McEwan's recent books. Not the surgeon in Saturday, nor the young newlyweds in At Chesil Beach. In the latter novel, McEwan showed a profound understanding of the sexual lives of men and women, and his sympathy for the bride and her asexuality is unparalleled in fiction.

Kakutani's misreading of McEwan's body of work makes me doubt her assessment of his latest novel, Solar. I hope to read it very soon. But I very much doubt I'll be laughing over it as she did. His funniest novel yet? Come on, Kakutani. It may be a satire, but McEwan is a dead serious writer, and the laughs, for what they're worth, are all at gallows.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Who, Me? Take on a Book Challenge?

Everyone knows. The number and variety of book challenges out there can be dizzying. In general, I make an unconscious effort to balance my book selections, which means that I follow only my cravings. These inexplicable urges, which I rarely analyze, usually have a basis in literary nutrition. For example, after digesting several memoirs, I am overcome by a yen for novels, and after many novels by U.S. writers, I move on to European novels, and then I'm drawn to science and nature books, and on it goes.

But I announce here today that I will sign up for one 2010 book challenge; that is, until I sign up for an additional one. I'm choosing The 2010 Pub Challenge. I took a fancy to it because I love pubs and I was hoping that it would give me permission to read in pubs while consuming my favorite alcoholic beverages (merlots and red zins). No such luck.

What amazes me is that even when I learned that the challenge has nothing to do with pubs, bars, or taverns, I still wanted to do it. It's simple. Just read 10 books, fiction or nonfiction, first published in 2010 by midnight December 31st. (For a better description of the rules, please follow the link.) I can definitely do this challenge, and the novel The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine will be my first book, even though I'm only about one-third through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. (See below.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Thank You, Crandall! Guilt-Free Book Shopping

Crandall Public Library, located in the city of Glens Falls, New York, is my favorite book site on Earth. It may be 36 miles from my home, but it's there and I can use it fully. Thank you, Warren County! No good pics online, so I'll take my own and post them soon.

Tuesday I had a scad of boring errands to do in the area (it's the shopping destination for my wilderness region), and, hallelujah, I had the time to spend nearly an hour at Crandall seeking the books I want and need to read.

I came home with an arm-breaking load jammed in a gigantic canvas boat bag, and I was supremely happy. Such wealth! I found two Swedish travel guides to assist me in my sensual appreciation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. And I found so many more books that I've been dying to read. Pure Luck! Some library trips are like that.

I'll give you one teaser of a book I know I'll be zooming through, and, of course, you'll be hearing about it in the next week or so. Before I do that, I will say I've been able to borrow and tape all of the new re-digitized recordings of the Beatles' albums that were released late in 2009. On hold for me was A Hard Day's Night. And my time on the treadmill will never be the same again. Pure Genius! One by one, I've made tapes of all of the remastered albums, and the recordings have come out beautifully.

Books! The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine. Must read this quickly because it's in demand, having just been published. I own The New Yorkers, and I have to say, the tone--the voice--is exquisite in both novels. They're as funny as hell, with a dribble of sarcasm laced over the humor, and they're surprisingly relaxing, allowing the reader to stand removed from the frenetic action and, well, giggle a little. Just sit back, forget yourself, and enjoy. But, I want to emphasize, Schine is far from brainless. So do not check your brain at the door to your reading room!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Need More Book Time!

I've had this perennial problem. Actually, it started the year before I got married, when I moved in with Ken in 1985. Ken loves to watch dramatic television in the evenings. And he loves to have me right there watching with him. Sophie, our golden retriever, lies between us on the sofa. I usually watch one or two shows per evening, shows I like that we've taped, but how I wish that I could block out the tv's distracting noise and read. But I can't. I've tried--I've tried over and over, but I can't focus. I can, if I'm lucky, get the gist of a chapter, but I can't capture all the atmospheric details or the nuances of dialogue. I beg you, if you've ever faced a similar dilemma, how have you handled it? I'm open to all suggestions.

In rereading the first 50-75 pages of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I'd forgotten that there's some fairly dense financial details the reader has to grab onto before proceeding with the juiciness of the plot. I believe I'm past that now, and Holmkvist (sorry, sp.) is headed toward Hedestad, which, I recall, makes for fun reading. So I think I'm out of the woods. In this reading, I want to experience Sweden. I need to google the locations in Stockholm that Larsson writes about, and the various vacation locales that keep popping up. I want to immerse myself in Sweden while reading this book. More on this very soon.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Wasted--But Books Revive Me

You know what it's like--you put in a hellish week of work for a worthy cause, a noble cause, and then you attend the all-day meeting on a Saturday, when you're on the edge of your seat every minute promoting your cause, and then it's over, and you come home wasted, beat to a pulp, but it was worth it. You desperately need to get away from that work and drain every brain cell that was involved.

I Need a Book.

So where am I with Books?

I just started reading a book everyone has read by now. I wonder why I bother reporting that I'm finally reading Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsen. I own it in mass-market paperback and, line by line, I'm finding the text body is too narrow. The lines run right into the margin, right into the spine! They get lost in there while I pry the spine apart. Very disappointing, especially considering Ken wants to read it when I'm done. Pages will be falling out by then, I'm sure.

I have friends who insist they overwhelmingly prefer reading paperbacks, and are pleased when the book is published in a mass-market format. "A hardcover book is just too heavy on my lap," Cindy told me last night. "I like to be able to hold the book in one hand while I'm cooking, while I'm sitting on the deck, when I'm in bed."

I was flabberghasted. I adore hardcovers. I love gazing at the "original" dustcover, running my fingers over the high-quality paper, sitting with the weight on my lap. But they do take up more shelf space, yet they endure decades of decay much better. So I vote for hardcovers. And from the library, I'll only touch hardcovers, with few exceptions.