NPR Book Concierge 2021

When I’m looking for my next book to read and it’s getting toward midyear I forget about the NPR Book Concierge. This is a mistake.

The NPR Book Concierge is a cool tool that helps you find books that suit your particular interests and tastes. NPR started it several years ago when the radio network was looking for a way to make its best books of the year list more useful. The editorial staff turned to the engineering staff and those engineers came up with a slick application that is easy and fun to use. The 2021 edition is now available.

NPR editors apply tags to each book that an NPR staffer or contributor reviews during the year. This all goes on to the NPR web site and you can then mix, match, and sort to your heart’s content. For example, you can pick on Staff Picks and Historical Fiction. Or you could sort on Nonfiction and For Music Lovers. Maybe you want to sort on Book Club Ideas and Biography & Memoir. You get the idea. One of my favorite categories is Seriously Great Writing. I love using that category in a variety of combinations.

I have written about the Book Concierge more than once before, but this is such a marvelous tool (OK, toy) for the reader of books that I think it’s worth mentioning when NPR releases the latest version. If you haven’t looked at it before, check it out; it’s a lot of fun.

NPR Book Concierge


Synchronicity coverSynchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect
Paul Halpern
Basic Books (August 18, 2020), 247 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $26.99

This book was not what I expected.

I have been interested in the phenomenon of synchronicity since the mid-1970s and have experienced it in my own life more than once. I’m interested in reading new material on the subject, hence this title caught my attention since I had just finished listening to the audiobook version of Paul Halpern’s Flashes of Creation, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But I’m not sure what Halpern was trying to accomplish here.

He discusses the debate over the speed of light, and the argument over whether it was fixed or variable. He recounts how Einstein’s special theory of relativity put an end to that debate: it is fixed. Halpern then provides an overview of the emergence of quantum mechanics, and how Einstein could never embrace the theory.

The author describes how quantum entanglement was discovered, which states that two subatomic particles can be at a great distance from each other, but the state of one can affect the state of the other. He delves into the work of Wolfgang Pauli, who was interested in this phenomenon. But the work of Carl Jung and his investigations into synchronicity fascinated Pauli as well. The two worked together and Pauli shared his dreams with Jung, which Jung published without revealing the subject’s identity.

Halpern spends a good portion of the book discussing the collaboration between Halpern and Jung but dismisses Jung’s understanding of synchronicity as anecdotal and not verifiable. The author, however, gives grudging credit to the work the two did together: “Though Pauli and Jung’s dialogue was not purely scientific, they did identify a significant dichotomy in nature: the distinction between causal linkages and synchronous connections.”

This book is not the place to go if you want to learn about synchronicity. (Start with Jung’s monograph for that.) Nor is it the best place to learn about quantum mechanics, although there is nothing wrong with what is here. There are many other excellent books on quantum mechanics. (Click the Books link in the Categories map on your right to find several.) If you want to read the best work of Paul Halpern go straight to Flashes of Creation.

Orwell’s Roses

Orwell's Roses coverOrwell’s Roses
Rebecca Solnit
Viking (October 19, 2021), 320 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.35

When I saw this book reviewed I immediately knew that I had to read it. I had three reasons.

  • George Orwell. I have long been a student of Orwell and his essays. I first learned to appreciate his essays when I was a senior at Pitzer College in 1975, and my first year out of college I bought everything of Orwell’s that was in print, including the Collected Essays. I still have those books.
  • Rebecca Solnit. I read her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence in 2020 when it was first released. I admire her sharped-edged feminism and her love of San Francisco.
  • My maternal grandfather was in the wholesale nursery business. He was a partner in Hemet Wholesale Nursery and sales manager for Howard Rose Company. I grew up around roses. The Four Seasons community where we live was built on land that once nurtured Howard Rose Company roses.

Solnit opens the book by describing a visit she made to a small house where Eric Blair, who took on the pen name George Orwell early in his writing career, once lived and planted roses, something he described in his diary. She explains she was supposed to be at home recuperating from a serious illness, but a book contract imposed a severe financial penalty if she failed to complete a book tour in the United Kingdom. She persevered rather than accept the monetary penalty and decided that since she was in England she would visit the house where Orwell planted the roses.

Orwell was always something of an outsider. He went to boarding school on scholarship, something he described in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” (There was, in fact, very little joy in that experience.) He then won a scholarship to the elite prep school Eaton. Solnit states he acquired “an accent that marked him as an outsider among the poor without making him an insider among the rich.”

The author covers a lot of territory. She discusses how Orwell wrote a lot about nature in many of his books, much more than we give him credit for. She recounts his time serving as a volunteer on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, where he took a bullet through his neck that was nearly fatal. Solnit emphasizes Orwell’s poor health throughout his life, starting with a lung ailment as a child and ending with the tuberculosis that took his life. And we hear about Orwell’s decision near the end of his life to live away from civilization on an island off the coast of Scotland.

It is not just Orwell’s life that Solnit documents. She spends a chapter discussing Stalin’s politicization of science. Solnit delves into the phrase “bread and roses,” once used by social progressives and notes at least three different people were credited with the phrase. In another chapter she talks about the various breeds and varieties of roses. Solnit takes us on a visit to Columbia, the country which provides the vast majority of roses sold in Ameri can supermarkets. She documents the long hours and poor working conditions of the people who labor there.

Speaking of labor, Solnit points out that the revolutionary artist Diego Rivera painted a mural for Henry Ford’s son. She wondered why an avowed communist would paint a mural for one of America’s most successful capitalists, but then she reflects:

quoteGazing upon the walls filled with images of auto assembly lines and workers dwarfed by machinery, I realized that capitalists and communists of the era shared a devotion to mechanization and to industrialization as phenomena that would allow human beings to transcend the limits of nature. Looking back it seems like hubris and dangerous delusion.

One cannot, of course, forget about Orwell’s ongoing interest in language and its use. Language plays a key role in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and is the focus of his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Solnit writes:

quote“Politics and the English Language” addresses language that is too loose, blurring, evading, meandering, avoiding. Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts language when it is too tight, too restrictive in vocabulary and connotation, when some words have been murdered and others severed from too many of their associations.

Orwell made a point of exposing injustice when he saw it, but Solnit does not give him a pass for failing to notice sexism when it occurred. She notes he was better at seeing racism. Despite her honesty in observing Orwell’s shortcomings, Orwell the writer is a beacon for Solnit. She refers to a “cluster of sentences that has long served me as a credo.” Those sentences end with Orwell’s words, “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”

Solnit’s writing is clear and vivid. She takes us on a journey in which she not only offers little known details about the life of George Orwell but teaches us about a range of other topics as well.

Orwell books

To Show and to Tell

To Show and To Tell coverTo Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
Phillip Lopate
Free Press (February 12, 2013), 242 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $10.39

I have been reading and writing essays since my days at Pitzer College in the 1970s. I believe it was the second semester of my senior year that I took a course in composition and fell in love with the form. In particular, I admired the essays of George Orwell, so much so that I bought the complete set of Orwell’s Collected Essays not long after graduation. (Along with everything else of Orwell’s that was in print, but we’re talking about nonfiction and essays here.)

Phillip Lopate is a professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches nonfiction writing, and has been director of Columbia’s nonfiction program. In the present volume he has a lot to say about the writing of nonfiction in general, and the essay in particular. Lopate states that “some of our best recent writers were arguably better at nonfiction than fiction.” I believe that to be true of Orwell, whom he lists, but he also includes Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion in this category.

Lopate holds up the Frenchman Montaigne as the originator and the gold standard of the personal essay, an assessment that I’ve encountered before. In fact, I once bought a Kindle edition of one of Montaigne’s essay collections and found it practically unreadable. I have to allow that it may have been the translation, however. And in any case Lopate offers many other examples of skilled essayists, including Virginia Woolf, Loren Eiseley, and Edmund Wilson.

The author writes about the idea of obsession, and how that is a useful tool for fiction. But he says that “we nonfiction writers don’t need it.” He asks rhetorically, “Then what is needed to generate nonfiction?” His answer: curiosity. Lopate states:

quoteThe challenge faced by the nonfiction writer is to take something that actually happened, to herself or to others, and try to render it as honestly and compellingly as possible.

Lopate has given me a list of authors to add to my reading list. He says that the best writer of the nature essay is Edward Hoagland. I haven’t read him. He offers excerpts from the essays of James Baldwin. Magnificent writing I’ll have to pursue. He states that the best travel writers are Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Bruce Chatwin, and Kate Simon. I have only read Chatwin. (And how could he omit Paul Theroux?)

The book’s title comes from the overworked axiom constantly thrown at writers: “Show, don’t tell.” Lopate writes, “I would argue that literary nonfiction is surely the one arena in which it is permissible to ‘tell.’” Lopate does both superbly. It wasn’t until I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the book that I discovered it is a compilation of essays published elsewhere. The book flows beautifully as a single, cohesive work.

To Show and to Tell motivates me to keep reading and keep writing.

that was the week that was

In this time of pandemic most weeks pass uneventfully with grocery store trips, daily routines, and Grubhub delivery. Some weeks, however, get jammed.

Toyota headlightI had been putting off getting an oil change and tire rotation for my Corolla because of the pandemic, but a week ago on Thursday I noticed that my driver-side daytime running light (and associated headlight) had gone out. Not surprising, since my car is seventeen years old. But fixing that would have to wait until the next week, since Terry was headed up to Tehachapi to see our incarcerated nephew, so she wouldn’t be around to pick me up at the shop.

We had our COVID boosters scheduled for Tuesday, so I thought I could take my car in on Monday, but on Monday morning my digestive system insisted that I stay close to the bathroom.

Tuesday we went for our booster shots and decided to take care of our household hazardous waste (HHW) disposal the same day (that being batteries and fluorescent bulbs). Our COVID boosters were at the Moreno Valley Mall (about forty minutes from here) where Kaiser had set up shop in a space once occupied by a department store. There were lots of patients and lots of nurses administering vaccines. When I checked in the nurse asked me if I wanted to get my flu shot as well. I agreed. After all I was there and it would save me another trip. Terry had received hers previously when she was at a Kaiser facility for another matter. After we received our vaccinations and waited the requisite fifteen minutes we had planned to head to the Round Table Pizza in Moreno Valley, the closest location to us. After all, I hadn’t had a Guinevere’s Garden pizza in over six years: not since we left Gilroy. But we were both in a “need food now” low blood sugar state of being, so we got pizza slices at the food court instead. Oh, well.

We then then headed off on our HHW mission. Apple Maps flaked out on us, but Google Maps eventually got us to our destination. There we had to wait in line with everyone else using the disposal site, provide identification, and sign in. We eventually made it to the location on the site where we could drop off our HHW.

vaccine cardWe had decided that since we were going to be out of the house for so long it would be a good time to bug bomb. So there was all that to clean up after we got home. At that point we were both tired and decided the simplest solution for dinner was for takeout from the Bistro in the Lodge here at Four Seasons. That worked.

I thought I could take my car in on Wednesday, but that day Terry was experiencing side effects from the booster and was too wiped out to pick me up at the tire shop where we get our routine maintenance done. If fact, I was a bit woozy myself that morning. So on Thursday. I took my car in. Terry picked me up and we made an overdue run to Winco, our discount grocery store where you bag your own groceries. My car was eventually ready and I picked it up.

Friday I did my shopping at Smart & Final and at Stater Bros., our mainstream grocery store with a full-service meat department, something that I normally do on Thursdays.

Everything handled, finally. But it was a productive week, and the week ahead should be quieter.

Flashes of Creation

Flashes of Creation coverFlashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate
Paul Halpern
read by David Stifel
Basic Books, August 17, 2021
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

In this highly listenable volume Paul Halpern traces the history of cosmology in the twentieth century through two of its most famous researchers and popularizers: George Gamow and Fred Hoyle.

The two men were alike in many ways and different in others. Gamow was one of the developers of the big bang theory of the universe while Hoyle advocated a steady-state hypothesis. Both were capable researchers and both were popularizers of astronomy and cosmology. Gamow appeared on television in the United States and wrote a “Mr. Tompkins” series of books: a sort of “for Dummies” set long before that line existed. Hoyle did radio programs in the United Kingdom and wrote novels. Gamow loved riding motorcycles and Hoyle was a hiker and mountaineer.

Along the way Halpern writes about many others involved in twentieth century cosmology. He discusses Edwin Hubble and his discovery that the universe is expanding. He gives plenty of attention to Einstein, who leaned toward a steady-state universe until he met with Hubble and learned of his findings. Halpern recounts how Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. This discovery essentially confirmed the big bang theory of the creation of the universe and discredited Hoyle’s steady-state theory. Stephen Hawking appears in the book, and we learn that, ironically, early in his career he had applied to work with Hoyle but was turned down.

Halpern discusses the B2FH team: Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler, and Hoyle. The Burbidges were a husband-and-wife team who wanted to work in the United States as it was impossible for Margaret as a woman to get telescope time in England. The team, though steady-state proponents, did some highly credible work regarding the formation of the elements in stars. Sadly, Hoyle could not accept the rejection of his steady state theory and kept coming up with more and more bizarre permutations of steady-state as evidence for the big bang increased.

I read a lot of astronomy and cosmology when I was in elementary school. I no doubt read about the big bang theory, but I specifically remember reading some of Fred Hoyle’s work and his discussion of the steady state theory. I know I read one of his novels. It was in that context that I found this joint biography engaging.

David Stifel capably reads Flashes of Creation and wisely avoids too much vocal inflection when voicing the words of the individuals the book discusses. Listening to this audiobook was time well spent for me.

Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life

Beg Borrow Steal coverBeg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life
Michael Greenberg
Other Press (September 8, 2009), 242 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $10.75

I am always interested in books on the writing life, so this title caught my interest when I came across it.

Beg, Borrow, Steal is not a memoir. Rather, it is a collection of essays that first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement between June 2003 and April 2009. So while I learned a lot about Greenberg, some details of his life were unclear.

The author tells us he was the grandson of a European Jewish immigrant who put together a living in the United States by starting a scrap metal business. He passed that business to Greenberg’s father. Greenberg’s father wanted him to join the business along with his two older brothers, but Greenberg declined. His father later told him that it was just as well, as he wouldn’t have been successful anyway.

Greenberg writes about having a variety of jobs to support his writing. He drove a cab, and he worked as a Spanish-English translator in a New York court. We never learn how he learned Spanish, however. He spent his elementary school years in an Orthodox Jewish day school, and he writes nothing about having Spanish-speaking friends growing up.

We learn that he married his high school sweetheart, the daughter of parents whose politics were on the far left. They had at least one child, a son, before they ultimately divorced. He married at least one more time, maybe more. That’s not clear. He had at least one daughter and at least one more son. In one essay he comments that his youngest son was twenty-five years younger than his oldest. (Did I read that right?)

Greenberg is candid about his anxiety as a writer. He notes:

quoteFirst, there is the writer’s stock exchange, Amazon. It’s not clear whether it’s a wish for encouragement or self-torment that drives me to interrupt what I’m doing several times a day to check the book’s sales ranking. Every hour the ranking is updated, a constantly fluctuating verdict from a vast open market of invisible traders, each pondering his personalized Amazon screen before clicking the “Add to Cart” option, passing over my book in favor of another.

I didn’t get any profound insights into the craft of writing from the book, but Greenberg is honest in his self-portrayal, and I enjoyed his personable, casual style.

re-thinking getaways

When we lived in Gilroy going on a getaway was easy. If we wanted to visit our good friends Emily and Raymond at the (now closed) Goose & Turrets Bed and Breakfast in Montara we would head up Highway 85 to Interstate 280, take Highway 92 to California Highway 1, drive a few miles north and we were there. The drive was less than two hours.

If we wanted to go to another favorite destination, Cambria, we hopped on U.S. 101 and drove south to California Highway 46, headed west, and connected with Highway 1. Then it was only a few minutes to Cambria. It was a manageable three-hour drive.

Here in Hemet it’s not so simple. It’s easy enough to get to the San Diego County coast, but it is more crowded than we would like. We could head to the San Jacinto mountains or the low desert, but those don’t offer the getaways on the water that we love.

CambriaTerry decided that we needed to go back to Cambria. Our favorite motel, the White Water Inn, had gone all upscale on us, completely refurbishing rooms and doubling their rates. So she found us a room at a place called the Fog Catcher Inn. She reserved a partial ocean view room but we got a full ocean view room instead. That was marvelous. It was also halfway between our two favorite restaurants, Moonstone Bar and Grill and the incredible Sea Chest, both in walking distance.

But to get to Cambria from Hemet we have to go through the Los Angeles basin. There is simply no way around it. The drive to Cambria was six-and-a-half hours. We had a wonderful time and being at the ocean is always reinvigorating and healing, but we ate too much rich food and both our digestive systems made that clear to us. We just can’t eat rich food in the way we once could.

The drive home took seven-and-quarter hours. We made more stops and longer stops than on the drive north. My first thought when we arrived at home was the same as it was when we would get home to Gilroy after a trip down here to Southern California, braving that infamous, unforgiving Interstate 5: “Oh, Aunty Em, I’m so glad to be home and I’m never going to go away again!”

After catching our breath upon our arrival here Terry said that we need to find getaways closer to home.

She’s right. We do.

The Heroine with 1001 Faces

Heroine with 1001 Faces coverThe Heroine with 1001 Faces
by Maria Tatar
Liveright (September 14, 2021), 361 pages
Kindle edition $14.16, Amazon hardcover $25.49

Maria Tatar is not a big fan of Joseph Campbell. As the title suggests, the current volume is a response to Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. In an interview Tatar stated the book was not a refutation of Campbell’s work, but an extension of it. Reading the book does not bear that out. She is unhappy with Campbell, and rightly so. Tatar states, “Campbell’s confidence about what it takes to be a hero is daunting, matched only by his conviction that women have no place in his pantheon of heroes.”

Tatar covers more than a millennium of material in her discussion of how mythology, folklore, and writing across the centuries portrayed women in relation to the hero’s journey (to use Campbell’s term). She discusses fairy tales and recounts some of the highly brutal stories that were originally part of the collections of the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and others, but which vanished as editors began to compile books of fairy tales for children. She writes about how writers and storytellers portrayed women as being responsible for the ills of the world, whether it be Pandora or Eve. Tatar discusses folklore which sent the message that it was a bad thing for women to be curious, while at the same time the stories portrayed intelligent, strong women as responsible for revenge against the men who perpetuated violence against women.

There is a long history of women engaged in successful quests, Campbell notwithstanding. Tatar writes about Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew. She discusses Wonder Woman, both as a comic book that emerged during World War II and in the form of the recent movies. Tatar has high praise for the recent trend of female authors retelling the stories of the Trojan War. She very much likes both Madeline Miller’s Circe and Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships. I have read both and agree that the authors craft these stories well and that they are engaging novels focused on women.

Joseph Campbell has fallen into disfavor. As popular as his PBS series with Bill Moyers was, many saw his “follow your bliss” mantra as trite. The facts that came out about his anti-Semitism and other prejudices did not help. Tatar says that she never saw Campbell’s work on any syllabus in her program at Harvard. When I was at Pitzer College in the seventies Campbell did not necessarily appear on course syllabi as required reading, but professors regularly mentioned his work as supplemental reading.

As much as Campbell has contributed to the study of the study of mythology, and he has contributed a lot, Tatar does a great service in calling to our attention to the women he has overlooked or ignored.

haircuts in a time of pandemic

When Terry and I moved to Hemet six years ago (that meant I had returned to Hemet after forty-one years away), I obviously needed to find a new hair stylist. The logical first choice was to find someone at the salon in the lodge here at Four Seasons, which I did. I was happy with the results I got from Stephanie and so followed her to her nearby salon when she stopped working at Four Seasons. When the shop sold Stephanie moved to a salon almost half an hour away. Too far for me. I found a shop on Florida Avenue, Hemet’s main street, and made an appointment with Taylor. I was not happy with the two haircuts I got from him.

new haircutI looked around and found a salon near downtown Hemet run by a woman named Sonja. I stayed with her for a while, but then I got a couple of bad haircuts in a row. About that time the pandemic hit, and Sonja was not taking any precautions in her shop. No masks. Nothing. I decided that the best approach was to cut my own hair with some help from Terry, who took care of the back.

I did that for more than a year. Once we were both vaccinated and protocols were in place for hair salons I decided it was time to venture out. Terry had a stylist in the local Ulta store with whom she was happy, and Ulta was implementing protocols, so I went to see her. Two haircuts. Not happy.

Time to research. I posted to the San Jacinto Valley Facebook page twice asking for recommendations on salons that both did men’s hair and followed COVID protocols. The first time someone responded and asked another person to post information on a particular salon, but that never happened. The second time the only response was someone who recommended Super Cuts near Walmart. Super Cuts? Sharing a parking lot with Walmart? I don’t think so.

So I went to Yelp. There were plenty of salon listings. One reviewer wrote about a shop with a sign saying, “masks not required.” There were several photos of unmasked stylists and clients. Then I saw a small shop with a photo of a properly masked male client. I stopped by and the owner, Sandra, seemed to follow proper protocols. I went there for my haircut this week and she did a nice job. Not ideal, but good enough.

Sandra gave me a hand mirror so I could see the back of my head. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at the back of my head. Seems that I’m losing hair back there. Yikes! What’s with that?

It’s nice to have a decent haircut after so long. Even if I am losing hair on the back of my head.