It’s interesting how one’s tastes in reading (and other things) change over time.
When I was in my twenties and thirties one of my favorite books was Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins. I can’t tell you how many times I read it. It was a favorite of many of my generation. But when I tried to get interested in books that Robbins wrote in later decades I simply couldn’t become engaged. If fact, when I downloaded a Kindle sample of Another Roadside Attraction a couple of years ago I discovered that I just wasn’t into it.
On the other hand, back in the 1980’s I tried to get going with Gore Vidal’s then-new book Creation. It is a novel narrated by a fictional grandson of Zoroaster, and is presented as a rebuttal to the Histories of Herodotus from a Persian perspective. I remember having a hardcover copy and trying to read it on my first honeymoon. Yes, I know you’re supposed to have other things on your mind on a honeymoon, but it was a Hawaii cruise, it was raining, and my first wife would take afternoon naps. So I was out there on an enclosed deck reading Vidal. I just couldn’t get excited about it.
Recently, however, I had been reading some nonfiction and I wanted a change. I downloaded the Kindle sample of Creation and found the book quite book quite interesting. It turns out that this is an expanded version published in 2002. It seems that an overzealous editor underestimated the interest of the average Vidal reader (or perhaps the average fiction reader) in the details of life and ritual in the ancient world, and cut a good deal of what he considered to be minutia. That’s all restored in the 2002 edition.
I’m currently reading and enjoying the book and not getting bogged down in anything that looks like minutia. (Fun fact (at least I assume it’s a fact): A eunuch who is castrated after achieving sexual maturity can still have an erection. Therefore the ladies of the harem, many of whom probably did not have a great deal of fondness for their husbands (who had most likely been chosen for them), and in fact most likely rarely even saw them, were perfectly happy to have the attention of the better-looking eunuchs, who were, after all, there to look after them. And besides, sexual faithfulness was not the issue. What was really at stake was that any children born to the wife were actually the king’s offspring. But I digress.)
So yes, our tastes do change over the decades.
Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America
Da Capo Press (November 6, 2018), 297 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Hardcover $15.43
If you are interested in the history of folk music in America this is fascinating reading.
The Weavers were a highly influential folk group in after World War II and throughout much of the 1950’s. The book discusses the background of each member of the group and how their paths led them to form the Weavers. A large portion of the book discusses the group’s struggle with the blacklist. It was interesting to learn that blacklist pressure came not only from the House Un-American Activities Committee but from private organizations intent on rooting out people they suspected to be Communists or Communist sympathizers.
The author describes how the driving force behind the Weavers, the great Pete Seeger, left the group when the group consented to do a commercial jingle, which, ironically, never aired. Jarnow even describes the collaboration of the only female in the group, Ronnie Gilbert, with the next-generation activist singer Holly Near. In fact it was on Holly’s CDs that I first became familiar with Gilbert.
If the era and the subject matter interest you this book is well worth your time.
The book Silences was originally published in 1978. This edition is a 2003 reprint with a long introduction that page homage to Tillie Olsen and gives her credit for broadening the scope of reading lists in college curriculum.
The book is a strange hodgepodge conglomeration. The first two pieces are reconstructions of talks Olsen gave in which she calls out the marginalization of women authors and writers of color. Points very well and clearly made.
This is followed by Olsen’s very long afterword to the 1972 reprint of the nineteenth century expose, Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis, a marginalized writer writing about marginalized men and women and their horrific working conditions.
The book then includes excerpts from a variety of authors, many of whom were not at all marginalized. Olsen also writes about the poor pay authors receive and the lack of recognition given women writers.
This is a book of the 1970’s. I was in the book business in those days and when Olsen writes that most publishing houses “are now owned by” conglomerate corporations I can only think that is nothing at all compared to the consolidated state of publishing today.
If nothing else Silences captures one worldview in the 1970’s and for that it is worth preserving.
Why Religion?: A Personal Story
Ecco Books (November 6, 2018), 244 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $12.08
I’ve long known about the work of Elaine Pagels and have read some of her books. This book is her autobiography with a few summaries of her work thrown in.
Much of her life and work has been informed by loss. Her son died at age ten as a result of a heart defect that he was born with. Her husband later died in a terrible hiking accident, leaving Elaine to raise two adopted children.
I have always been impressed by Pagels and her work in the area of Gnosticism. She is a capable scholar who knows her field well. The fact that she soldiered on in spite of all the tragedy in her life impresses me all the more.
Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
Clarkson Potter (September 5, 2017), 310 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $11.59
I was intrigued when I first saw the review of this book and I added it to my stack of Kindle samples. I finally got around to reading it.
Waters spends a lot of time talking about her childhood and elementary and high school years, but the book starts to get interesting when she arrives at college. She and her best friend started out at UC Santa Barbara, but they found that school boring and transferred to Berkeley. She fit right in to the counterculture and was there as the free speech movement began.
She took an unauthorized, self-directed junior year abroad in France which had a profound influence on her thinking about food. Back in Berkley she slowly evolved the idea of opening a restaurant, even though she had no training in the culinary profession or in business. She recruited friends who shared her vision and who were skilled in their own fields, though not in the restaurant world. Somehow the passion and drive made it all work and Chez Panisse has been a renowned restaurant since 1971.
The writing is not always engaging, but if you enjoy things culinary you might appreciate this book.
Once again NPR has released its annual Book Concierge. This very cool tool lists the best books of 2018 that have been reviewed or otherwise mentioned on NPR. This is more than simply a best books list, however. It is an interactive tool that allows you to select books by category, mixing and matching in a very fun way.
For example you can select Staff Picks and Eye openings Reads. You can select just Nonfiction or you can select Nonfiction and Identity and Culture. There’s a category for Seriously Great Writing. I keep intending to read a book in that category. Maybe I will yet.
Take a look. Play around. Have fun. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Knopf (September 25, 2018), 304 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $16.25
I somehow managed to snag this title when the Kindle edition was briefly on sale for $2.99
I have known Paulo Coelho’s work for some time. I read his novel By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept quite a few years ago. Terry read his more recent novel, The Alchemist.
This book is something of a departure for Coelho. It is autobiographical, but he tells the story in the third person, referring to himself as Paulo. He writes about his younger days and a bus journey he takes across Europe headed for Nepal. Before he gets deep into that story, however, he describes his unjust abduction and torture by a paramilitary organization in Brazil. That incident informs his encounters with authority throughout the book.
The main narrative begins in Amsterdam where he encounters Karla, who convinces him to join her on a trip on the “magic bus” headed for Nepal. Said magic bus is in fact a rickety school bus filled mostly with young hippie types seeking enlightenment. Interestingly, Coelho describes what he believes to be Karla’s thoughts, even though the book is supposed to be entirely factual.
The book ends before the bus arrives in Nepal because Paulo does not stay on it. But how that comes about and what happens to Paulo and Karla’s relationship I will leave to you to discover when you read the book.