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.

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.

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.

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World coverForgotten Peoples of the Ancient World
Philip Matyszak
read by Michael Page
Tantor Audio, April 13, 2021
print edition published by Thames and Hudson
$14.88 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

This audiobook turned out to be a good choice for listening while I was engaged in other activities: fixing dinner, emptying the dishwasher, doing yard work, etc. That’s because each chapter runs just about ten minutes. The downside to this is that one does not get an in-depth study of the peoples covered, but only a brief vignette.

Author Philip Matyszak divides the book into four sections: The First Civilizations, From Assyria to Alexander, The Coming of Rome, and the Fall of Rome in the West. Within each section he describes the various populations that interacted with the dominant empires. The term “forgotten peoples” is really a misnomer; the book is really about the “minor” civilizations that came into contact with the big powers. After all, Matyszak writes about the Canaanites, the Philistines, and the Samaritans, none of whom are in any way forgotten. He also has a chapter on the Sea Peoples. Anyone who has read about the collapse of Bronze Age societies in the Mediterranean and the Near East is well aware of how closely the Sea Peoples are associated with that mysterious phenomenon.

On the other hand he writes about the Illyrians, the Epirots, the Celtiberians, and the Iceni, to mention just a few. I think I can safely say that these peoples qualify as forgotten. Though the discussion of each civilization is brief, there is a lot of interesting material here. It is sobering, however, to learn about civilizations that simply cease to exist.

The book is skillfully ready by Michael Page. His clipped British accent is ideal for Matyszak’s writing style and makes for pleasant listening.

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World is worthwhile reading (or listening) for anyone interested in ancient history.

Dangerous Religious Ideas

Dangerous Religious Ideas coverDangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Rachel S. Mikva
Beacon Press (November 3, 2020), 262 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon Hardcover $17.47

Beacon Press publishes books that tend to be both intelligent and interesting. The good folks at the Unitarian Universalist Association run the publishing house, and as one who spent several years as a Unitarian, I pay attention when I see a book reviewed that bears the Beacon Press imprint. Thus, it was not surprising that I followed up when I encountered Dangerous Religious Ideas.

The author, who is a rabbi and teaches at Chicago Theological Seminary, takes on the content and interpretation of scripture in the three Abrahamic religions. Mikva writes about the inconsistencies and disputes that surround the interpretation of scripture. She asks, “Why were biblical and Qur’anic texts that seem to support patriarchy prominently deployed, for instance, while those showing women equal in creation, with moral courage and political and spiritual power, were not seen to have equally broad mandates?” She tells us that Clement of Alexandria pointed to the first chapter of Genesis, where man and woman were created at the same time, as an indication that women should be equal in the eyes of the church.

Mikva notes that even within a religion there is not full agreement. She points out that the various Christian divisions (she mentions Roman Catholic, Orthodox Protestant, Orthodox, and Coptic) have canons that differ from each other. I grew up a Methodist but am today an Episcopalian, so I know that Protestant denominations do not accept the Apocrypha as scripture, but the Episcopal Church does. The author tells us that Martin Luther personally disliked the New Testament books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation and put them at the end of his 1522 edition of the Bible.

A long passage on Judaism and the Talmud discusses how the rabbis debated and interpreted the Torah, the first five nooks of the Bible. Mikva states that in the early days of Islam there were nineteen schools of legal opinion, which eventually narrowed down to four.

The author tackles head-on the topic of supersession, the idea that a newer religion replaces an older one. It is something of which both Christians and Muslims are guilty. She suggests that it is not likely to go away any time soon.

Mikva suggests that ultimately scripture can be both good and dangerous at the same time. Perhaps the best we can do is focus on bringing out the good.

A Short History of Humanity

Short History of Humanity coverA Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe
Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe
translated by Caroline Waight
Random House (April 13, 2021), 253 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $16.89

I have been doing a lot of reading and watching video courses about genetics recently. It’s fascinating stuff, and recent discoveries in the field have taught us a lot about our world that we didn’t previously know. Given my interest, this was an excellent book to add to my learning. Johannes Krause is a distinguished DNA researcher in Germany, who has been involved in several key discoveries in genetics. His field is known as archaeogenetics. Thomas Trappe is an accomplished German science writer. And Caroline Waight renders the book into clear, readable English.

The authors tell us that all humans can trace their lineage back to a “mitochondrial Eve” who lived about 160,000 years ago. They say that there is also a “Y-chromosomal Adam” who lived nearly 200,000 years before mitochondrial Eve, so, obviously, “we can say with certainty that they weren’t a couple.”

You are no doubt familiar with the Neanderthals, but there is another early human line discovered more recently: the Denisovans, who lived in Asia. We know about them because we have one bone from one individual, but having sequenced their genome we can tell about their interactions with other lines. DNA analysis tells us they branched off from the Neanderthals. The authors tell us that modern humans had sex with both Neanderthals and Denisovans and that Neanderthals had sex with Denisovans as well.

Krause and Trappe discuss the movements of modern humans around Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The authors also discuss genetic analysis of the source of the plague in Europe during the Middle Ages. It turns out that the plague pathogen was present in Europe as far back as the Stone Age.

It is fascinating to read about how much the science of genetics has added to our knowledge not only of humankind, but of other living organisms as well. And what better source for this material than one of the leading researchers in the field?