Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Unsheltered and Undone: Barbara Kingsolver novels complete, what to read?

Kudos to me: I really know how to drag something out.

I've been worried about running out of Barbara Kingsolver novels since at least 2007. And now, having finished Unsheltered, here I am.

Packing and Unpacking the Human Condition

I'll spare you my in-depth review of Unsheltered, because for one thing, this isn't really a review site.* Also, The Guardian ran two reviews: one very favorable, the other not-so-much. Both sides of the story, so to speak. For what it's worth, I think the AP's review was better than both of those.

But since this is my blog, I'll admit, I didn't fall head over heels for the book. At first.

As poet/author Kate Clanchy noted in her (not-so-favorable) review in The Guardian, the plot was difficult to follow at times. Actually, "plot" seems too strong; there was very little action. But there were two deaths, a birth, a little bit of sex, and a whole lot of backstory. So let's call this a story.

And in the story, I found characters to love. OK, one character: Mary Treat. AND SHE'S REAL! (I love it when that happens. She studied all sorts of plants and insects, and several species of ants are named after her. Um. Did I mention this isn't really a book review site?) Treat's correspondence with Charles Darwin from the "utopian" society of Vineland, NJ could have stood alone. But it actually worked quite nicely as scaffolding for the story, so I read on. Plus, there is Kingsolver's habit of turning out great - GREAT - sentences.

As The Guardian's Benjamin Evans points out in his (favorable) review, "Kingsolver powerfully evokes the eeriness of living through times of social turmoil."


Somehow in 400-odd pages she manages to weave bits of our modern world (Trump, Education, Corruption, Climate Change) into the broader canvas of life (greed, snobbery, love, kindness, evolution, death) and turn it into a story.

Not bad. Except sometimes it feels like a kick in the head. But, being a good writer that doesn't want to alienate her readers, she includes enough hilarious Greek curses to make us laugh. With apologies to anyone who understands, "Putana thalasa pouse gamoun ta psaria." (Something about the whore ocean where all the fish...never mind, it probably loses a lot in translation.)

She also includes some tantalizing prose to keep us reading. To wit, this nugget that encapsulates that oh-so-funny feeling when realize your tiresome, tyrannical father in law was once just as unbelievably hot as your husband -
"She'd kindly offered no judgment on Willa for failing to see the resemblance, the evergreen human crime of denying the past and seeing oneself as an original." 
 So, even though I'm out of Kingsolver fiction, I'll keep reading. I haven't read picked up Animal Vegetable Mineral yet, and I know its time is coming. But what about novels? Who can recommend some great new fiction?

Please tell me what you're reading and what I should check out at the library!

*What do you mean this isn't a book review site?

Funny you should ask. I started this blog about a hundred years ago because I wanted 1- some blogging practice and 2- a way to keep track of what I read, liked, didn't, wanted to read, would recommend to friends, and why. Also, I was hopeful that my reading friends would chime in and add their own seat-of-the-pants reviews. Or blathering diatribes on what they were reading. And here we are. If you'd like to submit a review, or un-review, please, do!

Get in touch via my Facebook Page or website. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983

In the introduction to her first nonfiction book, Barbara Kingsolver writes "One of the most remarkable facts of the Phelps Dodge strike is that it was carried out mainly by women." That's  understatement in action. That fact is one of far too many in this story that are remarkable - and not in a good way.

Mining = Hard Work, Dirty Business

My roots run through coal country. I thought I knew mining. I was so naive.

Published in 1989, the introduction of Holding the Line offers a better overview of organized labor in modern US history than I learned in school. When the story really begins, it pokes some big holes in what we think we know about our society and fellow travelers.

Spoiler alert: strikers were beaten, arrested, harassed, and shot at. So were their families, including young kids. They stayed on strike, lived on nothing, and the company's profits went down - a little bit. The strike eventually ended (the unions were decertified) and world copper prices started to rise again.

There are a lot of ways to tell a story. In my opinion, Kingsolver did a pretty good job with this one, and regardless of your view of organized labor, I highly recommend the book.

Remember - this is nonfiction. It's a hard-to-believe, but true, story.

Company Towns Still Exist 

In 1983 Phelps Dodge ran the most productive copper mine in North America, in Morenci, Arizona. The mining operation, like the ones in Clifton and Ajo, were physically dangerous, discrimination was overt, and the house always won, in part because the houses were owned by Phelps Dodge.

The (only) local clinics were owned by Phelps Dodge. The police were paid by Phelps Dodge. It was a company town. That meant you got the medical care, protection, justice, food, water, education, and everything else that Phelps Dodge wanted you to have.

And what was it like to work there? I think the examples in my history books of dangerous working conditions and company towns were taken right out of The Jungle, written in 1906, but they could have been taken out of Arizona newspapers in the 1980s.

Unions and the Modern Reality of Discrimination 

If you're a middle-or-better-class white person who grew up in a middle-or-better-class (white) neighborhood in the past 50 or 60 years, you probably have a warm fuzzy feeling when you think about the American Dream.

Lucky you. Lucky me. Let's get a grip.

Living the American Dream was, and is, a dirty, damn hard job for people with dark skin who speak a dialect that doesn't necessarily sound like "American English."

Old habits die hard, they say. What they don't say is that some old habits don't die, they have to be killed - and it gets messy, folks. Organized labor has help some unhelpful old habits die. Before you let that upset your apple cart, please consider both sides of the story.

Well into the 1960s, Kingsolver writes, Anglo and Mexican American men still changed in separate facilities. The company housing for Mexican workers was inferior. The Mexican workers were citizens and employees as much as the Anglos. In Morenci, the Steelworkers Union took on the housing issue in 1967. They were joined by other unions, and some of them brought only whites to the committee meetings. Why? Kingsolver quotes a union rep who was there: "The UTU guys were all Anglos - P.D. didn't let Mexicans on the trains at that time."

To be clear, Phelps-Dodge Corporation was not the only company that actively practiced discrimination in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. I'm making another point, however. Why have I never been taught about the role unions have played in our legislative history? I wrote about employment law for a dozen years and never did I stumble across an article about how much our current "equal" opportunity society owes to unions?

This book, ostensibly about women's roles in the strike and how different individuals came to be union supporters, teaches much more than that.

Journalistic Perspective Remains Relevant Today

In the summer of 1983, Kingsolver was supplementing her day job as a scientific writer by angling for freelance assignments. 

A string of queries landed her a contract to cover the Phelps Dodge mine strike for several news publications. The book grew out of that experience, and Kingsolver notes that she grew from the experience, too, both personally and professionally. The journalism profession can't compare to mining, but I'd argue that like mining, it is harder than most people think, and more important to our daily lives and the strength of this country than most of us want to realize. 

I want to emphasize that only a small portion of the introduction is about the writer. The story rightly belongs to the miners and it is focused on them. But the author's aside about journalism struck me as very relevant in 2019. 

While seven or seven hundred witnesses to an event can come away with seven or seven hundred stories, the "myth" of journalism is that all good reporters will come away with essentially the same story. Psychology says otherwise. 

"Journalists, like other mortals, must sift through the thousands of data points in their field of vision and decide which few among them really matter. That these decisions reflect our personalities is not deliberate malpractice, but a symptom of humanity."

One Little Chapter in Modern US History

I dog-eared a lot of pages of reading this one. Holding the Line is still available online, in many libraries, and it is well cited on JSTOR's primary sources site. I highly recommend it for anyone who reads, works, or lives in the 21st century. 

What has become of Phelps Dodge and the mining industry? That's another story, and it is still being written today. The Tucson, AZ visitors bureau encourages vacationers to tour a copper mine near there. I wonder what Anna Ochoa O'Leary would say about that.

Now an associate professor at Arizona University, during the strike, O'Leary was a student and one of the women who served as president of the Morenci Miner's Women's Auxiliary. O'Leary has also written a book that recalls the strike. I suspect she's still watching, very closely, as the stories there continue to unfold. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

Different Playbooks: Then and Now

In Chariot on the Mountain, Jeopardy winner and journalist Jack Ford paints a picture of Kitty Payne, who was a slave and also the daughter of the plantation owner. When the master died, Payne ran away. After being captured, beaten, and returned, instead of further punishing her, the master's owner's widow helped her run away a second time. She also assisted Payne in mounting a precedent-setting legal case in which she was ultimately freed.

Ford does a good job spinning this (fictional) account of actual circumstances leading to the 1946 trial. While some scenes depict very difficult circumstances, the book surely glosses over the pain and depth of hardship both women faced in a country so different from today's United States.

Unfortunately, things haven't changed as much as many (white) people (like me) would like to think.

Jodi Piccoult's Small Great Things tells a different story set in a different time, but it's packed with most of the same problems. I'm not qualified to unpack them, but I can recommend both books.

It's a pretty-well-accepted fact that public school curriculums don't cover a lot of history - and in many cases, one being slavery in the United States and other countries, it's not covered accurately or adequately.

I'm also not qualified to analyze educational curriculums. I think I'm qualified to recommend books, though, in particular, these two. Historical fiction isn't the best way to learn history, but it's not the worst way to start, and starting is a whole lot better than not starting.

About the authors

If you've read many of my reviews, you've probably noticed I prefer books by journalists, doctors and lawyers...not necessarily in that order. Jeopardy winners is a new category for me. Ford's writing, in my opinion, is not entirely up to the story itself. That said, I would read another book by the author if the story appealed to me. Piccoult, the more popular/successful author, is formulaic, but in a good way. That said, having read three of her books, I'm moving on to other authors.

Because both of these books are about race, it's worth noting authors of both books are white, while the main characters are black. In other words, if you read these books, know that they may be a place to start, but understand where you're starting from. And go far from that point, thinking all the way.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

AHA! A Short Guide to a Happy Dog

I've owned dogs for more than 2 decades and even written about them. Turns out I have a lot to learn - and this book helped.

A Short Review of Cesar's Short Guide

Cesar Millan's Short Guide to a Happy Dog begins with a little much-needed psychology. Dogs aren't humans, and that is a short lesson that can take a surprisingly long time to sink in. I've read about pack behavior, sure I thought I understood that, la-la-la... now I'm happy to say Millan's clear and simple writing style taught me more than I ever forgot about how to be the leader of my pack.

Also included are a few not-so-subtle lessons about how to be a better leader and human in general.

This is an easy read that is worth the time for most dog owners who don't have a lot of experience with animal training or pack behavior.

A Deeper Dive - Not Just About Canines, and Not a Training Guide

Good news for readers: Millan understands that this book is for humans, and writes from our perspective. He gently reminds us - repeatedly, because it bears repeating - that humans have quirks. Like our love of language. (Guilty!!) Turns out language really skews our view of the world, and time, and power, and a few other important things.
short guide to happy dog

Dogs, see, are always, constantly focused on what is in front of their noses. They live in the present to an extent that Buddha should emulate.
"I'm not sure whether there is any evolutionary advantage to the human tendency to live in the past, present and future simultaneously, but I'm pretty sure we do it because of our highly developed language skills."
In spite of the fact I said there are some "not so subtle" lessons included about being a better (happier?) human, this book isn't preachy in the least - it simply states important facts as they relate to dog behavior. Because, as it turns out, your behavior has a lot to do with how your dog behaves. See Millan's website for an excerpt from the book.

Now notice I refer to this as a good introduction to dog behavior, but haven't used the word training. That's because I recently started a basic training class for my 6 year old dog (who may or may not learn some new tricks). When I told the instructor I was reading this book, it was clear that she wasn't a fan.

She asked me if I ever noticed how often Millan gets bitten by dogs on his shows Dog Whisperer and Leader of the Pack. (I hadn't; but then again, I never watched his shows.)  Her point was well-made, however. Getting bit repeatedly by more than a few dogs either suggests you are very unlucky, hanging around the wrong dogs, or not exactly a great dog expert.

To be fair, in this book Millan clearly states that he does not have formal training in animal behavior or psychology. He certainly has more experience than I do, though - and I think I learned some good and useful lessons. I have learned at least as much, or more, from just a couple of basic training classes with said instructor - who does have a degree in animal training (and is working on a PhD in psychology).

So, live and learn...and try not to get bit.

Bottom Line 

Recommended. If you want to be leader of your pack, don't let it sit on the shelf for a couple of years like I did. If you want your dog to jump (or sit, or stand, or heel) on your command, look into professional training classes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The President is Missing, But Not For Long

Well, I finished The President is Missing, just shy of deadline.

Our local library offers the most popular new titles as "Lucky Day" books, available for a non-renewable 7 day loan.

Have you read it?

James Patterson Book #1

This was the first of James Patterson's books that I've read. Go figure. 

According to the most reliable source I have (the book jacket) Patterson holds the Guinness World Record for the most #1 NYT best sellers. 

Clearly, I was feeling optimistic on that trip to the library:  in addition to The President is Missing I snagged 5 other books, including Zoo and The Store, also by Patterson. 

Having digested the very engaging but somewhat formulaic Missing, I'm willing to crack open those other two novels, but I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed. Based on Patterson's reputation and obvious success, I'd hoped to find him a suitable replacement for Michael Creighton. Alas, he is not.

James Patterson Book # 2

Stay tuned... and as always, I welcome guest posts on this blog. If you'd like to review your favorite James Patterson book, or argue that he really is equal to or better than Michael Creighton, reach out here in the comments or connect with me through my Dumb Facebook Page devoted to dogs and books and other things I can't live without. 

Here's to Happy Endings! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Two American Tales: Shoe Dog and Americanah

Shoe Dog, A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Phil Knight) and Americanah, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have little in common on the surface of things.

We can assume Shoe Dog is (mostly) non-fiction; Americanah, a work of fiction.

But we know the line is always blurred.


Adichie grew up in Nigeria, and divides her time between the U.S. and her home country; without that background, how could she create main character Ifemelu? Americanah follows Ifemelu though several serious relationships, with other characters, certainly - but Adichie just as carefully develops her relationships with cultures, institutions, and traditions. 

Shoe Dog

Knight's experience in America is wildly different from Adichie's (or Ifemelu's) but to the title's credit, while Shoe Dog documents the-building-of-an-iconic-American-business, it also takes a rather thoughtful look at Asian business practices, world economics, and complicated personal and professional relationships.

Ah, I love reading.

What books have been keeping you awake lately? Please share with your fellow page-turners

Friday, December 22, 2017

Where Did I Leave My Glasses? A Book to Remember

Martha Weinman Lear's lamentations on memory failings - normal memory failings - are somewhat long-winded, but her conversational style is engaging and her book is packed with enough well-researched findings to make it worth the reading time.

Book about Normal Memory LossOn its surface, the 2008 release Where Did I Leave My Glasses? is reassuring. Most of the frustrations we experience are "normal." Nagging questions like,  what's his name, when did I find out about that, and where did I leave my glasses? are to be expected as we age.

Sorry, the truth hurts.

And (spoiler alert!) Lear includes no surefire remedies and frankly, her advice is anything but sexy: There's no magic bullet, not even Ginko biloba, and the best diet advice is this: A heart-healthy diet is also a brain-healthy diet." See? Ho-hum, boring stuff - we know that. (Why most of us eschew the advice is another matter.)

The bottom line: human memory is a strange and wondrous thing. Understanding the difference between procedural, semantic and episodic memory* and realizing most of your "where are my glasses" moments are episodic means you don't have much to worry about. Well, no more than the rest of us do.

Happy reading, whateveryournameis.
_ __ __ _ _ __ __ __ __ _ __
Memory primer

Procedural memory = remembering how to walk

Semantic memory = remembering what walking is

Episodic memory = who was I walking with, and what was her name?