Read Harder 2016

Have you heard about Bookriot’s Read Harder Challenge?

I thought it would be interesting to see which books I’ve read in these categories, since Ann Patchett just wrote about her own progress in making her way through the list.

I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading, too, so let us know in the comments. Book suggestions are appreciated and welcome, especially for those categories I’ve left blank.

commonwealthBy the way, Ann just released her new novel, Commonwealth. Many of you know she’s one of my favorite novelists, so I’ll be sure to get my hands on it as soon as I can.

True story, when Ann was a girl, one morning she woke up to find kids she didn’t know in the kitchen. Turned out, her mother had gotten remarried, and these were her new half siblings.

Ann has translated some of that strange family experience into a novel that isn’t, literally, a true story, but that I imagine has plenty of emotional truth, as writers of fiction often say about their work.

If you’re looking for other suggestions, check out the New York Public Library’s Read Harder recommendations. See also the reader-generated lists on Goodreads.

If I’ve left the category blank, it means I haven’t read that category and don’t have any particular suggestions. If you do, please let us know.

BOOKRIOT’S READ HARDER CHALLENGE 2016

Read a horror book

Read a nonfiction book about science: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. (I’m reading it now). It has gotten excellent reviews, a memoir about a female scientist. It’s an eye opener, in part about what women in science are (still) up against, but there’s a lot more to this memoir about a woman passionate about plants.

I just borrowed Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson from the library. Nearing the end of his life, Wilson felt compelled to sound the alarm once more. He proposes that we devote half the surface of the earth to nature.

Queen of the Fall book coverRead a collection of essays: Queen of the Fall, by Sonja Livingston; and Why We Write About Ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran.

Read a book out loud to someone else: The Harry Potter series; The Giver; and Hatchet. Not this year, but when our sons were growing up, these were unforgettable read alouds. Harry Potter is especially captivating read deep in the woods at night when you’re camping.

Read a middle grade novel: see above, none this year for me.

Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography): Charlotte Bronté: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harmon is on my to-read list. See the feminist category below.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroRead a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Find Me, by Laura Van Den Berg. I read everything by Ishiguro. The latter novel by Van Den Berg was well reviewed and is excellent, though it didn’t really speak to me.

Read a book originally published in the decade you were born: I’ve been wanting to re-read Australian Neville Shute’s chilling dystopian novel, On the Beach. His  A Town Like Alice blew me away in 1981 as a 5-hour Masterpiece Theatre production, and I would love to watch it again. (It’s only available on VHS.) I don’t believe I ever read the book.

Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award: 

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin. OK, I haven’t read this book or even listened to it, but I gave it as a gift to a friend who loves Teddy Roosevelt. It won an Audie in 2015 for the best History/Biography category. This would qualify for the over 500 pages category, too, which is reason enough to listen to the audio version. I should read this or listen to it, considering that I believe journalism today is in a sorry state.

There is an Audie Classic Category, which I didn’t know about but just may entice me to finally start listening to audio books. Here’s a suggestion that sounds intriguing, also an Audie award winner: The New York Stories by John O’Hara.

I will try audio books soon, but I resist them. I don’t want to constantly fill my head with media, I need plenty of silence to think and to let my own writing germinate.

I’ve read and hear often that print books will disappear. Some people announce this with a great deal of glee, and I don’t understand why. Can we have both? Why does it seem to make some people happy that print books may disappear?

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay book coverRead a book over 500 pages long: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I’m counting this as a long read, even though there are four in the series. Had a great discussion about these books in a book club attended by many Italian-American women. One day I’ll read her other novels, which I’ve heard are rather devastating.

Read a book under 100 pages: Tribeby Sebastian Junger. (130 pages, close enough)

Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorites. Read this a few years back, superb.

Read a book that is set in the Middle East

Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia

To the Bright EdgeRead a book of historical fiction set before 1900: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eown Ivey; De Potter’s Grand Tour, by Joanna Scott.

Read the first book in a series by a person of color: Not a series, but this year I read and loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. 

Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years: This book is older than three years–I picked up Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, but didn’t finish it. I may get back to it someday. It’s becoming a classic.

Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better:

I did see the movie, Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, but didn’t read the book, don’t plan to. The movie was pretty good, mostly because of the acting, otherwise predictable.

I also saw this year the movie Carol based on the novel, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith. I thought it was excellent, haven’t read the novel. I was flabbergasted when someone I know said the main character in the movie was a predator. That is not how I interpreted the character in this movie about a lesbian relationship in the 1950s. I saw her as sympathetic. If anyone else has seen the movie and can comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I felt the predator comment revealed perhaps unconscious LGTBQ bias; but then again, Highsmith’s novels have disturbing characters. Perhaps the actual novel was darker, and some of that came through in the movie?

Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes:

My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem is a big bio this year, though I haven’t read it. I HAVE read, this year, and in the case of Bronté’s novel, many years in the past:  Jane Eyre’s Sisters, by Jody Gentian Bower and Jane Eyre. These, because my memoir has a Jane Eyre theme. Last year I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Fabulous.

Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction): After Buddhism, by Stephen Batchelor. (On my to-read list)

67 ShotsRead a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction): 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard MeansThis one is personally meaningful.

Read a food memoir: On my to-read list is Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen. Classics I love are Laurie Colwin’s food memoirs. Elizabeth David was a superb food writer, though her books aren’t really memoirs. Ruth Reichl has come out with a new food memoir this year that I haven’t read, My Kitchen Life: 136 Recipes that Changed My Life.

Read a play

Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness:  A Common Struggle, by Patrick J. Kennedy. This is a memoir. I also read the riveting memoir, A Mother’s Reckoning. The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes is fiction, and it’s absolutely great.

Here’s a smidgen of The Masterpiece Theatre version of A Town Like Alice.

Have you read any books in these categories, or do you have any suggestions? Are you following the Read Harder challenge? Let us know in the comments.

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro

IMG_2640 (1)

“Then he took the sword in both hands and raised it—and Gawain’s posture took on an unmistakable grandeur.” – The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

My son gave me a signed first edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, for Christmas. The book has been cast in some marketing circles as a fantasy, with allusions to King Arthur and Beowulf and the like, although the author has said he doesn’t set out to write in one particular genre or another and doesn’t like his books to be labeled as such.

Ishiguro is one of my favorite novelists, so I read every new book of his that comes out.

Never Let Me Go (dystopia/science fiction) and When We Were Orphans (in the tradition of the mystery/detective novel but with a literary twist) are my favorite Ishiguro novels. In fact, Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, one of Ishiguro’s more accessible stories. If you want to read Ishiguro, you might start with Never Let me Go, which was made into a movie starring Carey Mulligan. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (pre World War II) was also brought to the screen with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

As much as I enjoyed the screen versions of these books, there is something about Ishiguro’s writing that seems to be lost in a movie, at least for me. His novels are like dreams verging on nightmares from which you can’t awaken. Things don’t quite make sense in Ishiguro’s novels – you know this is not “reality” and that something is off, but what? The main character(s) are usually on a quest of one kind or another. They long for something that seems to be just out of reach.

You come to discern that Ishiguro’s characters are operating under some grand delusion. It’s unsettling, because you sense something familiar about the delusion; you begin to recognize that perhaps you operate under the very same delusion.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroEspecially if you’re of a certain age and you have children who have left the nest as I do, you might find The Buried Giant particularly affecting. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who leave their village and set off to find their son, whom they apparently haven’t seen in many years. They can’t remember the circumstances under which he left, or exactly where he lives, just as they can’t remember much of anything about their own pasts.

Axl and Beatrice aren’t unusual, though. No one in their village or anywhere else remembers much about their own past, nor do they seem to want to; a fine mist over the countryside, thought to be the breath of the dragon Querig, is said to be responsible for shrouding both personal and collective memory.

It is somewhere around the year 600 AD, and England is in ruin. Axl and Beatrice want to find their son, and they want to regain their memories. As they wander in search of their son, they meet others on their own quests. Clues and sightings suggest a terrible slaughter between the Saxons and Britons that no one remembers, just as no one recalls the dark secrets that lurk in their personal pasts. Perhaps the mist is in place so Britons and Saxons can live side by side without wanting to exact revenge.

As one reviewer pointed out, don’t we all operate under collective memory loss, or denial, that’s partly deliberate? Over climate change, for example, even though climate scientists have been warning us about it since the seventies? Or the atrocities of war?

Axl and Beatrice become caught up in a scheme to slay the dragon so memories can be recovered, but as Sir Gawain, the knight and nephew of the dead King Arthur, asks Beatrice, “Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”

Just as the Saxons and Britons fought a terrible war, you gradually learn there was upheaval in Axl and Beatrice’s relationship as well. What will happen when this couple, who seem to be so in love, recall their betrayals of each other? And what happened to their son?

Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman who they must rely on to help them cross a river in their journey. He says, “When travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years – that we see only rarely.”

Beatrice replies: “But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

Ishiguro builds up to a powerful and haunting conclusion. Like all of Ishiguro’s novels, I can’t get this one out of my mind.

There has been some interest in making The Buried Giant into a movie, but there are no definite plans yet.

Here is an excellent 4-minute video of Ishiguro talking about his novels made into movies.

In this interview, Ishiguro talks about how a book can be the raw material for a movie, which becomes something new and powerful in and of itself; how literary genres are breaking down and overlapping in exciting ways; and how he embraces the Leonard Cohen model of artistry and aging in which the artist looks to aging as new material for his/her art.

 

Kazuo Ishiguro authograph

 

Have you read The Buried Giant or other novels by Ishiguro? Do you have a favorite? Have you seen the movie versions of Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go?

 

 

 

 

 

The Book Thief

“They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: ‘Get it done, get it done.’ So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”       Death, in The Book Thief

The Book Thief book cover

Death is the narrator in The Book Thief, a young adult book about a German family during World War II that has a huge adult readership as well. It is one book not to be missed. The writing is outstanding. Published in 2005, The Book Thief won countless awards and honors, and has become a classic in YA fiction.

I recently reread the book before I saw the movie. I think the screen adaptation is a good one, although some viewers found it tame, and subtleties of the text can’t be captured on the screen. For example, Max, who is Jewish and hiding out in the home of Liesel and her foster parents, paints over every page of a copy of Mein Kampf and creates his own book, with illustrations. Max’s book is embedded within the pages of The Book Thief, and on the pages of Max’s book you can see faint traces of Hitler’s words.  One of the pages in Max’s book is a drawing of a girl and a boy holding hands and standing on a pile of bodies. Inscribed on the sun that shines down on them is a swastika, and the girl is saying, “Isn’t it a lovely day?”

The author, Markus Zusack, uses the written word as a thematic motif. While the Germans burn books thought to be subversive, Liesel and Hans write words on the wall of their basement as Liesel learns to read, and Liesel steals a book whenever she has the chance, in defiance of the Nazis. Liesel then begins to write her own book in order to make sense of the world’s chaos and carnage.

I do think the movie captured the essence of the story, and it is well cast, especially Sophie Nélisse as Liesel Meminger and Geoffrey Rush as Hans, her foster father. Death is the narrator in the movie, as he is in the book, and in both he is an unsettling storyteller who confesses he is haunted by humans. Of course, in addition to being the narrator, Death has a starring role in the plot as well.

My father was wounded in the war, just inside the German border. Occasionally, my mother spoke of her family’s Victory Garden, the rationing of meat and gasoline, and the “man shortage.”  I was born ten years after the war ended. As an adult, I eventually began to understand how the world turned upside down by war cast long shadows over my parents’ generation.

Have you seen the movie or read The Book Thief? What did you think?

Catching Fire, the movie

Catching Fire book coverI liked the movie version of the first book in the The Hunger Games trilogy, (unlike many viewers) and I liked Catching Fire, the movie version of book #2, even more.

When a book or movie is wildly popular, I’m curious to know the reasons. I want to know how the creator birthed a story that inspires passion in so many people. The Hunger Games is epic, powerful, and true to our times, and in capable artistic hands it speaks to us whether the medium is the page or the screen. The Hunger Games books and the movies have become fused in my memory, and it is difficult for me to separate the two – it’s the story itself that stays with me.

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is based, in part, on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read when she was eight years old. According to Wikipedia, in one version of the myth, the king of Crete demanded that every nine years seven Athenian girls and seven Athenian boys be sacrificed to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Theseus volunteers to go in place of one of them and slays the Minotaur. (In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to go in place of her younger sister, Prim, and Peeta volunteers to replace Haymitch.)

In interviews, Suzanne has said she was intrigued by reality TV shows that feature ordinary people viewers can relate to trying to prevail in impossible situations; she has also noticed our voyeuristic desire to watch others in their most private, vulnerable, and humiliating moments. Flipping through TV channels one evening, Suzanne was struck by news footage from the Iraq war on one channel and “Survivor” competitors on another channel. A former writer of children’s television programming, Collins has spoken in interviews about how viewers become desensitized to real-world violence if they are continuously exposed to the entertainment violence of modern media.

Probably most formative of Suzanne’s artistic vision was the fact that when she was six years old, her father served as a military advisor in Vietnam. News footage on TV of the death and destruction in Vietnam confused and frightened her. After the war, when her family was living in Europe, Suzanne’s father often took them on tours of famous World War I and World War II battlefields, where he taught them about military strategy and history.

Although she’s been criticized for depicting children killing children, Suzanne is not an advocate of violence or war. Katniss, Peeta, and many of the others in The Hunger Games clearly suffer the post-traumatic effects of war, oppression and deprivation. In my mind, they echo the child soldiers and the children who are victims of bombings and other atrocities we see often in the news.  Several stories about The Hunger Games in the media have highlighted the irony of the fact that Suzanne lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. I wonder if that experience will result in another powerful and timely story.

For me, iconic images from Catching Fire include the silhouettes at sunset of Katniss, Peeta, and a dying tribute who has just sacrificed her life for Peeta; the citizens of Rue’s District 11 giving the three-fingered salute; and, in one of the closing scenes, a riveting shot of Katniss that embodies the essence of sacrifice.

I’ve been especially moved by these characters: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and how he takes a stand with his art; Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and his flawed strength; Eppie (Elizabeth Banks) and her transformation; the growing strength of Prim (Willow Shields); the fire and directness of Johanna Mason (Jena Malone); and the depth of feeling and loyalty of the deceptively shallow Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin).

Year of the Jungle book coverRecently, Suzanne Collins published Year of the Jungle, a picture book about a child whose father goes off to war.

Have you seen Catching Fire? What do you think of the movie and/or or the book? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

One small fact

The Book Thief Book CoverHERE IS A SMALL FACT

You are going to die.

….the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions. “So hard to get through all the ice,” and so forth. One of them couldn’t have been more than fourteen. An apprentice. When he walked away, after a dozen paces, a black book fell innocuously from his coat pocket without his knowledge.”   The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Catching Fire book cover

“If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely.”  Katniss Everdeen

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

I’ll be at the movies this month watching two visions of apocalypse. One really happened. The other – well, take a world of haves and have-nots to the extreme, and maybe that’s where we’re headed.

I love watching my favorite books on the screen, as long as it’s done well. If you’ve read these young adult books that obsess grown-ups, too, and/or see the movies, stop by Books Can Save a Life and tell us your thoughts. Why do you think these end-of-the-world stories are so popular? I’ll revisit this soon, once I’ve seen the movies.

Joyce Maynard, Elizabeth Gilbert, George Saunders coming up

Been away for a bit while designer Nicole Bateman of The Pixel Boutique gives Books Can Save a Life a fresh, new look. (Thank you, Nicole!) But I’ve been reading, as always, and here’s what’s coming up:

After Her book coverAfter HerJoyce Maynard’s latest novel. Joyce has written several novels as well as the memoir, At Home in the World. After Her is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late 1970s.

Tenth of December – I don’t usually read short stories, but I’d heard so many wonderful things about George Saunders I had to pick up a copy of his latest collection when I saw it on our public library’s “Most Wanted” shelf. Besides, he teaches a stone’s throw away at Syracuse University – he’s someone I should know about.

Sons of MadnessI’ve written about Susan Nathiel’s excellent Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Mother, a collection of interviews with adult women. Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Parent is a companion volume.

The Art of the Commonplace – I’ve always wanted to know what Wendell Berry is all about, so I’m reading his collection of agrarian essays.

Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has been made into a movie and will be released November 22. I wrote about the first movie and book here, so I just have to check out the next installment.

The Signature of All Things book coverAnd last but not least, I can’t wait to dip into Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. Beautiful book jacket and end papers. The epigraph: “What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.”  Lord Perceval

I’ll be back with a closer look at all of these.

“Where the blue of the sea meets the sky”

Water and skyThe art of diving is not to do anything new but simply to cease doing something. You have only to let yourself go….It is only necessary….to abandon all efforts at self-preservation.

C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, as quoted in Standing at Water’s Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion, by Anne Paris

Many thanks to Lynne Favreau, who recommended Standing at Water’s Edge by Anne Paris, a fabulous book about creative immersion. Now it sits on the top shelf of my writing bookcase.

Watching the movie Goodbye First Love, I encountered The Water, by Johnny Flynn, a beautiful companion song to this sentiment.   The water sustains me without even tryin’….

Blog post title quote from “The Water,” by Johnny Flynn.

In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley knows how to tell a story

If you told your siblings you wanted to interview them on camera for several hours about the most private family matters, do you think they would do it?

And do you think anyone else would find it interesting?

Filmmaker Sara Polley’s family pulled this off brilliantly, maybe because many of them have acted on the stage and screen. They are all wickedly funny and not at all shy about saying just about anything.

I wanted to write about Stories We Tell even though it’s not a book, because I enjoy memoir and, to me, this documentary is a kind of family memoir on screen, expertly told.

If you watch the trailer, you might think you know what Stories We Tell is about (I did), but you won’t know the half of it. There is a mystery at the heart of this story and Sarah knows how to reveal the truth, or as close as she can get to it, layer by layer. When you least expect it, someone drops a little bombshell and the picture you’ve formed in your mind of Sarah’s family and her mother, a woman with secrets, changes dramatically.

You will like the Polley family. They are beautiful, funny, brave people. It’s interesting to me that Sarah is at the heart of this family mystery yet she keeps herself largely off stage and lets others tell the story.

There are so many memoirs being published now, many with themes that are quite bleak. Memoirs don’t have to be sad and filled with suffering. And having an unusual or tragic experience doesn’t necessarily warrant a book. A good memoir has a distinctive voice, an unusual, startling, or fresh perspective, and a compelling story.

Just like the story of Sarah and her family.

A FEW OF MY FAVORITE MEMOIRS:

Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

The Irrational Season, by Madeleine L’Engle

Dakota book coverDakota, by Kathleen Norris

The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr

The Mistress’s Daughter, by A.M. Homes

In The Neighborhood book coverIn the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street One Sleepover at a Time, by Peter Lovenheim

A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg

Home Cooking book coverHome Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin

Tasting Home – Judith Newton on cooking, coming of age, feminism

“…cookbooks were more to me than a reflection of my past. They’d been agents of my recovery – from childhood misery, from profound self-loss, from my fear, even as an adult, that the world would never seem like home. I’d cooked from them to save my life, and I’d succeeded.”

In her newly published memoir, writer and historian Judith Newton looks at her own life and the culture of her time, from the 1940s to the 2000s. Along the way she writes of the cookbooks and cuisine that fed her in body and spirit.

I can’t say enough good things about Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen I just loved it. Judith writes of her difficult early childhood in Compton, California, of coming of age at Stanford and Berkeley in the 1960s, and of her beautiful and haunting relationship with her husband, Dick. I found Judith to be especially eloquent in describing her intellectual and spiritual awakening and continual growth.

As a young girl, I watched the 1960s unfold mostly on television and in newspapers and magazines. Reading Judith’s memoir, for me, was like hearing stories from an older sister who actually lived those events.

And the food! Judith includes childhood recipes inherited from her parents and the land they lived on (Death Valley Date Nut Bread, for example) and recipes from influential and groundbreaking cookbooks of the day, such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al., and The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. (Moosewood Cookbook is another classic Judith knows well. See a previous post with an excerpt from Tasting Home.) Throughout her memoir, Judith speaks of the joy, fulfillment, and healing power of cooking and sharing meals with loved ones.

Here is part 1 of an interview with Judith. Watch for part 2 in my next post. Thank you for talking with me and sharing your thoughts with us, Judith!

When I read your comment about cookbooks being an agent of your recovery, I realized I view books and music in the same way. I’m sure many of your readers have had a beloved pastime that got them through tough times. Has reader response to Tasting Home borne this out? Did this theme resonate with those who supported you during the writing process?

Tasting Home book coverYes,  it did!  One woman in my writing group found release in jazz and in singing and  dancing. Another reader, Linda Joy Myers, who is herself a memoirist, writes of how she was sustained by the warmth of a music teacher, by the beauty of music, art, and the Midwestern plains. Several of my old colleagues at Davis found refuge in cooking and understood very well how a kitchen table can lay the groundwork for political community.

How did you come to believe the personal affects the political and society?

My years of teaching women’s studies had made me aware that the private and public spheres are dependent on each other and that the personal always informs the political. Traditionally, for example, women have fed, cared for, educated, and humanized members of their household including men, children, and the old.  This frequently invisible and unpaid labor is essential to having a society at all, and especially one that involves people working in cooperation with each other.

In writing a book that celebrates home cooking as a humanizing and healing kind of work, I  think of myself as carrying on a feminist project—that of giving value to a traditionally female,  often unseen, but essential form of labor, one that the political scientist Janet Flammang, in her book A Taste for Civilization, calls a preparation for civil society itself.

Another feminist project has been to show how political movements also depend on a kind of emotion work.  The sociologist Belinda Robnett,  for example, in her book How Long? How Long? African American Women and the Struggle for Civil Rights, writes about how African American women worked behind the scenes during the Civil Rights Movement, meeting ordinary people, listening to their needs, and building face to face relations of friendship and trust. This emotion work was critical to the success of building a grassroots movement, and is critical to the success of present-day coalition as well. By demonstrating how cooking can bring people into connection with each other, not just in a domestic setting but in a political group as well, Tasting Home continues this project of linking the political to the personal and emotional.

Do you feel this healing through cooking helped you make a more meaningful contribution through your work?

Judith NewtonAbsolutely!  I learned from reading James Baldwin in 1963, the year I joined the Civil Rights Movement,  that a committed political life could and should involve “sensuality.”  “To be sensual,” Baldwin wrote, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

For me sensuality and joy in life were primarily expressed in food.  Being able to access this joy in a daily way kept me going in every facet of my life and work, making it possible for me to retain the optimism that has informed my politics and my writing.  If I didn’t feel that optimism, I wouldn’t write at all.

Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. While at U.C. Davis she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four.

Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.

In addition to Tasting Home, she is also the author and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. Four of these were reprinted by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in fall 2012. Currently, she writes for The Huffington Post.

The Stories We Tell

Speaking of memoir, this just-released family documentary directed by Sarah Polley looks so tantalizing, and it’s gotten rave reviews. There are a few trailers floating around but I like this one the best:  The Stories We Tell.

Chasing Ice

This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization.    James Balog

Ice Book CoverHe is a master photographer, an obsessed and possessed artist documenting our dying glaciers.

We sat with a packed audience Tuesday evening at The Little Theatre in Rochester watching Chasing Ice, a documentary about James Balog’s quest, which has become the quest of many others. After the movie, producer/director Jeff Orlowski (thoughtful, intelligent, thoroughly engaging) spoke with the audience via Skype.

Your first stop should be here, to listen to and watch this perfect marriage of music, image and theme: Scarlett Johansson singing “Before My Time”  to a montage of Balog’s magnificent work.

Chasing Ice is playing in selected cities around the country. You can request to host a screening by filling out a form on the Chasing Ice site. Let’s hope that it will be available on Netflix and other venues soon.

While you’re waiting for the documentary, visit the Extreme Ice Survey (art meets science) to see the official trailer, and then stop by the Earth Vision Trust.

Balog has just published Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers. His other books include Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest; Wildlife Requiem; Anima; and Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife.

The filmmakers dedicated Chasing Ice to their children and their children’s children.

So stop by for a listen and a look. It’s the next best thing to seeing the movie.

Next up at Books Can Save a Life

At the moment I’m interested in nature, art, memoir, and fiction all rolled into one, so I’ll be featuring Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Winter Count, About This Life, and “Sliver of Sky,” a recently published essay in Harper’s Magazine); The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett; and When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams.

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