Arcadia, and what’s next

“The monster is peering in the window. The ice caps have melted, the glaciers are nearly gone; the interiors of the continents becoming unlivable, the coasts so storm-battered people are fleeing by the millions. New Orleans and the Florida Keys are being abandoned. The hot land-bound places are being given up for lost; Phoenix and Denver becoming ghost towns. Every day, refugees show up in the city. A family takes shelter in the lee of Bit’s front steps, parents with two small children, silent and watchful.”       from Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia book cover

In the novel Arcadia, Bit and his family leave the dying commune they helped establish and move to New York City when Bit is fourteen. As an adult with a teen-age daughter, Bit is a good man who nonetheless feels guilty over what he calls his selfishness: his greatest concern is Grete’s survival in a world rendered dangerously unstable by climate change. No matter what happens, he says to himself and any greater power that may be listening, let Grete survive. That’s something I wonder about too, the kind of world my sons will inherit and the challenges they’ll face.

Reading this novel and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior   got me thinking about a symposium on the environment I attended in 2010, sponsored by the Rochester Zen Center. Rochester has many treasures, and the Zen Center is one of them. Founded by Roshi Philip Kapleau in 1966 and now one of the largest organizations devoted to Zen Buddhism in the country, it occupies one of Rochester’s stately old homes off of East Avenue near the George Eastman House.  It has been extensively renovated, and the zendo is a stunning space for meditation.

The symposium, called “Turning Toward the Earth,” centered on the Buddhist response to our environmental crisis. This was an intense and unsettling day, the kind of day that makes you want to take dramatic action, upend your life to make a difference – but just how do you do that? The name of the symposium came from “The Great Turning,” a term coined by Joanna Macy, one of the featured speakers that day. Her stance is explained in an article in the Zen Bow:

“The Great Turning is a concept developed by Buddhist philosopher and activist Joanna Macy to help us understand and engage with the momentous change in worldview that is required of us now, at the close of the modern age. Because our species’ enormous technological power is not matched by our spiritual development we have reached a crisis-point unlike any other in the history of humankind, one in which all other sentient beings and so-called inanimate things are irrevocably caught up.”

In her talk at the symposium, Macy encouraged us to act, regardless of any specific outcomes, no matter how overwhelming the challenges may seem. Author and Zen Buddhist David Loy also spoke. He, too, talked of the need for spiritual transformation on an individual level to save our earth as we know it. A tall order, but he seemed hopeful. Conservation biologist Michael Soule, also a speaker, is largely concerned with the dramatic diminishing of species. He believes humans must change their self-centered nature and overcome their selfishness to solve the the extinction crisis, but he is less hopeful. He wasn’t shy about saying he thinks it is already too late.

If you’d like to know more about the Buddhist response to the environmental crisis, take a look at some of the books authored by Macy and Loy. I have read Macy’s World As Lover, World As Self, and I want to read more of her work.

Buddha

Chasing Ice is a documentary about environmental photographer James Balog, who set up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic to record the melting glaciers. One of the trailers shows an astounding view of a glacier calving – breaking up into an immense iceberg. Once part of a glacier becomes an iceberg, it melts much more quickly.

We’ll be watching the documentary Tuesday evening at the Little Theatre.

Introductory quote from Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, New York: 2012. Quote from Zen Bow: “It Goes Along With Everything Else: Mass Extinction and the Great Turning,” Sensei Amala Wrightson, Zen Bow, 23(1), 3 – 8.

Bestsellers Tell What Possesses Us – Telegraph Avenue

This past fall and early winter there was a perfect storm of top authors publishing new books. I wanted to read a handful of them to see what possesses some of our best creative minds and our popular culture. I wanted to break out of old habits and venture to new places I wouldn’t normally find on my own.

I didn’t get to as many books as I’d planned, but I did read:

  • Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle
  • This Is How You Lose Her; and a previously published book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  • Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
  • Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Most difficult of all was acclimating to the world of Telegraph Avenue. I almost gave up on it. I couldn’t keep Chabon’s characters straight, I was clueless about the endless blaxploitation and 1970s cultural allusions, even though that was my coming-of-age time, and I sometimes struggled with the rich, complex (and masterful) prose. The great librarian Nancy Pearl has a Rule of 50: Stop reading after 50 pages if you don’t like the book, and if you’re over 50 you can subtract your age from 100 and stop there. So I was well within my rights to stop before 50 pages, but I kept going with Telegraph Avenue, and it was worth it.

Telegraph Avenue book coverTo me, Telegraph Avenue and Junot Diaz’s books are similar in that I entered completely unfamiliar hearts, minds, and worlds. I’m unlikely to stop by a used record store in Oakland, California any time soon, or meet the kinds of characters (and I mean that in more than one sense of the word) who might hang out there.  In Telegraph Avenue, Archy (who is black) and Nat (who is white) are best friends, vinyl record shop business partners, and musicians struggling to make a living in a neighborhood that’s seen better days.

For one reason or another – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, changing times – the characters in Telegraph Avenue are outsiders or has-beens or both: former blaxploitation and martial arts stars, connoiseurs of soul and jazz and long-forgotten record albums, fine musicians in their own right. Many are regulars at Archy and Nat’s Brokeland Records, which reminded me of the bar in the TV show “Cheers.” I grew to like and care about these characters in large part because of their passion for music and devotion to their art. My godfather was a jazz pianist, and I dated a jazz musician. I remember how both lived and breathed jazz, in the same way Archy, Nat, and others do in Telegraph Avenue. Music shaped their lives, and when they were playing a gig, they had an aura of dignity and charisma others envied.

Yet, both my godfather and the musician I dated played the kind of jazz that was seen by many as antiquated in the 1960s and 70s when music was reinventing itself. There is the same sense of this passing away of art forms in Telegraph Avenue, and of people being rushed headlong into the future while trying to preserve what shouldn’t be lost.

If you’ve read Telegraph Avenue, what did you think? Please comment!

I’d like to give equal time to new, lesser known, and independent authors, so I plan in the coming months to read a sampling of fiction by some of these writers. If you have a book to suggest please do in the comments.

Family cookbooks that become heirlooms

I asked my brother, John, to contribute to my series on favorite family cookbooks. I’ve tasted some of the recipes from the cookbook below, prepared by John. Fabulous, unpretentious Sicilian cooking, the kind we grew up with.
The Sicilian Gentleman's Cookbook book coverI often consult The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook [by Don Baratta] when I want to do some Sicilian cooking. I think cooking becomes very personal, because we all have different tastes. I remember my dad describing different ways to make tomato sauce.  His mom, my grandmother, liked to make simple sauce. You cook down the tomatoes, add spices and, of course, garlic and onion, and you’re done….simple. But my grandfather had to have his sauce strained. Absolutely forbidden to have seeds and skin involved.
To me, The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook is simple cooking. Just the way I imagine peasants cooked in Sicily, because they didn’t have much. They made do with what was available. I usually pull down the book for a quick idea and I go with what we have. Simple. I suggest the artichoke hearts with pasta, which is a family favorite when we get together with friends for Valentine’s Day. I also like the fish stew/soup recipe. It’s really a remarkable meal.
When we were visiting at Thanksgiving, I was browsing through the cookbook and found the Sicilian gentleman’s secret to losing weight: have a bowl of homemade soup every night for dinner. Sounds like a great idea for the long, cold winter nights to come. A hot bowl of homemade soup with a slice of fresh bread and a glass of Malbec or Beaujolais Nouveau, then a good book in front of the fire.
Elizabeth David’s literature of cookery
Italian Food book cover
John’s story got me thinking about one of my favorite Italian cookbooks – Elizabeth David’s Italian Food.  The recipes are somewhat antiquated and difficult to re-create, because you can’t always find the proper, authentic ingredients, but they’re mouthwatering all the same. David, who was British, raises food writing to a high art. This is a book you could read and enjoy by a winter fire every evening, without ever making a recipe.
It was difficult to choose an excerpt, the writing is so good, but here are two of my favorites:
It is worth noting that in the dining-cars of trains, where the food is neither notably good nor to everyone’s taste, a dish of uova al burro may always be ordered instead of the set meal and will be brought rapidly and with perfect amiability by the dining-car waiter. So browbeating are the attendants in certain French and English railway dining cars over this question of ordering eggs or sandwiches instead of the dull, expensive, six-course meal provided that I have thought the matter worth mentioning.
She’s talking about a bygone era that sounds wonderful to me. Here is a link to the dining car menus on Amtrak’s long-distance trains – they even serve meals on Christmas Day.
Here is David’s description of a Venetian fish market:
The colours of the peaches, cherries, and apricots, packed in boxes lined with sugar-bag blue paper matching the blue canvas trousers worn by the men unloading the gondolas, are reflected in the rose-red mullet and the orange vongole and cannestrelle which have been prised out of their shells and heaped into baskets….In Venice even ordinary sole and ugly great skate are striped with delicate lilac lights, the sardines shine like newly-minted silver coins, pink Venetian scampi are fat and fresh, infinitely enticing in the early dawn.
I’d like to continue this family cookbook series, so send me the titles of your favorite family cookbooks and I’ll list them here. If you have a story or anecdote about a particular cookbook, please send it along.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior goes to….
Darlene Niman, who owns and operates Out With a Friend, a senior companion service in New York City. She says one of the best books she’s read recently is That Summer in Sicily by Marlena De Blasi.
Quotes from:
Italian Food, Elizabeth David, Penguin Books, New York: 1987.
The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook, 3rd Revised Edition, Don Baratta, Firefly Books, Buffalo: 2002.

Enter my book giveaway: Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

Been traveling for the Thanksgiving holidays and forgot to mention here at Books Can Save a Life that I’m giving away a free copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

Flight Behavior book coverAll you need to do for a chance to win the book is check out my recent post, Now is the time to read Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and leave a comment about where you stand on climate change, or if you think a work of fiction such as Kingsolver’s can make a difference one way or the other.

I’m extending the deadline to December 3, when I’ll put the names of all who comment in a hat and draw the lucky winner.

I read an essay the other day in which the author mused that perhaps New York City will no longer exist in a hundred years. Or it will be located in Westchester County.

What do you think?

I welcome all thoughts and opinions (as long as we’re friendly and polite!)

So, comment away, please!

Now is the time to read Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward, she thought, words from the book of Job, made for a world unraveling into fire and flood.          Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior book coverBarbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior blindsided me; I didn’t see the end coming, though perhaps I should have. Reading it on the heels of Hurricane Sandy only added to its impact. What incredible timing for this novel to be published just days after a superstorm brought a 13-foot storm surge to New York City.

I once lived in New York, so I found it hard to believe the scenes in the news: water pouring into the 9/11 construction site at the World Trade Center, Bellevue and NYU’s Tisch hospitals in lower Manhattan evacuated, entire neighborhoods destroyed on Staten Island.

Flight Behavior is about climate change and its consequences. If you don’t believe in climate change, you probably won’t like this book. If you do believe in it, you may still find Flight Behavior to be a thinly disguised polemic. I did. Sometimes I had a hard time losing myself in this particular fictional world as I like to do in a good novel.

Nonetheless, I found Flight Behavior to be powerfully and beautifully written. It made me uncomfortable, which is what I think Kingsolver intends for her readers. She loves the earth and respects it as a scientist. (Kingsolver has a degree in biology and worked as a scientist before she began to write fiction.) She wants people to wake up and do something before it is too late.

I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption, one of the most disturbing nonfiction books I’ve ever read on The Great Disruption book coverclimate change. Gilding believes our first priority should be to stop the earth from warming up another couple of degrees, and this can be done only with a worldwide, cooperative effort, the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. If we don’t do something, Gilding believes disaster will soon be upon us – floods, famines, wars, the end of life as we know it.

He predicts (and hopes) enlightenment will come soon, this decade. People will realize something is wrong, mobilize, and take action.

In Flight Behavior, for a farmer’s wife with two young children, climate change quite suddenly becomes personal. She’s forced to take a stand and brought to a kind of enlightenment. I believe that’s a road we’ll all have to travel.

What do you think about climate change? If you’ve read Flight Behavior or The Great Disruption, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Quote from Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2012.

Great books coming this fall

Been too long away from the blog. Visiting family, and it’s the busiest time of year at the library, where I’ve had the privilege of working with eleven first-year medical students. I’ll be their personal librarian for the next four years, a role we librarians are inventing and making our own as we go along.

When it comes to Books Can Save A Life, I often wonder who might stop by and whether I can make their visit personal and meaningful, especially considering most of my readers are anonymous.

One thing I know, I have to feel passionate or intensely curious about the books, writers, and topics I feature here.

You may be inspired to read some of the books or authors you find on Books Can Save A Life but, ultimately, I hope Books gives you a moment of pleasure, speaks to some aspect of your own life, stirs up memories of past good reads, or inspires you to try a new path in your personal reading.

After visiting my favorite book spots on the Internet, I was energized to find that this fall will bring a perfect storm of new fiction and nonfiction by some of our best writers. Everyone in the book world is excited about the upcoming publishing season.

Some of my favorite authors will publish new books, and others have been on my to-read list for a while. This fall and winter I want to feature some of them on Books Can Save A Life. Let’s immerse ourselves in the spirit and mood of our time. What are our obsessions, passions, predictions, hopes, fears, delusions and delights? How are we, personally, caught up in all of it?

Let’s find out.

Tops on my list are Barbara Kingsolver and Ian McEwan.

I loved Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book, Flight Behavior, is right up my alley, with a larger-than-life plot about a farmer’s wife caught up in a biological disaster that draws worldwide attention and fuels the controversy over climate change.

Sweet Tooth book coverI’ve read McEwan’s Saturday twice (someday I’ll tell you why that book is so special to me), and I’m looking forward to his Sweet Tooth.  It’s about a Cold War spy who falls in love with the novelist she’s supposed to be manipulating. One reviewer calls it a complex “Russian doll of a novel” that’s really about readers, reading, how we respond to fiction, and what we want from it.

Mark Helprin will have a new book out, too, In Sunlight and In Shadow. Have any of you read Winter’s Tale? Among other things, it’s a love letter to New York City of the early 1900s (and of the future.) I read it when I was saying goodbye to New York and a particular time in my life. Helprin’s newest book takes place in post World War II New York and is, I think, a similarly fabulous and grand tale.

I’m curious about J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, but I may wait for the reviews to make the commitment.

Some authors publishing this fall I’ll be meeting for the first time:

San Miguel, by T. C. Boyle (two families on an island off the coast of California)

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon (two families in Oakland, California – doesn’t that sound just like Boyle’s book?)

This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz (all kinds of love)

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, by D. T. Max (a biography of David Foster Wallace)

But first, I promised you Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor in August. Better late than never, it’s a book I can’t pass up that will be front and center in my next post.

Also coming up: two book stories to share with you from a couple of my readers, and a trip to Buenos Aires in October, where I’ll be re-reading Imagining Argentina and writing about my adventures.

What are you reading? Are there any forthcoming books you plan to buy the minute they’re available?

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