Book Recommendations–Fiction about Japan

Much of the best fiction being published since WWII is about Japan, either in translation from the Japanese or written in English.  Elegant, subtle, quirky and mysterious are a few of the adjectives I would apply to many of my favorite novels listed below.  In another blog, I will cover excellent Japanese non-fiction titles, as I have a huge list of “favorites” in that genre, too. I have not included the supremely talented contemporary author Haruki Murakami in this blog, as I have not read enough of him yet, and believe he belongs “in a class by himself”.

 

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

There is barely a sentence Mitchell writes that is not filled to the brim–with 9780812976366_p0_v2_s114x166dialect, inflection, unique metaphor, brilliant humor, historical detail and description that is exquisitely detailed.  I have to say reading Mitchell is like attending a lavish buffet and having to taste every single dish!  This story, set in Japan in the late 1700’s in Nagasaki, is where the Dutch East Indies Company trades from a small island in the harbor. The Dutch were largely confined while executing their own schemes and pilfering from the government and each other.  Jacob, a young aspiring Dutch clerk, has been hired to help “clean up the books” of the previous chief, but soon finds himself mired in the intrigue of the place, trying to make decisions and do the right thing in a deeply corrupt situation. He is engaged to a young woman at home, but falls in love with a Japanese midwife who is strictly off limits to foreigners. Mitchell drew me into this complex and unusual world (this narrative is more straightforward than in some of his books) and held me with his wildly imaginative writing.  It takes a patient reader, but the rewards are so worth it.

 

Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

Is there a person who has not read this 1997 award-winning historical novel, the 9780679781585_p0_v1_s114x166imagined life of a former geisha?   Chiyo, a fisherman’s daughter whose mother dies, is “sold” into the life of a geisha by her father, who feels he cannot raise her. The young woman grows up and is trained to become a beautiful, talented, disciplined but emotionally damaged woman. She endures the very competitive environment with other geishas, barely survives the harassment of her trainers, becomes emotionally attached to the lives of others in her new home, falls in love with one of her “clients”, and has her virginity is “sold” to the highest bidder. Her story is sensually and richly imagined here, and makes for a rewarding and suspenseful read, but many scholars and Japanese have criticized it for the surface treatment of “real” geisha culture, which they say is much more complex than this story depicts. With that being said, it is a memorable novel, unique in subject matter and very well-written.  The film version was also beautiful with an award-winning musical score.

 

Spring Snow, by Yukio Mishima

Mishima is not much read (or even acknowledged) anymore in spite of his amazing and robust body of work.  Out of four bookstores and three public libraries, I was unable9780679722410_p0_v2_s114x166 to find even one of his 20 plus novels on the shelves. Born in 1923, he was considered one of the most important post-war authors of Japan.  His rather extreme politics, however, may have affected his career–he was a strident nationalist who believed Japan needed to return to the Samauri culture to return to its dominant place in the world, and he committed ritual suicide at the age of 45.   Published in 1969, this was the first in his Sea of Fertility series, and probably his best.  It is a novel of star-crossed lovers–set in Tokyo in 1912 in the imperial court. The beautiful hero Kiyoaki, his friend and classmate Honda, and Kiyoaki’s obsession with Satoko, also from the imperial court, form the narrative substance.  There is a strong Shakespearean quality to this story of the lovers and their attendant jealousies, blackmail, political intrigue and betrayals. It was not an easy read, but the beautifully detailed writing, particularly about nature, made it unique and memorable.

 

9781400096053_p0_v1_s114x166The Commoner, by John Burnham Schwartz

The recent royal birth in England reminded me of this book, which provides a convincing look at life in the royal court of Japan. This thinly veiled historical novel parallels the life of the commoner Michiko Shoda who married Crown Prince Akihito, unheard of in Japan until the mid 20th century.  A young woman, Haruko, marries the Crown Prince of Japan in 1959, and as the first non-royal to come into court, faces tremendous cruelty and rejection by the Empress and other court attendants.  After their first child (fortunately, a son) is born (her only “job”) Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown, and a long slow recovery, followed by the birth of a second child.  As the children reach adulthood, each one faces the challenge of deciding to marry outside the royal family themselves–and Haruko must painfully deal with the consequences of those choices.  As a novelist, Schwartz succeeds in lifting a curtain on the intensely guarded secrets of the Japanese royal family. And as a novelist, he ends the story with a satisfying, positive twist.  In real life, the ending was not so simple.

 

I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume

Unusual, I think, for a famous Japanese novel to surprise as a satire about humans, told from an unnamed cat’s perspective.  But cats are prevalent in Japanese art and 9780804832656_p0_v2_s114x166culture, so it makes sense that someone would use a feline to comment on the many limitations of humans. Written between 1905-06 as a serialization in a Japanese literary magazine (hence its length of almost 500 pages), the book was first published in English in 2002.  It was written as a social commentary on the Japanese tendency to ape “all things Western” at the turn of the century, but covers a broader swath with its jabs at academics, authority figures, corporations and government. It begins with the way the cat’s provider ignores it, refusing to even give the cat a name. However painful that is, the cat develops a thick skin, and becomes involved with other neighborhood friends, such as the unfortunate Tortoiseshell, who has recently died.  This story is charming, sarcastic, imperial and astute, just like most of the cats we know.

 

Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

Another unique vision of the Japanese, brilliantly written in the collective voice of 9780307744425_p0_v5_s114x166Japanese “picture brides”, who braved tremendous odds in the early 1900’s to immigrate to San Francisco and marry men they did not know.  Otsuka won a well-deserved Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction for this small, amazing book. Expectations about “the American Dream” are shattered when the “picture brides” find out the men awaiting them are not wealthy or even caring, and look nothing like the pictures the women were sent.  Basically forced into slave-like conditions when they arrive in America, the collective voice of the women is at once haunting, intimate and powerful. With time, the children they bear join them in the indentured life of mostly agricultural labor. Otsuka used extensive resources to explore the lives of these women, yet her telling of their stories seems as if she lived through it herself.  And on some level, she has.  A brilliant, brilliant book deserving of even more awards.

 

The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama

On the surface, this story could be labeled as “coming of age”, set in a seacoast village of Japan at the beginning of WWII.  But that is only one layer among many in this elegant and sensitive story.  A young Chinese painter named Stephen comes to spend time 9780312144074_p0_v2_s114x166recovering from tuberculosis at his family’s summer home. Under the care of the housekeeper and gardener Matsu, Stephen not only starts recover, but learns many life lessons.  Matsu is a man devoted to doing good in the world, finding beauty and adding to the beauty that is already there, in spite of life’s cruelties and disappointments. Stephen’s healing also includes becoming acquainted with Sachi, a local woman who suffers from leprosy.  The tone and pace of the book is serene and peaceful, but not in a way that could bore the reader.  It made me want to stay in the garden Tsukiyama so beautifully describes, and listen to the three characters talk to each other. And what deep, rich characters this author has created!

 

 

 

Book Recommendations–Gardening Life

With the first whiff of damp soil or newly mown grass, I run outside and start digging in the dirt.  Whether learning to properly prune fruit trees, starting seeds indoors, picking up (and relocating) slugs, or transplanting a misplaced shrub, I have endless passion for plants and the outdoors. During the winter, I comfort myself with books about garden design, plant propagation and particularly about how other people have learned to cope with the unpredictability and imperfection while trying to control plants, bugs, soil, wildlife, and the weather in pursuit of maintaining a garden.

 

9781582341309_p0_v1_s114x1669781408810064_p0_v1_s260x420The Curious Gardener, and The Tulip, by Anna Pavord

My favorite of Pavord’s books is The Tulip, a history of the 17th century “tulipmania” which swept Europe and nearly ruined the economies of western Europe when the market crashed.  The book is now inexplicably out of print, but The Curious Gardener is a close runner up, and infinitely more readable than her rather detailed history of tulips.  As a former editor of Gardens Illustrated, the English magazine, she admirably covers all aspects of gardening, not just bulbs.  In this practical and delightful guide, she devotes a chapter to each month, with a list of tasks for the gardener (as if we didn’t have enough on the “to-do” list).  I always learn a lot from Pavord, who has been gardening in Dorset for forty years. The depth of her knowledge and her passion for gardening shine in her books.  I also keep a copy of Bulb, her 500 page compendium with generous descriptions and clear, lovely photographs of bulbs I know, and those I would love to meet in my spring garden.

 

Home Ground, by Allen Lacy

Probably long out of print, this collection of essays about gardening (first published in9780395607305_p0_v1_s114x166 1980) is a classic. Each chapter is short, probably collected from Lacy’s days as a gardening columnist for the Wall Street Journal many years ago.  Topics cover a wide and eclectic assortment, from “Jaundiced View: Yellow Geraniums” to “The Miseries of an August Garden” to memories of bonfires made of autumn leaves.  He is opinionated, fiercely intelligent, yet gentle and funny. Anyone who gardens has to have a sense of humor, I believe, but not all have the skill to write with humor. One of my favorite Lacy essays is titled “The Transience of Columbines”, a plant in which I have little interest, but he so engaged me on the topic in three pages that I actually planted some in a shady corner of my own garden.   A book well worth buying second hand, or borrowing from a well-stocked library.

 

Onward and Upward in the Garden, by Katharine S. White

9781590178508_p0_v3_s114x166Anyone with even a small gardening library will probably have a copy of this book as a mainstay.  Many people know it, first published as individual gardening essays in The New Yorker from the late 1950’s through 1970. But I am wondering how many have actually read it.  It is now wildly out of date, which is part of its great charm. It is almost Edwardian in style and its content harks back to the 1960’s. This history is fascinating, covering such diverse aspects as the identity of the infamous “Amos Pettingill” of White Flower Farm, the delightfully eclectic Wayside Gardens’ catalog design and development, and the origins of flower arranging. It explores garden suppliers, seed and plant companies, gardening books and a wide swath of plants. Katharine, the wife of the famous writer E. B. White, was every bit as prolific and clever a writer, although their canvases were very different. How grateful I am to have read them both at various times in my life–I will never “outgrow” them.

 

My Weeds, by Sara Stein

Here is a book that belongs in a class by itself: Stein occupies a very small stage with those who dare try to explain the complex (mostly hate) relationship we have with plants gardeners 9780813017396_p0_v1_s114x166spend the most time with–our weeds.  Of all my gardening books, I have spent the most time with this one.  In a garden I recently left after 12 years of struggle, the horsetail plagued me every day, even in winter.  From Stein I learned that horsetail is, next to the cockroach, one of the oldest of living things still not endangered. Instead of fighting with her horsetail, which could only spread the misery, she left hers alone.  In chapters about the anatomy of a weed, how weeds propagate, proper tools for weed eradication, and the pros and cons of various poisons (mostly cons), she clearly and simply demystifies much of the angst about these plants.  After all, some weeds provide food, plant-based fabric and erosion control.  While she did not convince me to “love” my weeds, she definitely helped me relax and accept that weeds do not deserve all all the energy and animosity I waste on them.  Thanks, Sara!

 

9780425273838_p0_v1_s114x166Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, by Carol Wall

This recent memoir was recommended to me by a long-time bookstore customer.  When I started it, I thought it might turn out to be a rather shallow memoir about a neighborhood, an immigrant gardener for hire, and a happy-to-be-in-America story.  But it is much more than that. Wall is white, living in a middle class white neighborhood in mid-America, when she notices an African man gardening at her neighbor’s.  She becomes acquainted with him, and soon enough hires him to work on her own yard.  She thinks she is “helping him” adjust to American ways after she finds he is from Kenya, and works as a bagger in a local grocery. But in time she finds the opposite is true as they become friends, share family troubles, health challenges, and deeper secrets that each has been holding onto out of fear.  While Wall’s book does not paint a unique story of the immigrant experience, it is embellished with ethical and cultural subtleties and a quiet dignity that makes it stand out from the pack.

 

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, by Marta McDowell

Beautifully illustrated with photos, watercolors, letters and maps, I bought this 9781604693638_p0_v2_s114x166book thinking it would be a great browsing volume, never expecting I would read every word.  But so enamored with all things Potter, I could not help myself.  This is a “gardening biography” of Potter, and absolutely charming in its examination of her gardening education, development of her gardens at Hill Top in England, and a carefully researched listing of the various plants she grew in each of her gardens.  The section that particularly delighted me, however, and is testimony to author McDowell’s detailed accounting, is the list of plants described or illustrated in each of Potter’s 28 books. A coffee-table book that will fit on the bedside stand. What an absolute treasure!

 

In a closing note, my dear friend and architect Ed Carr recommended to me his own 9781590172315_p0_v1_s114x166favorite, English gardener and writer Russell Page’s Education of a Gardener, which I did not know and of which I have recently read a chapter. I have to agree, it belongs in any gardening library. To quote from a famous review:  “For anyone with an interest in abiding questions of design and aesthetics, or who simply enjoys an unusually well-written and thoughtful book.”  Page died in 1985 after a long and successful career, yet he is still influencing garden designers and lovers of all ages and tastes.

 

 

Book Recommendations–Horse Stories

Often a late bloomer, I missed the phase of life known as pre-teen-girl-becomes-horse-crazy.  Well, I am finally and happily blooming into that phase at almost 70, after moving to a new location where rescued horses and donkeys come with the property.  I have the best of both worlds: petting and smelling and feeding treats to three horses without having to pay the feed or vet bills.  Which brings me to the subject of reading horse stories, of which there are almost as many as there are dog stories. Nearly overwhelming, but here is a place to start with some of my favorites.

 

iuHorse Heaven, by Jane Smiley

In case you have not read any of Smiley’s excellent books, I recommend this very accessible and lively story set in the thoroughbred horse racing mileau of Southern California. Smiley never seems to write the same story twice–her novels are varied and fully developed. She clearly knows the world of horses and horse racing more than most, and I learned a lot while being entertained. The novel is Dickensonian in scope and story–it’s over 600 pages, with a cast of 50 characters, one of the best being a Jack Russell terrier! And as an added bonus, what I remember most is that this story includes one of the most erotic love scenes I have ever read–but no spoiler from me–you’ll have to find those pages for yourself.

 

The Eighty-Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts

Here is a true Cinderella story, which none of us can resist even as they may be hard to9780345521095_p0_v2_s114x166 believe. Farmer and horse lover Harry de Leyer was headed for a horse auction one winter’s day in the mid-1950’s, but arrived too late to bid.  Instead he saw a dirty white plow horse headed for slaughter and bought him for $80 just to save the horse’s life.  Snowman went on to become a national jumping champion two years later, after de Leyer discovered the horse loved to jump, and was unnaturally steady and calm.  In the world of horse jumping in the years after WWII, money and image were everything, and the combination of a young Dutch immigrant farmer paired with a workhorse not known for his looks made a most unlikely pair. An engaging story, well told.

 

9780156031172_p0_v2_s114x166Chosen by a Horse, by Susan Richards

Another Cinderella horse story (is there any other kind?), this memoir captured my interest because both the horse being rescued and the woman who rescues had been abused. Richards, who entered her 40’s with a lot of baggage–years of previous addiction, an abusive family and ex-husband–was asked to rescue an abused mare named Lay Me Down and her foal. Already caring for three horses, Richards was somewhat reluctant to take on two more, especially ones that came with such a rough history.  But she soon discovered that her new rescue had more trust and vulnerability than she did, and healing began.  Now there is not an animal story that I know of that does not involve loss, and this is no different. This memoir is a quick read, flows smoothly, and may seem like it could be easily forgotten later. But it sticks.

 

The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss

We have sold so many copies of this book at Darvill’s, I would be surprised if you don’t9780547085753_p0_v2_s114x166 already own it; it is a long-time staff favorite. Set in Eastern Oregon in 1917, at a time when local men were going off to war, a young Martha Lessen showed up at the Bliss’s ranch looking for work breaking horses. George, the ranch owner, thinks he sees something unique in the shy 19 year old and gives her a chance. She has a serious intelligence, and gentle way with the most recalcitrant animals, a style we have come to know as a “horse whisperer”.  This style earns her both new friends and an enemy in the form of another ranch hand who is abusive and insensitive. This story lacks the sentimentality and sappiness of many an animal story–fiction or not.  Instead, Gloss has told a story both familiar and fresh, with a wry wit to boot. It is a real winner! 

 

Painted Horses, by Malcolm Brooks

9780802121646_p0_v3_s114x166A debut by an author with much potential, I believe, set in mid-1950’s rural Montana.  A young female archeologist is sent to Billings to survey the site of a dam about to be built, to determine if native artifacts are present before the dam is filled.  She is naive, maybe a bit too much so, yet wary.  Her character is not as fully developed as I would have hoped, yet the book delivers a strong sense of place and time (I thought of Cormac McCarthy, particularly his take on horse culture).  Brooks’ gift of that spare yet lush description of the West, its rawness and beauty, is evident throughout.  He evokes the kind of change that has a dark underside to it and has always been present in the history of the West: those who want it to stay the way it was, and those who thirst for development. This story, enhanced by characters who represent both sides of that classic western drama, is lovely and makes me nostalgic for the days when I first discovered authors like Zane Grey and Ivan Doig.

 

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand

Still another rags to riches story, this one set in the depression era when people needed9780449005613_p0_v1_s114x166  fantasy so badly. Although Seabiscuit had patrician bloodlines (a descendant of Man O’ War), his legs were misshapen and he had a strange gait.  But four men, particularly trainer Tom Smith, saw the potential in the horse and trained him to overcome his handicaps, accidents and injuries he suffered as he progressed in his racing career.  The highlight of his story was a 1938 race against his acclaimed rival, War Admiral. Hillenbrand is a remarkable writer–passionate and involved with her subjects. She is also famous for Unbroken, which has dominated the best seller list for over four years, and was recently made into a movie.  This book set the stage for her to write Unbroken, and it spent over a year on the best seller list itself.  Well deserved!

 

 

 

Book Recommendations–Memorable Memoirs

Of all the genres one could read, biography and memoir has to be my favorite.  There is nothing quite so fascinating to me as someone else’s life story, or parts of a life story.  Memoirs in particular seem to resound with the strongest emotional landscapes, as they are recounted by the person who has experienced them. Besides my all-time favorite (if I had to choose only one) Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams, here are more titles that stayed with me long after I closed the books.

 

Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje

9780679746690_p0_v2_s114x166I am particularly enamored with Ondaatje’s poetry  (Rat Jelly 1973, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid 1970), but most readers may remember him more for The English Patient.  Yet what remains most strongly in my mind is his semi-fictional memoir about his childhood in Sri Lanka, where he lived until he was eleven. Wildly exotic, outrageously laughable and elegantly presented, this memoir has been further embellished with a sprinkling of the author’s lovely poems and old family photographs. The story unfolds in a non-linear arc; there are short vignettes and family stories rather than a classic narrative style. It written after Ondaatje visited his native country in the 1970’s (he is Canadian, born of a Dutch mother and Sinhalese/Tamil father).  Charming, exotic, and bittersweet, plus written by an acclaimed writer who deserves all the awards bestowed upon him over the years.

 

A Match to the Heart, by Gretel Ehrlich

An acclaimed nature writer, Erlich deserves to be more widely read.   This 9780140179378_p0_v1_s114x166breathtaking memoir, about being hit by lightning years ago during a storm near her Wyoming ranch, was published in 1994. It is part thriller, part medical science, and a wholly human story.  Erlich struggles to understand what happened to her, after realizing she is in a hospital, and how to heal against  huge odds.  She is aided by an immensely talented and perceptive cardiologist, and an immensely perceptive dog in her healing.  For anyone who has had heart surgery, her description of the process (the lightning did the most damage to her heart) should be required reading.  And for the rest of us, it is a fantastic story of a near-death experience, coupled with her luminous nature writing.

 

9780553354829_p0_v1_s114x166An Unknown Woman, by Alice Koller

When I discovered this book years ago (published in 1981) I was jealous of the journey Koller was undertaking at age 37.  It sounded almost romantic–alone with a new puppy in a rental house on Nantucket, walking daily by the sea in winter, virtually cut off from the outside world.  Then I realized–I would have to face myself and my thoughts day after day after day.  And train a new puppy. No thanks!  However, Koller’s story is not romantic; it is insightful, brave and wholly convincing. What she does, in short, is to analyze herself during this withdrawal from the world: the pain of past relationships and mistakes, what she contributed to those challenges in her life, and what she decided to change. The story is laced with her observations about a newly developing love for her dog, which gives it empathic comic relief. While we do not find out what happens to her once she returns to civilization after a number of months, that seems unimportant in the context of this “woman’s Walden”.

 

West with the Night, by Beryl Markham

Considered a classic, and well-loved for years, I cannot review this genre9780865477636_p0_v1_s114x166 without including this story that I so cherish, and bookstores (particularly Darvill’s) still carry. Even  Ernest Hemingway proclaimed himself “ashamed of myself as a writer” when comparing Markham’s writing to his own. She was a remarkably able and brave young woman who was born in England, grew up in East Africa, then became an aviator.  From 1931 to 1936 she carried mail, passengers and supplies to and from Kenya, the Sudan, Rhodesia and Tanganyika, and in 1936 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.  If there are any among you who have not read this treasure, please consider yourself intellectually impoverished.  But there is a quick and delightful cure for such an affliction!

 

In the Wilderness, by Kim Barnes

9780385478212_p0_v1_s114x166Barnes, an award-winning poet from Idaho, wrote this memoir of growing up in a logging camp in the northern Idaho forests, from which she has created a rugged and tender story.  Life as a young girl was steeped in poverty, yet joyful and free as she and her family explored nature and made their home in the woods.  As logging started to decline in the 1960’s, her father lost his job and moved the family to Lewiston, where he tried to assuage his anger and hurt at losing his work by turning to a pentecostal religion.  From playing in the woods and exploring with abandon to adopting paternalistic and rigidly enforced rules, Barnes felt she had to rebel against her family’s change.  Eventually, she went to live with with a family who, who helped her move from rebellion to reconciling with her family with less judgment and more maturity and understanding.  Beautifully written and deeply moving, it is both a coming of age story and one about the profound effects of economic and cultural change.

 

Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton

I admit it, I am a fool for almost anything by May Sarton; poet, fiction writer and creator of some of the most honest and fascinating memoirs.  Sarton (1912-1995) kept9780393309287_p0_v1_s114x166 journals for most of her literary life, and published many of them.  This was probably her best-selling non-fiction title, and I found it strangely comforting, gentle and quiet.  But Sarton was living and writing in a different time and a very different world.  She muses on her writing, visits with (or from) friends, gardening, birds, weather, and particularly the vagaries of her own personality.  Known as a “difficult” person, Sarton tries to mine her own emotional landscape for clues as to how to behave with others, and that is part of her journal’s appeal. She can make the most mundane of daily activities seem fascinating and enriching. I also loved Plant Dreaming Deep and The House by the Sea.

 

 

Book Recommendations–Important Ideas

It may seem like a strange topic for the holidays, but the gifts that books bring into my life are most precious when they stretch my thinking, challenge old beliefs, and put into words the feelings I have that are too complex or deep to be able to articulate. There are many original thinkers and writers out there: these are only a very few of my favorites. So this is my holiday “gift” to those of you who like to read widely–a list of books, most fairly recent, that have given me new insights into life’s many ideas.

 

The Human Age, by Diane Ackerman

9780393240740_p0_v2_s114x166Ackerman is one of those writers whose subjects, mostly scientific, explore her boundless interest in how humans “work” in the world.   Here, she tackles the deeply important question of how humans have changed the world; how the intersection of people and nature have made for both innovation and extinction.   She optimistically explores innovations in farming, such as the exploding popularity of organic and rooftop farming in urban-landscaped places such as Manhattan. She also examines human innovations using energy sources such as wind, solar and even body heat.  She is less optimistic, and rightly so, about the changes in animal species and their longevity as a result of intersecting with humans. And where, she asks, is the charm in inventions such as robotics?  Her conclusion: there are a lot of tradeoffs and this is the world as we get to experience it–for good and ill.  Ackerman always writes with both charm and intelligence, which is what has kept me reading her books for years.

 

Justice, by Michael Sandel

When I first read this book a few years ago, I knew it was an important book–very important.9780374532505_p0_v1_s114x166 And so do thousands of others, based on how widely distributed the contents have become.  Sandel, a Harvard professor of political philosophy since 1980, has become a celebrity (with standing room only classes and a PBS series based on the book), partly because of the topic of this book, subtitled “What’s the Right Thing to Do?”  Sandel explores the ethical issues, where no black and white answers may prevail, to contemporary topics such as military conscription, affirmative action, same-sex marriage and surrogate parenting.  He explains, in empathetic and open-minded terms, theories of justice based on maximizing personal freedom, minimizing social harm, and concern for developing collective civic virtue.  He wants his students, in particular, to grasp that ethical concerns are difficult to juggle, and that there is no “perfect” answer, mostly hard choices.

 

9781555976897_p0_v1_s114x166On Immunity, by Eula Biss

For all the screeching from pro and con sides of the vaccine debate (fueled partly by the fear that vaccines have contributed to the soaring rates of autism), here at last is not only a history of vaccines but an intelligent look at all sides of the issue.  Why I decided to pick up a book on the subject has to do with the fact that I have been advised not to have any more vaccines, due to an immune illness several years ago. Biss deserves kudos for not only the uniqueness of her subject, but her dogged pursuit of all sides of the issue, and profiles of people involved such as scientists, patients, and political decision-makers. Who would believe me if I told them a book on immunity was one of my top picks among the books I read this year?  Science has many skilled and imaginative writers now days, and Biss is a writer to be watched.  This book provided me with an education of the most intriguing kind.

 

The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

This is one of the most unique books I have come across in a long, long time–a collection of essays that explore the many aspects of empathy–both from the author’s own experience and that of others.  I would Empathy-Exams-Jamison-200x300call it a brave book. Jamison’s stories encompass a huge range of examples of empathy, from deeply graceful to exceedingly painful.  She starts with her own experience as a “medical actor”, helping medical students learn to carefully listen and diagnose from scripted symptoms.  Violence and crime, reality television, extremely painful illness, tourism in a country of dire poverty–I was constantly astounded at the depth of this writer’s intelligence and compassion (and she looks so young in her cover photo!).  I have recently been seeing this important book appear on lists of the year’s best non-fiction, and it is tremendously well-deserved.  Take a plunge here, and I am sure you will be impressed too.

 

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Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

So far there is not a book or column (NY Times) of Gawande’s that I have not read with great interest–and as a top-rated physician, he is in a unique position to write about modern medicine. I think this book is his best, and most important. Half of the book concerns living options as we age–and how we can age with more choices and self-respect.  The  second part concerns how we can die with dignity. One of his major points is that the amazing advances in medical care in the past century have left most health care providers with a laser focus on saving a life, and almost none on the quality of life  the patient will have after being subjected to those techniques.  It is the subject of conversation we all should be having with our loved ones and each other–it is a subject whose time is unconscionably overdue, and Gawande brings great credibility and passion to the subject.

 

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Of all the books that have been recommended to me about why a person would want to live–this is the classic.  I am sure9780807014295_p0_v1_s114x166 most of you have read it at some time, but I would be remiss if I did not include it as one of the books that has a place of great importance in my life. Named one of the ten most influential books in the world, it chronicles the experience of Viennese psychologist Frankl in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.  What Frankl noticed, in particular, was that some less hardy people survived when others who were not as ill and starving died.  He came up with his theory, that those with meaning, or hope in their lives had a greater chance at survival. Called logotherapy, it promotes three methods of discovering meaning: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude a person takes toward unavoidable suffering. No wonder the book has sold over 12 million copies!

 

Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

9780393317558_p0_v1_s114x166In my opinion, Diamond is a truly original thinker, and I have read this book and watched the PBS version of it with utter fascination.  His theory that three of the major influences on the rise of civilization and survival of societies have been geography, environment and the ability to develop tools and technology (not to worry, germs are not left out! While ambitious in scope (it covers human history since the ice age), it is intellectually intriguing, and has given rise to many spirited discussions among those who have read it.  Instead of attributing Eurasian influence and domination to racial or intellectual causes, he makes the case that those who could produce their own food and tools, leaving behind the hunter-gatherer life that most humans maintained for centuries, had the greatest opportunity to travel and conquer other peoples. When Diamond writes a book or article, I tackle it with gusto.