Book Recommendations–Marriage

Since getting married this past summer for the second time in my life, the subject of marriage has been on my mind a lot.  I often wonder what marriage actually is: mostly a financial contract, a steady undying love, a deep, deep friendship, a caring of another person and being cared for in return, a respectability hideout, an antiquated political or religious institution?  All of the above? The topic is rich and varied. Here are some favorite reads that cover a wide range of the above aspects of an old tradition that does not seem to be dying out, regardless of the reasons for entering into it.

 

9781594634475_p0_v3_s118x184Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

Marriage from both sides is vividly delineated in this award winner from Groff, author of acclaimed novels Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton.  One may not have to think too hard about which side is the “furies”.  The “fates” part of the story features the husband, Lotto, an actor from a wealthy family who struggles before finally becoming a famous playwright (somewhat by accident rather than hard work and talent). He marries the striking and regal Mathilde (the “furies” part), who had been his classmate at Vassar.  She adores him, supporting and smoothing the way for him both before and during his career rise, but she also keeps some deep secrets from him. And one cannot disregard the sex in this book: Groff throws her best and nearly limitless prose at it like a blizzard. Her writing almost overwhelms at times, yet it is also impossible to ignore. The writing and surprises and sudden curves at the end make it a most unique read.

 

By the Iowa Sea, by Joe Blair9781451636062_p0_v3_s118x184

What stuck me so strongly about this memoir was its unadorned, brutal honesty about a man’s mid-life affair, and its impact on him, his wife and children. When Joe and Deb got married, they jumped on a motorcycle and took the whirlwind trip of their dreams.  They then settled in Iowa City, bought a small house had four children (one severely autistic), then discovered their golden dreams turned dull and rusty. Joe’s challenging family life finally led him to have a brief affair.  Why and how he went back to his family was riveting, painful and courageous. I have often wondered what the “guts” of infidelity must feel like, and how it would affect a marriage. This beautifully written memoir has echoed again and again in my consciousness. I keep wondering what Joe’s wife felt upon reading this story; there are obviously two courageous people in this vivid, memorable memoir.

 

iuMrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell9781593760601_p0_v1_s118x184

Favorites from years ago (Mrs. was first published in 1959, and Mr. ten years later). Set just before WWII in an upper middle class family in the Midwest, it would be easy to underestimate the depth and nuance of both characters.  Mr. Bridge is a successful lawyer, who is all about gaining affluence and respectability in his community.  Mrs. Bridge, a traditional housewife seems weak, passive, and unaware when first introduced. Yet Connell ‘s understated writing and droll wit captures the characters and their times perfectly.  Also made into a lovely movie a number of years ago with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as the Mr. and Mrs.  Read the books, see the movie, or better yet, do both: they are that closely matched!

 

9780393341744_p0_v3_s118x184One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman

If ever there was a beautiful testament to married love and deep friendship, it was this story of acclaimed author Ackerman and her care for her novelist husband Paul West after his debilitating stroke at age 74.  They had met when he was a literature professor at Penn State, and she a somewhat hippie undergraduate.  Together, they explored and kindled each other’s passion for words and writing. So it was an ironic tragedy that West’s stroke affected the language center of his brain, and he was not expected to recover.  Ackerman has explored the realm of the mind before, in her 2004 book An Alchemy of Mind. But this very different challenge was not academic–it was a fight for his survival, his ability to recover communication and a fight for their marriage.  Ackerman’s work to help her husband heal and recover is breathtaking in its energy and stamina and unequaled in its commitment.  Now this is a true love story.

 

The Journal of Best Practices, by David Finch9781439189740_p0_v1_s118x184

What if your marriage partner sat you down at a computer one night and made you take an online test that would change your life?  Finch experienced just that when his wife confronted him with the fact that she thought he might have Asperger Syndrome.  He was 30 years old, his work life was successful, but after five years his marriage was in shambles.  He “passed” the Asperger test, and found he was relieved to find an explanation for challenges like his “clinical strength inflexibility”, his meltdowns in social situations, and his inability or unwillingness to communicate in general. Finch decided to embark on a self-help plan by keeping a notebook of the things he needed to change, doing journaling, and having “performance feedback” with his wife. The story is at once hilarious, poignant, and demonstrates that marriage challenges can be mastered if both parties are equally committed. Unique and charming.

 

9780307277893_p0_v1_s118x184Nothing Was the Same, by Kay Redfield Jamison

In many memoirs, the wider view of what a marriage has meant and how it worked does not happen until one loses a spouse. Hence the popularity of memoirs such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. For Jamison, who has written several brilliant books (An Unquiet Mind,  Exuberance, and Night Falls Fast), the loss of her second husband was devastating. She married Dr. Richard Wyatt, a noted authority on schizophrenia, in 1994. He was diagnosed as having inoperable cancer fifteen years after they were married, and died in 2002.  By any standards, it was a warm, loving marriage, challenged by Jamison’s long diagnosed bi-polar disorder, for which she was treated. Her mental illness stretched the bonds of their relationship many times, yet their marriage was rich and full, both professionally (both were doctors in the mental health field) and personally.  Jamison’s portrayal of Wyatt is fully fleshed out–I felt like I had known him and lost a valued scientist and friend. And her journey after his death is nuanced and just as full, trying to keep mentally balanced while riding the tidal waves of her grief.  Excellent!

 

Also recommended:  Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill; Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, by Phyllis Rose, Then Comes Marriage, by Robert Kaplan with Lisa Dickey.

 

 

 

 

Book Recommendations–Books about Books

 

If there is a favorite avocation of mine, it is discovering titles that I have not yet read, have forgotten about, or never heard of:  that is the reason I hang out in bookstores and libraries so much.  The fabulous (and my former SPL co-worker) Nancy Pearl has done all readers a great favor by publishing her three Book Lust volumes, and there are more of my favorite “books about books” below.  I recommend not trying all these at once, lest you become so overwhelmed with suggestions you cannot ever decide what to read.

 

9781846682667_p0_v1_s192x300Howards End is on the Landing: a Year of Reading from Home, by Susan Hill

Charming and meandering (in the best sense of both words), is this 2010 memoir about reading, by well-known British author (the Simon Serrailler crime series) and blogger Susan Hill. While looking for a book she had”misplaced” one day, Hill realized that she had enough books at home she had not yet read (who can imagine!?) to last at least a year.  “I wanted to repossess my books,” she wrote, “to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading.” Her choices were varied and eclectic, if decidedly British:  books by Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Elizabeth Bowen, George Orwell and many others.  Her comments about Iris Murdoch not being read very much anymore are ones I agree with, yet lots of people giving her feedback on her book blog disagreed.  Yes, the book was very satisfying, as it reminds me there are many others who also can’t possibly read all the books they buy and stack around the house.

 

Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores, Hans Weyandt, editor

Many of the greatest indie bookstores in the US are featured in this compact and valuable Read-this-97815668931381-370x535guidebook to reading, compiled in 2012 and published by Coffee House press.  You could not ask for a better list when looking for a great read in a library, bookstore, or online.  Small and compact, it will fit in a back pocket or purse, and covers booksellers from 25 top independent bookstores.  Each bookstore owner is briefly interviewed, the bookstore described, and lists of 20-50 of their favorite recommendations.  Just last week, I was inspired to pick up two titles I had not yet read:  James Agee’s A Death in the Family, and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. What amazing reads! What eclectic picks!

 

9781631490675_p0_v2_s192x300The World Between Two Covers, by Ann Morgan

Morgan, a book blogger and author, decided in 2012 that she would read one book from every country during the course of a year (196+ books!) because she felt she was too limited in her reading. But unlike many books about books, this explores the ideas around thinking about what you read, and why you read it, rather than recapping each book she chose. One of the unique aspects of this book is how difficult it was for her to find publishers and examples from each country, which reinforces how Anglo-centric the publishing world remains. A few examples are rather unimaginative (James Joyce representing Ireland, for example). But most were unfamiliar to me, and will open up a “whole new world” for any adventurous reader. There is a list in the back of the book with the titles and countries they represent, and I counted over 180 authors and titles I have yet to explore. Such potential riches!

 

By the Book; Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the NYT Book Review, Pamela Paul, editor

I slavishly read the column “By the Book” in the New York Times Book Review9781250074690_p0_v3_s192x300 every Sunday, and am seldom disappointed.  Of course, reading the columns only prompts me to add to my bulging list of “books I have not read but must do so soon”.  On the plus side, I find out more about favorite authors and am never bored reading the answers to questions such as “what books are overrated, disappointing or just not good”.  Some 65 of these columns have been collected in book form, complete with the articulate drawings of authors by Jillian Tamaki.  I can pretty much guarantee you will find these articles fascinating, enlightening, and you will come away with your own list of books you will want to (or not want to) read.  Great book for  book groups, too.

 

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

9780140143508_p0_v1_s192x300 I would have felt ashamed to leave this title off the list. There must be a few of you readers out there who have not read it; it is short and lovely. And those of us who have read it should re-read it every few years.  A true story, the book consists of letters between Hanff, a rather flamboyant American writer searching for cheap books, and Frank Doel, and rather staid and buttoned-up antiquarian English bookstore (Marks & Company) employee. The correspondence between them lasted from 1949 through the mid-1960s, and beautifully illuminates their different personalities, tastes in literature, and growing friendship.  Hanff ultimately became friends with Doel’s wife and other bookstore employees. Another enlightening aspect of the book are the discussions about politics and cultural changes happening in both England and the United States after WWII. A beloved classic!

 

When Books Went to War, by Molly Guptill Manning

Because my own father was in WWII, and often wrote to my Mom about what he was9780544570405_p0_v2_s118x184 reading, I sometimes wondered if he had access to a library while in the Army. So this book caught my eye when published a couple of years ago.  What an eye-opener!  I knew that the Nazi had burned 100 million books starting in the early 1930’s as a way to exert their own agenda.  But I had no idea that librarians, in an uproar over the book burnings, collected 20 million hardback books to send to U.S. troops.  Then in 1943 the War Department and the publishing industry enlarged the program by producing 120 million lightweight paperbacks to distribute to troops. Called Armed Services Editions, the list of authors and titles (in the back of this book) is amazing.  And just as amazing is the list of authors “banned” by the government for printing and distribution. A fascinating read, for anyone interested in history.

 

 

Book Recommendations–Black Lives (more than) Matter

Growing up in a small, WASPy town, I had no idea of what slavery was, and what black lives were like until I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in sixth grade.  It had a profound impact on me, and I began to support the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. There are so many amazing writers of the black experience; I feel I have only begun to scratch the surface. I have already reviewed three titles in this blog that were the most resonant for me: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Jesmyn Ward’s  Salvage the Bones. Much of the best American literature and art has been born out of America’s agonizing legacy of racism. Here are some of my recent favorites that deliver a variety of perspectives about being black in America.

 

9781608197651_p0_v4_s192x300Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Ward wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, Salvage the Bones; this was her first non-fiction, equally poignant and remarkable.  Five young black men who were close to her died within a four year period, and her reactions to those losses are skillfully woven into this memoir of her growing up in the bayou country of Louisiana. This narrative is not for the faint of heart–but for those who want to read an exceptionally well-written story and also learn the reality of the fate of so many black men in America (one in ten is the statistic she quotes).  She reveals the complexities of gender in this story–the black women are protective, angry and disappointed in both their men and the poverty and racism that continues to spawn these astounding losses. Her mood is melancholy, yet deeply compassionate. An important and top rated memoir.

 

Black Man in a White Coat, by Damon Tweedy, M.D.9781250044631_p0_v3_s192x300

Here is a take on being black in America that I hadn’t thought about before–the trials of becoming a doctor, then encountering and understanding the unique needs of black patients.  Tweedy describes his medical schooling with a unique blend of humility and intelligence (after all, he had to be exceptionally bright to even be accepted into medical school).  There were enough challenges in that, but even more when he became a practicing physician, encountering diseases and high mortality rates unique to the rural, mostly black impoverished communities he often served.  That blacks suffer more hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and many other severe conditions at earlier ages than whites should not surprise, but Tweedy’s encounters with the epidemic proportions of those conditions does.  He illustrates this with personal stories that shock more than a battery of statistics would, yet he has a grace and humanity about him that made me believe everything he wrote was no exaggeration. And he made me wish he were able to be my doctor.

 

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

9780679744726_p0_v1_s118x184I have loved Baldwin since an English teacher in college introduced his work and built a whole semester exploring his writings. Reading Baldwin taught me how to compose an essay, and he is still considered a master of the form. But I have trouble picking my favorite–Giovanni’s Room, a haunting love story, Another Country, a novel of tortured relationships and alienation, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, among others.  But this book, originally published as a two-part essay in the New Yorker, was the one that catapulted Baldwin into America’s public eye as an early spokesperson for the civil rights movement.  The long essay also explores the tenuous and uneasy relationship between the Black Muslim movement in America and Christianity. Baldwin had lived in France for a number of years by this time, and his distance from the US seemed to give him a perspective and credibility in his writing and speaking that helped him become such a well-known figure. I reread this book after Between the World and Me, to compare and contrast. I highly recommend doing the same, as they are a stunning pair.

 

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

Though I knew the old hymn “….John Brown’s body lies…” and had read about the Civil War in school, I knew very little about Brown’s work and the raid on Harper’s Ferry9781594632785_p0_v2_s118x184 that ultimately led to the start of that war.  This imaginative book is hilarious and true to the history of abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  Brown charged clumsily into slave territory, armed with his personal edict from God and an unusual assortment of slaves who were motivated to follow him for various reasons.  The story is told by a naive yet witty young male slave, Henry, who passes for “Henrietta” with his own story to tell about gender issues and a unique perspective on Brown and other famous black abolitionists that are portrayed along the way.  This disarming and vivid novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013–more than well-deserved.

 

9781476731919_p0_v2_s192x300The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs

When Robert Peace, who was raised by a single mother in a poverty and crime-ridden neighborhood outside Newark, won a full scholarship to Yale, the hope and ambition that accompanied him was profound.  Peace was extremely bright and had worked hard to realize the dream of a way out of his upbringing.  Many a sociologist has pointed to education as the way out of “the life”, yet the prescription is not so simple, as evidenced in this fascinating and tragic story.  Peace’s college roommate wrote this to try to make sense of what went wrong: how Peace graduated from Yale and returned home to teach at the high school he had attended in New Jersey.  He was known as an involved, hands-on teacher.  Yet underneath Peace’s life of seeming accomplishment was the pull of the streets and dealing drugs. First quietly selling to fellow students at Yale, then back in his old neighborhood. Peace was dead by age 30.  The emotional and spiritual complexities of dividing his life between two worlds took a toll that was devastating.  There are no easy answers here, but it does not mean there are no answers. Hobbs has rendered a remarkable portrait of this unforgettable life.

 

Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball

Ball’s book, the National Book Award Winner for non-fiction in 1998, still stands out 9780374534455_p0_v1_s118x184in my mind as an extremely brave and important look at slavery and its aftermath.  Ball’s family several generations back were owners of one of the largest rice plantations in the South (South Carolina), owning thousands of acres and thousands of slaves between the 1700’s until after the Civil War. When Ball’s father died, Edward started investigating one of the family “secrets” his father had alluded to–the fact that the family had owned slaves.  Ball’s impeccable research and determination to meet and interview families who had descended from those slaves could not be more gripping.  This is American history at its core–a powerful story, seldom told, and needing to be told more often.  Feelings about the legacy of slavery in the families Ball encountered during his research were varied and complex, and Ball’s own feelings of guilt and shame took unexpected turns.  Unforgettable!

 

Also on my reading list, to be reviewed later:

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

This Bridge Called My Back, by Cherrie Moraga

 

Book Recommendations–Best of 2015

This is the time of year that every newspaper, web site, magazine and public radio station announces their “favorite books of the year”, so who am I to not chime in with my opinion, too?  More of my favorite reads this past year (not all were published in 2015) are non-fiction, but there are a couple of standouts in the fiction category too.  My reviews of each are shorter this month, so I could list more titles. A couple I have already reviewed in previous posts, so I include the date of the review.  Enjoy, if you have not read any of these, or if you did, I hope you loved them also.

 

9780385539258_p0_v1_s118x184A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

The top of my list of fiction reads–Yanagihara follows the lives of four young men, close friends from college, in a story that fascinates, troubles, and exposes the emotional exertion  it takes to find and nurture deep, intimate relationships. Just beautiful;  Yanagihara writes so effortlessly, mining the lives of four memorable characters that I will never forget.

 

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson9780312424404_p0_v5_s118x184

It took reading Lila  (National Book Award finalist in fiction, 2014) this year for me to then pick up Gilead (2005 Pulitzer Prize), part of a trilogy that follows the life of a small town preacher from the Midwest. There is so much to think about in this story, that I found myself rereading passages, putting it down to contemplate the rich ideas and language, then reading it again. I can hardly wait to tackle Home (the other book in this trio).

 

9780316176538_p0_v3_s118x184A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A follow-up story to Atkinson’s rewarding book Life After Life, this story (reviewed in June 2015’s blog), follows the life of Teddy Todd from that previous novel.  A WWII pilot who miraculously survives the war, Teddy returns to civilian life  to cobble together a “normal” existence,  including marrying and having a child, then grandchildren.  The character of Teddy’s child is particularly complex and fascinating.  A sprawling and really engaging novel of post-war England.

 

A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin9780374202392_p0_v2_s118x184

Berlin’s name is not one many (including myself) may recognize, but she deserves to be on a small list of top short story writers with Carver, Munro, et al.  Her stories in this collection alternate emotions and sensory details swiftly and smoothly–just when you relax into one scene, it changes and whisks you away to someplace else.  Comic and tragic, the stories reflect many of the lives she herself has lived. Wow, was all I could say after reading each one!

 

9780812993547_p0_v4_s118x184Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A most important non-fiction book of the year for me, and many others, judging from its continuing success on the best seller lists.  I, for one, cannot imaging what it must be like to be a black man in America (or almost any country).  Coates writes this as a letter/manifesto to his son, telling him what it is like for him to live in almost constant physical and mental fear and anger. He does not sugar-coat his experience. It should be required reading!

 

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande9780805095159_p0_v5_s118x184

See my blog post from June 2015 for a review of this book, which I highly recommended for everyone!  One of Gawande’s 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 and medications. Prolong life, yet at what cost?

 

9780393089998_p0_v1_s192x300All the Wild that Remains, by David Gessner

Part biography of the famous writers Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, part travelog, and part environmental protest, this was the best nature/philosophy book that I read this year.  Abbey (the renegade) and Stegner (the professor) knew each other and did not always rub elbows fondly, but the story of their individual impacts on environmental activism reminded me how much they each have influenced stewardship of the enormous, arid, stunning land that is the West.

 

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald9780802123411_p0_v4_s118x184

Probably my favorite in the non-fiction category, this razor-sharp memoir about the author’s loss of her father, and her determination to train a hawk as a diversionary (healing) action is a truly original story.  Macdonald slyly intertwines T. H. White’s chronicle (1951) The Goshawk into her memoir.  His experience with the same kind of bird, and his struggles to train the bird with traditional, rather than modern techniques fascinated and challenged Macdonald, who had her own set of struggles and rewards while working with hers.

 

Book Recommendations–Fascinating Lives

During much of my early reading career in grade school, I devoured a series of biographies of famous people–Daniel Boone, Clara Barton, Abe Lincoln, Madame Curie, all bound in blue cloth library editions. My love of biography and memoir, particularly about unusual but not always well-known people, has only increased over the years. About a third of my reading each year is in these two genres. This is a group of books about people whose stories fascinated me, most of which have been recently published.

 

9780062225078_p0_v2_s118x184Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming

Well who doesn’t love Cumming–the hair, the dimples, the accent, his coy yet masculine presence–so I was drawn to this memoir for the wrong reasons.  And I loved the cover picture!  Yes, covers do sell books, as not all publishers have yet figured out.  But the story of his childhood at the hands of an abusive, mentally ill father, and his career as an actor were beautifully interwoven  in this book, and I had the additional joy of listening to the book on CD, narrated by the author.  It made it an exceptionally nuanced and emotionally honest experience for me as a reader.  Cumming was raised on one of the large estates in Scotland, where his father was employed as a forester, before the break-up of that economic system. Just when the story about his childhood gets too dark or heavy, he moves forward, to his blossoming career, his relationship with his mother and brother, and his steps to healing. Neither sentimental nor emotionally manipulative, Cumming’s book is a standout in the very crowded, competitive field of memoir.

 

It’s What I Do, by Lynsey Addario

Subtitled: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, Addario’s book is unique because it 9781594205378_p0_v1_s118x184intimately describes a person torn between having a relationship and family AND doing what she is passionate about.  This was one of a small handful of my favorite books this year.  Addario’s photography assignments ranged widely: civilians, troops and doctors during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, transvestite prostitutes in New York City, and HIV epidemic victims in Africa, are a few examples.  Addario’s often mysterious photographs of the ordinary are liberally scattered thoughout the book, adding strength to her story. And the heart of her story is her struggle to find and maintain a loving relationship and keep her career, which she does in time. She meets a French journalist who understood her choice and its inherent risks, and fully supported her need to do it.  In time they marry, have a child, and Addario is further challenged to adjust to this new reality.  Buy it for the photographs alone!

 

Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan

9781594203473_p0_v1_s118x184Here I go again with another surfing story–I can’t seem to resist any of them. (See earlier blog titled “On the Water”).  Finnegan was one of those early pioneers of the fabled surfing life of Southern California and Hawai’i in the 60’s, and while the story certainly details his peripatetic life, it is also a fascinating social history of the time period. For those who are not absolutely addicted to the surfing life, there are parts of the book, particularly the second half, that may become somewhat tedious.  However, I highly recommend hanging on, as there are two particular misadventures (one in Portugal and another in San Francisco) that were so compelling I found myself clinging to the armrest (white knuckles, yet) and biting my fingernails.  Finnegan is a well-respected and seasoned writer for The New Yorker and author of four other books, and his prose style reflects this writing experience.  If you are an arm-chair traveller and love water, you will find this book unique and enthralling.

 

Savage Beauty, by Nancy Milford

There was rarely a feeling or situation while  growing up that Edna St. Vincent9780375760815_p0_v1_s118x184 Millay’s poetry did not perfectly illuminate for me. So when this biography was published in 2002, I bought it immediately.  Millay’s life, which I had not read much about when studying her poetry in high school, surprised me.  She was a complex figure: part feminist, part free spirit who seemed to indulge in all her impulses, having affairs with men and women, married or not. But she was always her own person, totally dedicated to her art, and very famous during her lifetime. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1923, so she was well-known during her lifetime.  Milford was also the author of a first-rate biography of Zelda Fitzgerald; she picks fascinating subjects and fleshes them out without sentimentality or over-exaggeration.

 

Hold Still, by Sally Mann

9780316247764_p0_v2_s118x184Mann and her photography have been controversial for the past 3o years of her career, in part because of her photographs of her young children, often taken naked. She works primarily in black and white, and has been showing her work in major galleries and publishing books of her photographs for many years.  What struck me about this book, a combination memoir, photography retrospective and family and cultural history set in the South, was the quality of her writing.  It compliments her striking photographs perfectly, with wit, fearlessness, and stranger- than-science-fiction stories of her ancestors and their own secret histories.  Mann was brought up “somewhat feral, somewhat intellectual” by parents who believed in benign neglect and lots of freedom for their children.  So it is no surprise that Mann’s career reflects many of the same values. This is not a coffee table book to browse and put down to be dusted, but a book to delve into deeply, and revel in its many secrets and surprises. It will show up on many of the “best book” lists this year.

 

On the Move, by Oliver Sacks

I cannot confess to being a huge fan of Oliver Sacks, or even reading most of his 9780385352543_p0_v2_s118x184numerous books.  However, the cover of his memoir, published shortly before his death this year, caught my eye.  Who is this man, dressed in leathers and buff of body on a hot motorcycle, claiming to be Sacks?  Indeed the man’s life was full of surprises and contradictions like that. As a young doctor, he emigrated to the U.S. from England, settling in San Francisco, a young gay man exploring his sexuality and struggling to find a job as a doctor in a place that suited his interests and abilities.  Although his writing style is often choppy (just as you think he has revealed all about 1967, he adds another memory), flowing back and forth between continents and years, it was still fascinating.  How could this man accomplish so much in the short life span we are given?  Body builder, avid motorcycle rider, English scholar, “brain” doctor, writer and many other obsessions describe him, a talented and multi-faceted person. I came away with new respect.