Review: Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, by Gwen Cooper

A friend and fellow cat lover gave me this book for Christmas last year, and I admit I put off reading it because I feared cuteness overload.  But after two less than satisfying reads, I was in the mood for something very different.  This fit the bill, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Gwen Cooper was a young aspiring author when she adopted Homer, a kitten who lost both his eyes because of a severe infection.  She was experienced with rescue cats, but not with a special needs cat like Homer.  But Homer quickly demonstrated he didn’t need sight to live a full life.  He got along well with Gwen’s two other cats, and easily found his way around her apartment, relying on hearing and smell to find things. He was playful and affectionate in a way uncommon to cats, and endeared himself to all who met him.

What Gwen didn’t realize, as she cared for Homer’s basic needs, was how much he was supporting her journey into adulthood.  As she struggled to find consistent employment, Homer was there for her.  He defended her against danger (really!  I’m still not sure how they made it through that situation safely).  When Gwen decided to pull up stakes and  move from Miami to New York City (no small feat with three cats in tow), Homer helped Gwen to see that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, and not let others limit your potential.  The one area where he wasn’t much help was in her relationships with men, most of whom seemed put off by a woman who had three (count ’em!) cats.  But eventually, that all works out, too.

As I said, this book could have suffered from cuteness, but it didn’t.  It also could have suffered from pretentiousness, but it didn’t, mostly.  Her writing is good, if a bit repetitive.  There was one point where it seemed Gwen was going to pull out all the melodramatic stops and I thought, “oh, don’t go there!”  But this turned out to be one of the best-written sections of the book, where Gwen faced a stressful, life-changing situation beyond anything I can imagine.  For a while there, I couldn’t put it down.

And the best part:  it all ends well.  The book ends in 2010, when Homer is twelve years old and still living a full life.  And he’s still alive today.  So you can keep the tissues on the shelf and just enjoy reading about the life of a pretty remarkable cat.

Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

Americans had become a force of awful geology, changing the face of the earth more than ‘the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.’ (p. 127)

In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected to dust storms: huge clouds of dirt that moved across the land.  The storms made roads impassable, filled homes with dust, suffocated livestock, and infiltrated people’s lungs.  Many died from what was called “dust pneumonia.”  This was initially thought to be a freak of nature, a rare meteorological happening.  But as the storms pummeled the plains day after day, the government commissioned experts to investigate.  They soon learned the storms were the result of human behavior going back to the turn of the century.

The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”  Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity.  They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points.  The people came, and they farmed.  But agricultural success was short-lived.  Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air.  As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.

Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time.  These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history.  His accounts of dust storms are real page turners — narrative non-fiction at its best.  Egan had access to historical records too, of course.  Don Hartwell’s diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:

Feb. 5

I have felt lost lately — not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn’t ‘got’ anything, there is not much he can do.

July 10

The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase ‘There’s no place like Nebraska’ wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don’t have to die to go to hell.

Sept 18

There are no dances here anymore — nothing but silence, emptiness, ‘respectability.’

It’s positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn’t help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path.  Have we learned from past mistakes?  It gives one pause.

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

These days, human society faces increasingly complex food choices: low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, organic, etc.  What does “cage-free” or “free range” mean?  Which alternatives are better for you?  And where does your food come from, anyway?  In this book, Michael Pollan set out to trace three basic food chains: the industrial, the pastoral alternative, and the old-fashioned hunter-gatherer.  Along the way, he made some important discoveries about our food supply, most notably the consequences of oversimplifying nature’s principles in pursuit of industrial efficiency.

Written in an engaging, narrative style, the reader follows Pollan as he traces a steer from birth to plate and discusses the surprisingly pervasive role of corn in our food supply.  He then travels to an innovative farm, managed as a complex ecosystem producing meat for local consumption. Finally, he treks into the forest to hunt game and gather wild mushrooms.  Each of these adventures is described with a balance of personal experience and primary research.  Somehow it makes it all more digestible (pardon the pun) to read the facts and figures even as we learn that Pollan didn’t like waking up early, and often overslept.  But despite this being a very accessible read, it had a tendency to stray into personal memoir.  Towards the end, I began to lose interest.  In part, I just didn’t want to read about hunting with a firearm.  But I also didn’t enjoy Pollan’s navel-gazing about the experience, nor did I really care about Pollan as “foodie,” preparing a special meal for friends.  That’s why this book earned only three stars from me.

And yet. Pollan’s message is incredibly important.  Pollan writes, “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”  (p. 84)  I chose a vegetarian diet four years ago, because I am unwilling to play a personal role in the slaughter of animals for food, I prefer not to contribute to the environmental impact of the fossil fuels used in industrial meat production & transportation, and I could no longer look at supermarket meat without a keen awareness of what it once was, and the path it took to get there.  I respect each person’s right to make their own decision in this regard, and highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma as essential reading to understand where our food comes from, examine your values around food production, and begin to make choices aligned with those values.

On a related note, visit Marie @ The Boston Bibliophile, and read her excellent review of Fast Food Nation.

Review: The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

The Elizabeth Taylor in this biography was a British novelist (1912-1975).  Although she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont), to the average reader she is a complete unknown.  I discovered her work through Virago Modern Classics, and she quickly became a favorite author.  So this year, to celebrate the centenary of her birth, I thought I’d learn more about the life of this talented, but very private, woman.

This is a classic chronological biography, beginning with Taylor’s childhood and her secondary school education at the best school for girls in Reading, her home town.  Beauman shows how Taylor developed as a writer, even as she also became a wife, a mother, and even a mistress.  She was dedicated to writing even as she juggled these other roles, but it wasn’t until she was 32 that her first novel was published.  From that point on she had a lucrative career with twelve novels and a considerable number of short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker magazine.  Despite her success, she never wanted to play the game expected of authors, making public appearances and so on.  This probably cost her some fame, but allowed her to stay a devoted wife and mother, which she valued highly.  Still, Taylor’s career had a certain arc.  Her first few novels were considered her best, and the 1960s brought a shift in public sentiment where readers gradually began seeking out other authors with more modern points of view.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  All too often, biographies are dry, factual accounts.  Nicola Beauman’s thorough research infused this biography with real people and emotion.  In the course of her research she was able to meet with a man who had been Taylor’s lover in the 1930s.  He never stopped loving her, and Beauman’s meeting with him was quite touching.  Beauman also successfully conveyed Taylor’s emotions during difficult periods, like when her later work attracted negative reviews.

By the end of this year I will have read all of Elizabeth Taylor’s twelve novels.  I plan to use this book as a reading companion, returning to it with each novel to remind myself of what was happening in Taylor’s life at that time, and of how her life experiences influenced each book.

Review: The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin

Mary Austin wrote about nature, specifically in the American Southwest.  The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays celebrating the California desert, an area many would consider a formidable, unforgiving landscape.  She brings it to life, describing the flora and fauna in minute detail.  Even Scavengers, an essay about buzzards, makes for fascinating reading as she shows how the birds help keep the desert clean — except, of course, from the litter left by careless humans.

This book was published in 1903, and Austin’s language takes some getting used to.  In the introduction, Terry Tempest Williams writes about recording these essays as an audiobook, and initially

missing her voice completely.  It was only in hearing the text out loud that I realized the era that held Mary Austin. It was a Victorian diction written through the perceptions of a radical spirit. Mary Austin wrote through the lace of her age. (p. xiv)

Reading this book piqued my interest in Mary Austin, en early feminist who worked tirelessly for Native American rights and what we now call “sustainability.”  I’m saving these essays for a re-read after I learn more about this fascinating woman.

Review: A Book of Secrets, by Michael Holroyd

In A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, Michael Holroyd unravels the lives of three early twentieth century women, and joins them together through loose connections to Ernest Beckett, the second Lord Grimthorpe, and his Italian residence, the Villa Cimbrone.  If this sounds a bit obscure, well, it is.  Holroyd set out to write “not so much a traditional biographical narrative, but … a set of thematically related stories” about three interesting, if lesser-known, women.

The first, Eve Fairfax, nearly married Beckett after the death of his first wife.  Beckett commissioned a bust from the French sculptor, Rodin, but was ultimately unable to pay for the work.  Eve’s reasons for refusing Beckett are unclear.  She spent most of her life in poverty, living off various friends and lugging around a huge book in which her visitors composed pithy thoughts.  The second woman, Catherine Till, believes herself to be the illegitimate daughter of Beckett’s grandson.  Holroyd accompanied Catherine on a research project at the Villa Cimbrone.  And finally, there is Violet Trefusis, the best known of the three.  An author who had a notorious affair with Vita Sackville-West, Violet was likely Beckett’s illegitimate daughter, the result of his affair with Alice Keppel (later the mistress of King Edward VII).

Each woman’s story is interesting in its own right, as is the allure of Villa Cimbrone and the many literary figures and society members who graced its halls.  As a fan of Virago Modern Classics, I especially enjoyed reading Violet’s story.  Holroyd presents a fairly balanced picture of the woman and her controversial romantic liaisons.  On the one hand I felt sorry for her, forced by her family to marry a man and cover up her lesbian relationships.  On the other hand, her arrogant, controlling nature made her a less sympathetic figure.

I was also intrigued by Holroyd’s attempts to assemble a coherent history, when in fact many trails go nowhere, DNA evidence is not available, and there are no tell-all documents or definitive sources.  And then there’s the theme of illegitimacy, which manifests itself in various ways:

Illegitimacy is a word with several meanings. Ernest’s wife Luie was to die in her twenties producing a legitimate heir to the Grimthorpe title. Eve Fairfax was illegitimate in the sense that, not marrying Ernest, she lost her legitimate place in society. Her Book is a unique testament to the enduring pride that kept her afloat. And then there is Ernest’s extraordinary illegitimate daughter Violet who, exiled from England, was to compensate for her outcast state by claiming the King of England as her father. Such fantasies were a balm for the pain of lost love. But fact and fantasy are held in subtle equilibrium in the best of her novels, which may yet find a legitimate place in European literature for the name Violet Trefusis.

Holroyd’s style, mingling traditional biography with personal experience, results in an engaging book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys English history and literature.

Review: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

In my early teens we studied Greek and Roman mythology in school.  I vividly remember the point when I first thought, “so why are these stories ‘myths,’ and the Bible is ‘truth’?”  That was my first step on a path of theological inquiry, which sounds more advanced than it was.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been involved in some form of “organized religion,” but have not blindly followed the doctrine laid before me.  Instead I’ve gravitated toward faith communities that appreciate and encourage continuous revelation and discovery.

And so I found myself reading The God Delusion, which takes the “Bible as myth” argument one step further, seeking to prove that there is, in fact, no God.  If we have labelled ancient Greek & Roman stories as mythology, and discarded those gods, why do so many of us believe in God?

Dawkins also used scientific arguments to uphold Darwin’s theory of evolution and refute intelligent design and the concept of a “designer.”  I had no trouble with this; I tend to come out in favor of science in most situations.  Then how is it that I have professed belief in God, when there is no scientific basis for this belief?

Dawkins then discussed how religion has been used in ways that harm others:

Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness — its deliberate and cultivated pandering to humanity’s natural tendency to favour in-groups and shun out-groups — would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world.

It’s in the history books, and it’s happening today:  Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Christians, some Christians against other types of Christians, you name it.  In what way is this good for society?  And why does religion play such a super-ordinate role in so many people’s lives?

Dawkins articulated his points well and his analysis was quite thorough.  He made sense to me in many places and was a bit “out there” in others.  And he completely lost me in the last chapter when he discussed quantum mechanics.  Early in this book, Dawkins described a spectrum of belief from 1 (“strong theist”) to 7 (“strong atheist”).  Your place on this continuum will greatly influence what you take away from this book.  In my case, I found it very thought-provoking and enjoyed the mental and spiritual challenges presented by Dawkins’ ideas.

Midweek @ Musings: A Review of my “Required Reading”

Recently I described an unexpected work assignment:

one day last week I returned to my office to find a book on my desk with a note from my boss’ assistant.  The note read, “Stopped by.  Mr. Boss wants you to read this book and give it to Joe Colleague when you are done.”

And then I rambled on a bit about required reading.  As promised, I’m here today to tell you more about the book.  But first, some background.  I work as an IT director for a large multinational company.  Part of my job involves IT innovation — looking for emerging technology with potentially interesting application in our business.  We’ve been discussing how to improve our idea generation process by tapping the ideas of hundreds of people around the world.  When my boss asked us to read this book, he wanted to get us thinking, and give us a common language and examples to use in our team discussions.  In that respect I think the exercise was successful, even if the book did have some significant weaknesses.  Read on for my review …

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The Smart Swarm, by Peter Miller, describes phenomena from the natural world, and applies them to human communications and decision-making.  What can we learn from colonies of ants, bees, or termites?  Or flocks of birds?  Ants are good at self-organization, creating order from chaos.  Bees make use of the “wisdom of crowds” to find appropriate sites for their nests.  If you have ever relied on consumer reviews to help you select a book, movie, or hotel, you have participated in the human equivalent of these processes.

The book is very accessible and easy to read.  Miller adopts a format common to this type of business book: each chapter illustrates an element of his thesis, and is peppered with real-life examples from business or government.  As an editor for National Geographic, Miller is good at describing scientific concepts in layman’s terms.  Some of his examples are more effective than others; a long segment on the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings films was neither about the natural world, nor humans.  He also includes a chapter on locusts to describe the “dark side” of crowd behavior.  Locusts have always been one of my least favorite bugs, and this book did nothing to improve their status.

While The Smart Swarm succeeds in showing parallels between the natural world and humans, it falls short of helping organizations adopt these principles.  It is only in the last 10 pages that Miller sums up the lessons we should have learned in previous chapters (“From honeybee swarms we’ve learned that groups can reliably make good decisions in a timely fashion as long as they seek a diversity of knowledge and perspectives …”).  But  he fails to translate this into specific actions business leaders can take to change the way their organizations run.  This would have been a better book if it had taken that next step.

Midweek @ Musings: A Truth Universally Acknowledged (an essay collection)

Last weekend, my reading plans were thwarted by a less-than-stellar book, and my thoughts turned to finishing something that had sat on the table, partly read, for a few months.  The book was A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why we Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson.  I first heard of this book from Rachel at Booksnob (her excellent review is here).  I’m very pleased to have this book in my library, because it goes so well with any Austen novel (sort of like coffee and chocolate, mmmm ….)

So today, by way of a review, I’ll share more of this book with you …

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As the title implies, this book is a collection of essays about Jane Austen’s work, written by notable writers from Virginia Woolf to Lionel Trilling to Amy Bloom.   Their tone ranges from academic to casual.  Each essay conveys a deep and abiding respect, even love, for Jane Austen.  The essays were not written specifically for this book; rather, they were written for a specific purpose in the writer’s career.  Because of this, there are some repetitive themes and elements.  Several writers summarized Austen’s upbringing, her family, and her all-too-short life.  More than one expressed surprise that Austen’s work never mentioned significant current events like the Napoleonic wars.  Other essayists defended her in this regard.  It was interesting, and sometimes humorous, to see how each author approached their task. One essay began with the phrase, “A truth universally acknowledged,” while another decried this cliché.

Some of the essays discussed Austen’s entire body of work, while others focused on specific novels.  I began reading this book concurrent with a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, and found those specific essays enhanced my reading experience.  Over the next several weeks I read an essay here and there, and then sat down to finish the book over a long weekend.  I do not recommend the latter approach.  The essays are so different from one to the next, that sequential reading is difficult to digest.  The book did, however, reinforce my intent to re-read Austen’s novels.  The collection is best as a companion read, and I will take it off the shelf each time I read one of Austen’s books.

I’ll close with a paragraph from Janet Todd’s essay, “Why I Like Jane Austen,” which described better than any other my own reasons for enjoying the divine Jane:

Jane Austen seems to the writer nearest to a composer of classical music, her novels well-wrought symphonies; turbulent depths coexist with ordered surfaces and the ration of the expected to the unexpected feels just as it should. Each time I read her — and she is one of the few novelists who can be read and reread — I know I have not exhausted the books; something has again escaped me, as it does from a concert performance of a complex musical piece.  It was beautiful, but did I listen as closely as I should? Like Lyme in Persuasion, Jane Austen’s books “must be visited, and visited again.”

The Sunday Salon Review: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Today’s post is coming a bit late in the day, for three reasons.  First, I intended to write a book review, but needed to finish the book first!  I read the last 15 pages or so early this morning.  Second, we had a few things to do in the morning and early afternoon.  And finally, on returning home we found the power was out!  I’m writing this post from a Starbucks, enjoying free wifi and a latte.

This week I finished my chunkster-thon with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and I’ve now moved on to two short-ish Virago Modern Classics:  Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor; and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns.  Taylor is one of my favorite authors, and Comyns is an author I’ve been wanting to read for some time.  Plus I have 5 of her books in my Virago bookcase, so I’d better get on with it.

But first, I need to write that book review …

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In the late  1930s, Louie Zamperini was a young hell-raiser growing up in Torrance, California.  He was also an aspiring Olympic runner, breaking records in nearly every race as he closed in on a 4-minute mile.  But in 1941, like so many young American men, he joined the military to serve in World War II.  As a member of the Army Air Corps, he was on board a bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943.  Louie and two crewmen survived.  Unbroken is an amazing account of Louie’s survival, both from the crash and over two years’ imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp, and of his struggle to regain his dignity and re-enter “normal” American society.

Unbroken is a very personal story; since Zamperini is still alive, Laura Hillenbrand had direct access to him and to his scrapbooks and other memorabilia.  Through Louie she learned a great deal about his beloved crew members and soldiers he met in the camps.  She also learned about the man Zamperini came to fear most:  a Japanese guard nicknamed “The Bird,” whose brutality landed him 7th on the list of war criminals sought for trial after the war.  The result is an emotional page-turner that sometimes made me smile, more often made my stomach churn, and occasionally brought tears to my eyes.

So why did I rate it only 3.5 stars?  There was a tinge of American exceptionalism running through this book that bothered me.  Early on, Hillenbrand described the Nanking Massacre, which laid groundwork for an “Americans are good, Japanese are bad” theme.  Other more subtle cues appeared elsewhere in the text, as when one of Louie’s crewmates describes a failed Japanese bombing as “inept.”  The last straw for me was near the end of the book after the Japanese surrender, as Hillenbrand summed up the war.  Of Japan’s role in the conflict she wrote, “In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination.”  She then went on to cite casualty figures that, frankly, were nowhere close to the casualties from the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And a few pages later, describing those horrific bombings, she quoted a serviceman who felt “the end probably justified the means.”  I’m telling you, it turned my stomach.

And yet, I would still recommend this book as a first-hand account of the realities of war.  Just be forewarned.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.