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Tag Archives: nonfiction

Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air”

Over the weekend, I read “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America” by Steven Johnson.

Basically, it’s a book about Joseph Priestley, the 18th century scientist/pastor/political writer who is credited with discovering oxygen. Priestley was born and lived most of his life in England, moving to the United States in 1794 after a mob angry about his writings burned down his home.

I liked it partly because it reads quickly–I’ve been working on a suitable descriptor for a book that moves along at a fast pace–and is relatively short, at 215 pages. As a reader, I prefer a fast pace. I know plenty of readers who love a slow-moving long book. They might have felt cheated by this one. I mention that pace because one might expect that a book about a historical figure who was a scientist/pastor/political writer might move along slowly.

That said, Johnson diverges fairly often from Priestley’s story to take a broader look at his times, and often also the filter of certain themes from which to consider the 21st century. For instance, Priestley was part of a group of London men who often had coffee together, a group called “The Club of Honest Whigs.” They talked into the evening on all sorts of subjects, and with them, Priestley was able to articulate and develop his own points of view. This ability to share ideas, to stay in close communication, to build on each others’ work, was new to the times. The broadmindedness of the group certainly played into its role in developing ideas, but that ability to communicate was key. Johnson compares that to what the Internet offers to scientists and thinkers to day–unparalleled access to each others’ thoughts.

There’s something about this era of “amateur” scientists such as Priestley that so clearly is a thing of the past. Johnson reflects on the impact that leisure time had. Priestley was well-educated, curious, and had time. Others, for example, Thomas Jefferson in the United States, showed similar lifelong avocations of science combined with political pursuits. Johnson laments the way that politicians now leave science to others…and perhaps are proud of their lack of scientific understanding.

Johnson places much more emphasis on Priestley’s scientific work than on his religious thinking (he’s prominent in the history of the Unitarian church) and political writing, but Johnson certainly sees the breadth of his interests as key to Priestley’s success.

From time to time, I wondered if Johnson might be standing on some fairly thin ice when pulling the big ideas from this one life and applying them to our time. And yet there is a compelling sense in which it would be easy to imagine Johnson himself around the coffee table with the Club of Honest Whigs, building one idea on top of another, sometimes getting a little beyond himself.

For that reason, I may not recommend this to serious and well-read students of the science of history. But I will recommend it to my reading friends who enjoy history, who want to ponder the big ideas that connect one time with another, and who may not know enough about this intriguing man.

“Pearl Buck in China”

I came across “Pearl Buck in China” by Hilary Spurling listed in the New York Times “100 Notable” of the year for 2010. I confess–I haven’t read “The Good Earth.” Yet. After reading this biography, I intend to.

Spurling describes the evolution of Buck as a writer, spending ample time during Buck’s childhood as the daughter of missionaries in China at the turn of the 20th century, detailing the development of her thinking through her time in college and early return to China, describing the impact of Buck’s remarkable success with “The Good Earth” and landing at her final home just before she died in 1973. She tells the story in a readable way, keeping it moving, weaving in important information.

A theme that Spurlling develops here is that because Buck grew up in China, speaking the Chinese of common people and being surrounded by Chinese people, she was able (almost) to think like a Chinese person. That is, even though she was clearly an outsider, she had a sense for how Chinese people thought and reacted. Where other American writers couldn’t quite get past their shock over certain behaviors, Buck wasn’t shocked herself, and could portray the behaviors in ways that made sense to her audience. She fundamentally respected the people about whom she wrote.

Buck came to disagree vehemently with the approach of the missionary community in China.

Spurling addresses some issues that were very similar to some that arose in the library’s recent One Book One Lincoln panel discussion of medical missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. How DO outsiders learn to help? How do they learn to listen? How do they learn to respond in ways that make sense for the culture and situation?

When I reflect on what I will remember about this book, it is really WHO I will remember–Buck’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, an American Presbyterian missionary to China. Spurling’s portrait of this man, his isolating persistence and righteous conviction, his seeming disregard for his family, and his ultimate separation from his work, show how Buck’s vision was shaped.

I will also remember that Buck chose her own way. She divorced her first husband to marry the second. She found a good place for her disable daughter when often disabled children were simply hidden. She lived fairly lavishly toward the end of her life.

I nearly returned this to the library without finishing it, because it was due. I’m glad that I took the time to finish it out–the final fourth of the book is especially interesting.

I’ll recommend this to people who read a lot, who have probably read “The Good Earth.” I’ll also recommend it to people who are generally interested in China, and in the issues that arise when people of very different cultures come together.

Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”

I was looking for a book that was entertaining and fast–“Bossypants” by Tina Fey was perfect on both counts. And really, I just like saying (and writing) “Bossypants.”

I haven’t watched “Saturday Night LIve” for years, and I don’t watch “30 Rock” so I wasn’t familiar with many of the people and events that Fey describes here. I know her because of her spot-on portrayals of Sarah Palin. Even so, I found this book interesting and amusing.

Fey tells her story fairly chronologically, including mostly the bits that are funny on their own or funny when she gets her hands on them. She plays fair, in that she laughs at herself plenty. This isn’t the place to go for who-what-when-where-why information. This is more a series of stories that might be shared over coffee or wine with a group of friends, stories that create connections whether they happened in Nebraska or New Jersey.

When she does turn a more serious eye on her life story, it’s often in situations where sexism arises, or where power is exploited, or when pressure about attractiveness becomes overpowering (or just silly). These observations keep her book from being more than just a romp.

Her rise in Chicago’s The Second City improvisation theater led her to submit material to “Saturday Night Live.” There she became a writer and appeared on the “Weekend Update” news parody. Her observations about those work environments are interesting partly for their celebrity tidbits. What comes before actually is also plenty of fun–her descriptions of working at the YMCA checkin window when she was just out of college.

Fey doesn’t take much of the celebrity life for granted, and so her observations of photo shoots, of being recognized, and of receiving both hate mail, stay fresh. It seems like she just can’t keep herself from being funny.

I’ll recommend this to plenty of people. In fact, it’s taking me a moment to think of which people wouldn’t like it. It’s clear going in that this is a funny book by a woman who’s made it big acting and writing in TV comedy. She hits her stride, and even while inspiring plenty of laughing out loud, reveals enough to show that success didn’t come all at once and that she recognizes that it could have gone much differently. But what’s funny (and not funny ha-ha) about humor is that some people can’t see the humor when someone else is doubling over in laughter. It’s not a sure thing. So this could be an adventure in reading for some, and in the interests of tasting from many pots, I’m recommending “Bossypants.”

“In the Garden of Beasts”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I finished “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson, who Lincoln readers may recall as the author of the 2006 One Book One Lincoln selection, “The Devil in the White City.”

“In the Garden of Beasts” describes the tenure of William E. Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany from 1933 through late 1937. These were horribly interesting times, standing so closely by as  the Nazis rose to power.

Dodd wasn’t a member of the upper-crust diplomatic corps. He was an academic, a historian with emotional ties to Germany dating to his student days in Leipzig. This made him an outsider among the diplomatic set from the start. He planned to live within his (relatively small) means, and to avoid the excesses in spending that he detested in other diplomats. He wanted to represent the best of the United States.

The truth of the Nazis became more and more clear to Dodd. And here is where Larson has a difficult task–how can he place us as readers in that time, before the horrors of the Nazis were obvious? One of Dodd’s tasks was to lean on the German government to pay their debts to the United States. This seems absurdly minor in light of what eventually came of the Nazi government. Larson seems to convey that the expectation was that Dodd would maintain friendly relations with that government, and yet as Dodd became more aware of Nazi intentions, friendly relations seemed impossible.

Larson must stir into this mix the remarkable behavior of Dodd’s daughter, Martha. An attractive young woman who was separated from her husband, she carried on many liaisons, including many with members of the Nazi party. The amount of sexual behavior in which she engaged, often within the ambassador’s home, was known in many quarters. I don’t think I’m the only person who wrongly believes that until the 1960’s, Americans were entirely straitlaced sexually. Her behavior seems so out of step with the time. It reminded me of the affairs carried on in wartime London, especially among the Churchill family, described in Lynne Olson’s “Citizens of London.” The story of Dodd’s tenure as ambassador would have been incomplete without including this aspect.

In one sentence, I would describe this book by saying that it’s a quick-reading and fascinating view of an incredible time in our history, the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

A one-sentence evaluation would be that Larson focuses his efforts on the energy of the Dodd family’s story, and from time to time the story needed to establish broader historical foundation. I sense that he too often left it to me to place pieces of the plot in context. I needed to know more about how other countries were responding to HItler, for instance, to understand Dodd’s behavior better. I needed to know more about how an ambassador typically operated. Larson comes awfully close to exploiting the scintillating aspects of Martha Dodd’s sexual behavior and the well-known horror of the Nazis–I would have preferred him to teach me a little more. What I found he did well was to draw the characters as fully as possible.

In the end, I learned a lot, and I’ll likely seek out additional reading. I agree with many of my reading friends who found this an excellent book, it’s just that I’m reserving a little space for wishing that Larson had been a little more scholarly. I will recommend this to people who enjoy history (but maybe not to more serious students of history), to those who like nonfiction, and to the many people with a general interest in the World War Two era.

Mary Karr’s “Lit”

I finished “Lit” by Mary Karr just over a week ago. I’m nervous when writing about a book more than a few days after finishing it. I’m the kind of reader who tends to forget whole portions of even the books that I enjoy the most. In my defense, I do retain strong mental files of particularly riveting scenes.

This is the third of Mary Karr’s memoirs. I was introduced to (and loved) her “The Liar’s Club” when it made the ALA Notable Books list in the mid 1990’s. I confess that I didn’t finish the second, “Cherry.”

Karr is a well-regarded poet and professor. But it didn’t come easy. “The Liar’s Club” tells about her crazy childhood in Texas, with a mother suffering from mental illness and an alcoholic father. But one-sentence summary doesn’t begin to convey the richness of language, story and affection that her parents provided. Her storytelling seems always to reflect that intense Southern background, well-chosen words rollicking with energy.

In “Lit” she turns to her own demons of alcoholism and depression. Karr married a fellow writer, the son of a wealthy East Coast family, and when they had a son together, things seemed destined for happiness. Karr finds herself drinking steadily as she cares for her colicky baby, and eventually she sees that she can’t just give that up. Quite a bit of the book happens amid the tension of her knowledge of her problem and her unwillingness to give up extreme self-medication. When she does give in, she bolsters her resolve with a turn to religion, to Roman Catholicism.

The scene I’ll remember from “Lit” is Karr up in the middle of the night carrying her crying baby, her unfinished drink from earlier in the evening pulling her into the kitchen, where she craves what she’ll feel when she swallows what remains. That’s not the “madonna and child” that we expect.

Karr addresses the skepticism that she expects many of her writing friends will heap on the 12-step process, and on religion. Early on, she seems almost apologetic that she’s finding the language of recovery helpful, even effective. As she continues, she conveys greater comfort there.

I’ll certainly recommend this to friends who enjoy memoirs–and Karr continues to be one of the best memoirists around. I’ll be interested to hear what friends who’ve struggled themselves with addiction and mental illness will say about “Lit.” But I don’t want to convey that this is limited just to narrow segments of readers. Karr excels in memoir. She crafts her story in such a way that it is much more than just her own.