What I Read in 2017

Summaries and reviews

People’s History

— Life changer I wish I’d read earlier. This book shares the stories of American people left out from the historical narrative: women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers. I found myself longing to have heard these stories in school. The protagonists are easier to relate to than the common over-heroified characters and their history is more compelling and captivating. Kids would pay attention to child labor strike stories. Zinn’s writing is dense, but engaging and well-researched, and very accessible compared to Chomsky. Liked it so much I recreated the cover in code

The Poisonwood Bible

— A fanatic Baptist preacher from Georgia, his wife, and four girls move to the Belgian Congo in the 60s. The 5 women of the family take turns narrating. Thus, we get 5 perspectives of the the expected culture clash, the difficulty of preaching religion with force, the history of the independence of the Congo, and the cosmic threads that connect the family. It’s the story of a wife oppressed in a marriage and the story of a country oppressed by imperialism and its wealth of rubber and rare minerals. Absolutely blown away by this strong work of historical fiction. Bummed my high-school didn’t require it and introduce me to Kingsolver earlier.

Braiding Sweetgrass

— Very moved by this book. It venn-diagrammed many subjects of interest: Indigenous North American stories, modern environmentalism, Central New York, and reconnecting to the natural world. Robin Wall Kimmerer carries two torches that enrich each other: one of the wisdom inherent to plants and one of objective science in botany and ecology. Indigenous concepts like the Honorable Harvest stuck with me. It counsels that one should ask permission before killing a plant and to take it in a way that does the least harm possible.

Born a Crime

— Great content, great storytelling. And what a life Trevor has had. His memoir is a series of essays that jump from one exhilarating scenario to another. From rolling out of a moving taxi to avoid being kidnapped to the raw telling of high-school’s first love. His mother is the heroine of the story, always reinforcing healthy values in fraught, post-apartheid South Africa. She yearned for him to break the common cycle of poverty, abuse, and violence that she was in. I learned a lot. About how South Africa is tribal, each with their own language. About their transition from tyrannical white rule to something new. About the ease of being sucked to do petty crimes to get by. The movie is going to be awesome.

Jayber Crow

— Honest prose about how ordinary people and community fit into a changing world. After reading Old Jack, I longed for more Wendell Berry fiction. A Kentucky boy trains to become a minister, but jumps ship when his questions of the Book become too loud. He bounces around to end up near his birthplace, Port William, and represents the last generation to settle there. I gained a new appreciations for his profession: the town barber. The love story was especially touching. The two lived separate lives, but an invisible psychic thread somehow connected them for years. Without words or explicitness, without reassurance, a bond was ever-present.

Hannah Coulter

— In my third book about the fictional Kentucky town, we listen to the story of Hannah as she recounts it as an old woman. Her life isn’t defined by a strong plot and story-arc, so it reads conversational and realistic, yet a few times it was difficult to push through the quietness without that anchor. The town is central character. It is as affected by WWII, the disappearance of farming, and fast city-life – as Hannah is. The themes of legacy, thrift, work, and connection spoke to my core. I found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs because they were so beautifully written.

Be Here Now

— I borrowed this book from a friend after being introduced to Ram Das recently. The introduction features the sober story of the author’s success as a psychologist, his workings with Timothy Leary, and his transnational journeys through India. The next main chunk of the book was like a comic narrated by someone on acid. You read hand-set type woven among intricate illustrations about the layers of identity and the path to enlightenment. I found it very engaging. It captured the spirit of Buddhist teachings, which can get lost sometimes in their own simplicity. The drawings and explanations were far from simple. I lost interest when that section ended and it became normal book again. Excellent reminder to stay present. Liked it so much I recreated the cover in code

The Nourishing Homestead

— Another life-changer. Gifted for christmas and read in a week. Because of its large, reference-book size I didn’t think it was a book to read cover-to-cover. I was wrong. Ben Hewitt is a great, no-nonsense writer who somehow expresses his ideology without being preachy – it feels like a conversation with an experienced farmer. It was filled with practical advice and introduced new concepts to me such as: the rarity of bio-nutrient-dense soil and how those nutrients transfer to the eater, his word practiculture and how it sums up living a life mostly outside of the standard economy, and how the self-sufficiency of farming in modern times is a type of activism. Pumped to read his book on homeschooling.

Move your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement

— The human body, including all physiology, muscles, tendons, and bones have evolved over thousands of years for specific uses. The speed of our evolution has not kept up with modern culture. The increase in sitting has altered our spine, making back problems common-place. The use of shoes has altered our gate, making us walk less carefully, causing more stress on the local physiology. The author argues that the solution, like many solutions, begins with mindfulness. Next, one can create habits inline with our ancient physiology, such as wearing minimal shoes, choosing squatting over the comfort of furniture, more climbing and hanging, weaning off of pillow usage, and just moving more.

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided

— As a child born in america, Diane was forever reminded of the possibility of her Colombian parents being deported until, without notice, it finally happened at age 14. As the family fears came to pass, she tested the strength of her safety-net of friendships and community as they transformed relation to be her ultimate caretaker. She continued on to college, and her her nightmare of early-teen trauma came back in the form of depression and self-harm. This was a timely, honest story that compassionately addressed two topics troubling america: immigration and mental-illness.

The Moon is Down

— I’m usually a slow reader, but I synced right up to this book’s rhythm and devoured it in a night. Being fireside in a Vermont b&b probably helped, too. It’s an anti-war story about an unspecified mining town that becomes occupied by an unspecified army. One of Steinbeck’s goals, I think, was to humanize the enemy. As the cold months dragged on, the occupiers missed their old lives and grew tired of playing their role. The second theme examined the how strong, quiet, and patient community solidarity can be given a new horrific reality. “…war is treachery and hatred, the muddling of incompetent generals, the torture and killing and sickness and tiredness, until at last it is over and nothing has changed except for new weariness and new hatreds.”

The Gardener and the Carpenter

— Her writing is beautiful, and supported with a background in psychology, philosophy, and grandmother-hood. Gopnik questions modern habits of parents caring for their children. Starting with the word Parenting, which only gained popularity in the 1970s. “The Carpenter” represents parents who do things a certain way expecting their child to turn into a certain type of adult. “The Gardener” represents parents who create an environment for their children where it’s OK for unexpected things to happen. A memorable metaphor that remains long after reading, especially since 2017 was my first go at gardening. For a longer, better summary, listen to a half-hour podcast with the author.

The Areas of My Expertise

— This book caused painful belly laughs, required constant attention, and appointed Mr. Hodgman to hero-status of humor. Picked up at a book-swap, it was my first read of his. The deadly combination of honed writing skills and dry, imaginative sensibilities creates a top-shelf McSweeney’s-style-vintage wit. Proof: “How to Win a Fight – Step 1: Always make eye contact. Step 2: Go ahead and use henchmen – these days it’s unnecessary and frowned upon to fight your own battles, especially with so many henchmen out of work. Step 3: Run lots of attack ads – I have run about 500 attack ads this year, and I expect that I will buy even more air time next year, because my enemies are getting stronger.”

Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast

— Seemingly the only book on the subject, it was extremely helpful in my month of winter tree identification – when they’re bare of the recognizable leaves and fruit. The book breaks the daunting task of differentiating bark into helpful categories, pleasantly leading the reader through bark attributes until a match is found. Still, it’s a very hard task. Many species of mature tree bark resemble that of other younger species. The vast photos and illustrations (450!) help tell the story immensely though, and give a look into the daunting task of putting this book together. Wojtech’s metaphors and simple explanations help any novice understand the outer shell of trees. If he’s worked with the famous Vermont naturalist Tom Wessels, I automatically approve.

14

— Many of the books I read in 2017 hit me at the core. This was not one of them. In a way it was a palate cleanser, a bite into the fresh genre science fiction. The concept and climax did hypnotize me, however: an antique house in downtown LA is alive and a door to a daemonly other dimension. Other parts took me completely out of the story. The characters and their skills fit exactly into the plot. The wisecracks and conversions were snappy, witty, and completely unbelievable.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

— I listened to the author read the audiobook, which discusses consciousness and the nature of the mind. He aims to reveal the wrongs that religion and science have lead us, regarding enlightenment and consciousness. He argues for a middle-way, and that ways to get there are through psychedelics or meditation. I found it snarky, over-confident, and distracting from actual interesting topics.

I wrote these as an exercise to learn to write better summaries. I’ve always found recounting the weekend or summarizing my thoughts on a movie to strangely difficult. This was not much easier.