Photo credit. Hall Wines. St. Helena, California.
“Perseverance” is the Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year for 2021 and it aptly describes life at the law school this fall. We dealt (and continue to deal) with the Covid-19 variants, mask and eating restrictions at the law school, and how we best reoccupy the law school (after over a year of working from home). The highlight - having our students here in person once again with their energy and smarts. And, there were so many good books that came out in the past few months (many of them reviewed here). We hope you, your family and friends will enjoy this list as much as we do. Thanks to all who contributed.
All the best for the holiday season and for a marvelous new year in 2022.
The Law Library
Click on book cover to read review.
Such a delightful, surprising and engaging book.
Have you ever heard of a prickle of porcupines?
Or a tower of giraffes?
What about a parcel of penguins?
The collective nouns are fun, funny and interesting. The illustrations are whimsical and engaging. This is a great book to share with the entire family and learn together.
I have only one new book to possibly recommend -- April in Spain by Booker Prize winner John Banville. This is the most recent in a series featuring Quirke, the chief pathologist in Dublin. The previous books in the series were written under a pen name - Benjamin Black. The book is very good and the only reason I say "possibly" is that the ending has several elements, one of which is a real downer.
This graphic novel is based on author Kim Hyun Sook’s time as a university student during the oppressive Fifth Republic of South Korea in the early 1980s. First-year student Hyun Sook just hopes to keep her nose in her books and study English language and literature. However, invited by a fellow student to join a “book club,” she quickly learns that in a country under an authoritarian regime, expanding one’s mind to think independently is considered just as treacherous and actively rebellious as the student protests occurring around her. With Hyun Sook’s awakening, there is no thought and action that doesn’t take on politically consequential weight, as she and her colleagues and classmates find themselves under increasing threat. The story is not all heavy, though: The words and illustrations skillfully convey not only the harsh realities of that time but also the more playful and lighthearted moments of youth. This is an eye-opening and engaging book.
Although I already went all-in on another recommendation earlier this year, Braiding Sweetgrass easily surpassed it as my favorite read of 2021. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and choosing the closest familiar point of comparison for this review (say, Michael Pollan) would only do Robin Wall Kimmerer a disservice. In fact, reading her book before This Is Your Mind on Plants just served to underscore the latter’s shortcomings (and in particular, the painfully apparent vacuum of Indigenous voices for subject matter that really required them.)
Braiding Sweetgrass is part memoir, part Indigenous histories (no flattening into “pan” history here), part plant science. These elements come together in perfect harmony as an unexpected, warm hug. Wall Kimmerer specifically and intentionally steers away from using her PhD in plant ecology to grant unnecessary validation to the Indigenous practices that she describes. Instead, she uses a combination of memoir and case studies to challenge the very hierarchy of knowledge bases. This is particularly evident in “Aster and Goldenrod,” one of the best chapters.
She goes on to invite the reader to appreciate other ways of knowing through her remarkable storytelling, and I will delight in rereading her stories year after year.
I recommend Caesar, by Adrian Goldsworthy, published in 2006. I had read a couple of biographies of Caesar, and this one is by far the best. It is a work of scholarship, published by Yale University Press, but it reads like great narrative history.
Edgar Award–winning novelist Hirahara shifts gears a bit from the contemporary murder mystery genre to historical fiction, setting her latest novel in 1940s Chicago. At that time, thousands of mostly young Japanese Americans incarcerated in WWII were steered by the War Relocation Authority to resettle in certain parts of the country away from the West Coast, primarily to work in factories and the service sector, which had depleted workforces due to the wartime draft. Chicago was one of the largest resettlement destinations, and in that city one of the areas where Japanese Americans were able to congregate was the Near North Side, specifically the Clark and Division neighborhood with its rather disreputable single-occupancy hotels, dance halls, and gambling houses. In this neighborhood a death occurs, and a young woman named Aki Ito is determined to learn all she can about it. In this way, the reader is introduced to rich period details, assorted characters, and a part of history that few know about. It’s a fast and fascinating read.
I love this novel! It presents a beautiful set of entwined stories that bend toward one another, reminiscent of a David Mitchell novel. The scene shifts between the present day, the fifteenth century and the future. Though its length (almost 600 ages) intimidates, the story flows so smoothly that it is not at all ponderous. There is also a surfeit of white space along the way. Doerr has stated that he set out to write the life story of a book and that idea carries through the text. If you love rare books, especially ancient ones that possess complex histories you are in for a treat. The characters emerge as real, believable people caught up in events beyond their control. The book ends with an elegant surprise. It is shortlisted for the National Book Award. Friends and family will be receiving this book as a gift.
Dave Grohl’s audiobook of his life and times from growing up as a misfit grunge kid in Northern Virginia to drummer for Nirvana to his long career with the Foo Fighters is an entertaining listen. Grohl always had a passion for rock music and his journey is informative and moving. He is not a great writer - the book has too many cliches and far too much hyperbole - did he even have an editor? But Grohl’s enthusiasm and eye for an anecdote is infectious and his self-deprecating humor and “oh my god I can’t believe I’m meeting Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, Angus Young, etc.” is appealing. And boy does that guy love his kids. While this is not a transformative rock autobiography like Patty Smith’s Kids Like Us or Keith Richard’s Life, both of which I highly recommend, all three have the same message. These people could only have become the people they turned out to be, and their stories of rock genius realized are worth knowing.
This is really a recommendation from my kids who love Indian food and swear by this cookbook. As the cover notes, it’s “from Bombay with love” and includes a number of wonderful vignettes about Bombay/Mumbai. It’s also chock full of recipes for the Indian comfort food for which the London restaurant is famous. A few standouts - chicken ruby curry, black dal, chana chaat salad. The recipes are yummy, but they are by no means 60 minute gourmet and will also involve a trip to the spice shop. However, if you enjoy spending the day puttering about the kitchen ending with a wonderful feast for friends and family, this is the cookbook for you. Or, once we all start traveling again, we can simply hit one of Dishoom’s several London locations - let’s make a date.
Savala Nolan, executive director of our very own Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, has written a book that should be required reading for all law students, faculty, and staff. She shares her insights and perspectives on growing up Black, being a woman, and the role of body image in such a real and honest way, it is critical we all read this book at this moment. Savala is a great writer as many of us know from her articles and other writings, and you will find yourself sharing lines with friends and likely reading chapters and sections again and again. You may find yourself laughing and crying, and mostly, respecting Savala even more for her willingness to share these stories and contribute to waking some of us up and to holding space for others to be ourselves - in real and authentic ways. Thank you, Savala.
Editor’s Note: We at the Law Library heartily second Sue’s recommendation. Savala, we are so proud of you! And we are not alone. Among the many rave reviews, this from Kirkus:
"An eloquently provocative memoir in essays...This fierce and intelligent book is important not just for how it celebrates hard-won pride in one’s identity, but also for how Nolan articulates the complicated—and too often overlooked—nature of personal and cultural in-betweenness."
Dory is ecstatic, besieged, manic. Her imagination is all over the place, everywhere at once, full speed ahead. Logic and continuity are collateral damage in her technicolor imaginary world. There's peril at every turn, and unfortunately, also parents, teachers, and siblings -- ugh, oh my god these people. In Book 1, we find Dory figuring out how to get rid of her stupid bunchy coat that she hates and that everyone is making her wear and won't shut up about. If you've known a kid like this, or if you've raised a kid like this, you'll recognize the look on Dory's parents' faces. If you haven't, I pity you. Five in the series, which as far as I can tell is done. They're all excellent.
On Dream Street, anything is possible.
Belle catches butterflies and dreams of growing up to be a lepidopterist.
Little Benjamin lies in bed, counting the stars that sparkle through his bedroom window.
Mr. Phillips has five sons and dreams of starting his very own jazz band.
Extra credit: 2 cousins celebrate their childhood neighborhood in Dream Street - Check out this interesting NPR interview with the creators.
A story of life in Egypt 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. Originally published in 1945 in Finnish.
First published in the United States in 1949 and widely condemned as obscene, The Egyptian outsold every other novel published that year, and remains a classic; readers worldwide have testified to its life-changing power.
It is a full-bodied re-creation of a largely forgotten era in the world's history: the Egypt of the 14th century B.C.E., when pharaohs and gods contended with the near-collapse of history's greatest empire. This epic tale encompasses the whole of the then-known world, from Babylon to Crete, from Thebes to Jerusalem, while centering around one unforgettable figure: Sinuhe, a man of mysterious origins who rises from the depths of degradation to become personal physician to Pharaoh Akhenaten.The novel is known for its high-level historical accuracy of the life and culture of the period depicted. At the same time, it also carries a pessimistic message of the essential sameness of flawed human nature throughout the ages.
Extra Credits: Check out the lavish Hollywood motion picture (1954) or listen to the amazing soundtrack from the movie (Bernard Hermann).
While this biography is hefty, weighing in at 698 pages, with about 150 pages of notes, it's essentially the Cliff notes version in comparison to the 3 volume biography by Blanch Wiesen Cook. The good thing is that it's possible to read it in a weekend or two -- the first half, especially, goes very quickly. The bad part is that there is so much to cover that important people -- Lorena Hickock, Missy LeHand -- seem to appear (and disappear) out of nowhere. The description of the early part of Eleanor's life is probably the most satisfying. The New Deal and the war years are perhaps less so because they are necessarily so condensed. Also, because it is a biography of Eleanor, and not Franklin, you already have a feeling that a lot is going on just outside the scope of the book.
To give it a holiday metaphor, it's a fruitcake of a book. But quite readable and definitely worth reading.
Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is one of the foremost narrative non-fiction writers around. Back in 2019 he wrote a breathtaking book - Say Nothing – on the conflict in Northern Ireland. He has now turned to weaving the intricate story of the Sackler family, their ownership of Purdue Pharma and their role in the opioid crisis through the production and sale of OxyContin. The enormously wealthy Sacklers were for many known primarily for their generous philanthropy towards cultural institutions and universities. What was less well known was the source of that wealth. Radden Keefe digs deeply into how Purdue Pharma gamed the regulatory system to bring OxyContin to market and used deeply unethical (and illegal) means for marketing and selling the drug. The book is deeply researched and sourced and reads like a fast-paced thriller except one that has had devastating real world consequences.
This book is so much fun to read. It’s written as an oral history of a rock duo from the 1970s, compiled by Sunny Shelton, a journalist who is the daughter of Jimmy Curtis, a drummer who was killed during a race riot that broke out during a performance by Opal and Nev. I didn’t know much about this book when I started it, and a few pages in, I had to look up a review to find out whether it really was fiction—it was such a perfect version of a “Behind the Music”-style oral history. (Walton was a music journalist and magazine editor before writing this novel.) The book is funny and absorbing, and it also has some moving and smart things to say about race, gender, and family. I switched from reading in print to listening to the audiobook of this; both were great, but I highly recommend the audiobook! It felt like a radio play, acted out by a full cast (including the amazing André De Shields).
I first heard of Pauli Murray, the firebrand alluded to in the title of this book, a few years back when Melissa Murray tweeted about her. Prof. Murray called Pauli “the other Murray” and I was intrigued. I put The Firebrand and the First Lady on my list of things to read but it took me a while to get to it. I still hadn’t read the book when I saw Pauli Murray was included in a group of Berkeley Law’s Trailblazing Women. The documentary My Name is Pauli Murray inspired me to learn more about this person who was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement.
Reading about the discrimination that Pauli Murray personally suffered because of her race, her gender, her sexuality, and her politics brought history alive for me in a way that reading about the concept of discrimination as a fact of history in general could never do. I could feel a sort of pride that the school where I work accepted Pauli Murray as a JSD student after Harvard rejected her because of her gender. I was fascinated to learn of the role Pauli Murray’s scholarship played in the Brown v. Board of Education case. I was intrigued to learn how sex ended up being included as a category in Title VII. And I was saddened to think of the lost potential we all suffered because Pauli Murray was denied a position in the EEOC based on her peripheral contacts with the Communist Party. The concept of intersectionality came to mind when I read how women were excluded from the March on Washington, and how Black women were excluded from the women’s rights movement.
Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) was the first lady of the book title. The story of Pauli Murray and ER’s decades-long friendship was as surprising as it was fascinating. The journey from their chance meeting at a work camp where Pauli lived for a bit to their close friendship based on correspondence and occasional visits held my rapt attention and made it hard to put this book down. I’m happy to know more about these dynamic women and their places in history. This book is well worth your time, and I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s in our collection at https://lawcat.berkeley.edu/record/189508.
This is a very nice collection of short stories by Lily King (author of two novels I quite liked, Euphoria and Writers & Lovers). Like the best short stories these capture moments, not big moments, but those smaller moments in which a character understands something fundamental. A divorced bookseller comically gathers the courage to ask someone out, a teenage babysitter - enthralled by Jane Eyre-like comparisons - instead foists off her employer’s creepy advances, a grandfather sits at the hospital bedside of his comatose granddaughter. Some themes common to her writing appear - alcoholism, badly behaved men, grief - but it is the triumph of everyday relationships that shines through in her lovely prose.
Herschel of Ostropol arrives in the village the first night of Hanukkah hoping for latkes and finds the villagers terrorized by goblins who have taken over their synagogue. Well, we can't have that. He sets up in the synagogue, lights the menorah, and night after night defeats the goblins with his wits and tricks. It's a great book with fantastic illustrations, and the kids love how Herschel never seems especially afraid even when perhaps he should be. Herschel is a traditional Jewish folk hero (there are more stories about him), and the afterword of the book talks about how this original story fits into that tradition.
This engrossing debut novel by San Francisco resident Zhang deservedly made the 2020 Booker Prize longlist and won or was a finalist for other literary awards. Set in the Gold Rush era (though the exact dates have deliberately been obscured to perhaps suggest timelessness), it tells of two young siblings, Lucy and Sam, who at the outset have been orphaned, and follows their attempts to survive by themselves in the vast, harsh American West. In the tradition of the western, the story is bleak but is contrasted by language that is lyrical, at times moving. Also, each chapter is not long, signaled by descriptive one-word titles that repeat throughout; the brevity offers some relief from the constant dread and misery. This is one of several recent books representing a Chinese American point of view in the western genre. What makes this story especially worthwhile is its exploration of how one who is so much at the mercy of others—because of age, or gender, or race, or human frailty—can figure out what is worth living for. Highly recommended.
What an odd book! It's a novel about a guy whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan. He has grown up in a Chinatown tenement. But this also seems to be the setting for a cop drama (Black and White) whose characters are all also living in the tenement. Or is there actually a drama? Is this just the way he's describing his life to himself? An interesting and in the end hopeful way to talk about where Asian Americans fit in to how we think about race relations in America.
A “cozy” mystery set in England during World War I and a decade later, Maisie Dobbs is the first in a series about a former wartime nurse turned detective. Maisie grew up a servant in the household of Lady Rowan (no relation to the present reviewer), whose progressive ideals prompt her to cultivate the young autodidact’s precociousness. Maisie enters Cambridge, but leaves early to join the war effort. She falls in love with a young military doctor, Simon Lynch, who soon proposes marriage, but Maisie defers a response until the war is over. The youthful love story occupies the central core of the book, which opens in 1929 as Maisie takes over the practice of her mentor, seasoned detective Maurice Blanche. Two independent clients lead her to the same setting, a residence in the Kent countryside for gravely disfigured veterans who seek retreat from society. But suspicious financial arrangements and a series of inexplicable deaths of veterans lead Maisie to investigate misdeeds and mysteries at The Retreat.
Winspear shuttles back and forth in time depicting her heroine’s empathic skills of detection and devotions to her family and friends. The lives of the cast of characters intertwine over the course of the novel in perhaps implausibly coincidental ways. A unifying theme is the horror of war, the physical, mental, and emotional injuries it inflicts on virtually all of the characters. Maisie of course delivers the information her two clients seek, and resolves various other loose ends scattered throughout, such as how ultimately she replies to Dr. Lynch’s proposal. Maisie Dobbs is a fun read that invites moving along to the next title in the series. Thanks to colleague and friend Janice Kelly for the tip!
In light of all the current discussion on supply chain disruptions, I’d like to recommend this book. The following is an excerpt from Ross Todd’s review and interview with Sarah Rathke in the October 20, 2021 edition of Am Law Litigation Daily:
‘Squire Patton Boggs litigation partner Sarah Rathke developed an expertise in supply chain issues as an associate second-chairing trials for many of the firm’s Rust Belt manufacturing clients. It was when Rathke, who is based in Cleveland, was working on what she describes as an “airplane widget” case that she met supply chain consultant Rosemary Coates. “I liked her so much that I realized that she was doing on the operational side what I was doing legally — and then we wrote a book together,” Rathke said when the Lit Daily caught up with her by phone yesterday.
That book, “Legal Blacksmith: How to Avoid and Defend Supply Chain Disputes,” published in 2016, seems apropos of this moment with ships stacked up at sea waiting to be unloaded, containers lingering dockside and shortages of everything from semiconductors to tennis shoes to paper products. “When we get to the end of this tunnel, we’ll see whether the book needs to be substantially rewritten or not,” Rathke said. “We are in, in some ways, very, very unchartered territory.”’
Excerpt - Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved
I'm only halfway through, but it's a landmark book and an amazing achievement. For those who were there, for those who want to learn what happened during the last great pandemic, it's a must read.
I recommend Amor Towles' new novel, The Lincoln Highway. I love a book told from multiple points of view, and this is a great exemplar of that method of storytelling. Each character is vivid; the settings are diverse; the set up is great and the writing is superb. Towles pays great attention to detail and, yet, his writing never feels cluttered.
This picture book, written in rhyming couplets, tells the story of an eager child who does her best to clean up her room in anticipation of her grandparents' visit, and who causes something of a whirlwind throughout the rest of her home in doing so. (Full disclosure: my college roommate wrote this book!) The book incorporates a number of Mandarin words and includes a pronunciation guide at the end, and it nicely depicts the sweet and complicated relationships between child, parent, and grandparent. It also will bring a smile to the face of anyone who knows that asking a child to pitch in often makes a task more complicated than it otherwise would be.
Props to Bob Berring for recommending the first book in this series, The Thursday Murder Club, in last summer’s reading list. It’s the book I’ve recommended the most since then and everyone loves it. The conceit - 4 residents of a retirement home, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim, meet each Thursday to study unsolved police cases and eventually are caught up solving a murder in their community. In the second book, Elizabeth’s former husband shows up (using the identity of a man who died years ago during one of her missions as a British spy) and is murdered - or is he? The characters are well realized with lots of humor and these are satisfying mysteries that you won’t figure out on page one. Perfect as gifts or just treat yourself.
This novel is sublime—Lockwood writes about life on the internet and life outside of it with a completely open heart and a razor-sharp wit. The first half of the book introduces us to the “extremely online” narrator who immerses herself in social media and who assesses it with an eye both critical and loving. The second half of the book turns to the experience of the narrator and her family through the pregnancy of her younger sister, whose baby is diagnosed in utero with Proteus syndrome. In addition to being a novelist and memoirist (her book Priestdaddy was recommended in the 2021 Summer Reading List; I’m reading it right now and am finding many of the same features I admire in No One Is Talking About This), Lockwood is an accomplished poet, and it shows. She puts together words that no one has ever thought to unite, and the combinations are at once totally surprising and so vivid and perfect and beautiful that you wonder why no one has ever spoken or written them before. I’ve been thinking about this book—both its words and what it has to say about living a full life right now—for months.
This is a great translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson, published in 2018. Among other things Wilson translates in iambic pentameter rather than replicating the rhythm of ancient Greek. The result of this and Wilson's other approaches to translation is that the book reads like the wind.
I know I'm ~5 years behind the Literary Fiction Train, but Yasmine didn't tell me to read Outline until this year. So really it's on her. It's not fair to call this a "story" or say I "liked" it but I couldn't put it down. Also a very quick read, even for me!
The book is a series of tense and self-absorbed conversations between a shadow of a narrator and a cast of characters who are simultaneously fascinating and the most boring people you could imagine. The storyteller is weirdly disconnected from the stories she's telling, and it all makes for a very unsettling read. I definitely don't think we're supposed to enjoy ourselves or like anyone we read about, and the highest drama of the book is when we find out the narrator's name (it's Faye, spoiler alert).
Outline is the perfect name for a book that feels like a writing exercise done by a stick figure. Absolutely worth a read.
Parable of the Sower is a futuristic, apocalyptic, science fiction-y novel that feels eerily prescient about climate change and class struggle (it's from 1993). Lauren Olamina is a Black girl / secret prophet from Southern California who leaves her home and starts walking toward the Pacific Northwest, as we all want to, and is joined by a strange crew who she starts indoctrinating into her semi-cult-y eco-deist religion. Not in a scary way, and honestly it kind of seems appropriate. You'd probably join her cult, too, is all I'm saying.
Somehow I hadn't read this before, but it's now my favorite book of Butler's. Blasphemy, I know. Very good, more than a little depressing, and might hit especially close to home if you have survivalism tendencies. Definitely don't read during fire season.
Lapine directed and wrote the book for Sunday, and this book tells the history of the show, from its initial inception through its Broadway run. The book weaves together Lapine’s own memories with interviews with the major players in the production, including Sondheim himself, the original stars of the show, members of the ensemble, and music directors and producers and stage managers, to name a few. It’s a dazzling look into the joy and heartache of putting on a musical, the sheer logistical feat of it, the vulnerability and diligence and ingenuity required of creative work. Also, the details are so much fun—I got such a kick out of all the ups and downs involved in creating and recreating Dot’s trick dress, or the fact that the orchestra pit was so small that they had to slice the bass drum in half so it could fit. (Follow this up with the 2016 documentary The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, if you’re left wanting more behind-the-scenes musical theater content.)
Near the start of this story, one of the two college buddies on a canoe trip on the remote Maskwa River in northern Canada climbs a tree and sees that the fire they’ve been smelling is much closer, larger, and fast-moving than they’d realized. And that’s the good news. Dartmouth roommates Wynn and Jack are both experienced and accomplished outdoorsmen, and they need all of that expertise if they are to survive what was intended to be an idyllic college vacation of fly fishing, canoeing, berry picking, and camping. This is a story of escalating danger and tragedy. Heller's descriptions of this remote, sometimes beautiful, often dangerous landscape are as believable as are the descriptions of his two main characters. This short novel was an armchair pandemic escape that stayed with me long after I’d finished it.
Iconic movie star Evelyn Hugo has lived a glamourous and scandalous life. Her story is much in demand, but the reclusive Evelyn has resisted all attempts by reporters to open up about her life until she reaches out to relative unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to not only do an interview for the magazine but to have Monique write her biography. Monique sees this as an opportunity to jumpstarting her, admittedly flagging, career and gets her boss to agree to the interview segment. The question is, why Monique? Clearly drawing on the life stories of many of classic Hollywood’s biggest female stars, see Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marylin Monroe, Taylor Jenkins Reid weaves a tale of Evelyn’s life of secrets that threaten everything Monique knows about her own life.
If you are interested in listening to stories about the real stars in Hollywood, I suggest listening to Katrina Longworth’s podcast, You Must Remember This. It makes a nice companion to both The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and Daisy Jones and the Six (see my review of that book here: https://www.law.berkeley.edu/library/holiday2019/).
I must admit that I have enjoyed all the books I have read by Jenkins Reid so far and I eagerly look forward to reading her books in the future. I can not recommend her books enough.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and Daisy Jones and the Six are both available here in the law library so check them out.
A long time ago a 13-year-old boy named Matt James Hallowell and his father made a log cabin in the forest of Maine. Matt is left alone to guard and take care of the cabin while his father goes to gather the family in Massachusetts and bring them back to the cabin. Matt then realizes he has to learn to survive in difficult areas and with difficult animals. He gets help from Attean, a Native American boy, and his family. When his father does not get back in time, he starts to worry for his family. Attean asks Matt to move with his tribe up north and join their family.
How will Matt answer? Will his family come home? If not, will Matt ever see his family or Attean again?
Ali Benjamin is best known for her YA novels, including The Thing About Jellyfish (a National Book Award finalist). Her debut adult novel, The Smash-Up, is a modern take on Edith Wharton’s bleak novella Ethan Frome. Set in a sleepy Massachusetts town during the early days of the Trump presidency, the Frome family and the nation are on the edge. Ethan and Zo Frome are navigating a marital crisis against a backdrop of political outrage, the #MeToo movement, and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Although there are several unlikeable characters, Benjamin’s clever and timely look at how we struggle to understand the experiences of others in an increasingly polarized world makes it an engaging read.
Deprived of access to the RSF during the pandemic and missing my sedate laps in the pool at Golden Bear, I hired an acquaintance to introduce me, and a couple of intrepid friends, to the far more robust pleasures of swimming in the Bay. Part of my inspiration was a book I discovered around the same time: Water Log, by Roger Deakin.
Deakin was a filmmaker, environmentalist, naturalist, gorgeous writer, and, if you read this book you will surely agree, a bona fide eccentric. He is also considered the father of “wild swimming,” and Water Log will show you how he earned the title. The idea he gets, in the book’s first pages, is “a long swing” through Britain, by its waterways. While he references the story by John Cheever, Deakin’s quarry is anything but suburban; he is determined to find all kinds of wild places within England, Scotland and Wales where he can submerge his body. He drives from one venue to another, consulting crinkled maps he seeks out in obscure historical societies and following odd tips and clues, swimming sometimes with friends who share his preoccupation, sometimes alone.
Deakin will swim in anything. He begins with a seventeenth-century moat (his own), and paddles through lochs, rivers, canals and ponds, as well as the sea, where he braves the “subtle ferocity of running tides.” The waters are murky, turbulent, weedy, abounding in eels, polluted, and, often, heart-stoppingly cold, but he plunges in them all. Sometimes he defies direct prohibitions, calmly observing that “the moment it becomes a subversive activity, swimming is that much more interesting.” His watery adventures are mixed with comments, at the same time erudite and matter-of-fact, about history and literature, and his observations about plant and insect life are lovingly informed. For Deakin, all forms of life are worthy co-inhabitors of the planet. Caught in a downfall, he says, “Just as my feelings of fine solitude were turning to self-pitying loneliness, I met a toad coming the other way along the peaty deer-path.”
Throughout his idiosyncratic quest, and without ever preaching, Deakin shows what is lost when ecosystems are disrupted and disregarded. His gentle transgressions against the ways that swimming has become contained, managed, and regulated are a protest of the way humans have divided themselves from nature. Water Log is a passionate defense of true wilderness in the form of a peculiarly personal narrative.
If you like water, or nature writing, or singular adventures, or if “armchair swimming” might be your cup of tea, I recommend this book.
Wayward pulled me deeply into its clutches, one of those books that one cannot put down. The story follows Sam, a middle-aged woman whose daughter is about to leave the very comfortable suburban nest provided by Sam and her husband. Sam is in a ‘good’ if boring marriage. She feels adrift. Sam confronts her midlife crisis when on the spur of the moment she buys a dilapidated old house. The tale is set in Syracuse, New York. The house was once a charming residence but has fallen into the maw of the rust belt decline. The election of President Trump engenders feelings that everything is in decline. The house costs almost nothing, and she impulsively buys it on the spot. As she drives home she decides to leave her husband and move into the house and restore its glory.
Sam is a former hippie who morphed into a suburban stay-at-home mother and who has crashed into her midlife crisis (some reviewers call this a menopause novel as opposed to the male midlife version.) The book follows Sam’s journey. Along the way questions of the meaning of marriage, the delicate dynamics of the parent-child relationship, aging parents, feminism, politics and the internet arise. The novel gets inside Sam’s head as she stumbles, makes mistakes and tries to discern a path forward. In interviews the author has said that it was important that Sam was in a good marriage with a loving, if confused, husband and daughter. It is about Sam. She knows that she is privileged and she feels that she must do something about the inequities of the world. But what is to be done? In some ways the book is a small story but it touches important issues that still kick about in my brain. The writing is smooth and clean. A few chapters are told from the daughter’s perspective with a topical subplot, but this is Sam’s story. It makes for a fine read.
This YA novel, a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category, examines the mass confinement of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II from the rarely considered perspective of young people. Author Traci Chee is known for her bestselling fantasy series The Reader Trilogy, but here makes the shift to historical fiction and creates an intricate web intertwining the lives of 14 different teen characters (you’ll want to bookmark the character “registry” provided by the author to keep track), following them from everyday life in San Francisco Japantown on the eve of Pearl Harbor to their sudden forced uprooting and incarceration in the harsh environs of Topaz, Utah. The book employs various voices and narrative techniques for different characters, making each individual’s experiences, emotions, and life-altering decisions feel unique and personal; though, as the author notes, it represents “a mere fraction of what this generation went through.” It’s a thoughtful, enlightening read.
Would it surprise you to learn that Stacey Abrams is also good at writing legal thrillers? Me, neither. Abrams has been a writer since law school! She's published fiction under a pseudonym; this is her first fiction book published under her real name. While Justice Sleeps features a Supreme Court clerk who is appointed the legal guardian of the Justice she clerks for when he falls into a coma. The book has realistic characters, suspense, and a legal setting. If you like this genre and appreciate anything that comes out of Stacey Abrams' mind, you won't be disappointed.
For any swimmers, would-be swimmers, want-to be swimmers, or folks fascinated by people who make their way into the water, all kinds of water, Bonnie Tsui's book, Why We Swim, is a must read. It is a non-fiction book and reads like a fiction book - she is a great storyteller and weaves in history, psychology, sociology, and more into her chapters. Bonnie is a local author and for those new to the SF/Bay Area or those who have lived here a long time, you will learn more about the waters and the personalities who spend time in the water surrounding the Bay (and the world). She chronicles our fascination with the water and the reasons we are attracted to the cold and dangerous water, as well as to the local swimming pool. If anyone gets through this book and does not want to jump into the Bay, you will be one of the few!