Reading List (December 2016)

Published: Sun, 12/04/16

Dear readers,

We've had our first snow here in Chicago today, the perfect time, so the cliché goes, to read a good book by the fire. Alas, while I do have a fire going, I'm between books. I don't like being between books, but when I finish a good one, I feel, first of all, bereft because I want to go living on in its world, but I also need to allow the time for that book to percolate. This means I can't begin the next one right away. And yet, I need to read, especially by the fire. So what to do?​​​​​​​
When I'm between books, I turn to books that are old friends, like Ted Kooser's Local Wonders--Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, a book that is familiar ground and thus not too emotionally engaging, and yet something is always to be gained from reading it. Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the U.S. from 2004-2006, is one of my writing heroes, because he managed to build a career as a writer while also working as vice president of an insurance company. He got up early to write before spending the rest of his day in the corporate world; he showed me, when I was still clocking a 9-5 job, how it could be done.
I love this slim volume of his essays about life in the Nebraska countryside. It is organized by season, and I like to open it to whatever season I find myself in, and sink into his often comical, always lyrical observations like an old armchair. Being a poet, his prose is exquisite. No matter which page I open, he delights me with some metaphor or turn of phrase. My latest find: "the serrated cornfield horizons of Iowa."

The book that recently had me so engaged I did not want it to end was my friend Gillian Marchenko's Still Life--A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression. You would think a book about depression would be depressing, but it's not. I appreciated living along with Gillian, even if some days were spent entirely in bed watching TV - and seriously, who doesn't want to do that sometimes? Not for days on end, of course, but I could relate. And that's what I loved about this book: It's so relatable. Gillian lets us readers look behind the curtain and experience what it's like to live with depression, and how painful executing some of the seemingly simplest daily tasks can be when you have that heavy cloud inside yourself. All along I was rooting for her to find a way out, back into the bustle of her family life. Her searingly personal account deepened my understanding of what depression is - a mounting inability to deal with everyday life.

Country Driving​​​​​​​
I have continued reading about China in Peter Hessler's work. Most recently I finished listening to Country Driving--A Chinese Road Trip in my car (mainly driving my son to school), fitting for a book about road trips, don't you think? I'd be loath to read a 400+ page book sitting down, but I can listen to it. In fact, it's fun to have an epic saga that lives in my car.
This is the third book in Hessler's series about his experience of living in a rapidly changing China. It is divided into three sections: the Wall (about his road trip following the Great Wall of China to its dusty ends in the steppe of Mongolia), the Village (about his buying a shack in the mountains close to Beijing as a country retreat), and the Factory (about the fates and foibles of the people in a new factory town). The Village was my favorite--maybe because I've been to that region of China but also because I really got into the lives of the country folk he meets and becomes friends with. Following their lives and seeing how a backwater village is affected by the rapid growth of China was heart-warming and heart-wrenching at the same time.

Colors of the Mountain​​​​​​​
I found this book browsing the memoir section of Powell's here in my neighborhood. Incidentally, Powell's is one of the few book stores that understands the category of memoir and gives it its own big shelf. 
Unlike Hessler's books, Colors of the Mountain is not an outsider's illuminating take on China but rather the story of what it was like to grow up in a remote Chinese village as the son of the hated class of "former landlord" during Cultural Revolution. Above all else, this jewel of a book is an ode to the power and value of education. It showcases what it means to be denied an education, what it means to be given an opportunity after many years of hardships, and what it means to commit to it and work for it. Da Chen's story reminded me to appreciate my good fortune of being able to study whatever I want to, whenever I want to, and I've been hitting my Hebrew vocabulary cards with greater gusto in his honor.

Looking to blow your mind a little? To read something different? I just reread Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory with my memoir workshop, and we found that once in a while it is a good thing to read something that was written in another era. This somewhat haphazard collection of autobiographical musings by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century might come across as a bit antiquated and tedious to some, but that, I would argue, is exactly its charm. Why always read about our times? Why not read something about a world utterly different from our own? A world that does not exist anymore? Such as the waning years of the Russian empire? And why not read something written in a completely different style, something that challenges your brain, that has sentences that go on for paragraphs, and has you looking up words? For me, Speak, Memory is to be savored in small doses, like overly rich truffles. Just a little every day and you'll come away with shimmering impressionistic sketches of an otherworldly life in your head--a fatherly figure tossed in the air by happy peasants, butterflies painstakingly pinned to canvas, or a Russian general shuffling over an icy bridge in a sheepskin coat after losing a war.

For this holiday season I wish you great reading adventures, and if you do pick up any of these books, I would love to hear how you felt about them.

​​​​​​​Happy reading,