2014 Reading: Space Chronicles by Neil deGrasse Tyson

spacechroniclesSpace Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

This isn’t a book so much as a collection of Dr. Tyson’s writings that somehow relate to NASA and space exploration. A reader could dip in and out of the book and not miss any part of a continuous thread because there is no such thread. In that regard the book was something of a disappointment, even though I’m a fan of Dr. Tyson.

The basic message that comes through is that the reason we were able to find the money to develop the Apollo missions and land a man on the moon is the Cold War. Finding the money for space exploration these days, especially sending humans into space, is a lot harder. Still, he says, NASA is valuable and for pure science alone we should be spending more.

My favorite chapter by far is called “America and the Emergent Space Powers,” adapted from a speech Tyson gave in 2005. He begins by decrying the fuzzy thinking of Americans–absurd headlines he’s seen and arguments supporting various propositions. Such as:

It’s often said that the state lottery is a tax on the poor, because people with low incomes spend a disproportionate amount of their money on lottery tickets. It is not a tax on the poor. It’s a tax on the people who never studied mathematics.

The same chapter recounts the amazing achievements of the Arab world 1000 years ago. He blames the decline in scientific preeminence on the ideas of the Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali, who declared the manipulation of numbers to be the work of the devil and promoted the concept of Allah’s will as the cause of all natural phenomena. End of scientific achievement in the Arab world. Sound familiar?

There’s more in that vein in the chapter.

Many of us were inspired by the space missions of the sixties. The space shuttle missions never quite captured my imagination in the same way. So I’m all in favor of a mission to Mars. Let’s get excited about space again.

2014 Reading: Life Before Life by Jim B. Tucker

lifebeforelifeLife Before Life: Children’s Memories of Previous Lives
Jim B. Tucker, M.D.
St. Martin’s, 2005

Dr. Tucker recently spoke at my local bookstore. I was interested in attending but had a conflict. I did however, pick up one of his books and have just read it. The book doesn’t claim to prove reincarnation, but it does offer considerable evidence for it in the form of the statements by children of their memories of previous lives. Many cases are offered, and these are, apparently, just a small sampling of the data that Dr. Tucker and his colleagues have amassed.

The cases reported include birthmarks or birth defects that somehow reflect the mode of death of the “prior personality,” or experimental birthmarks that are placed on the prior personality’s body and then carry over, or other memories that are in various ways “verified.” As a good rhetorician, Dr. Tucker also addresses both the objections to the evidence and the alternative explanations, concluding in most cases that reincarnation offers the most logical explanation for the cases.

The author includes an entire chapter to the issue of materialism, and the objection based on the fact that only the material world exists. But, he argues, our knowledge of physics is evolving, and some physicists now acknowledge that materialism may not be all that there is.

It’s all very interesting to me. On the one hand, I am a firm believer in the material world until another form of existence is proven. On the other hand, I find the notion of reincarnation extremely attractive.

When I was in high school, using hypnosis to achieve past life regressions was something of a fad. One of my friends was able to get a local dentist who was a hypnotist to come to small gathering in her basement and to “put us under” to see what he could learn about our past lives. I don’t recall specifics, but some of our group did offer details of past lives. My recollection is that I did not.

Anyway, I’m still fascinated by the subject and now, having read this book, I need to do some more reading.

2014 Reading: The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey

manwhowalkedawayThe Man Who Walked Away
by Maud Casey
Bloomsbury 2014

Maud Casey was part of a panel on book publicity at the Virginia Festival of the Book this year. I’ve been hearing about her for years but haven’t read her work, so I took the opportunity to get her new book, The Man Who Walked Away. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Kudos to Bloomsbury for publishing such a lyrical, literary book.

The book is a fictionalized account of a real case treated by a real doctor in a late 19th Century Bordeaux asylum. In the novel, “the Doctor” (never named) treats his most interesting patient, Albert, a young man (about twenty, we’re told, although he doesn’t seem that young). Albert has a problem of wandering away and waking up in strange places not knowing how he got there. Meanwhile, it’s the early days of psychiatry, and the Doctor does what he can to treat Albert and the other patients in the asylum (and deal with his own problems). The Doctor frequently visits Paris where he and other doctors attend demonstrations by “the great doctor,” including one that introduces the idea of hypnosis in treating hysteria and other forms of mental illness. The Doctor decides to give it a try with Albert.

Not much happens in the book in the way of plot, although both Albert and the Doctor have complex backgrounds that Casey explores beautifully. The language throughout is exquisite. Christine Schutt calls the book “ensorcelling.” What? (It means “bewitching.”)

2014 Reading: Until You Make the Shore by Cameron Conaway

conaway coverUntil You Make the Shore

Cameron Conaway

Salmon Poetry, 2014

This book came as something of a surprise. I’ve known Conaway for a few years, first introduced by the poet Todd Davis. We stayed in touch and I enjoyed his book Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-fighting Poet, which came out in 2011. I know that he spent the next couple of years in Thailand doing some very interesting work in both human rights and poetry. But we ran into each other earlier this year at the AWP Conference in Seattle where he was launching Until You Make the Shore, his new poetry collection from Salmon Poetry. I bought it, he signed it for me, and I have just managed to make time to read it.

Not what I was expecting. (Which was what? I don’t know—martial arts? Thailand?) The book is an impressive series of poems in the voices of four female inmates of the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center, with the voice of the poet inserted as the creative writing instructor of the four young women. These very powerful voices come through loud and clear. They tell very dark stories, each different and yet disturbingly the same—what they have done, what’s been done to them, what has happened in their homes.

What Conaway has done here is very exciting, I think. The book includes a foreword by the playwright Brad Fraser, and that seems entirely appropriate to me. It isn’t at all difficult to imagine this book staged, maybe with the instructor in the middle, surrounded by the four women, each telling their story through their poems. I’d like to see that.

Well done, Cameron Conaway.

2014 Reading: Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

steallikeanartistSteal like an Artist

by Austin Kleon

Workman, 2012

I picked this book up on a recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago (I think it was AIC—I’ve been to a lot of art museum gift shops lately) because I was intrigued by the cover, the title, and the subtitle: “10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.”

Actually, if you’re an artist already, you’ve probably already been told a lot of these things, and you may even have concluded that some of them are bogus, or at least not something that will work for you (that’s okay, according to Kleon).

Congratulations to Kleon for getting this book published and getting people like me to buy it. The book was an evening’s amusement, and not as frustratingly repetitive as some other books on creativity, like, say The Artist’s Way, which I’m also burrowing through at the moment. And there are some good reminders here about some techniques for enhancing your own creativity. One in particular that I like is “Climb your own Family Tree.” The idea is to focus on one artist you love and learn everything there is to know about that person. Then find three people that artist loved and find out everything you can about them. I think many of us take the first step, but we might not take the second. I think I have begun climbing several trees but usually get down from the first branch and move to the next tree.

Here’s another tip from the book: Be Nice (The world is a small town). And one way of being nice is to say nice things about people on the Internet. Which is what I’m doing now. I enjoyed this Kleon guy’s book. You might also. His website has some cool stuff on it, too: www.austinkleon.com.

2014 Reading: To Sell is Human by Daniel H. Pink

sellishumanTo Sell is Human

by Daniel H. Pink

Riverhead, 2012

I’m not in the habit of reading business books, but this one sounded intriguing. Besides, I’ve heard Pink speak a few times and I read and appreciated his previous book, Drive, so I’d been looking forward to reading this one.

The basic idea of the book is that these days most of us are engaged in selling of one kind or another, especially if you think of “selling” as more than just pushing product. If you’re in the business of moving people, then you’re selling—choices, lifestyles, ideas, candidates, whatever.

When I practiced law, I was doing both “selling” in a more traditional sense—trying to convince clients and potential clients to buy our services—and “non-sales selling”—trying to persuade counterparts in a transaction or regulatory bodies to decide in a client’s favor. In my work at the World Bank I was mostly engaged in negotiations of one kind or another, and that’s nothing if it isn’t selling. (In fact, Pink does give a nod to Roger Fisher, author of Getting to Yes, the negotiations book that I found very helpful in the work I did in that field. Much of what Pink is saying is a corollary of the principled negotiation style fostered by Fisher.)

And now, of course, the world of sales is a much bigger part of my life than I’d like it to be. There’s the non-sales selling aspect—simply trying to engage a reader through the words—but there are literal sales to worry about as well: sales of stories to magazines, selling (through an agent, often) to publishers, selling published books to bookstores or readers. So don’t tell me a writer isn’t in sales.

Through a number of case studies and a review of interesting research in the field, Pink follows the evolution of our thinking about sales—this is surprisingly interesting stuff, especially in the engaging way that Pink writes—and concludes with some actual recommendations for effective sales techniques. (For example, it might surprise you to learn that the most effective salespeople are somewhere in the middle on the spectrum of introversion and extroversion, or an area that Pink calls “ambiversion.”) He also has some very specific ideas about creating effective pitches, and it is in this area that the book is most relevant for writers.

I’ll be doing a separate “Tips for Writers” post based on those ideas, so stay tuned.

2014 Reading: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

orphan trainOrphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline

It’s a heartwarming story, but don’t let that stop you. It’s 2011, and Molly is a troubled teen in a foster home. Nearby, 90-year-old Vivian lives in a big house with an attic full of memories. For various reasons, Molly comes to help Vivian clean out the attic and in the process the two women rediscover Vivian’s past as one of the Orphan Train riders–a girl at the age of nine sent from New York with other orphans to be parceled out to families in the Midwest.

Some of the orphans had a tough time of it, and Vivian is no exception. Meanwhile, in 2011, Molly is trying to get by and maintain peace with Ralph and Dina, her foster parents. The resolution of the story is maybe a little too tidy for my taste, but that’s probably why the book has been a bestseller.

It’s definitely a good read.

2014 Reading: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

good soldiersThe Good Soldiers by David Finkel

This is a tough book to read because of the subject matter, but it should be required reading for all Americans, especially those who thought the Iraq War was a good idea. Finkel writes about the full deployment–over a year–of a single battalion from Ft. Riley, Kansas, during the “surge” in the Iraq War. Along the way, he details every death in the battalion and many of the serious injuries as well as the deep psychological wounds that the war caused.

It’s pretty grim, but I’m glad to have read it.

2014 Reading: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

Still WritingStill Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

By Dani Shapiro
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013

I love this book. I’ve just finished reading it and I plan to keep it by my desk and re-read its short chapters as part of my own daily writing routine. I don’t think non-writers, even fans of Dani Shapiro’s work (novels and memoirs), can really appreciate the book. But writers will. Are you a writer? You should read this book.

Although Shapiro’s childhood was very different from mine and her path to writing was also very different, and although she’s been far more successful than I have, I can relate to just about everything she says in this book. More importantly, I am comforted by it and I can learn from it.

The book, which is short, is divided into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. That pretty much covers it, right? As writers, we struggle with getting started. We struggle with keeping the momentum going. We struggle with the endings. (We also struggle with what happens after the ending, and that third section deals with that, too.)

While writing about her own life and her own experience, Shapiro shares valuable tips for writers. On my next read through, I’m going to underline my favorites, but I’ll give you a sample:

“Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go on the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination.” Okay, I knew this already, but I need someone to tell me, to force me to admit that I do this. All the time. And it’s a problem.

“Start small. If you try to think about all of it at once—the world you hope to capture on the page, everything you know, every idea you’ve ever had, each person you’ve met, and the panoply of feelings coursing through you like a river—you’ll be overcome with paralysis.” Yes. Absolutely. She goes on to use the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle. Build a corner first, then move on from there. “Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph.”

And there’s much more. Some of it is obvious. Some of it is not. But all of it is helpful. It’s helpful just to have had a successful author say it.

I’m not going to lend you my copy of this book. Get your own.

Now, having said how much I love this book, I was shocked—shocked, I tell you!—by typos. When you spend $24 for a book, you ought to get something that’s pretty close to perfect. I took an informal poll of my Facebook friends to find out how bothered they were by typos in a printed book, and most—almost all who responded—were very bothered. (10 or more on a scale of 1 to 10.) A few didn’t care, but they were in the clear minority.

I care. I didn’t stop reading because of the typos, because I was really enjoying the book, but what good is having a big-time publisher if they’re going to let mistakes like this slip by. I actually doubt that these errors were Dani Shapiro’s. She strikes me as too careful for that. But somehow in production these mistakes slipped into the text.

I counted five in a small-format 230 page book. And I can’t be sure I spotted them all, especially because I read the last third of the book rather quickly. On my next reading—I’m serious about reading it again, despite the typos—I may find more. But here’s what I found so far, in case the author or publisher might be interested:

  • p. 32: “We doesn’t ask why that particular slant of sunlight, snipped of dialogue, old couple walking along the road hand-in-hand seems to evoke an entire world.” [Someone changed the subject and forgot to change the verb?]
  • P. 116: “You don’t know—you can’t know—whether the bricks you’ve layed on top will be supported by the brinks at the bottom.” [I even checked to see if there’s some technical think about brick-laying that would justify this spelling, but I found none.]
  • P. 119: “There is tremendous creative freedom to be found in letting go of our opinions of our work, in considering the possibility that we may not be not our own best critic.” [I tried to imagine a meaning in which this crazy double negative might make sense, but . . . no.]
  • P. 126: “If it were possible to trace the roots of any writing life back to it’s very inception, to the seeds, to the tender shoots deep within the fertile ground, we would inevitably find ourselves in the territory of childhood.” [Cringe.]
  • P. 155: “But somehow—though the whole thing was embarrassing and didn’t feel exactly good—I had the sense that what I was doing was—as my writer friends and I sometimes say, good for the work.” [Dashes can be tricky, and this mistake is probably the result of trying to avoid two parentheticals in the same sentence, but the fix was incomplete.]

Too picky? Maybe. But if this is what we get from a real publisher, what sets the work apart from the messes we sometimes see in self-published books? Each one of these mistakes made me stop. That’s not what an author wants to have happen.

Typos aside, this is a fine book, and I recommend it highly to my writer friends.

2014 Reading: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

ThegodofsmallthingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

What a beautifully written book this is. Perhaps it is “overwritten,” as a friend of mine has said, but for me its lushness is part of its charm. It’s the story of a pair of twins, Rahel and Estha (a girl and a boy, “two-egg twins”) and the rest of their family, living through the tragedy of the death of their cousin Sophie Moll, and the complex aftermath. Embedded in this story is a look at India’s caste system, at the political morass, the socio-economic divide, at education and race and the role of women.

I have owned a copy of this book for a long time—I try to read the Booker Prize winners, and this one won in 1997—but I didn’t get around to “reading” it until I came into possession of the Books on Tape version (which, sadly, apparently isn’t available commercially). It is narrated by Donada Peters, a gifted actress, if her reading of this book is a good measure. She’s fantastic. And now, having come to the end of the tapes, I’m ready to dip into the actual text.