The Risks And Rewards Of Book Recommendations

Recently JV strongly recommended Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  I like biographies, so I got a copy of the book from the library, read it, and concluded that JV was absolutely right:  it’s a terrific, thought-provoking book about a fascinating, almost unbelievable genius that is well worth reading.

61acccc4wwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_JV’s review, though, got me to thinking about the act of making book recommendation to your friends.  When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of trust and courage to do it, because you’re exposing a bit of your inner self in doing so.  If you read a book and give it a rave review to your friends, there’s a risk that they will read it and think it’s not exactly the bee’s knees.  What you think is a deeply moving tale they might find to be banal and superficial, and what you think is a fascinating bit of history they might conclude is a long, boring slog.  And, through the prism of the book and your review of it, they might just revise their perception of you, too.

It’s a chance you take whenever you give a hearty thumbs-up or a crushing thumbs-down to any piece of popular culture, be it a book, a movie, or a TV series.  People have different interests and will find different things appealing, or off-putting.  The risk that people will disagree, though, probably causes some vulnerable people to shy away from talking about their reactions to books, movies, and the like.  If so, that’s a shame.  Anything that might discourage people from talking about books is a bad thing.

I like getting book recommendations from friends and family, precisely because they do give you some insight into the personality and preferences of the recommender.  And, too, I find that their real-world reviews tend to be a lot more reliable than some lofty, self-consciously intellectual review written by a literature professor in the New York Times book review section.

Advertisements

Our Two Years With Dr. Brazelton

Yesterday Kish passed along the New York Times obituary for Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who died earlier this week at age 99.  Dr. Brazelton was a nationally recognized pediatrician, but he had a much more direct connection to our family.  He was the “baby doctor” who wrote the books that we read when preparing to become parents.  Those were the books that we consulted regularly as brand-new parents who were relentlessly scrutinizing Richard, our first-born, for every potential sign of illness, unhappiness,  developmental or behavioral problems, and every other thing nervous first-time parents worry incessantly about as they try to figure out the very basic question that lies at the core of the new parent’s consciousness:  is my child normal, and okay?

51izit41s7l-_ac_us218_Perhaps a day after Kish found out she was pregnant, approximately 50 books by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton appeared on the coffee table at our tiny apartment in suburban Alexandria, Virginia.  As is her wont, Kish had done her research, consulted her sources, and decided that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton was The Man when it came to providing us with guidance about how to deal with the new member of our family.  The physical presence of the books on the coffee table when I got home from work at night helped to drive home the point that, in a few short months, there would be a new member of the family in that little apartment, and we would be responsible for taking care of him or her.  Yikes!

Within days, the once-pristine books bore the physical signs of Kish’s careful attention. The pages sprouted highlighting and post-it notes and turned-down corners, and every night Dr. Brazelton’s books would be the subject of further examination and discussion aloud.  They were a kind of holy writ for new parents, and were treated accordingly.  It was obvious that Kish planned on trying to memorize everything Dr. Brazelton wrote, so that when the new member of the family, whom we had nicknamed “Junie,” emerged into the world, she would know exactly what to do at every instant.

My review of Dr. Brazelton’s books was a little less thorough.  I would read a bit and then shiver inwardly and wonder how in the world I was every going to remember every symptom that might indicate whether Junie had some kind of fatal childhood illness.  But as the months passed, and new maternity clothes were rolled out, and the Special Day drew nearer, and the books were digested bit by bit, I came to find Dr. Brazelton’s voice reassuring.  The underlying message seemed to be that new parents could do this, and that the infant that was going to appear in your midst was in fact a pretty tough cookie who wasn’t going to be irretrievably damaged by the first inept effort to pick him up or change his diaper or feed him solid food.  I remember going home the night Richard was born, while Kish was still in the hospital, and diving once more into the world of Dr. Brazelton for a final dose of common sense and encouragement before we finally brought our tiny baby home.

Once Richard arrived in our household, and was put under the new parent microscope, Dr. Brazelton’s books remained on the coffee table and were consulted anew, and repeatedly, as Richard’s every mannerism and cry and facial expression and rash was compared to the descriptions in the books.  And somehow the three of us made it through.  When we learned that Kish was pregnant with child number two, we’d come to realize that Dr. Brazelton had been right all along — we could muddle through, somehow, and our baby turned toddler was a pretty hardy survivor after all.  By the time Russell joined the Webner family, the Dr. Brazelton books had been moved from the coffee table to the bookshelves, to be consulted in the event of something we hadn’t seen before, but for the most part we were ready to fly solo, and were a lot more relaxed about it.

We spent about two years with Dr. Brazelton and his books as a constant companion.  He provided the encouragement and support we needed, at a time of tremendous vulnerability.  I’m guessing that we weren’t alone in that regard.  Thank you, Dr. Brazelton!

Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

Fire And Ice

It’s been so cold for such a long spell lately that it’s got me thinking about cold and heat — and which is worse to endure for long periods.

fire_and_ice_by_3amireh-300x253

Extreme heat is bad for a lot of reasons.  It saps your energy, you’re a sweaty mess for most of the day, and — for me, at least — it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep in a hot room.  And, when a heat wave hits, you read stories about heat stroke and even death for people left in rooms without air conditioning.  Extreme cold is bad for a lot of reasons, too.  It’s uncomfortable and wearing to constantly feel chilled and shivery, bundling up produces hat head and static electricity shocks, and the cold, dry air leaves your skin feeling desiccated and cracked.  And extreme cold can produce frostbite and death, as well as sad news stories about unfortunate dogs being found frozen solid on porches in Toledo.

Right now, in the midst of an arctic blast that has kept temperatures in the single digits and teens for more than a week, I’m sure I would gladly trade brutal cold for heat — and come the next August hot spell, I’m equally certain I would happily swap terrible heat for cold.  But I think Robert Frost had it right in one of his early poems:  both heat and cold have their own distinctive destructive powers.

Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Down Into The Levels of Travel Hell

Dante’s Inferno envisioned nine levels of Hell, with the hopeless condemned being subjected to various kinds of torment depending on the nature of sins they had committed.

Any traveler knows that there are similar levels of Travel Hell.  Yesterday, Kish and I got down to about Level 5.

angerWe first crossed the river Styx when an early morning snowstorm and de-icing needs delayed our flight out of Columbus.  We abandoned all hope when our flight was late arriving in St. Louis and the airline inexplicably did not  hold the plane for only the few minutes needed for us to make our connection — leaving us winded and desolate as we stood at the gate, watching our plane move slowly away — and instead booked us for a flight to occur 11 hours later.  We then wandered like lost souls through the St. Louis airport, moving from terminal to terminal in the bitter cold, enduring the initial levels of Travel Hell and hoping in vain to find an earlier flight option.  We moved even lower when we decided to take an earlier flight, through Houston, with the thought that we could then drive to our ultimate destination of San Antonio, and learned that the flight was populated entirely by screaming, thrashing children and inattentive parents.

We reached our final depth when we arrived in Houston, found the rental car counters in the terminal were closed, checked to make sure that their signs indicated they had cars available, then went to a rental car area only to learn that notwithstanding the freaking sign, they had no cars, and we therefore had to return to the terminal and board another bus to get to another rental car outlet.  The final indignity came when, after waiting patiently in the line at the rental car counter and finally securing a vehicle, we were directed to a car, got in, drove to the exit, and were told that we were in the wrong kind of car and needed to return it and get another one.  After that piece de resistance, the three-hour drive through the rain from Houston to San Antonio, with oversized pick-ups with their brights on powering up right behind us, seemed like a walk in the park.

Fortunately, we didn’t reach the lowest levels of Travel Hell — which involve things like being physically ill, getting food poisoning at an airport terminal food court, and then having to spend the night in an airport in the company of fellow travelers who won’t shut up — but Level 5 was bad enough.  After 14 hours, we emerged from the pits into the friendly environs of San Antonio, and the air never smelled so sweet.

My Aunt, The Author

Yesterday’s mail brought a welcome holiday gift: a book. Entitled Murder in the Village Library, the novel was co-authored by “Collett, Fogarty, and Webner.”

That’s Webner, as in my Aunt Corinne.

The back cover describes the plot as follows: “Vivid characters living in an idyllic gated community are confronted with greed, loss, and treachery in this action packed international thriller.” The book is focused on the library in the community where Aunt Corinne and Uncle Mack live, which admittedly is pretty darned idyllic. And the fact that the cover lists only the last names of the co-authors gives the book a hard-edged, two-fisted feel, like you might get in a Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer mystery.

I know from prior conversations with Uncle Mack that Aunt Corinne and her co-authors have worked hard on the book, and because Aunt Corinne is involved, you can bet your bottom dollar that the book is thoughtful, the plot is logical — and the prose is grammatically correct, carefully proofread, and properly punctuated down to the last semicolon.

Congratulations, Aunt Corinne! And if you’re interested in reading the book, I’d guess that copies are available from the Village Library itself.

The Folly Of Hubris

Al Franken announced today that “in the coming weeks” he will resign his seat in the U.S. Senate.  Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, was the subject of a series of allegations of sexual harassment and improper conduct, and ultimately members of his own party decided it was time for him to go.

51kbpkvrpyl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Why Franken will leave “in the coming weeks” rather than immediately isn’t entirely clear — but apparently part of the Senatorial prerogative is deciding when your resignation will actually take effect.  In any case, Franken  is one of three members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, to announce during this week alone that he is resigning in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.

When I heard that Franken had finally bowed to the inevitable and decided to resign, I thought about the fact that I saw him on the Bill Maher show only recently, when he was riding high and touting his new book, called Giant of the Senate.  I’ve seen the book prominently displayed in the local library during a recent visit before the allegations and the appalling photo first hit the news.  Franken being Franken, no doubt the book title was in large part tongue in cheek — but still the juxtaposition of the book title and its cover illustration with Franken’s rapid downfall and humiliating resignation suggests a valuable lesson.  Hubris, even partly tongue in cheek hubris, is just begging to be brought low.

You can probably buy Franken’s book at a discount these days.