A little while back three people recommended the same book to me over the span of about a month. These folks thought I’d enjoy the latest book by Jean Kwok, author of the previous bestseller “Girl in Translation.” In fact, I had picked up “Mambo in Chinatown” earlier and put it down as ‘not my type’ and so, after the first recommendation, I just said thanks, without comment. After the second recommendation, I had to share a laugh and explain what was going on, but after the third recommendation, which came via e-mail from a casual acquaintance, I decided I was supposed to read this book, my ‘type’ or not! The novel proved to be an entertaining look at ballroom dance, as well as the conflicts inherent in growing up the child of recent American immigrants.
Ever since I took up ballroom dance as a pastime, I have been on the lookout for good books about dance. I recently found one that fit the bill for me. “Astonish Me” by Maggie Shipstead brings to life the story of Joan, an American woman who, in 1977, falls in love with a Soviet ballet dancer, Arslan Rusakov—who is a clearly a fictional version of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Told in time jumps and multiple points of view, this is a story of unrequited love played out in the highly political, passionate world of professional ballet. Written with complexity of character and an intriguing plot and an ending twist that may or may not come as a surprise, the book is highly readable for dancers and non-dancers alike.
The world of ballet apparently offers a lot of fictional fodder. “Dancer” by Colum McCann is a colossal literary work that brings to life the extravagant world of Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian peasant whose genius propelled him to become an international ballet legend. Inspired by biographical facts, the story is told through a wide variety of voices, including Nureyev and his contemporaries, from the celebrated to the unknown. Beginning with Nureyev’s youth in Stalin-era Soviet Union and ending with his days of wild abandon in eighties’ New York, “Dancer” encapsulates the legendary artist in a way that captures his true essence, as well as his dazzling façade.
Cars can get us to where we need to go, but sometimes they are tied to greater stories that speak to our lives and dreams. Check out these films that take a look at different roles cars play in our society.
Trapped in a failing marriage, demolition-derby driver Ed “Speedo” Jager channels life’s frustrations onto the track, hoping to parlay his talents into a “real” racing career. This film captures the collisions and confrontations during one tumultuous year.
“Bulletproof Salesman” (2008)
Fidelis Cloer is a self-confessed war profiteer who found the perfect war when the US invaded Iraq. It wasn’t about selling a dozen cars, or even a hundred, it was a thousand-car war where security would become the ultimate product.
“Revenge of the Electric Car” (2011)
A sequel to the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” director Chris Paine takes his film crew behind the closed doors of Nissan, GM and the Silicon Valley start-up Tesla Motors to chronicle the story of the global resurgence of electric cars.
Extra! Extra! Given the size of space, the abundance of ocean and the for-now fictional technology that allows us to shrink humans and put them in a shrunken blood-submarine and send them into a full-size human for reasons of medicine or espionage, there are practically infinite settings for a novel. A great book could be set anywhere: a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a circus, even a pre-apocalyptic wasteland. But a newspaper may be the ultimate setting for a funny and sad novel. The pathos is built in: a building full of people passionate about their work but whose jobs are endangered because their industry is dying, what with the Internet and the world’s growing distaste for paper cuts and things that can’t take pictures of their food. (Proof: while this blog is a runaway success, the copies I write in magic marker on old newspapers and leave scattered about the local reading emporiums along with a note to mail me fifty cents and make a tally mark on a piece of paper and also mail that to me so I can count my readers, have reached, apparently, zero people.)
The international newspaper in “The Imperfectionists” is reaching more readers than my “Gentleman Recommends” circular, but, given its expenses, it is in much greater danger of closing up shop than I am of running out of old newspapers or magic markers (though those things do only have so much ink; please mail me fifty cents). Each chapter gives voice to a new character, and the book is spliced with interludes from the paper’s early days. This framework gives us a story as old as time: rich old man starts a newspaper in order to give a job to and reestablish contact with an old flame. A young journalist has his taste for the work destroyed by a manipulative industry veteran who commandeers his hotel room, laptop and opportunity to cozy up to a lady he fancies. An elderly reader’s home is mostly occupied by newspapers because she reads every word of each issue and is a slow reader and therefore decades behind in the news. There’s a man that inherits a newspaper he knows little about, preferring to spend his time conversing with his tiny dog and feeding it the sort of extravagant meals that had this gentleman scrambling to his mailbox to check for a pile of cents that might allow me to dine in similar opulence. And many, many more!
Tom Rachman also uses the bounce-around-in-time trick to keep the mystery and intrigue thick in his second outstanding novel, “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.” You’ll want to have a taste for quirky characters, the sort that wear mismatched shoes intentionally, own bookshops and engage in some half-hearted scamming. Tooly Zylberberg’s past is mysterious, to the reader and herself, and it’s tremendous fun to unravel it via a structure that jumps chapter by chapter from her adulthood, to her young adulthood, to her childhood. Read all about it!
I’ve read that “every day is Earth Day.” I believe I read it off a bumper sticker on a vehicle burning fossil fuels in its engine and releasing CO2 through its exhaust. Love the Earth, man. Don’t worry — in reality Earth Day is just one day a year. The other 364 days a year we aren’t required to acknowledge that we live on Earth. We can pretend this is all a magnificent dream (or terrible dream, depending on how your day is going), claim we’re on Mars or try to start snowball fights on the Senate floor. I see that Columbia’s Earth Day celebration is on April 19. In Jefferson City, the Missouri Department of Conservation sponsored celebration will be on April 24. So maybe we have to maintain awareness of our home planet for approximately a week. That’s doable.
Perhaps you’d like to pass the time reading a book or two during that week? Environmental issues have proven inspiring subject matter for excellent works of both fiction and nonfiction. If all this Earth hugging talk is a little too crunchy for you, you can take solace in the fact that these books have been printed on the flesh of dead trees.
OK, strap into your strappiest sandals and check out these books:
The possibility of the world as we know it being dramatically upended or gradually changed to something unrecognizable to us is a common trope in speculative fiction. The threat of environmental catastrophe has provided new possible worlds and cautionary tales for writers. Margaret Atwood, a longtime fan of science fiction, wrote the classic work of speculative fiction, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She went back to that genre for her Maddaddam Trilogy, which the New York Times called “an epic not only of an imagined future but of our own past.” The story unfolds both forwards and backwards in the first book, “Oryx And Crake.” The disoriented narrator wanders through a bizarre wasteland populated by bioengineered animals while sorting through his memories of how the world got this way. While the subject matter is dire, Atwood handles it with wit, dark humor and love for the genre in which she’s writing.
Brian Wood’s comic book series “The Massive,” now up to volume four in the collected editions, asks “What does it mean to be an environmentalist after the world has already ended?” The story follows crew members of The Kapital, half of the fleet for Ninth Wave, an activist group that seems to be modeled after the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. They are searching for their sister ship, The Massive, with which they lost contact after the world fell into chaos. An environmental disaster and the wars that have followed draw into question the mission of Ninth Wave. It’s part seafaring adventure, part post apocalyptic survival story, and an examination of the world we live in.
T.C. Boyle’s novel “A Friend of the Earth” similarly follows a hard-line environmentalist coping after the disaster he fought to avoid has come to pass. The biosphere has collapsed. Overpopulation and deforestation have taken their toll. Yet the human race continues on, if in a highly degraded state. Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, former member of Earth Forever! and convicted ecoterrorist, now manages a sad collection of endangered animals owned by a rock star. Tyrone unintentionally endangered his family through his Earth Forever! activities and lost them. Now, as he is just trying to survive in a dying world, his ex-wife contacts him after 20 years.
Earth Forever! is T.C. Boyle’s fictional creation based on the radical environmental group Earth First! One of the Inspirations for their formation was “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey. An ex-Green Beret returns to the United States and is outraged to find his native southwest overrun by developers. He eventually teams up with an eclectic group of activists that becomes known as The Monkey Wrench Gang. They engage in exploits that are anarchic, righteous and at times misguided. The result is a book that acts as a call to arms, cautionary tale and raucous comedy.
For “Encounters With the Archdruid,” master of narrative nonfiction John McPhee followed environmentalist David Brower as he engaged in fights over conservation in three areas of the country. The title comes from real estate developer Charles Fraser who refers to environmentalists as druids. He and Brower come into conflict over development on Cumberland Island in Georgia. Brower also battles with a mineral engineer over Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington, and with the commissioner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation over flooding of Glen Canyon by the Glen Canyon Dam (a great source of anger for the aforementioned Monkey Wrench Gang). McPhee’s style puts you there as the events unfold, and the description of each participant is clear-eyed and nuanced.
Just the size of “Wilderness Warrior” is a testament to the importance the natural world played for President Theodore Roosevelt. That a biography focused on that aspect of Roosevelt’s life and career could add up to such a doorstopper says something about the man’s priorities. Roosevelt preserved approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land during his presidency. In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winner Douglas Brinkley doesn’t just describe Roosevelt’s well known hobbies in nature. He describes his serious dedication as a naturalist (he trained in Darwinian biology at Harvard) and the political efforts he made to preserve so much land.
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson became a runaway bestseller in 1962, and its publication was a watershed moment in the history of environmentalism in this country. The book alerted the public to the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides for both human beings and the environment at large. It provoked a ruthless assault from the chemical industry and spurred changes in laws regulating our air, land, and water. It is a true classic and testament to the potential influence a book can have.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From A Catastrophe” manages to take the complicated system of our climate and describe the changes happening to it in just over 200 pages. The concise nature of the book doesn’t come at the expense of the subject but is due to Kolbert’s skill as a writer. Through a series of reports around the globe from the “frontlines of global warming,” she gathers up evidence of climate change and creates a vivid picture of the dangers in clear language. This often abstract subject and the potential human costs are made palpable.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and the Columbia Public Library is doing its part to help raise awareness and educate the public by hosting a presentation, The Future of Autism Treatment, on April 29 at 7 p.m. Rachel Zamzow — doctoral candidate in neuroscience whose research is supported by Columbia’s Thompson Center — will discuss autism and current treatments, as well as her own research focusing on treatments for the social impairment aspects of this disorder.
In case you didn’t know, the Thompson Center is a premier institution, addressing the challenges of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders via the research it conducts and the training and services it provides to families across Missouri impacted by these spectrum disorders. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), which affect about one in 72 people in Missouri, are characterized by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviors. In addition, anxiety is often a significant component for those on the spectrum. Rates of ASDs have been increasing for the past few decades and now affect approximately one in 88 people, with a four-fold higher rate in males. Though the reasons for its increase are cause for scientific debate, research at this time reveals causative factors to be both genetic and environmental in origin.
Since ASDs derive from complex neurobiological bases, it seems unlikely that a “cure” will be found. However, effective treatments that include behavioral, pharmaceutical and dietary interventions have been developed, and these have improved the lives of those impacted by ASDs. As time unfolds and research continues, it’s likely that other treatment options will emerge.
Getting back to this “cure” idea — many people on the spectrum active in self-advocacy groups, like Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), are not necessarily interested in a cure, but acceptance. They are also interested in making policies that encourage more inclusion in society at large for people with ASDs, as well as enhancing and growing resources for affected individuals and their families. “Citizen Autistic” is an important documentary that gives an inside view of those working on the frontlines of autism advocacy and provides valuable perspective on how they’d like to be supported.
If you’d like to gain a better understanding of the challenges of either living with someone on the spectrum or what it’s like to be on the spectrum yourself, consider looking at this list of memoirs for a book or two to read. “Boy Alone: a Brother’s Memoir,” by Karl Taro Greenfeld, paints a stark and haunting portrait of a family’s desperate and loving struggle to help one of their children, who is severely impacted by autism. The other stories on this list are deeply personal and offer inspiration from hard-earned triumph.
One highly sought-after title this spring is Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread.” This realistic tale chronicles three generations of the Whitshank family of Baltimore.
Things have changed in the Whitshank household. Abby and Red are getting older. Abby is getting forgetful, Red’s health is declining and the adult children have returned to the estate with all their long festering resentments, drama and family secrets to help their aging parents make decisions about their care, as well as the fate of the home Red’s father built decades ago. If you are currently on the list for this book or are looking for something similar to read about families, relationships and aging, you might try one of these titles to get you by.
“After This” by Alice McDermott
It is the end of World War II in New York. Mary, an Irish Catholic girl leaving church, takes shelter in a diner away from the gusting winds. Little does she realize that the fellow she sits down beside at the counter will someday be her husband. This tale is about Mary and John who live and raise four children during the 1960s. They experience the social changes and events of the decade, from the sexual revolution and abortion to racial segregation and the Vietnam War.
“Tapestry of Fortunes” by Elizabeth Berg
Cecilia Ross is a burned out, procrastinating national motivational speaker who won’t follow her own advice “to live your own truth.” She receives a postcard from an old love she never got over, which gets her thinking about her future. So, she consults several fortune telling devices and decides to sell her house and take a break from her career. She moves into a Victorian home with three other restless women at loose ends themselves. The ladies and their dog go on a road trip, each searching for something: Cecilia seeks her lost lover; Renie, the advice columnist, is looking for the daughter she gave up for adoption; Lisa, a family physician, is hunting for her ex-husband; and chef Joni is in search of culinary inspiration.
“Deaf Sentence” by David Lodge
Desmond Bates is going deaf. His hearing aids are helpful yet cause him frustration and embarrassment. Recently retired from the university as a linguistics professor, he finds himself bored, just when his wife’s career is beginning to take off. To top things off he is trying to convince his aging father that assisted living might be a worthy option for him, and his daughter is about to give birth. Out of habit and to keep things somewhat normal, he continues to use the university’s library and his former department’s common room. Soon, his routine is upset by an attractive PhD candidate named Alex who uses flattery to draw Desmond closer to her. Alex turns out to be a liar and a plagiarist who tries to use suggestive acts on Desmond to persuade him to help her with her dissertation!
The post What to Read While You Wait for A Spool of Blue Thread appeared first on DBRL Next.