Quite the mix this month. Here’s what made it off the shelf (or onto the Kindle) in January:
Braving the Wilderness, by Brené Brown
I’ve seen Brown speak, and I know she has tons of raving fans, so I thought I’d check out her new book. Braving the Wilderness is about staying true to oneself while simultaneously being willing to engage with people who think differently. The combination holds the promise of reviving civility in modern life. I am all about reviving civility, and being authentic, but I didn’t necessarily think there was a whole lot of new ground plowed here. Then again, I think Brown’s fans really just enjoy her style and voice, no matter what she’s saying, so I’m curious what other people who’ve read it think.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
I read Sourdough last fall, and quite enjoyed it. Mr Penumbra was Sloan’s debut novel. A young man takes a job at a bookstore that turns out to be full of puzzles. With a crew of San Francisco types from central casting (yes, the Google employee enjoys rock climbing), he uses technology to solve the mysteries of an old secret society. Type faces are involved. And museum archives. A fun read, especially for a plane flight back from San Francisco (which is when I read it).
Be the Parent, Please, by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Like Anya Kamenetz (who did a Q&A for this blog this week), Riley, a journalist, was looking for answers for her own parenting and screen time dilemmas. She comes to slightly different answers than Kamenetz, and is slightly more negative about what screens enable, especially for older children (one obvious example: sexually explicit pictures used to be much more difficult to get developed, let alone share broadly. What would you do, tape it to billboards around the school?) She also believes that parents should man up (hence the “be the parent” title) about screens and younger kids. A lot of screen stuff isn’t that helpful, and some might be harmful. Riley is always entertaining to read, and I am sympathetic to some ideas, namely that modern parents worry way too much about their kids being bored. People also take their kids places that parents in other generations would not have attempted. Like a sibling’s 4-hour swim meet. That said, I can afford generous sitter coverage, which is why I don’t have a 3-year-old on the sidelines of stuff. I have no interest in chiding other parents who don’t have the same options. I also think that if screen time were so pervasively negative, we’d see a lot more systematic problems. But with teen pregnancy rates and violent crime rates way down, it’s not clear that the kids are in such bad shape.
The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery
This was a random pick off the shelf in a San Francisco airport bookstore. Montgomery, a veteran nature writer, decided to dive deep into the world of octopuses.* These highly intelligent creatures are completely different from humans (the evolutionary split happened long before, say, chimpanzees), yet can seem to interact across the species line. This book was also intriguing for its insights into the operations of a large aquarium (Montgomery was a frequent visitor at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and got to know a series of octopuses that lived there). I found this book quite compelling, to the point of quoting random octopus trivia at people for the next week after reading it.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Lapido Manyika
Mutual acquaintances put me in touch with Manyika, so I was excited to read her novel. Dr. Morayo Da Silva, a 75-year-old Nigerian woman living in San Francisco, goes about her daily life in the city, recounting people and memories, until an accident raises the question of what parts of her life she will she be able to maintain. There are some similarities to Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, though many differences too, and since I read this shortly after returning from San Francisco, I enjoyed the descriptions of the city, and its cast of characters.
When, by Dan Pink
I wrote a bit about this book earlier this month. Pink examines the science of timing, and argues that we systematically consider “when” questions less important than “what” questions, even though when we do things often matters a great deal for health, safety, and happiness.
Winter, by Ali Smith
I had read Autumn, the first book in Smith’s four-part series, so Winter was next. There were nice touches: the short chapters shifted in and out of characters, and around time, which gave the novel a sense of urgency. Lux — the young woman that the main character hires to accompany him home for Christmas — is a delightful surprise. But I can’t say I loved either this or Autumn. I guess I’ll be in for Spring and Summer just for a sense of completion. And maybe sheer familiarity will make this series grow on me.
Grocery, by Michael Ruhlman
Anne Bogel suggested I read Ruhlman when I was a guest on What Should I Read Next. Ruhlman, whose love of grocery stores stems from his father’s obsession with them, spent much time studying the operations of Heinen’s, a high-end (but smallish) chain based in Ohio. I marvel at grocery stores too, though some of the points Ruhlman belabors aren’t really all that insightful. Margins are small in a business that sells commodity products. Imagine that! One also gets the sense that he really wanted to write Michael Pollan’s books, but Michael Pollan did that. So he cites them a lot, and then preaches about the evils of sugar and breakfast cereal. There were great moments — the opening of a Heinen’s in downtown Cleveland was well chronicled and triumphant — but I realized in reading this that Grocery is the sort of non-fiction I used to read a lot of, but that I’ve been trying to read a bit less of as I aim to read more fiction. And so, it was on to the next book…
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
This was on my reading bucket list, so after reading about octopuses, whales were next. It was…something. The short review: Five stars. I am serious. But I am also hesitant to recommend it, in that any prospective reader needs to be tolerant of several things. First, length. People in 1851 didn’t have access to cable. Novels were their cable. Anything written in that era tends to be at least 30 percent longer than necessary. Second: Melville wasn’t a frustrated novelist, he was a frustrated cetologist. There are dozens of discourses on whale taxonomy, anatomy, ship logistics, etc. Their sheer volume puts John McPhee’s set pieces to shame (McPhee lives in an era with cable; see point one). Finally, general opacity. The story will be going along, and then Melville will do a chapter that’s an internal soliloquy for one of the characters. Or some Ishmael memory of encountering a temple of whale bones, which has never been hinted at before. And yet! I loved the randomness, the description of the seas, and Melville’s clear awe of whales and his fondness for the marvelously multicultural crew that hunts them. I mentioned in the friendship episode of Best of Both Worlds that I was looking to join (or form) a very specific sort of book club. Perhaps “enjoys Moby Dick” would be the criteria indicating I was in the right place.
I am not 100 percent sure what I will read next, though A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and All Creatures Great and Small are both candidates. I welcome thoughts on either.
*Nope, not octopi. Octopus is from a Greek root, not a Latin one, so the plural form doesn’t follow the Latin convention. Not that -es is the Greek convention, but it’s a lingual mishmash at this point.