I’m still on my non-fiction kick right now, though with summer travel coming up, maybe I’ll tackle an ambitious novel. I’m always a fan of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s summer reading guide. Currently, I’m working through Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay. It’s a broad survey of American history, and pretty readable, so possibly good for, say, an 11th grader trying to get an overview of history before diving into a class focused on specific periods. Some of the media about it has billed it as the “anti-Howard Zinn” version of American history, but so far (I’m two-thirds in) he doesn’t have too much of an axe to grind one way or the other. His perspective seems to be that people are flawed, and flawed people through history do some good things, some bad things, and some things that might have seemed like the best choice at the time given the circumstances. I’m only in the Hoover administration now, though, so I won’t finish before June!
Here’s what I finished in May:
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
A number of blog readers mentioned this as a favorite, so I downloaded it while stuck on stage during a dress rehearsal for Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. I enjoyed this tale of the great Los Angeles library fire in the 1980s, and the troubled young man who might have started the fire, but maybe didn’t. Orlean spends a lot of real estate talking about the roles libraries serve in society — roles that continue to be vast whether people read books or not.
Cribsheet, by Emily Oster
Sarah and I interviewed Oster for an upcoming episode of Best of Both Worlds, so I wanted to be sure to read her book. As an economist, Oster likes to look through the data on parenting to see what actually matters and what doesn’t. As you can imagine, much advice turns out to be based on nothing, or the headlines on studies massively oversell what has actually been found. The best evidence seems to be that…by the time you’re reading parenting books…it really doesn’t matter that much. Your kids will be fine.
The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner
I loved this children’s book when I read it a great many years ago (as a kid). I remembered the resourcefulness of the runaway kids making a home out of a box car, and using their ingenuity to get enough food to make feasts. I still enjoyed it on this re-read, though I was a bit surprised at how quickly the plot resolved. I would have liked to dwell in the boxcar a bit more, but oh well.
The Way We Eat Now, by Bee Wilson
A lot has been written about how people’s diets have changed over the years, and the rise of junk food and what it does to people’s health. Wilson’s book is an overview of this, and while it’s readable enough, I didn’t think it said too much that hasn’t been said in other books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
My Father Left my Ireland, by Michael Brendan Dougherty
I’ve met Dougherty a few times, but I didn’t know much about his personal history. This is his memoir of growing up as the son of a single mom in New Jersey. His father, who was raising a family in Ireland, was distant for much of his childhood, though he later learned that this was a more complicated story that was as much about how much access his mother was willing to give as it was about his father’s seeming lack of desire to see him. My favorite parts of this book were about Dougherty wondering how to be a father himself, and about his reconciliation with his father, and about his relationship with his mother. While close, their relationship always featured some guilt; he felt like his existence had probably ruined her life. Dougherty blends all this with his tales of Irish history, and the uprisings in the early part of the 20th century. While interesting, I wish he’d slimmed the history part, and talked more about himself, as the personal history is far stronger. Then again, in person he’s a humorous and self-effacing guy, so maybe he felt strange just writing about himself!
How to Raise Successful People, by Esther Wojcicki
I had mixed feelings about this book by Esther Wojcicki, a longtime high school journalism teacher in Palo Alto. The parenting advice is perfectly good: Kids need to learn independence, it helps to be kind, and kids are their own people, not extensions of you. As a former student journalist myself, I also loved the insights into how her high school has run its publications over the years! My issue is that a lot of the publicity about this book looked like this headline: “I raised two CEOs and a doctor — these are my secrets to parenting successful children.” Wojcicki is the mother of Susan, CEO of YouTube, Anne, CEO of 23andMe, and Janet, a medical researcher at UCSF. So the click-bait headlines are about how your kids will “turn out” if you follow her advice: they’ll be in high-status careers! And yet one of the main points of her book is that parents shouldn’t push their own professional desires for high-status careers on their kids. Indeed, she has a whole section about a student of hers whose parents forced her to be a doctor, and eventually she quit. I found this disparity between the marketing and the actual advice quite disconcerting. I think there might be an interesting angle on nurturing ambition in girls, specifically, since Wojcicki herself grew up in a rather misogynistic home. How, practically, can people break extended family patterns? But that’s not the main thrust of the book.
Wail Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Goodwin’s memoir of growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan is a great read. She artfully recreates the idyllic world of her 1950s childhood, where the kids played in the street, she knew the corner butcher, and despite her mother’s ill health, her tight-knit community made everything fine (a friend’s mother always hosted a joint birthday party for Goodwin and her daughter, so Goodwin’s mother wouldn’t have to do it). The Dodgers were also a source of magic, often disappointing their fans, but then finally in the late 1950s, winning the World Series… and then it all ended. The Dodgers went to CA. Various forces undermined the closeness of Goodwin’s 1950s neighborhood, and soon that world disappeared. This is a book of magic and loss. And baseball! I think I’ll start working through Goodwin’s other work, as I really enjoyed this and Team of Rivals (her Lincoln biography).
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig
This book, published in 1974, was a huge bestseller in the 1970s, and really speaks to that era. It’s a fictionalized autobiography, whatever that means. Pirsig takes his 11-year-old son, Chris, on a long motorcycle trip, and while doing so, recounts his own history before a mental breakdown, what led to that breakdown, and his philosophy of quality in general. I’d read this book many years ago but didn’t remember too much about it. On this read, I enjoyed the descriptions of Montana, now that I’ve spent some time on those roads. But I found the motorcycle travel narrative far more compelling than the philosophy lessons, which at times felt a little too dorm-room-bull-session. I think about 100 pages less would have been perfect.
What are you reading these days?