Road Reading, Part VI

Lately I’ve become engrossed in a few meaty, lengthy books which means I’m a little behind on reading 100 books by the end of this year. It’s so worth it, though. To start off this set of mini-reviews, I share a few quotes about reading that I connected with from the Forward of The Best American Non-Required Reading 2013 (one of those lengthy books that I reveled in this fall):

“Reading, I believe is one of the few activities that increases, deepens, and expands the capacity of the human mind; it is a process that is at once conscious and unconscious, personal and solitary but also interpersonal and even social.”

“You don’t propose marriage after one date. You don’t decided on a career after one article or class session. You don’t cast your vote based on one opinion of the candidate in question. Stories, essays, novels, and memoirs all deserve to be, indeed have to be, read multiple times. Every writer worth his or her salt knows that writing is rewriting. Every reader should know the same thing about understanding text that is, real reading is rereading.”


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Bryson set out to write this book because he was fascinated with science and how we know what we know as a civilization (which, incidentally, isn’t very much) but frustrated with the typical dryness of such topics. He has written a book that is thrilling, terrifying, hilarious, unbelievable, and completely true. Did you know, for instance, that we discovered phosphorus accidentally by trying to transform urine into gold? Bryson chronicles everything from the beginning of our universe to our eventual extinction, from the discovery of atoms and elements to the records of ancient guinea pigs the size of rhinos. He invites us into the lives of researchers and explorers and shows how depressingly often Alexander von Humboldt’s observation of the three stages of scientific discovery rings true: “first, people deny that it’s true; second, they deny that it is important; finally, they credit the wrong person.” If you’ve ever looked around at our world and ourselves and wondered “why” or “how” or “who”, this book will be a gratifying journey for you.

If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by “we” I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans, we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp. We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviorally modern human beings – that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities – have existed for only about 0.0001 percent of Earth’s history. But surviving for even that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune. We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks.

How We are Hungry by Dave Eggers
I first read this book back in 2008 and just gobbled up every sad, weird, grotesque short story in it. If you’ve read any previous Road Reading posts, you’ll note this is my fourth Eggers book just on this trip. I adore this man as an author. Whenever I dig into his crazy, metaphor-filled, strange writing, I’m surprised to find it’s exactly what I had no idea I wanted to read. This is collection is no different and it was a joy to wade through these stories again as an old favorite.

The one big surprise is that as it turns out, God is the sun. It makes sense, if you think about it. Why we didn’t see it sooner I cannot say. Every day the sun was right there burning, our and other planets hovering around it, always apologizing and we didn’t think it was God. Why would there be a God and also a sun? Of course God is the sun. Everyone in the life before was cranky, I think, because they just wanted to know.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley
This was a truly fascinating book and I’m glad I read it years before we have a child in any sort of school system, public or home. Ripley’s hypothesis, after following American exchange students and researching the education systems of consistently high-scoring Finland, Korea, and Poland is this: American children lack the rigor to succeed as players in the international education game. Our standard test scores are far below what anyone would like to expect from an economic superpower. Ripley shares myriad reasons for this and take-aways for parents at home, too. We value sports and package them with schools, unlike the education superpowers. We undervalue teachers and do not have a rigorous filtering system for them likened to that of the medical profession, which the education superpowers do. And we coddle and insulate our children from tough tests and challenging work, lest the outcome look bad for us parents and teachers and administrators. There are some great and difficult observations here but I loved reading this book and learning more about what education looks like in other areas of the world.

I’d been looking around the world for clues as to what other countries were doing right, but the important distinctions were not about spending or local control or curriculum; none of that mattered very much. Policies mostly worked in the margins. The fundamental difference was a psychological one. The education superpowers believed in rigor. People in these countries agreed on the purpose of school: School existed to help students master complex academic material. Other things mattered, too, but nothing mattered as much.

Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst by Drs. Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirshner
Yes, I actually read this book and it was awesome. One of the most powerful lessons I learned from it is this: people instinctively want to know “are you with me or not?”. The difficult people in our lives are probably the ones thinking you are not “with them”. Maybe you’re not, but your job is to assuage their fears if you want to work or live with them in peace. The book also does a good job of reminding us realistically that sometimes we are other people’s difficult person and helping to guide us through recognizing that and changing our behavior. Of course, at the core of the advice in this book is practicing good, clear communication, which is so much harder than it sounds. I’m a huge fan of any book that encourages us to say what we mean, mean what we say, and listen actively and attentively. Can you tell I was a Communication Studies major? I love this stuff.

Assuming the best can have a positive influence on problem people, wether it is true or not.

Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality by Rob Bell
The ever polarizing Rob Bell – Christians either love him or hate him. I’ve read most of his books and am always a fan of his inquisitive, honest writing style. I first read this around 2007 when it came out, found it on our friends’ bookshelf when we stayed with them in Boston, and enjoyed rereading it this summer in their sunny backyard. Though I’m in a much different place than when I first consumed this book, it’s always a good reminder of the interconnectedness of our relationships, our body image, our respect for others, and our spirituality. As much as we try to segment them, they are more reliant on each other than we tend to realize, giving us layers upon layers to explore at each new chapter in our lives.

And when we begin to sort through all of the issues surrounding our sexuality, we quickly end up in the spiritual,

because this

is always about that

Sex. God. They’re connected. And they can’t be separated. Where the one is, you will always find the other. This is a book about how sexuality is the “this” and spirituality is the “that”. To make sense of the one, we have to explore the other.

The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2013 edited by Dave Eggers
Oh this? Swoooon. I regret not stumbling over these annual collections of fiction and non-fiction earlier. Dave Eggers (favorite author ever) started a non-profit writing and tutoring center for high school students with satellite centers all over the country. (We hosted one of their volunteers when she first moved to Boston!). Eggers enlists the help of his students to read, review, and identify the best writing of the year for addition into this collection. Though the collection continues, 2013 was the final year Eggers served as editor. (The 2014 volume will be edited by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). I love that these stories all appeal to him and his students somehow. I even rediscovered a Native-American writer I was exposed to by an awesome English teacher back in 2000 and can’t wait to get my hands on more of his stuff. (Sherman Alexie, in case you were wondering). The span of subject matter and genre is astounding and you’ll find yourself diving into worlds you had no idea you were curious about. The front section includes pieces that don’t really have a place as a short story in the meat of the collection per se, but have titles like: Best American Term Paper Assignment and Best American Story about a Hazardous, Symbolical Cesspool. This is priceless, completely intriguing and engrossing, and fantastically hand-picked writing.

I’m guessing there are four kids in each of my sons’ classes who haven’t been immunized against whooping couch, diphtheria, and polio. If my sons, Indian as they are, contract whooping cough, diphtheria, or polio from those organic, free-range white children and die, will it be legal for me to scalp and slaughter their white parents? – Sherman Alexie

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I know I read this book back in high school but I have an uncanny knack for forgetting most details of books or movies after I read them. The upside of this is that I can be continually entertained by rereading my favorites. The downside is that I need a constant refreshing of the classics I should “know by now”. Honestly, I reread this in preparation to read Go Set a Watchman but I absolutely loved experiencing this book as an adult. Harper Lee has such a gift for crafting a compelling and rich story that I wish she had written more books for us to enjoy. It was refreshing and interesting, during this time of heated conversations about race in our country, to experience the notion of such saturated racial inequality from the perspective of a little white girl in the 1930s.

“First of all,” he said, ‘”f you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of another… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.

The Blue Death: The Intriguing Past and Present Danger of the Water You Drink by Robert D. Morris
Due to working in public health, I’ve heard a lot about Dr. John Snow, the father of epidemiology, over the years. I thought the story was straightforward: everyone in London was dying of Cholera and John Snow finally tracked down the genesis of the disease in contaminated water. Well… yes but also no. This book explores Snow’s journey in-depth and we come to find that he collects data and write reports for a decade before anyone will listen – and then they still don’t give him the time of day. The Blue Death chronicles Snow’s work and the work of other researchers to identify the biggest water-borne killers of modern history. Morris then brings us up to date, explaining the E. Coli and other outbreaks that have killed hundreds in recent decades and how they came to thrive in our American water systems. I’m hugely against fear-mongering, especially the backwards and stigmatizing effect it typically has on public health, but this book did cause me to loose some faith in our US public water system. Our pipes are old and decaying, our testing and filtration systems often inadequate and lacking, our EPA standards aren’t stringent enough, and no one can agree on what entity is responsible for any changes in water’s purity from the treatment plant to your kitchen (and surely no one is testing it). Yes, I’m in Southeast Asia currently, boiling any water I ingest, so I know we have it pretty good in the US, but to say that we can be fully confident that our system will always keep us safe would be a stretch. Afterall, in the horrifying Milwaukee cryptosporidiosis outbreak of 1993 where 69 residents died, all EPA standards for safe drinking water were met.

Almost every water supply in the Unites States relies on treatment processes similar to those used in New Orleans. These filtration systems do not remove 100 percent of pathogens and many of those pathogens are to some degree resistant to chlorine, the chemical used almost exclusively to disinfect drinking water in the United States. To make matter worse, the chlorine used to protect us from waterborne disease may threaten our health in other ways including caner, stillbirths and birth defects.

The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Adoption: Everything You Need to Know About Domestic and International Adoption by Elizabeth Swire Falker
This was a good first-look overview of adoption considerations, like I wanted it to be. I was worried it would be something I’d rather read in the middle of the process than years before I begin it. But the true value in this book for me was not any of the material advice the author had, it was understanding that her perspective and experience are real and pervasive. She talks about adoption as if it is the absolute last option for creating a family (and it is for many people), which was surprising to me since I’ve always wanted to adopt, ever since I was young; it’s something I’ve been excited about for decades. She even has a name for people like me: “preferential adopters”. Her perspective is that adoption is the last option for people who wish they could create a biological family and that often these people (her audience) wish for their adopted children to look just like them (and so she has tips). This book shattered my blind assumption that people looking to adopt do so simply because they want to make the world a better place and opened my eyes to the business and economy that is behind the adoption machine. It was a good overview of considerations before adopting, but more importantly it made me realize more clearly the kind of adoption I want to pursue: not fighting over some highly prized blond-haired, blue-eyed newborn, but creating a loving, welcoming space for a child who truly doesn’t have many other options.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Oh boy. If you haven’t had a chance to read this recent release of To Kill a Mockingbird’s distant first draft, then here is my official recommendation to do so. The book follows Scout as she returns home to Maycomb for a visit after college and encounters some complex truths about the philosophies pervasive in her family and her town. It explores the difference between justice of the law and true equality, the power of government, and idealizing others while finding your own moral compass. In places, it sounds hauntingly similar to conversations about race that are taking place all over the country today, though it was penned in 1957. Most relevant for me, both now in conversations about race and throughout my last nine years as a Christian, there is a theme of embracing the ability to participate in a community that you disagree with in order to engage in a progressive dialouge. Highly nuanced, hard to swallow, and deeply moving, this book is a welcome addition to America’s conversations on race relations and achieving equality.

As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.

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