simpatico

Simpatico: not quite the same as synchronicity, although there is overlap. From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of SIMPATICO
1: agreeable, likable
2: being on the same wavelength: congenial, sympathetic

I am thinking of books that read alike (synchronicity) as well as readers who appreciate the same thing (simpatico: being on the same wavelength; sympathetic). Readers who read alike, if you will.

I was considering this concept while reading Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years the other day. I came across a passage about living and traveling in wilderness, and how Peacock felt it was similar to being in combat: “treading lightly and staying invisible.” How he prefers to bushwhack off established trails, himself. And how he empathizes with a grizzly bear fleeing a bigger grizzly:

The same thing used to happen to me back in Southeast Asia [during the Vietnam War]: whenever the shit really hit the fan, when it looked as if we were about to be overrun and it became a matter of everyone for himself, my first impulse, or perhaps instinct, was to slide off alone into the jungle and keep going until I found vegetation thick enough to hide in, a sanctuary where I could ride out the hunt for Americans. So I thought I knew what it might feel like to be outgunned by bigger bears.

Peacock’s thinking about wilderness got me thinking, and one of the first thoughts I had was, my dad needs to read this. I thought about the books I’ve insisted he read (rather than just recommended). There was Fire Season: I remember saying, look, dad, just go out and buy a hardback copy and read it, and if you don’t love it I’ll buy it off you. (He loved it.) I repeated it with Dirt Work, which also turned out well. I think I’m going to put Grizzly Years into the same category.

Pops and I are often simpatico in our reading. Not perfectly overlapping, of course – far from it – but I often find myself thinking, he needs to read this. And judging from the emails I get with assigned reading from him, I think he reacts similarly, similarly often.

The same day that I had these thoughts about Peacock’s writing, ForeWord Reviews shared the following article via social media: “When You Love A Book Because of Who It’s From”. I found the idea intriguing: that a recommendation from someone I love or respect could actually improve that book in my eyes. (As it turns out, the article is more about romantic love – that special someone and shared reading experiences. Not so personally applicable to me; Husband is not a reader and we have a beautiful and full life anyway; but I’m happy for the article’s author and her partner.) I have not experienced this first-hand. Recommended books sometimes work, and sometimes don’t, but these successes and failures don’t correlate with how much I love the recommender. (See: that one book recommended by my Grammy who I adore, that I could not read.) I do have trouble parting with a (physical) book that was a gift from a loved one. But as far as enjoying the insides? No, I think I’m pretty clinical about that stuff. The one exception is my Shelf Awareness editor, Marilyn, who sends me books to read with varying levels of confidence and is pretty much spot-on – she’s amazing – but then, that’s her profession. It’s less… emotional, on her part and mine.

What about you? Is your reading enjoyment colored by the person who recommended the book? Do you have a reading friend, or romantic partner, who is so simpatico that you can absolutely rely on his or her recommendations?

Stay tuned for my review of Grizzly Years, and hopefully Pops’s as well.

synchronicity: Teaser Tuesdays: The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

story

Is it a double-synchronicity if it’s a synchronicity about synchronicity?

Fair warning: I will be raving about this little book when it gets published and I’m allowed to do so. But for now… this is Brooke Williams, in one of his commentaries following a chapter of Jefferies’s 1883 work.

Jefferies was in conversation with me as I was in conversation with Jung. Jung also used “soul” and “psyche” interchangeably. The psyche, I’ve learned, is the complete human mind – conscious as well as unconscious. What intrigues me most is Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious – that part of the psyche every human shares, that evolved as our cells evolved, through natural selection, consisting of “mnemonic deposits accruing from the experience of our ancestors.”

Randomly discovering a book I’d never heard of and reading a passage about psyche and soul – concepts I’d been struggling to understand – was for me a “meaningful coincidence,” Jung’s definition for synchronicity.

Synchronicity is, according to Ira Progroff, “at the frontal edge of life where evolution is occurring.”

In parallel, you know I’ve used the word synchronicity here before. What you don’t know is that I had some trouble selecting the word I wanted to use to communicate the concept: of coincidence, but more than coincidence. Clearly (at least according to the definitions given above) I got it right. Thanks, Pops, for helping me to get it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

getting rich writing book reviews


Warning! Long post follows. Sorry.

I have found myself commenting several times lately on the richness of my hobby-and-part-time-job, of reading books and then writing about them. I thought it was time I put this into a coherent statement for you here.

I was always a steady reader, as a child, and through school. I always loved to read. (In one of those blogging memes that went around some time ago, a self-interview sort of thing, I was supposed to give my favorite book as a child. I couldn’t remember, so I asked my mom. Her response was something like, “are you kidding! There was a new one daily!”) As a new librarian, I took a readers advisory class that recommended keeping a book blog as one way of recording one’s reading for reference later on. And that’s how we got to pagesofjulia; and that in turn is how I was able to apply to write for Shelf Awareness, a year or two down the road.

So I’ve always been a reader. And I had some fine English classes (and other social sciences) that trained me to take notes while reading, and to look for themes, leitmotif, stylistic quirks, and the like. But only since becoming a book blogger and paid book reviewer have I really begun to hone the skills of close reading – not for a class assignment (I knew how to do that), but to record my personal reactions, or the qualities that a prospective reader would want to know about. (I also began reading with an eye as to how a book might be improved. But that’s a different topic. Perhaps.)

Another result of reading for the sake of writing about what I’ve read, has been the growing diversity of the books I pick up. My reading volume has increased, is ever increasing, and I need the variety to keep from getting bored. If I read nothing but thrillers, at the present rate, it would be difficult to say something new about each one. And I want to better serve my editor by contributing diverse material. But also, as my reading has expanded, so have my interests, which then expand my reading, and there we have the most delightful self-perpetuating cycle you could imagine.

In the past several years, I have read widely in fiction (lots of mysteries and thrillers, as ever, but a little romance, fantasy, sci fi, historical and literary fiction, classics, and some odd formats, outliers and oddities) and nonfiction (sports and nature, as ever, but also science, history, biography, essays, politics, journalism, and literary criticism). I have tended to read for what I can learn from the book, myself, but also with a wider readership in mind, so that I can write a sale-able review. And a magical thing has come of this wide reading diversity.

I have never learned so much, so richly, as in reading this way. I attended a very fine public high school with a highly regarded International Baccalaureate program, and then a college Honors program, from which I graduated summa cum laude. I have a master’s degree. But I’ve never experienced such an interdisciplinary curriculum as this: read eclectically. Take notes.

The area of my reading that has most surprised me is in science. I never considered myself as having a scientific mind, and I was generally lukewarm on science classes (with a notable exception for chemistry); but with such magnetic titles as The Drunken Botanist and A Garden of Marvels, and biographies of Rachel Carson and Hali Felt, not to mention Annie Dillard‘s breathtaking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… well, I found it easy and even natural to grow in that direction. (As a flower toward the sun, if you’ll excuse the simile.)

And when I began reading more widely, and repeatedly reading in areas new to me – like science – I noticed another magical thing: I started recognizing concepts. I have written before on what I’m calling synchronicity, the seeming coincidence of discovering a newly learned fact or area of study again and again in a short time. The more I think about it, the more I think my friend Liz is right: it’s not that things actually come to me in threes, but rather that when I’ve recently learned something, I am more able to see it the next few times it crosses my desk (book, mind). These are opportunities to relearn a new concept or fact; and they are opportunities to cross-reference within other disciplines, to reinforce knowledge, to gain a fuller understanding of what a concept or a fact means in historical, cultural, political context.

One area in which I am not an expert is education (or educational theory or design), so I’ll try not to get too far off-track here. But I think we’re probably doing something wrong in our formal education system regarding interdisciplinary learning. I’ve never felt so richly instructed as I do by simply spending all the time I can find in reading, widely and with both eyes wide open. And while a steady diet of bodice-ripping romance novels or pulp might not do it, notice that I’m not recommending reading a bunch of scholarly works, or even all nonfiction. (And some pulp is always welcome, just as you can probably eat a few M&Ms alongside your healthy diet.)

Fiction has a great deal to offer: entertainment, yes, but also the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to understand their processes and motivations; or to travel to another time or experience another culture, and likewise to better understand the workings of that time or place or culture. And these are valuable lessons to learn for the important everyday work of being human: the ability to empathize, or to understand or even imagine the motivations of others, makes us better people. (There have been some studies on this. See for example the Guardian here and here.) Fiction is good: I’ve said this before.

To say that reading nonfiction is education is a much more familiar concept; you learn new facts from nonfiction, right? (We could actually argue over this point, but let’s not do it here and now.) But again, I think that reading lots – fiction or non – is far more than the sum of the parts, of having read all those individual books. The more you read, the more you learn, not only from what you’ve read, but from the combined and compounded effects of varied reading. I feel more intellectually stimulated now than I did in high school, college or graduate school. It’s not just that I read a lot of books; I read lots of different kinds of books. Some are silly or pulpy, but as I scan this list, I can’t pick out even one that didn’t teach me something. Some are weird (for example). But put them all together, and they make for a fine education.

Read eclectically. Take notes.

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

The compelling connection between Sherlock Holmes and the search for a tuberculosis cure.

remedy

Thomas Goetz’s The Remedy achieves a rare feat: serious, accurate scientific writing that is also engaging and entertaining.

In the mid-1800s, the practice of medicine largely resembled groping in the dark. Patients came to doctors “with the hope of a cure but never the expectation of one.” The final decades of that century, however, were marked by extraordinary advances in science, technology and medicine: “germ theory” was developed, infectious diseases were better understood, and more-modern notions of hygiene and sanitation began to catch on. Robert Koch, a provincial German doctor, pioneered experiment design and research standards, and in 1882 he identified the bacterial cause of tuberculosis–the most deadly disease in human history.

Koch attempted to develop a cure for TB, which he presented in Berlin. Despite meticulous empirical methods he had established, Koch’s zeal for his remedy led to his downfall, as his treatment was unprovable. An obscure British doctor and sometime writer, also provincial, was the first to pen an appropriately skeptical response. Despite his criticism, Arthur Conan Doyle was a great admirer of Koch and appreciated his scrupulous observations; in fact, Goetz asserts that without Koch, “there may never have been a Sherlock Holmes as we know him.”

The intersection of Koch and Doyle brought the spirit of scientific discovery to crime detection, and the spirit of investigation to scientific research. Goetz’s exploration of their lives and their impact on the world as we know it is both historically significant and enthralling.


This review originally ran in the April 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 dead rabbits.

In addition to my shorter review, above, I’d like to add a few more details. A big part of what I loved about this book was the breadth of scope. For example, to provide his readers with an accurate view of what Koch, Lister, Pasteur, and other scientists of the day were up against, Goetz describes at some length the state of medicine in their time. He warns us against coming too easily to the idea of germs and microbes as self-evident; and funnily enough, I was talking with a friend about this book, and she said just that: isn’t it obvious that surgeons would wash their hands beforehand?? But as Goetz so carefully points out, no, not obvious at all; when first presented as a theory, germs were as ridiculous as the idea that the earth might be round. Etc.

Along with medical background, we learn about the common practices of farming and domestic life; we learn about the lingering national hatred that would have pitted Pasteur and Koch so strongly against one another in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War; and about the social constructs that led Arthur Conan Doyle to work so hard at being a doctor when he really wanted to be a celebrated author. (I was reminded of other authors I’ve read about, like Louisa May Alcott: Doyle was always frustrated by the great success of his detective stories in the face of the failure of his more literary novels, just as Alcott was annoyed by the success of Little Women–a book she didn’t like very much. And you know, Doyle killed off Holmes, only to be pressured into his resurrection.)

I suppose I’m a sucker for breadth of scope. Nonfiction that covers history, science, social issues, and literature – and does it in fine literary style, to boot – will always win my heart. Back to the theme of synchronicity that I’m written on before: the older I get and the more of this interdisciplinary study that I encounter, the more I am convinced that this is way we should study history. How many of us found history boring in high school? I did. But once you link music, literature, fashion, politics, science, military conflicts… on and on, once you link all these threads so that the world of the past comes alive – who could not be fascinated? I think we do our kids a real disservice by not embracing this kind of study in their regular schooling.

The Remedy is both a good read, and an examination of a piece of world history whose importance really can’t be overstated.

the hermit thrush

My parents have recently moved from Houston to northern Washington state, a scant 20 miles from Canada. Pops wrote me an email the other day which I will share in part, with some locations redacted…

First, I’ll remind you the ringtone I assigned your number on my phone is the Hermit Thrush.

Today I rode a big loop out —- and back along the shore of —-; as I rode a quiet back road bordered by forest, I was climbing a moderate hill at a steady pace, but slow enough on a low-wind morning to enjoy near silence, hearing & seeing detail in the woods as I passed; it was then that the Hermit Thrush sang out as your text came in; and I swear I heard a thrush answer in the forest!

That’s happened before, back in Texas, with the Tufted Titmouse assigned to your mother – but there are no Thrushes in Texas; I haven’t yet determined if the thrush we hear around town here is the Hermit or one of the others. The book makes it hard to tell the difference; but somebody out there liked it today!

I commented that that must be a very high-quality ringtone!

from here

from here

The ringtone is an actual recording of a bird; the small speaker of a phone is naturally more effective with high pitched sounds, like bird songs, so it really is natural sounding and projects well from my jersey pocket.

One way researchers “search” for rare birds is to play recordings of their songs & calls and listening for a response, so we shouldn’t be surprised this works.

Indeed – and that makes sense; but still, who’d have thought? And by the way, according to this range map, the hermit thrush is in fact quite likely to be in my dad’s new neighborhood.

So why I am sharing this on my book blog? Well, I continue to be struck by the episodes of coincidence (if you like) or of synchronicity that inhabit my life, my world, and my reading (and cross over from my reading into my “real” world). The final page of the book I reviewed yesterday, Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover, made me think of my father, because it made reference to the song of the hermit thrush:

A hermit thrush spilled one long crystalline note, stilling all the earth to listen, and then poured out an ethereal flute song, over too soon. She closed her eyes, waited. Again, that purest of tones, long-held, chillingly beautiful, and then the cascade of melody like a tumbling stream. A spirit song. For her.

If she could sing like that thrush, what would she sing?

[You can listen to its song here, thanks to the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.]

The next paragraph references, among other trees, the Douglas fir, another species belonging to my parents’ new habitat and appreciated by them. It just goes to show that life really does imitate art, and/or the reverse, and that that’s as it should be.

more on Maclean from Liz

Nature, unfortunately for the organization of academia, is vexingly interdisciplinary.

Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that iceberg on the horizon?


Last week I posted a review of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and other stories. My coworker Liz, who more than once has directed us to some great reads, immediately found and forwarded a 1989 Past President’s Address to the Western Literature Association by a Glen A. Love. Her comment was: “After reading your review I went looking for Maclean biography and found this, I know you dislike the form but I was compelled to send it along anyway.” She’s referring to my dislike of essay collections – I know, it’s terrible, right? but I can’t get excited about collections of essays. A single essay, however, for no good reason, I am game for.

This one turned out to be very interesting. (Liz wins again.) It begins:

Describing the early rejection of the manuscript for his widely admired book A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean recalls in his acknowledgments the cool dismissal from one New York publisher: “These stories have trees in them.”

And then it largely abandons Maclean; but never fear. It’s a great argument for the failure of Literature to address ecology; it’s a polemic, and sadly no less relevant and (to my inexpert eye) no less correct in its criticisms today, despite being 24 years old. I thrilled to read about great nature writers whom I’ve loved, and also those I haven’t yet discovered (and note the reference to Gretel Ehrlich, of whom I’d never heard until recently). She is mentioned as one of those writers who “seem to slough off their New York or L.A. skins when they confront western landscapes.” If that doesn’t remind you of Phil Connors, you haven’t been paying attention. Maclean inhabits this article mostly in that phrase, quoting a rejecting publisher: “These stories have trees in them.” Love argues that this is one of the tragedies of Maclean’s kind, and a chief failure of the literary establishment: that to write about trees will get you derisively branded with “the contemptuous epithet nature-lover.”

I muse, as I read this article, about some books I’ve read that were partly nature writings, but only as a framework through which to dissect the human condition: Mountains of Light was lovely, and awed by Yosemite, but the author was really there to exorcise the particular demon of his wife’s death; and Almost Somewhere was even more overtly a drama of young women coming of age, and the unfortunate cattiness that often accompanies them, set against the John Muir Trail. This is one of Love’s points, too: that we (as a society, not only as writers & critics) continue to fail to consider nature, or the earth, in its own right, and instead keep considering its role in human experience.

I think Phil Connors and especially Derrick Jensen would agree with Love’s assessments. So, I’m feeling more of that synchronicity that I’ve written of before: I’ve found another kindred spirit, as Anne of Green Gables might say.

more synchronicities

Johnny Cash, as quoted in The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner:

[The Arc de Triomphe] was really a beautiful thing. About three times as big as I thought it would be and a lot prettier. We walked around there taking pictures and then went on to the Eiffel Tower. That was something else. That was different than I’d imagined. It didn’t seem so high but was probably higher than it looked. We couldn’t see it from very far off because of the fog, and we didn’t go to the top because we were plenty cold on the ground where we were, and it sure looked a lot colder up there.

James Baldwin, in “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” collected in Notes of a Native Son:

Both are quite willing, and indeed quite wise, to remark instead the considerably overrated impressiveness of the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower has naturally long since ceased to divert the French, who consider that all Negroes arrive from America, trumpet-laden and twinkle-toed, bearing scars so unutterably painful that all the glories of the French Republic may not suffice to heal them.

[“Encounter on the Seine” appears to have been originally published in 1950 (I got that here; original pub dates were not available in my copy of Notes of a Native Son), which coincidentally is the same year that Johnny Cash joined the military. I feel safe assuming that Cash would have seen the Eiffel Tower in 1950 or ’51, although I confess I’m unclear on whether the above quotation came from a contemporary account (like a journal he kept at the Air Force base where he was stationed in Germany) or from reflections he made later in life.]

I would never have imagined, as I simultaneously read essays by James Baldwin and a biography of Johnny Cash, that I would find the two of them standing side by side, in the same year or darn close to it, at the base of the Eiffel Tower, looking up. Would you?

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