Teaser Tuesdays, hemingWay of the day and synchronicity: Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, ed. by Donald Sturrock

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


Imagine my thrill to see Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway walking alongside one another, pictured in my galley copy of Love from Boy, a collection of previously unpublished letters from the beloved children’s author to his mother.

love from boy

I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to see the photo! (It’ll be worth it.)

The caption reads,

Wing Commander Roald Dahl and his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, in London, 1944. Roald got to meet many of the great and good in the literary world while he was in Washington. He thought Hemingway ‘a strange and secret man’ for whom he felt ‘overwhelming love and respect.’

For me, this was another moment of chimes sounding, so to speak. I hadn’t realized these two had any contact; I guess I hadn’t thought much about their contemporaneity. What fun to find that Dahl – one of my favorite authors when I was a kid – shared my appreciation for Papa’s work. Strange and secret man, indeed.

I was also interested to see Hemingway looking quite short and fat, next to the tall, thin Dahl. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Hem: mostly the flattering ones he liked released; fewer in which he appears fatter and wearing his glasses (which he generally avoided being photographed in). While he is a perfectly distinguished-looking man here, in a suit and tie and those offending spectacles, both hands in pockets, striding purposefully across a street, beard clearly dark-going-to-gray (even in black and white) – I suspect this is not a photograph he liked. This one, taken during his third marriage, to Martha Gellhorn, hearkens to a slightly older Hemingway.

I love that there is always more to know.

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

Teaser Tuesdays: The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


I haven’t done a synchronicity post in a while, but here we are. Just the other day, on a mountain bike ride in Squamish, B.C., Husband and I had to stop to observe this guy (or girl?) sitting in a tree, watching us.

(click to enlarge)

Husband got up pretty close.

(click to enlarge)

My research when I got home tells me that this is a Barred Owl.

And then I started reading this book, The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds. From the chapter on Barred Owls, which is titled “Opportunistic”:

hidden lives of owls

Barred Owls are the opportunists of the owl world. Like coyotes, Glaucous Gulls, rats, and cockroaches, Barred Owls are not picky about what they consume.*

In other words, they are the scavengers, the ones happy to be near humans – the commensal species. I guess this explains the ease with which we encountered one, too: they are considered an invasive species around here by many scientists. It would have been much more remarkable to see a Northern Spotted Owl; but they prefer old growth, where the Barred Owl is easier to please.

I am always pleased when my reading aligns with my life.

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

*Note: the author states that she capitalizes all official bird names according to the customs of the International Ornithologists’ Union. In this teaser, it looks a little funny next to lower-case coyotes and rats; but I guess those aren’t the official names, anyway.


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.


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.


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.

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