Monday, March 30, 2015

Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon

Last week, in reviewing the audiobook Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, I mentioned that I enjoyed Michael Chabon reading his own book, too. The book to which I referred is Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, which I had missed when it was first published, just as I had missed Patchett's book. I found these books while looking desperately for nonfiction audiobook downloads that both interested me and were unread by me.

I have never read a Michael Chabon novel, but I was willing to try his essays. There are a slew of novelists that I have not read as novelists, enjoying their essays instead, including Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, and Julian Barnes. Similarly, I enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver's essays more than her fiction. So I thought Manhhood for Amateurs might be worth trying, and it was.

Having a downloadable audiobook without the credit pages that I would have found in the paper book, I do not know the period over which he wrote the essays, but I guess from what he says in them that he began in the late 1980s. I sense different time-specific perspectives as he recounts the ages of his life so far. I discovered that he is older than I imagined - just about young as you can be and still be considered a baby boomer - and that I identified with many of his topics - collecting baseball cards, being a nerd, fatherhood, and aging parents. What he wrote about that was foreign to my experience I still found interesting and worth contemplating.

Manhood for Amateurs is not just addressed to men. Women can read it, too. Being both sensitive and slightly nerdy, he is very likable.

Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Harper, 2009. 306p. ISBN 9780061490187.

7 compact discs. HaperAudio, 2009. ISBN 9780061842375.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Noisy Bird Sing-Along by John Himmelman

I find much to like in Noisy Bird Sing-Along by John Himmelman. The bright, colorful bird illustrations are nicely detailed, making the species identifiable. All the birds seem to be in motion; none are stiff. I can imagine young readers absorbing the images and becoming junior ornithologists.

Adult readers should have lots of fun performing the bird sounds under the author's directions, and young readers will want to repeat them.

I appreciate that Himmelman chose some less obvious species, including three night birds. In the appendix, the author provides fun facts about all twelve species, as well as advice for young bird watchers.

I did not know that the white belly of a nuthatch reflects light onto bark, helping it find insects. Great book.

Himmelman, John. Noisy Bird Sing-Along. Dawn Publications, 2015. ISBN 9781584695134.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher by Sue Halpern

A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher by Sue Halpern is a book that should interest just about everyone. If you do not currently have a relative in a nursing home, you may be wondering if living in a care facility is in your own future. The news that we hear about nursing homes is often bad: underfunded centers with insufficient staff, over-medicated patients, fire hazards, and patient abuse. It is a relief to read about a well-run facility with a caring professional staff that has a friendly dog visiting every Tuesday morning.

Pransky was a bit on the older side herself when Halpern began training her for certification as a therapy dog. Having never introduced Pransky to a leash, the author was uncertain her Labradoodle would pass the exam that would let them visit residents of a local nursing home. The story of how she passed is just the beginning of a string of sweet and sometimes sad stories. One of my favorites features Fran, a nursing home resident who starts a current events reading club (membership of one) who takes to Pransky but not the pesky preacher who wants to save her.

Even the best nursing homes are challenged keep the peace as much as meet the needs of all of its residents. Residents kept together are as bound to repel as to attract. The prospects of death are always lingering, as are loneliness and boredom. Visits by Pransky or other therapy animals gives some residents something for which to look forward. It is just one step to improving the lives of people unable to live on their own.

We are discusssing A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home at our church book group this week. I expect a lively discussion.

Halpern, Sue. A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. Riverhead Books, 2013. 312p. ISBN 9781594487200.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

I have often heard that most authors are not good audiobook readers. I wonder if memoirists are an exception. In the last year, I have listened to Dick Van Dyke, and Michael Chabon read about their lives and enjoyed their storytelling. In each case, I felt the memoirist was talking with me. I enjoyed the same feeling with Truth and Beauty: A Friendship written and read by Ann Patchett. Having been to two of Patchett's library conferences programs, I expected her reading to be entertaining. Having listened, "entertaining" is not a word I now want to use because the book is so sad. I'd rather say that her reading is mesmerizing.

I did not know the subject of Truth and Beauty when I downloaded it to my old iTouch. I saw it was an older title that I had overlooked. The various library audiobook services to which I have access all seem to have a scarcity of good nonfiction titles to interest me, so I sometimes try books I might otherwise decline. Within minutes of beginning Truth and Beauty, I knew the subject, for I read Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face in 2012. I did not recall that she was Patchett's friend, but friendship was not a focus of that memoir. It was more about alienation, loneliness, and the hardships of cancer and cancer treatment. Patchett's account works as a welcomed continuation of the story.

It has taken me over a week to start writing this review. I am still not exactly sure how I feel about Patchett's role in the story. How can she have been so accommodating to her troubled friend over so many years? Could I have been so generous if a friend continued on a self-destructive path? Did her kindness delay Grealy's ultimate end? Patchett tells the story with little if any analysis. She has left judging for readers, and for that reason, I think her title is a great book for discussions.

Starting the story at a date when Grealy and Patchett shared the same dream as well as the same apartment in Iowa City where they attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop sets us up to compare their fates, much in the way we make similar comparisons in reading The Other Wes Moore. What factors made the differences? I suggest looking at the mothers in both books. What else do you see?

Patchett, Ann. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. Harper Audio, 2004. 7 compact discs. ISBN 0060755997.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Gloomy Terrors and Hidden Fires: The Mystery of John Colter and Yellowstone by Ronald M. Anglin and Larry E. Morris

Who was John Colter? He was a companion of Lewis and Clark on their trek across the continent from 1803 to 1806 and is often credited with discovering what later became Yellowstone National Park (as if no native Americans had ever set foot in the volcanic region). He ventured alone into the valleys of the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Snake Rivers to trap beaver, always failing to make a profit to cover expenses. He led a large group of trappers into the same area, and they also failed to bring many pelts back; some even lost their lives. He was the subject of many popular frontier legends of the early 19th century, especially the story of his run to escape being killed by Blackfoot warriors. He was a key witness to the exploration of the American West, but he left no accounts of his own. Only a sort of figure eight drawn on a map by William Clark remains, and even what that means is disputed. In short, according to Ronald M. Anglin and Larry E. Morris in Gloomy Terrors and Hidden Fires: The Mystery of John Colter and Yellowstone, Colter is a mystery.

I was drawn to this book because I have been to Yellowstone, where Colter's name is mentioned on history boards at many of the visitor's centers and in the books found in their bookshops. I could not help wonder what it would be like to explore such a wild and unforgiving place alone. The authors of this book did not tell me because Colter did not tell anybody. The authors did, however, lure me into contemplating the mystery of a man for whom there are no records prior to the Lewis and Clark journals and payroll.

If you chose to read this book about first encounters between native tribes and frontiersmen, get a good map of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho for reference. Then get lost in a story of a time now so hard to imagine. Then read either Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier by Lea VanderVelde for another life of a person more imagined than known or Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty That Ruled the American Frontier by Shirley Christian to learn more about the frontier into which Lewis, Clark, and Colter ventured.

Anglin, Ronald M. and Larry E. Morris. Gloomy Terrors and Hidden Fires: The Mystery of John Colter and Yellowstone. Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 243 p. ISBN 9781442226005.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom by Simon Barnes

Did I ever tell you how I read and outlined each chapter of my biology textbook twice and then reviewed the outlines before 50-question multiple choice tests in high school? In acing those tests, I memorized much about zoological taxonomies of everything from bacteria to mammals. That was many years ago before DNA mapping revealed species relationships that zoologists never guessed. Many animals have been moved into different genera, families, and orders since that time, so this was for me a good time to read and learn from Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom by Simon Barnes.

Barnes is a writer of many interests, publishing books in fiction, sports, and natural history. I read and was entertained by How to Be a Bad Bird Watcher several years ago. In the fall, Booklist sent me his latest book, which published in Britain in 2013. The advanced proof jacket has an endorsement from actor Stephen Fry, a clue that it is not a dry scientific text. I was eager to read it. I enjoyed it and wrote a positive review for Booklist, which published in February 2015.

Though full of humorous bits, Ten Million Aliens is a serious book about the diversity of the animal kingdom, and the author has points to make. Among them, Darwin was right to spend years in study of the minuscule to gain understanding of universal principles. Animals evolve over time to survive and propagate, not to improve. There was no inevitable movement to create humans as the pinnacle of evolution. "Lower" forms of life are just as vital and capable as more complex organisms. In a mass extinction, insects are more likely to survive than mammals.

By injecting the funny bits and by alternating invertebrate chapters with chapters about more familiar vertebrate species, Barnes keeps the text lively. Many historical and literary references also keep the story entertaining for non-scientific minds. Ten Million Aliens is a good refresher course on the diversity of life with which we share the earth.

Barnes, Simon. Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom. Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, 2015. 480p. ISBN 9781476730356.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger

When taking a big trip abroad, I read some in preparation and read more after the journey. Portions vary. To know what to see and its significance requires some prior study. I never do as much of this as I could, so I am fortunate that Bonnie is thoroughly prepared. She gets us to the right places at the right times and answers my immediate questions. I often read after the trip seeking more understanding of what I saw. Having already seen places, buildings and works of art, I connect with their descriptions and stories more readily. The big drawback is that I do not have the upcoming opportunity to look again on these places, buildings, and works of art in person.

Before our trip to Florence and Rome, I perused several guidebooks and magazine articles, as well as every photocopy Bonnie passed to me. About a week before our departure, I started Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger with the intent of finishing before packing. It is a moderately heavy book that I did not want to carry. By trip time, however, I had read only the introduction and the chapters about The Pieta found in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and David now at the Accademia in Florence. After the trip, I read chapters about Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel, the Medici Chapel in the church of San Lorenzo, The Last Judgment, and the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

The experience of reading is shaped by both the author and the reader. With Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, the author contributes a well-written story balancing the details of the sculptor's life* with accounts of his masterpieces and his times. This is quite enough to insure a good reading experience for anyone with a general knowledge of history and art. Still, in the wake of the trip, my experiences helped the story jump higher from the page.

Don't be fooled by the subtitle into thinking Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces is a narrowly focused biography. Unger addresses many aspects of Michelangelo's personality and the events of his times, and because he is a central character in the story in the Italian Renaissance, having worked in both Florence and Rome, having served and survived many popes as well as his Medici sponsors, his sculptor's story is a good introduction to the period. It is easy to find in public libraries.

*Michelangelo always insisted that he was a sculptor not a painter or architect, though he is now famous for a wide range of work. He even wrote poetry.

Unger, Miles J. Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. Simon and Schuster, 2014. 432p. ISBN 9781451678741.