In Iceland, the tradition of gifting books as presents is so deeply rooted that there is a word for the season: Jolabokaflod, the “Christmas Book Flood” If there was one holiday tradition I would love to import, this would be it. Finding the perfect book for everyone is such a joyful task, a challenge worth the effort when you get it right. Though it is highly personal and each book should really be hand-picked (see your local librarians and booksellers…) here is a brief guide to some of the best books for gifting, sharing, or just curling up and reading this season.
- Nathan Child
A version of this review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on December 21, 2018
“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.” ~ Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Wildlife Scientist Delia Owens grew up as an adventurous outdoorsy child in 1950s rural Georgia, where she learned to contentedly play and explore nature on her own. Now a bestselling Nature Writer, Owens understands solitude, having spent decades conducting research in remote areas of the United States and studying elephants and lions in Africa.
When this Winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing sat down ten years ago to write Where the Crawdads Sing, her intent was to create a novel that “explore[d] how isolation affects a person.” Her story is about Kya Clark, a child also growing up in the fifties, coming of age in the mysterious marshland of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Owens gets the setting right. Her description of rural southeastern coast and its natural inhabitants instantly took me back to marsh country. I could smell the sweetgrass and see the fireflies. And like Owens, some of Kya’s best friends are part of nature. Yet unlike Owens who pursued a solitary lifestyle, young Kya falls victim to an unlikely series of events that instead force her to fend for herself.
Kya’s mother flees an abusive alcoholic husband. Then one by one, Kya’s older siblings depart, until she is finally and completely abandoned by her father. By age ten Kya must learn to survive and so becomes the wild “Marsh Girl,” not fit for school nor society, rather “bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are.” Kya relies on the marsh; “whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her…the marsh became her mother.”
Befriended by a shrimper’s son, Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, Kya is ultimately encouraged to cultivate her gift for archiving marsh specimens. Tate also leaves. And though Kya is skilled in solitude, she yearns to be close to someone and begins a secretive relationship with a self-serving Romeo, Chase Andrews. When in 1969, this former lover (and attacker) is discovered dead, Kya is suspected. Small town drama ensues, and Kya endures a long theatrical trial, her cherished freedom hanging in the balance.
The plot alternates between the trial and earlier time frames. Owens described the writing process as “like a giant 150,000-word puzzle.” As a reader, I sensed it wasn’t effortless. She portrays her timeline afterthoughts as an editing “nightmare.” For this reader, the shifts seemed counterintuitive and curbed any suspense I may have felt for the fate of the main character.
And Kya’s plaintive tale is all too much pathos, lacking the compelling and authentic complexity of real human experience. I wished to connect, but Kya felt so contrived a vehicle, designed to teach the reader how solitude shapes and distorts. Owens’s nature writing depicts the natural world in such vivid accurate detail. Fiction arguably requires as much truth from so skillful a writer.
Originally published November 29, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Merve Emre is is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. In her latest book, The Personality Brokers, she creates a critical portrait of the Myers-Briggs Indicator, a personality test conceived and developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Myers Briggs, an unconventional mother daughter team with no formal training in psychology.
“Better than a horoscope…less reliable than a heart monitor.” That’s how organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes the Myer’s Briggs indicator. Yet, the majority of Fortune 100 companies, and major universities along with the federal government use this people-sorter to assign students and employees to one of 16 discrete types.
In a discussion with friends about the test’s creators, we decided that those who hadn’t taken the Myers Briggs would give it a shot. And those who had would take it again, for good measure. The founders and keepers of the Myers Briggs Indicator insist that type doesn’t change, not over time, not over circumstance. As a person who has taken it multiple times over the last few decades, I could attest to that. Could.
But this most recent exercise revealed that within the last year, my personality type had made a significant shift. I have always sensed that these kinds of tests feed our egos in a way that steadies our faith in them. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of bewilderment that accompanied these test results. It was like waking up to a different eye color. Then I became intrigued. How did this happen? In what ways am I different? And more importantly, why am I so fascinated with myself?
Katherine knew that we all seek an answer to the fundamental question, “What makes me, me?” Her first sincere attempts to understand personality began in 1897 with a set of experiments she designed to turn her daughter into a genius. She conducted behavioral drills with Isabel in their living room, the “cosmic laboratory of baby training.” And Isabel impressed the neighborhood mothers when she began speaking full sentences at two, learned stenography at twelve, published short stories at 16, and at 17 was accepted to Swarthmore College.
Then In 1923, Katherine discovered a schematic for sorting personalities. She read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in which Jung theorized that every person was primarily extraverted or introverted, intuitive or sensing, thinking or feeling. The work captured Katherine’s attention for several years, not only helping her to not only understand herself but inspiring her to seek a broader application for the betterment of society.
It was Isabel who would go on to adapt Jung’s schematic and craft the Myers-Briggs Indicator to help employers identify the traits of their employees. She pitched hard, making use of family connections, and successfully selling the test during a time when employers wanted increasingly specialized and productive workers. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Myers-Brigs Indicator attracted interest from the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey and from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, who administered the indicator to Truman Capote, Normal Mailer and other prominent writers and artists.
By 1980, the year Isabel died, it is estimated that over one million other people had taken it. By 2012, sales of personality tests were bringing in about $20 million a year, and Myers-Briggs had become a household name. Emre’s cultural history deftly reveals the a-typical nature of its creators. They were affluent autodidacts, homemakers, published writers and zealous crusaders for self-actualization. They shaped the personality-assessment industry with an indicator that has become an icon. But how would they type?
Originally published October 18, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Written under the influence of Michael Pollan
To be more creative, to expand our connections with the people in our lives, to free ourselves from self-defeating thoughts, to be happier. Can psychedelics play a role in our personal well-being? Michael Pollan, a self-described “square,” separates truth from myth, becoming a chronicler and participant in the exploration of this question. How to Change Your Mind documents the suppression and potential therapeutic future of psychedelics. And here, as in his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan combines history with politics and personal reflection on the healing potential of the plant world, specifically magic mushrooms.
The book points to some of the damage done by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and other counterculture leaders, who successfully branded psychedelic science as part of the hippie movement. Within the moral backlash toward that era, this association partly ensured the drug’s criminalization. But not before scientists discovered an amazing potential to treat addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression and the distress facing patients with a terminal diagnosis.
Over the last two decades, medical centers along with the U.S. government, are allowing new research into the study of psilocybin, the active ingredient in LSD, to treat these conditions. Pollan also reports that “the practice of microdosing — taking a tiny, ‘subperceptual’ regular dose of LSD as a kind of mental tonic — is all the rage in the tech community.”
Modern technology, specifically fMRI scanners, confirm a similar brain activity between people meditating and those taking psilocybin. LSD molecules resemble serotonin and can breach the neurotransmitter’s receptors. Not everyone’s reaction is the same, and Leary’s major contribution was an emphasis on the effects of personal expectation or “set” and guided circumstance or “setting,” which some argue should include a trained therapist.
However, almost all reports of psilocybin-induced experience share what Pollan calls a “plane of consciousness,” that was new to him and felt truer than everyday reality. Why should this experience prove so helpful? As Pollan explains it, disorders that are the result of mental and emotional “grooves” in our thinking have become “default.” Experiences with psilocybin have the ability to create new cerebral connections that release us from “rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.” He provides intriguing examples, such as a study involving terminal cancer patients who felt lasting relief from their anxieties around death.
While Pollan does not argue for the arbitrary legalization nor for the recreational use of psychedelics, he does argue that our anxieties around them lack merit. He also expresses hope that the drugs will be more widely available, not only those suffering from addiction and trauma, but also for the middle aged, whose “habitual thinking…is nearly absolute.” What Pollan personally sought was an opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life,” and found that his experience gave him a greater and lasting sense of openness and appreciation of life.
As always, Pollan’s work is highly readable. And to my mind, the author once again suggests (to quote Botany) the plant’s ability to restore “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.'' Here he creates another provocative opportunity to wonder at the unique power of nature and its relationship with the human condition.
Originally published September 6, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Successful French hip-hop artist Gaël Faye was born in 1982 to a French father and Rwandan mother who lived as expatriates in Burundi, a country in the Great Lakes area of Eastern Africa.
Faye describes the bulk of his creative work in music, screenplays and fiction as rooted in poetry. He began writing poems at an early age, anchoring himself to their composition throughout his abruptly uprooted adolescence, and then expanding his small works into song and prose.
He has recently emerged as a dexterous talent, winning numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt des lycéens for Petit Pays, published 2016 in France and selling over 700,000 copies. Sarah Ardizzone translated Faye’s novel into Small Country, now published in over thirty countries worldwide.
The book opens just before the first democratic election in 1993 of Melchior Ndadaye in Burundi, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Congo. There, life is fairly carefree for ten-year-old Gabrial, living with his expatriate French father, Rwandan mother and little sister Ana in the capital of Bujumbura.
Ten year old Gabriel (Gaby) and his pack of mischief making friends sneak beers, gossip about girls, avoid Francis the bully, sell stolen mangoes and sneak Supermatch cigarettes. Faye’s inspiration for these characters comes from a lyric he wrote days before the civil war. Pili Pili sur un Croissant au Beurre; it’s a song of privilege and boredom and from a child who does not yet understand what the future holds.
The 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye will come just three months after his election in a military coup that begins a ten-year civil war, killing over a million Hutus and Tutsis in mutual prosecution of physical difference. The violence will monstrously spread, propelling Rwanda into genocide rooted on an accepted colonial concept of ethnicity. Faye writes, “A glowing, uninvited ghost is showing up at regular intervals to remind us that peace is merely a brief interlude between two wars...we didn’t know it yet, but the hour of the inferno had come, and the night was about to unleash it’s cackles of hyenas and wild dogs.”
Small Country explores the grief that accompanies a boy plunged from the familiar into the horrific. Gaby first steadies himself by writing poetic letters to his French pen pal Laure. He befriends an elderly widow with large bookshelves, immerses himself in reading instead of following friends into guerilla warfare. Eventually he must make the worst of choices. It’s an ambitious character development, and at times Faye loses a little authenticity, attempting to balance seasoned expository with the naïve perspective of a boy.
Faye’s own boyhood was lost to war, and he followed his mother to France where he describes being so filled with injustice and the shock of a new culture that he didn’t unpack his suitcase for months. Like Gaby, he was a child traumatized by the evil that passed though and transformed Africa. He writes, "Genocide is an oil slick: those who don't drown in it are polluted for life."
Within that darkness, Gaby loses not only freedom but identity, abandoning his former self in order to survive. Faye illuminates the brutal struggle of refugee experience through what at times can feel like disjointed memoir. Yet, he delivers a perspective not often shared about the Rwandan genocide. The story is slow building and deeply moving, told in simple beautiful language, and a worthy eye-opening read.
Originally published July 26, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
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