Summer reading, part 1

10 books, briefly reviewed:

Literary Fiction:

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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Set in 1960s rural North Carolina. At first, I was quite taken with this book–I liked that it showed complex black characters within the genre of Southern Gothic literature. I liked the first couple of mentions of how powerful poetry can be, but then the poems became a chapter-closing device, and where they occur mid-chapter, I had to prompt myself to slow down to read them; I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to be convinced that they were part and parcel of the main character’s thoughts. Rather, I imagined the author collecting the poems like feathers or shells, and finding good places to display them throughout the novel. As the book went on, character descriptions, motivations, and actions became repetitive and less and less complex. I found the plot simultaneously far-fetched and at times, frustratingly predictable. Ultimately, I found the book uneven and a bit unfulfilling, given my high expectations.

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Set in 1970s Ohio, focusing on a Chinese-American family. Not as good as Little Fires Everywhere, but a novel worthy of the time it takes to read it. Could prompt some deep discussions in a book group.

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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Set in London during WWII and afterwards, this is a captivating literary spy novel with a compelling female narrator. As with Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins, the reader experiences nuanced, complex individuals within a historical setting.


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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

One of the most powerful creative nonfiction books I’ve encountered. Boo as anthropological journalist completely disappears in the narrative, and many times during this book, I wondered how she gained such intimate access to the people she focuses on. The afterword in which Boo explains her method of drawing out the thoughts, motivations, fears, and hopes of the people she features is fascinating. Boo contributes to the conversation about wealth disparity in a profoundly thoughtful way; she asks, “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered?”

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The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

Part natural history, part human psychology commentary, this book is just fascinating.

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The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

This biography focuses on the Middle East CIA operative Robert Ames (not the KGB double agent Rick Ames). Robert Ames’ compelling personal qualities make him a riveting biographical subject, as are his attempts to maintain an understanding with Palestinians (he was the only American to maintain a backchannel with the PLO), Israelis, and other nations in the Middle East. This biography follows his thinking, empathies, and career throughout the 1960s up until 1983, when he was killed by a truck bomb in Beirut. The author posits that had he lived, the Middle East peace process might have played out differently. From the NYT review: “The author also looks consistently backward, to the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as forward to Sept. 11 and the current snarled realities of the Middle East. There is a great deal of incisive writing about the nature of spy craft.” So good.


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The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

I’d seen this in the staff recommended section in our local bookstore. Set in NYC, about adult siblings worried about their inheritance. Some deft comedic scenes, but ultimately: meh.

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Fleishman is in Trouble: A Novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

The upside-down image of Manhattan on the cover gives a clue that there will be some up-ending going on. Certainly the lives and relationships Brodesser-Akner paints in this novel are in disarray. Funny, alarmingly sad, insightful, too profane to recommend to students, Fleishman is in Trouble ultimately shows us that point of view is everything, and as the focus shifts to the wife instead of the husband, we realize that we’ve sided with the husband, whose story was told first, loudest, and longest. NPR’s review is perceptive. For anyone interested in cultural commentary on the institution of marriage, this is a must-read.

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Conviction by Denise Mina

A truly absorbing beach-read mystery that makes ingenious use of the main character listening to a true-crime podcast. Set in contemporary Scotland.

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Our House by Louise Candlish

Less absorbing but still a worthy beach-read mystery. Set in contemporary London.

Summer 2019: Staycation has begun!

IMG-2712 The beginning of my summer reading list (the Le Carre is the only non-school related text for starters).

S is back from Scotland; The Enlightenment Reader is her philosophy text and it’s delightful to read her annotations in the margins as I fill gaps in my own knowledge.

IMG-2700 Here’s A’s “Olivine Tyto” on display at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts. It’s the first soapstone sculpture he’s made and he’s keen to do more this summer.

Our clan will be working all over the island this summer, with A doing Student Conservation Corps, K working at Thuy’s (and attending classes in Seattle), S working a patchwork of jobs in Winslow, B continuing in the lovely clinic space in downtown Winslow, and me happy in the hammock with my laptop, books, and papers.

Taking Root


Sunday morning at the beginning of spring break.

K brought me this sprig of pussy willow from a trip to Bellingham; there was a wild bush growing near the ocean bluffs and she tucked a stem of it in a buttonhole. Two days later, I put it in a vase and when I went to change the water, I saw that it wanted to take root with us. Two weeks later, and it’s about ready to transplant to a pot!

My seniors are in the middle of an existentialism unit and are halfway through Camus’ The Plague. They recently finished reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things for our post-colonial unit and I see both works influencing their thoughts in their belief statements about language, communication, and literature:



A few weeks ago, K and I attended a poetry retreat with David Whyte.



K’s notebook page during the first hour of the three days.


The stage at Islandwood is set up for “the lads”, musicians Owen and Moley Ó Súilleabháin. The entire experience was extraordinarily moving, thought-provoking, and intense. The genius of David Whyte is the way his poetry calls forth the listener to meet it halfway; one’s own wisdom surfaces in response to his stories and poetry.

Winter weather

Up until last week, this Seattle winter has been quite mild. For instance, my fava beans were blooming on January 19th, and the kale was giving me a healthy harvest every week:

And then, on Sunday, Feb 3: Snow, magical snow!
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The school week included a snow day, a late start, and an early release.

By Saturday, Feb 9: Snowfall and icy road conditions made driving inadvisable; the good doctor made his way into town to visit a patient.

Sunday, Feb 10: Skiing around town.

Monday, Feb 11, 4:30 p.m.: 13 inches of accumulation. Schools were closed, grocery stores intermittently out of bananas, bread, and hot cocoa, power outages all over the island (gratitude for power at our house), sledding and igloo building down every side street. It felt like evening all afternoon; the perfect day for one of my favorite poems: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.

Tuesday, Feb 12: Rain and temperatures above freezing started to melt the snow into densely wet drifts and banks. Walked to barre class in the slush, spent most of the day cozied up with the dog and a fascinating book: Why We Sleep. Family movie: Mister Rogers documentary.

Wednesday, Feb 13: We have a late start for school today, and thereafter we’ll hopefully resume a normal schedule.

Both magical and treacherous, interludes like this remove some pressures and introduce others. We are impelled to start at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and consider how we will stay warm, how and what we will eat, etc. For many of us, these lower-tier needs have long gone largely unconsidered; in fact, they are called “deficiency needs” since we generally only become anxious about them when they aren’t being met.

There is a paradoxical aspect to snow: when it’s been falling for long enough, it muffles the world and swathes it in blank quietness–and at the same time, it amplifies tragedies (weather-related deaths) and kindness (people going out to tow strangers out of ditches, offering their warm houses, etc).


Winter Recommendations

I highly recommend Lauren Gunderson’s play Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberly; it’s one that’s likely to come around from time to time during the holiday season (The Washington Post reviewed it here). We laughed so hard our sides hurt; the ending is massively moving. Seattle’s Taproot Theatre is a really lovely, intimate space; since the kiddos were on the front row, they had to watch their posture so they didn’t become part of the play.

All three together again!

Also, the SAM’s exhibit Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. Perusing their really well-done site gives a good idea of the actual exhibit.

The detail in the paintings is astounding.


ca 1725, by artist Dalchand. My hand is covering the maharaja (Abhai Singh) but he’s not the most interesting part of the scene; the women’s faces are individualized to an unusual degree in this painting.

Four book recommendations:

Outline, by Rachel Cusk. Image result for outline cusk

“Your failures keep returning to you, while your successes are something you always have to convince yourself of” (41)

“It seems success takes you away from what you know, he said, while failure condemns you to it” (65).

The characters show a very compelling openness to conversations with strangers; there’s an undercurrent of possible danger, of decisions perhaps not entirely prudent, and of not quite getting the whole story, that gives this book its edge of mystery.

Idea worth contemplating in light of Buddhist non-grasping: “I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying –it seemed to me– was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become –to put it bluntly– anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all” (170-171).

The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey

This book is especially useful for parents and teachers in assessing our approach to guiding young people through adolescence and encouraging responsible, independent ownership of both failures and successes. For anyone who is helping a kid with executive function deficits, I think the book is best paired with resources specifically tailored to that end (see Harvard’s guide here).

Lahey reminds us that “…pain, whether it’s experienced as frustration, disappointment, sadness, or anger, is what prompts change and growth” (155).

Teach, Breathe, Learn, by Meena Srinivasan Image result for teach breathe learn

I really like her suggestions for verbal adjustments that have deep implications for how we treat ourselves and others. For instance, replacing the words “good” and “bad” with “helpful” and “unhelpful” in the context of our positive and negative qualities or actions immediately changes the focus from judgment and shame to honest evaluation.

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, by Massimo PigliucciImage result for how to be stoic

I find this book to be a very accessible history of ideas, philosophy, and practical application of stoic principles for living with more discipline and tranquility of mind.




Early December


S’s Scottish adventures on November 30 into the early morning of December 1 included St Andrews Day. S was delighted to send me pictures of folkways like Pin the Kilt on the Haggis. This mythical creature has a variety of funny features, including fangs (apparently, the cartoon version here doesn’t tell the whole story). They tell children that it roams the Scottish highlands and can only run on hills, the left legs being shorter than the right. It’s also where haggis meat comes from.

The street ceilidh:

St Andrews student carolers–they sound so good!

And back here, at Henry’s Tree Farm:


Now into the winter break, I have two weeks off from teaching. Last year I was working on National Boards (passed!); this year feels like a real holiday. I’ve got a lovely long reading list, events on the calendar, and all my chickies will be home!