Saturday, May 25, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 49-51

All non-fiction this time out, since the library delivered me a huge stack of holds I'm trying to work my way through...

49) Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, by Anne Lamott.

I read this book after Bloodlands through sheer coincidence; they came from the library at the same time. But I'm glad it worked out this way, since Lamott's book was the perfect spiritual refreshment after the long, bleak reminder of the worst humanity is capable of that I'd just completed. It's also perfect for the kind of faith I've been assembling for myself after having lost the airtight certainty of my youthful beliefs--more about holding on to hope and wonder, and, since I've chosen to join an Episcopal church, about experiencing a beautiful tradition and liturgy. The Thanks and Wow chapters in particular helped me remember to stop and revel in the Eternal Now of the current moment, instead of always straining toward a longed-for future when I might be able to quit my day job and write full-time, or else flinching away from the inevitable future in which someday I must die. I found myself reveling in the life all around me, even in the spring pollen that makes me sneeze and coats my pretty black car with an unsightly yellow film. I remembered my favorite lines from For I will Consider My Cat Jeoffry:

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.

...and also quoting one of my favorite lines from a character in the Vorkosigan saga: "Every day is a gift. Me, I tear open the package and wolf it down on the spot," not to mention, of all people, Bon Jovi: "I just want to live while I'm alive."

So I guess you might say the book made an impression on me. Thanks, Anne Lamott!

50) The Normal Bar, by Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz, and James Witte.

This is a book of marriage/long-term relationship advice, based on a voluntary survey of couples in long-term relationships. It both describes what's normal in the population surveyed and suggests ways to improve your own relationship's "normal." It's a quick, light read, but gave me enough to think about that I'm thinking of buying my own copy (the one I read is the library's) and trying out some of the suggestions and exercises with Mr. Fraser.

51) The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History, by William Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman.

This book's two authors, who I believe are father and son, hold PhDs in history and meteorology, and their expertise comes together perfectly in this fascinating account of the 1815 Tambora eruption--the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history--and its disruption of the climate for several years thereafter, but most notably in 1816, when the young United States and much of Western and Central Europe had no summer to speak of. (I understood the history better than the meteorology, but, basically, Europe was unseasonably cold all year and hammered with rain from North Atlantic storms, leading to crop failures, while America got pounded by unseasonable arctic storms--snow in June and July!--interspersed with a cold yet severe drought, again leading to crop failures.) We follow various well-known figures ranging from Lord Byron to John Quincy Adams as they live through a disastrous season in nations already reeling from a severe postwar recession, and get a glimpse of how various governments and their citizens/subjects responded to the crisis. I kept finding parallels to the present day--the British government's debates about how much they could and should help their people were depressingly reminiscent of the current drive for austerity at all costs, and there was apocalyptic fervor, most notably over a prediction that the sun was going out and would die entirely on July 18, ending life on Earth. You see, it was a high sunspot year, and all the ash in the atmosphere made it easer to spot the spots, so...panic! No one at the time realized the real cause of the bad weather, though Benjamin Franklin had speculated decades earlier that volcanic ash could lead to temporary cooling.

As the subtitle states, the world was changed. The crop failures in New England sped the settlement of the Old Northwest--Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. The expectations of what a government should do for its people shifted. The cycle of hunger and disruption in Ireland that culminated in the 1840's potato famine began. And while we don't know as much about the eruption's impact on the Asian climate, the authors speculate that the first cholera pandemic might have been connected to it, when a disease that had evidently been endemic to India already began to spread in early 1817.

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