An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘winter reading’

Good Reads

The cold, dark days of December and January prove God intends for human beings (at least in the northern hemisphere) to hibernate in winter. My definition of hibernation includes reading and eating as well as sleeping. For anyone looking for some winter reading, here are my favorite reads of 2010—by category. With one exception, these books were not published in 2010. I’m seldom quick enough to read a book the same year it was published.

Entertainment: The Evolution Man:  or How I Ate My Father by Roy Lewis. A romp through pre-history as the patriarch of a conservative family of pre-Adamites tries to move his relatives into the modern world with such innovations as fire and marrying outside the clan.

Environment: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin. Salatin managed to tell me far more than I thought I ever wanted to know about organic farming. His descriptions of USDA inspection of meat processing plants made my stomach queasy and my mind uneasy about food safety.

Memoir: A tie, not surprising since this is my favorite genre. In Life and Death in Shanghai ,  Nien Cheng describes her life as a sheltered member of the business community in Shanghai until she was arrested during Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s.  Because she refused to incriminate innocent friends, Cheng was imprisoned for seven years. Her survival of the harsh conditions—she was in her 50s with serious health concerns at the time of her arrest—is a remarkable story of human courage. Sattareh Farman Farmaian’s Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution provides an equally riveting view into 20th century Iran—from the time of modern reforms of the 1920s through the corrupt dictatorship of Reza Shah Pahlavi  to the Revolution of 1979. Both books provide a window into major political events of the 20th century through the eyes of women who survived the excesses of the events.

Mormon Lit: The reviews, both Mormon and national, of Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist enticed me to read this book in hardcover. I’ve reviewed it here

Spiritual: Big Mind/Big Heart by Dennis Genpo Merzel is a wonderful guide to understanding our own mind and dealing with our often militant egos. You don’t have to convert to Buddhism or spend hours in zazen to practice these common sense meditations.

Travel: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux is hardly a tourist guide, but provides a lot of insight into the problems of modern Africa. Theroux served in the Peace Corps in Malawi 30 years ago, and later taught at the university level in Uganda. In 2003, he traveled by land from Cairo to Cape Town and recorded the change—and lack of change—three decades have given the continent.

Pivotal Books

The best thing about bad weather is the time it offers for curling up with a good book.  An English teacher I know rereads Macbeth every November. Perfect timing! November is so like Macbeth—you know things are going to keep getting worse! I came across a list of favorite novels yesterday and started thinking of my own favorites. My son-in-law often asks what my favorite books are and I never know how to answer. How to choose just one or two or even five? Usually, the best I can come up with is my favorite for this year. But what about all-time favorites? The books I’d choose to take to a desert island. Probably I should take the books I revisit frequently. In recent years I’ve opened Sophie’s World by Norwegian author Jostein Gaardner most often. Although the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl, this novel-within-a-novel is much more than a teen read. As the plot unfolds, a mysterious professor teaches Sophie the complete philosophy of Western Civilization. These summaries are the parts I return to when I need a succinct refresher on the thoughts of philosophers and scholars from Socrates to Freud.

And I should include books that have stirred my curiosity of the wide world. My 8th grade English teacher introduced me to Richard Halliburton. His Royal Road to Romance convinced me to explore the world beyond my birthplace. I couldn’t find Halliburton’s travelogues for my own children, but some have been reprinted and are on my list for my grandchildren.

Memoir is the genre that most allows me to participate in lives more exotic than my own. Some favorites are: Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, a Chinese-American girl growing up in California with immigrant parents. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the “Little Rock Seven” who integrated an all-white Arkansas high school in 1957—the year I was a junior at all-white Pleasant Grove High with no idea what was happening to African-American teens in the South. The Road to Mecca by Muhammed Asad, a European Jew who traveled to Arabia as a journalist and converted to Islam in 1926. Asad later became Pakistan’s UN ambassador. And Dust Tracks on the Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s account of growing up in an all-black Florida community in the early 20th century.

Good fiction, like memoir, allows us to experience vicarious lives. Foreign authors teach us how much we have in common with people of different countries, religions and races. Nervous Condition by Tsitsi Dangarembga tells the story of a strained relationship between an African mother and daughter. In “The Bats” from Arranged Marriage by Indian author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a child narrates the story of life with a mother who keeps returning to an abusive marriage.

I read few LDS authors because I prefer visiting less familiar cultures. Two novels which provide surprising insights into their LDS characters are Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua and Levi Peterson’s Aspen Marooney. Clory, the young plural wife in Joshua, struggles with grinding poverty, sharing a husband, loss of children, and abandonment without the divine intervention and blessings bestowed in traditional pioneer stories. Aspen and her old high school flame ignite sparks at their 40th high school reunion. Though both are active LDS, Church values play little or no part in their decisions.

The wind whips and the temperature drops. What do I care? November was made for good books and a cozy recliner.

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