Early winter book reviews, vol. 2

Breaking the Age Code by Becca Levy

Many of my recent nonfiction selections, including Being Mortal and The Blue Zones, focus on the oft-fraught topics of aging and dying. I loved Becca Levy’s Breaking the Age Code; in simple, accessible prose, she posits that how we age can be in large part determined by our attitude towards aging. In America in particular, as well as many other Western cultures (but certainly not all!), aging is seen as somehow shameful and useless; we do not revere our elders here but instead shove them into terrible facilities and care homes, destined to die of inactivity, depression, boredom and loneliness. Our hackneyed clichés about aging, as well as our near-total erasure of older people from films, books, fashion and TV, are overdue for a revamp, too. We also need to rethink our standard retirement age of 65; that arbitrary number was in large part determined by a life expectancy of about 67; very few people were expected to survive another third of their lives after retiring, and that’s posing a major challenge. There are far better ways to embrace aging, of course, and as the U.S. faces the millions of people living well beyond standard life expectancy, it is essential that we address these issues. Breaking the Age Code argues that our actions and beliefs have a lot more influence over our aging than we might think, a theory I wholeheartedly support.

Two Nights in Lisbon by Chris Pavone

Two Nights in Lisbon, as with all of Chris Pavone’s books, fits squarely in my ‘junk thriller’ category – also known as airplane books. This particular example is compelling if long-winded, although I did enjoy the the plot points that tied into recent events. Pavone’s books are pure Snickers bars – quickly consumed, no nutritional value and forgotten shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, I am a firm believer in the idea that ‘there is no worthless reading,’ so if you’re looking for a smart, well-crafted thriller, his books definitely fit the bill.

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser

Textiles are ubiquitous, from birth to death and every single day in between; it seems almost silly to give any thought to their existence nowadays. And while textiles used to have such value – if you only owned one or two pairs of trousers, you’d take good care of them and patch them again and again, until they were finally repurposed into a warm quilt – we now each throw away an average of eighty pounds (!) of textiles every year, and every single second, a trailer-truck filled with textiles is buried or incinerated. The world is simply awash in cheap cloth, and that carries significant implications for our ability to deal with climate change and its attendant issues. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, by Sofi Thanhauser, is an exhaustively researched book about a material good that was once so valuable that every single scrap was carefully saved for reuse; now, those textiles are inexpensive and meaningless. Of course, any history of textiles will notably be raw, tragic and depressing, especially in addressing modern-day slavery production; this book is terribly downbeat, but it’s also fascinating. Facing down our individual contributions to climate change, namely fast fashion and our unwillingness to care for, mend and repair our things instead of simply throwing them out, is an important step forward.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

I wrote previously that once a book “appears” three times in my world, I immediately request it from the library. The House in the Cerulean Sea was one such book, showing up on every single must-read list for a time, and I read numerous reviews where people claimed “it changed their lives.” I should have listened to my initial misgivings and ignored this derivative mess of a book which reads as though a publisher made a checklist of what the book needed to include, then commissioned it from a mediocre author. “Total ripoff Harry Potter-style magic? Check. Misunderstood kids? Check. Queer characters? Check.” All of that mishmash was jammed into a Vitamix to produce this book, which might actually be somewhat acceptable if the author hadn’t made some deeply troubling comments in reference to the book’s origin story. This smug, off-putting book and its author are seriously problematic for numerous reasons and I recommend avoiding this clichéd and awkward waste of paper at all costs. (P.S. If you read this book and loved it, I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts on it.)

Adrift: America in 100 Charts by Scott Galloway

There isn’t much that Americans agree on at the moment, except that our once-great country is most definitely headed in the wrong direction. It’s also all too easy to find various media that support any conceivable point of view, without any valid data or research to back up a particular viewpoint. Adrift clearly and concisely makes its salient argument – that we are quickly headed over a cliff – by distilling granular data and figures into easy-to-understand charts and graphs; this book proves that it’s far easier to grasp deeply complex topics when presented with a stark image, rather than thousands of words of text. Galloway is himself a polarizing figure and his aggressive approach can often be coarse and unrefined; Adrift, however, is a difficult read because of its sharp-edged honesty and therefore difficult to argue with. Adrift is a remarkable and compelling book – you’ll learn a great deal, but you definitely won’t like what you learn. Highly recommended.

The Arc by Tory Henwood Hoen

The Arc is best described as contemporary romance with a sharp, sarcastic edge – chick-lit for the world-weary. The story follows two wealthy, high-achieving Manhattanites who opt to “fully optimize” their dating experience by paying The ARC, a secretive matchmaking operation, to find their guaranteed partner for life. The author smartly set the book pre-pandemic, so that all the trappings of today’s all-connected life (dating websites, The Wing) are recognizable, but there was no need to tackle lockdown and the ensuing worldwide health crisis. This book didn’t earn particularly high reviews, but I loved it; it was a quick read with a wry sense of humor and I found myself entirely captivated by Ursula and Rafael’s orchestrated (or is it?) modern romance.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

On the one hand, Grit tells us that talent is mostly overrated, that fixed mindsets result in stagnation and/or complacency and that ‘grit’ is something that can essentially be acquired by anyone, at any time. On the other hand, this book does little to address socioeconomic factors possibly limiting to grit, and, as other reviewers have rightfully pointed out, it only addresses grit in the American sense, which is obviously unique. Does the concept of grit work in China? Iran? Ukraine? I wholeheartedly respect the idea that focusing on a particular goal and sticking with it is more likely to result in success, except that ‘success’ might be defined differently by every single person – plus, success doesn’t guarantee happiness. (Plenty of doctors and lawyers will freely share that they only continued with their career because they’d already invested so much time and effort in their education that it seemed foolhardy to quit.) While I also respect the author’s section on parenting, specifically as it refers to extracurricular activities, the book fails to address the very obvious fact that many American kids do not have the resources available to compete in club sports, play a musical instrument and learn another language outside of school. Passion and perseverance are to be lauded, certainly, but Duckworth’s scholarly work is far more focused on intellectual policy and other challenging topics. I suspect that Duckworth’s editors told her she needed to appeal more to the masses; as such, this book definitely reads as dumbed-down self-help/pop psychology. This isn’t necessarily bad, except that as with most broad-brush self-help, readers seem to often just seek a simple quick fix, rather than the long-term work actually required. Worth reading, but keep your expectations reasonable.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

We’ve likely all been conned at least once in our lives, whether or not we’re willing to admit it. Maria Konnikova explores the psychology of the con man, and why otherwise smart people fall for schemes that to others seem painfully obvious (see also: fortune tellers). The Confidence Game isn’t Konnikova’s best work; her books on poker and on Sherlock Holmes are far better, but she does present some painfully relatable anecdotes. Unfortunately, the book drags quite a bit; after a few, the stories all sound remarkably similar, and the reader can easily see where the tale ends. As our collective interest in both science and traditional organized religion wanes, beliefs in ‘alternative theories’ such as astrology, tarot and divination are on the rise, which means that many more people are putting themselves at risk of being swindled. (See also: cryptocurrency.) Ultimately, Konnikova leaves us with the disconcerting thought that our innate desire to believe in a well-crafted narrative may mean that we, too, are vulnerable, even when we’re on our guard.

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

The Psychology of Money is a short, easily digestible book that clearly originates from a blog post – and likely didn’t need to be made into a full book. That said, there is a lot in here worth taking to heart, particularly the overarching theme that math (and therefore finance) is typically taught as a cold, hard science, when in fact money, and its outsized influence on our lives, is very much a hot emotional topic, threaded through with childhood, culture, socioeconomic status and many other factors. Therefore, people’s experiences with money are different and most personal financial decisions aren’t made with the clearheaded, rational emotionless thinking they require. The book’s most important points, and ones we personally hold dear in our committed FIRE lifestyle, are to acknowledge that money’s greatest use is to buy freedom, not things, and to always, always build a margin of error into any financial decision you make. Also, to roughly paraphrase Einstein, compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe – whether it’s working for you or against you. A good quick read, worth your time.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, or other notable books you’ve read of late. Wishing you a safe, comfortable winter full of lots of compelling reading!

Early winter book reviews, vol. 1

Friends! Hello! My final pot of tomato puree is bubbling away on the stove, anxiously awaiting the canning jars and then a dark cupboard. I’m so pleased to be finished with preservation for this season; we did manage to salvage a decent harvest – nearly eight hundred pounds of organic vegetables – despite our challenges with viruses and insects. Naturally, winter in our agricultural world allows much more time for reading and sewing, and plenty of time has been gladly given over to both recently! With that, may I present a brief round-up of recent (and not-so recent) reads that have lately crossed my path.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich was one of the nation’s foremost writers on sociology before her recent death; she’s best known for Nickel and Dimed, a highly controversial and deeply problematic first-person account of trying to survive on low-wage work. Bright-Sided was mostly overlooked, but I think it’s far more relevant since it focuses on our obsession with positive thinking, and how that actually undermines and harms us.

An NPR review sums this up rather neatly:

“Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt. And Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States.”

Clearly, all that positivity isn’t doing us much good. Ehrenreich’s book sharply skewers all this positive thinking rubbish, and makes a solid case that it isn’t helping us thrive. And since the book was written prior to 2016 and all that followed after, one only wonders what Ehrenreich might have thought of the morass we find ourselves currently trapped in; thankfully, we’re starting to collectively address the concept of “toxic positivity.” A strong book from a stellar observer of our deeply flawed society.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said is far and away one of the absolute best investigative journalism books I’ve ever read; it follows New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey as they break the Harvey Weinstein story. Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, which covers much of the same sordid mess, was released prior to this and I thought that book was also excellent, but I do wish I’d read She Said first because it’s simply better. There isn’t much more to write about this work that hasn’t been written, but among other accomplishments, She Said shows why good journalism is more important than ever in this fractured age of disinformation and misinformation. Freedom of the press matters in a stable democracy, and books like She Said succinctly show why. A must-read.

The Power Paradox by Dacher Kelter

“The power paradox is this: We gain power and the capacity for influence through social practices that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity. And yet, once we gain power, success, or wealth, those very practices vanish, leaving us vulnerable to impulsive, self-serving actions and empathy deficits that set in motion our fall.” This is another social psychology book that reads differently now than when it was first published in early 2016; it is rather an understatement to say that the world is a very changed place. Ultimately, though, the book makes the salient point that we humans gain power through what is best about human nature and then lose it through what is worst. One only has to look at recent headlines – Trump, Musk, Bankman-Fried – to know just how accurate this research is. The Power Paradox is not a particularly stellar book in and of itself, but it will force the reader to examine the way that power structure within any human interaction, from the barista to a partner to a colleague – shifts and evolves. This a definitely a book that changes one’s perspective.

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Late fall book club

What are you reading these days, friends? Compelling non-fiction? Page-turning thrillers? Autobiography? Historical fiction? Escapist trash? Here are a few books I’ve read recently, if you’d like to see:

The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger

I read this autobiography on a whim and absolutely loved everything about it. Robert Iger was CEO of Disney from 2005 through 2020, and remains executive chairman as of this writing. It’s easy to dismiss The Ride of a Lifetime as just another one of thousands of business leadership books, but it is ultimately so much more than that. Mr. Iger comes across as thoughtful, smart, humble and exceptionally hard-working, and the book’s insights are relevant even if you’re not running one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. The Ride of a Lifetime is excellent for many reasons, but “The Ten Principles of True Leadership” should be required reading for every leader, no matter the size of the organization. Absolutely one of my favorites of 2021.

Bravey, Alexi Pappas

“It’s like when you are in a race. Racing is very painful but we are not what we feel in any single moment and just because I’m in the hurt box now doesn’t mean I won’t feel better in a few more laps. Racing is about understanding that pain is a sensation but not necessarily a threat; the best thing you can to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, it’s becoming ever more obvious that collectively, we are suffering from severe mental health issues. Thanks to athletes like Simone Biles and books like Bravey, more and more people are finally acknowledging their struggles and opening the doors to tough conversations. Alexi Pappas is a champion runner and filmmaker who lost her mother to suicide at a young age and faced down a severe bout of depression after competing in the Olympics. This funny, heart-wrenching, gorgeous memoir will ring deeply familiar to anyone who has ever felt the black dog lurking just around the corner.

Win At All Costs, Matt Hart

This book’s subtitle – ‘Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception’ – tells you everything you need to know. By now, it should come as no surprise that Nike is composed entirely of mean, vindictive, competitive jerks who will do anything to win. (The corporation has now had to rename three buildings on campus, which is perhaps an indication that they like to hitch their wagon to the wrong stars.)

For all the promise of exposing the dark underbelly of competitive running, however, this book is surprisingly bloodless. It’s ostensibly presented as objective sports journalism, yet the book’s primary characters, Kara and Adam Goucher, are quite clearly friends of the author and therefore everything they claim is taken at face value – and their stories contain some fairly vast credibility gaps. This book may have helped bring down Alberto Salazar, but he had done most of the damage himself prior to publication. Overall, an empty book that shows up a bit too late to provide any new information. If you want to read an excellent work about doping in professional sports, pick up Wheelmen instead.

The Midnight Library, Matt Haig

The concept of the book is brilliant – for each of us, there exists a ‘Midnight Library,’ where we can experience all of the lives we might have had we made any one of ten million different decisions along the way. Protagonist Nora Seed arrives in the Midnight Library after a suicide attempt, because she feels that there is no point to carrying on with her life as it is. With the guidance of an off-kilter librarian, she visits a variety of different lives that might have been hers, whilst trying to determine what makes a life worth living.

The theory is fascinating but the execution of this compelling premise is decidedly weak. Nora is a dreary, bland and entirely uninteresting character, accurately described in one review as “the world’s largest wet blanket.” She doesn’t seem to really want anything, and her lack of passion renders the book –which could have been bright and colorful and interesting in the right hands – flabby and boring. This book received a great deal of praise, and after finishing it, I’m left wondering whether that praise was less for the book itself and more for an interesting idea about our unlived lives, an idea that we’ve likely all considered.

This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan

I really enjoy Michael Pollan’s work and have read all his books, some more than once; I believe The Omnivore’s Dilemma to be one of the most important and relevant books ever written on food culture, politics and policy. His latest is a short work in three parts, detailing his experiences with three plant-based substances that have changed the world thanks to their ability to alter human consciousness: opium, caffeine and mescaline. While most of Pollan’s books root heavily into science-oriented journalism, This Is Your Mind on Plants definitely skews closer to memoir. Each portion contains more of a personal account of his experience with the drug in question, with only brief references to science and culture; more accurately, the book should be titled This Is MY Mind on Plants. (Those of us who remember the formative years of the War on Drugs and the Just Say No campaign will certainly understand the veiled reference in the title.)

The section on opium was originally written in the mid-1990s, with a recent update; most pointed here is the acknowledgement that while the feds were busting home gardeners for totally benign poppies, the Sacklers were carefully building their devastating empire of pain from the ground up. The caffeine portion might be of interest to anyone who looks forward to coffee every morning, which is to say about 90% of us; the analysis of how coffee (and tea, to a lesser extent) allowed for the rise of Western capitalism and contributes to our staggering sleep deficiency is interesting but not revelatory. I mostly disliked the mescaline segment of the book, mainly because while I absolutely agree that psychedelics offer incredible potential for the treatment of many mental health issues, I do not at all support the recent trend towards “psychedelic tourism,” where wealthy Westerners seek out cultures with psychedelic traditions in order to go on their own “spiritual trips.” These drugs are incredibly powerful and likely could offer immense benefits, but they’re not a joke, and they’re not to be taken lightly or appropriated as ‘wellness’ as part of some all-inclusive beach vacation. This Is Your Mind on Plants is written in Pollan’s typical accessible, engaging style, and the book is a decent-enough read, but overall it feels rehashed and thin. This isn’t one of his best nor is it one of my favorites.

The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris

I am painfully aware that I am not the intended audience for this book, so it should come as no surprise that it didn’t hold together for me at all. Not only was the writing weak and the main character weaker, but – ironic for a story set in the publishing industry! – the book desperately needed both an editor and a proofreader. Skip it.

Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford

“This book advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and repair, and in doing so I hope it will speak to those who may be unlikely to go into the trades professionally but strive for some measure of self-reliance – the kind that requires focused engagement with our material things.”

That quote perfectly encapsulates our life here on Quiet Farm. We want to engage in work that is useful and we want to produce more than we consume. We also want to not own very many things, and we want to understand the things we do own, and we want to fix them when they break (which seems frequent these days). I adored the basic premise of this book – ultimately, that we’re collectively unhappy because most of us nowadays don’t do any sort of actual productive work, particularly with our hands. Most of us no longer build or construct or repair things, certainly not for our full-time employment.

While the argument is sound, and the book in particular presents a compelling case against the “college-to-cubicle pipeline,” the author possesses a PhD in Philosophy and wields it as an intellectual weapon. My favorite parts were passages where he discusses his work repairing vintage motorcycles; while reading this book, I was entrenched in an ongoing battle with my beloved 1960s Singer 600, and could very much appreciate both the challenge and the reward of learning an elegant (and infuriating) machine intimately. Ultimately, however, the book contains too much philosophical musing and too few real-world examples. This is a shame because more than anything, we do need more skilled tradespeople and fewer software engineers – but anyone who picks up this book already knows this.

Circling the Sun, Paula McLain

I love, love, love Paula McLain’s historical fiction; she makes interesting women (whom you’ve likely never heard of) absolutely come alive on the page. Circling the Sun follows Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviator, thoroughbred horse trainer and author who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from Britain to North America. English-born and Kenyan-raised, Markham is also well-known for her entanglement with Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen. She was smart, independent and spirited and she belonged nowhere but the vast expanse of Africa; Circling the Sun is a brilliant portrayal of a woman who lived life entirely on her own terms even when her choices weren’t at all socially acceptable. Highly recommended, as are the rest of McLain’s books; next up, I’ll be reading Markham’s own memoir, West with the Night, and revisiting Blixen’s Out of Africa.

Pretty Things, Janelle Brown

Standard fiction hasn’t thrilled me much recently, but Pretty Things is a dark, entertaining romp through the intertwined lives of con artists and their marks. Incisive commentary on the social media monster and how we give away so much of our truth for free, yet still desperately try to present lives that aren’t exactly our own while simultaneously whining about our lack of privacy. No one in this book is particularly likable, but my favorite character by far was the narrator’s mother. Overall, Pretty Things can be summed up as readable escapist junk, and there is always a time and a place for that in any literary diet.

Have you read anything remarkable or otherwise recently? As always, we’d love to hear your comments and recommendations.

Early summer book club

Lots of newspapers and magazines like to publish “summer reading lists,” implying that the only thing you have to do this summer is relax on a lounge chair by the pool, languidly sipping cold drinks and tearing through page after page of the latest bestseller. For us, at least, this aspirational vision bears absolutely zero resemblance to our real lives – we actually read less in summer, mainly because maintaining the farm is more than a full-time occupation. (Also we don’t have a pool. ) Even with all of our tasks and projects, however, I have managed to read more this year than I did in 2020 – I know plenty of avid readers who struggled with focus and the inability to finish books last year. Based on the round-up below, it certainly looks as though non-fiction, specifically focused on human psychology and behavior, is my genre of choice these days; with that in mind, we offer a few book recommendations. As always, we’d love to hear yours, too!

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Gardening book club

The world feels far too heavy and sad, particularly here in Colorado, for some absurdly cheerful post about alpacas or chickens or whatever we’re doing on the farm. Instead, we’ll offer a brief round-up of some favorite gardening books, in the hopes that you might be inspired to search these out at your local library or favorite independent bookseller. As with cooking, there is always something new to learn about gardening and growing food, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. And as with cooking, where feeding hungry people nourishing, healthy food feels like an act of pure hope and a direct rebellion against the stupid, meaningless tragedy of the world, so does planting a seed or a sapling.

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Mindset book club

I think it’s fair to say that things are not going well out there. Between incessant doomscrolling and paralyzing anxiety attacks, I’m desperately searching out reading material that calms and soothes, rather than inflames and terrorizes – so I scoured our rainbow library for books that I thought fit the bill. Read on for a few suggestions.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self ed. by Ellyn Spragins

This is a lovely book, filled with precisely what the title advertises: prominent, successful women write letters to their younger selves, offering guidance, wisdom, consolation, advice and solace. I’ve thought a lot about how we’ll look back on this intensely difficult time, and what I might like to tell my own younger self. I particularly loved this quote from photographer Joyce Tenneson: “Your best work will come in moments of grace.” Perhaps we all need to focus on showing more grace to both ourselves and others.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is certainly best known for Wild, but she also wrote a gorgeous, heartbreaking advice column called Dear Sugar, which has been translated into plays and podcasts and all sorts of other media. In a dark time, the thing you need most might be to know that others have experienced pain and heartache and betrayal and trauma too, and have still survived even after all that, and that’s exactly what this book offers. Plus, there are some laugh-out-loud moments which will have you guffawing through your tears. This one hits all the right notes.

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The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

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Spring fever book club

It’s been gray, snowy and cold here at Quiet Farm this weekend, and I think I can confidently speak for most of the United States when I say we are ready for spring. Between polar vortexes and bomb cyclones and Snowmageddons and white-knuckle drives over mountain passes and goodness knows what other chilliness, this winter has been…lengthy. Despite our grumbling, though, we are of course entirely dependent on that winter moisture for our spring and summer irrigation, so we are truly grateful. And all that snow and mud means no outdoor projects, so we have more time to read, too!

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Winter book club

Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.

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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai

This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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RV book club

Pretty much every RV we’ve encountered on our travels thus far has had a television, and most carry a satellite dish. We’ve seen some TVs on the big rigs that would cover an entire wall in our tiny home, if we could even get the thing through the door. For us, though, no TV. And no Netflix, either, because even though we have a device on which to watch, most parks don’t have Internet service strong enough to support streaming. (Serious RVers also carry Internet boosters.) So we read, and that’s not intended as a complaint.

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A selection of reading material at an RV park.

We packed an eclectic selection of books, of course, before throwing everything else into boxes and jamming it all into a rented storage unit. We happened to be camped at the fairgrounds when our local county library held their semi-annual book sale there, so we grabbed a few then, too. And most every park we’ve stayed at has had a book exchange, typically located near the laundry facilities. I’ll confess that most of the books at the RV parks are not to my taste – they lean heavily towards bodice-rippers, legal thrillers and Stuart Woods – but truly, I’m happy when anyone is reading actual paper books and I am not passing any judgment on these. And there are occasionally diamonds in the rough. So what are we reading these days on the RV?

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