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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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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Interlude: Indian book club

(Forgive our extended absence, friends; we’re in rural India and Internet access is sporadic at best, and we need a really strong connection to upload photos. How about a suggested reading list to keep you busy until we return?)

Prior to a five-month trip, some people might well worry about how many pairs of shoes they can bring, or whether their hairdryer will fit in their backpack. Me? I stress about books.

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I am aware, dear reader, that there apparently exist magical devices powered entirely by witchcraft that allow one to carry dozens – nay, thousands! – of books on a tiny little computer. I, however, am an avowed Luddite and therefore refuse to succumb to the temptation of this modern silliness. I like books. Actual books. I like paper and covers and words printed on a page and I find e-readers inordinately difficult to, well, read. And I love reading so much that I don’t want anything to detract from my enjoyment. Plus, traveling in underdeveloped countries means on-demand electricity isn’t always a given, so what am I supposed to read once my e-reader fails? At least I have a battery-powered flashlight with which to read my paper books. And a lighter after that, although it’s admittedly a bit risky.

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So, I pack books. Lots of books…like ten, which takes up a seriously ridiculous amount of space in my backpack. And I pack with the expectation that those ten will maybe set me up for the first couple of months of travel but I’ll certainly be able to swap books out along the way…if in fact there is anyone else in the world who still reads books on paper. When we traveled New Zealand by campervan, I was thrilled to find that almost every campground we visited had a great book swap.

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This photo was taken in a used book store in Phnom Penh and not in our house, although the quantity isn’t far off. Also I haven’t labeled the shelves…yet.

In preparation for the trip, I scoured the hundreds of books I have at home to find some that were in some way relevant to where we’d be traveling. I read mainly modern fiction, but am pretty open-minded in my literary tastes and will read just about anything that crosses my path. I grabbed a couple on Japan, couldn’t find anything set in New Zealand, struggled with southeast Asia, and hit the mother lode with India. India-themed fiction has become quite popular in the past twenty years or so, and I already owned a good sampling.

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Without further ado and in no particular order, brief reviews of the selections chosen for my ongoing one-member Indian book club!

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

This book had been recommended to me repeatedly for years, and though it’s been on my bookshelf for some time I never got around to reading it. I grabbed it for this trip and am so glad I did. Shantaram is lengthy and twisty and convoluted and involves about ten thousand different characters, and yet the story grabs your heart and won’t let go. Bombay (now Mumbai) is its own vivid character in this book, and although Shantaram‘s claim as an accurate autobiography (is there such a thing?) has been repeatedly disputed, it absolutely holds up as a novel. I’m still thinking about this one months later, especially since we visited some of the book’s key locales while in Mumbai.

What Young India Wants, Chetan Bhagat

An unexpected find at a book exchange at our Mumbai hotel and by far the best book I read on India while in India. This book is intentionally simplistic: it’s a collection of very short non-fiction pieces by an Indian author who is essentially begging the youth of India to stand up and care about their country. India is without question the most complicated, difficult place I’ve ever traveled, and I’ll admit that I was often infuriated here. This book helped me to understand some of the country’s issues better, and I can only hope that young Indians are paying attention.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Tarquin Hall

Light, fluffy Indian detective fiction, in the vein of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. This is gentle social satire and although perhaps not particularly insightful, it gives a good feel for the scents, sights and – most importantly – the unrelenting heat of Delhi.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

There is nothing light and fluffy about this book. It is a stunning debut novel that took the author four years to finish, and it’s dense, layered, challenging and brutal. It won the Booker Prize…in my opinion, that committee loves books like this. Not an easy read; this one is firmly in the difficult-but-beautiful category.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Also a Booker Prize winner. I read this towards the end of our first week in India on a lengthy bus/train trip between Darjeeling and Varanasi, deep in the throes of severe culture shock. While the book’s first-person depiction of the sordid underbelly of India’s servant-to-master relationship intrigued me, I couldn’t get past the infuriating, hopeless, complicated frustrations of the country – mostly because we were experiencing them in real life one after another. And that was because I hadn’t yet learned how to see India for India, rather than what I expected India to be. I suspect if I read this book again, I’ll have a different opinion.

The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar

This is the story of two Indian women: a middle-class Parsi in an abusive marriage and her servant, who lives in a slum. At its heart, it’s a tale of class and status and the roles we’re born into, but it’s also about how women are treated as disposable property in much of the world (most definitely in India). I should have loved it, honestly, but it left me completely cold. I didn’t care about the characters and found the overwrought writing tedious. This book definitely didn’t represent the color and warmth of India for me.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

In the U.S., at least, Rushdie is most famous for his controversial 1988 book The Satanic Verses and for introducing Americans to the concept of fatwa, which in his case was a Khomeini-issued death sentence that earned him British police protection after numerous failed assassination attempts. Midnight’s Children was released in 1981 and won Best of the Booker twice, which is pretty remarkable. Like all Booker Prize winners I’ve read (see above – maybe the committee really likes books set in India?), this one is complex and messy and confusing – like India itself – and just a huge, broad tale of a man and his beloved country. Midnight’s Children is considered magical realism, and Rushdie’s writing style took a bit for me to get into – I had to work at this one more than I usually do when reading. (It would help greatly to have a working knowledge of Indian history since Partition to assist in reading this book; I didn’t and it was more difficult because of that.) Ultimately, a complicated love letter to a complicated country.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Not Indian-themed, obviously, but I’ve read it numerous times and have taken – and given away – copies on all of my big trips. If you’re reading this in an airport or other public venue, I can almost guarantee you’ll be approached by someone who wants to discuss it, which has happened to me on more than one occasion. Really, there isn’t anything else to say about this one that hasn’t already been said. It is a love-it-or-hate-it manifesto and it’s about a thousand pages. Please don’t cheat and watch the film.

On the to-read list for when we return: The Things They Carried and A Rumor of War. I’ve realized how little I know about the Vietnam War, and visiting Vietnam has made me exceptionally curious to learn more.

Have any book recommendations? I would love to hear them, so please share!

P.S. If you’re an avid reader (and live in the U.S. – sorry) and you’re not a member of this site? Get there now.