Monday, August 3, 2020

THE BOOK OF EELS by Patrik Svensson (Ecco, 2020)

I'd like you to know about this book even if you don't have the slightest interest in eels. Eels are slimy.There's no way I would eat eel, ever, but they are central to dinner time in some cultures. 

The full title of this particular book is: The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World, and that is not an exaggeration. For centuries, humans have
been trying to figure out how eels make new eels, and we still. don't. know. Plenty of eels have been caught and studied, but none of these have had reproductive organs. We know that eels go through stages of life, and it turns out that instead of the three stages scientists were able to positively identify, Eels go through four stages. It's in that fourth stage that eels grow their reproductive parts, and humans have never caught eels in this stage. That may seem unbelievable, but part of the reason is that eels instinctively know when they get near that stage, and it's a different age for each eel, they know to get themselves to the Sargasso Sea where they will become mature, mate, and create new little eels which look like willow leaves.

You think I'm making this up, but I'm not.

This book is fascinating. The eel biology and history chapters alternate with the author's own experience fishing and trapping for eels with his father. His is one of those cultures for whom the eel is an important food, and the acquisition of these eels is an important part of his bond with his father. This is what supplies the fantastic ending of the book.

I read this book during a heatwave in front of a fan, and it was compelling enough to distract me from the extra-extra high temperature. After reading the New Yorker's review, I said out loud, "I have to read that book." Really, for something completely different and satisfying, read this book.

Another fascinating tidbit: before he became a best-selling author at the turn of the last century writing about another topic, Sigmund Freud tried to solve the mystery of where baby eels came from. Unsuccessful, he switched his career focus.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

THE SNOW LEOPARD by Peter Matthiessen

After his beloved wife, Deborah Love, passes away, Peter Matthiessen embarks on a trip to Nepal to make sense of his existence. It's 1973 and the trip is planned for two months. He tags along with his friend, George Schaller (known as GS in the book) who is journeying to these remote mountains to study Himalayan blue sheep. One of GS's research questions is whether these animals are more like sheep, or indeed, more like goats. Both men decide that while the animals known as Bharal are similar to goats, they are, in reality, sheep through and through. Adult Bharal or Himalayan blue sheep are about 120 pounds and 4.3 feet long in case you were wondering.

PM has other quests and questions on his mind. During this time of grief after his wife's death, he is looking to fortify his spiritual being. As a follower of Zen Buddhism, he has meaningful conversations with guides, Sherpas, porters, and villagers he meets along the way. Lots of food for spiritual thought there, but his ultimate goal is to find the Crystal Monastery and meet the Lama of Shey who studies there. This is no easy climb, but with an ever-changing cast of porters and Sherpas, the men finally arrive at Crystal Mountain and meet the humble lama of Shey. They were surprised to find a picture of a Yeti on a flag in the monastery once the key was found and they were let in. The mysterious Yeti was a frequent topic of conversation during the journey.

I've seen a snow leopard, more than once, at the Cape May County Zoo. Does PM ever see one? He looks and looks, and the men find evidence that at least one snow leopard is near them at various points of their journey. They find tracks and scat, but do they ever look one in the eye as I have at the zoo? You'll have to read the book to find that out, but you won't be sorry. PM;s detailed descriptions of what his group sees, how they feel, the equipment they carry (and lose), and what they eat while exploring the wilderness of Nepal will help you feel as if you've been on the journey with GS and PM, but without the bloody blisters.

Most importantly, PM describes his moments of transparency as he explores the mountains and Buddhist landmarks in Nepal. Whether the illuminations of this journey stay with him after 1973 we don't know and can't ask. This fine book of nature writing is held up as an example to aspiring creative nonfiction writers, and won the National Book Award in 1978. It has been at the top of my To-Be-Read pile for years, and I'm happy to say it exceeded my expectations!

Sunday, June 7, 2020


As a librarian, I enjoy matching books with people. People I know often receive books for birthday or holiday gifts, and library patrons often get recommendations from behind the reference desk. When I saw this book reviewed months ago I thought it was a good match for me. I knew I'd be fascinated bay Robert Caro's writing and research habits, but I doubted I would recommend the book to anyone other than my nonfiction writing friends. The truth is, the scope of the book is much wider than one man's research habits. He has written two Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographies, and the reader gets to learn about those subjects by way of reading about Caro's research and interviewing practices. I suspect curious readers other than my nonfiction crowd would enjoy this well-written book.

I didn't know Robert Moses's name, but I sure know his work: he was behind many of the bridges, expressways, and other projects in the New York area. Learning about him was fascinating, and learning about his use/abuse of power was disturbing! The fact is, though, that his projects are his legacy and we use them now without even thinking of how they came to be or what might have been on that land where a highway or bridge approach is now. Who had to lose their homes? Why does a particular highway have that strange curve in it? Robert Caro describes the meticulous research he engaged in for this book along with the many interviews he conducted. His wife, Ina, researched along with him, and in some cases smoothed the way into interviews with Moses's contacts and and those of the second prize-winning biography, Lyndon B. Johnson.

In order to write the book on LBJ, Robert Caro announced to his wife that they would be moving to LBJ's part of Texas to see what it felt like to live there. They got to know the land and interviewed many people who knew LBJ when he was younger. Lots of secrets came out that hadn't been in other Johnson biographies, making Caro's multi-volume work unique. I often encourage college students to dive deeper into their research for assignments (and I'm picturing an Olympic regulation swimming pool when I say that), but Caro here dove into the deepest, darkest, coldest ocean for his research!

I was captivated by this book, even more than I predicted I would be. I gleaned some ideas for my own writing, such as "dressing for work" when I sit down to a day of writing. It is work in the sense that writers need to shut out distractions for optimal productivity, but it is not grudge work. I might try "dressing for work" when I carve out writing days. Caro writes in longhand as I do, at least for research and interview notes and first drafts. I like knowing that. But the item I liked best from his description of his process is that each chapter of his books has its own notebook. I think Caro and I would have lots to talk about.

Thursday, March 12, 2020


Salve! You may have noticed that I took a bit of a sabbatical from this blog. I was busy (a LOT has happened since I last posted) and I wasn't getting much feedback on the books I posted about. I think now the time is right to get back to it. So many people are working remotely during this Corona Virus Crisis and might soon tire of streaming TV, naps, cleaning, and talking to the other people living in their homes. They might. I'm here to recommend reading as an alternative. Getting lost in a good book is the most intellectually-satisfying way to spend some hours of seclusion, don't you think? Read a good book and you'll have fodder for conversations when they do happen. Readers are leaders.

This month I read a fantastic book written by Ann Patty, a retired book editor. (You've heard of Flowers in the Attic and The Life of Pi? Those were hers.) A funny thing happened when she retired: she got bored. She decided to take up an endeavor she had been thinking about for years. She decided to learn Latin! I've tried, unsuccessfully, to learn Latin on multiple occasions, but always run aground. Patty dove into the deep end of Latin learning by auditing Latin courses at Vassar College. She enjoyed excellent teachers with varying teaching styles and always had someone to practice with. This was one of my difficulties: I didn't always have a practice partner, and there's no place on this planet to go where people walk around speaking Latin. That's why it's called a "dead" language.

Latin is fascinating, though, because you learn roots of words we use in English, and translating Latin is kind of like an intellectual puzzle. Ann Patty had her challenges with it, but she loved those. The reader can tell she was delightfully obsessed with this project, and I'd be willing to bet that she is still enjoying it now.

It's true that she mentions and explains various points of Latin grammar that the average reader probably won't understand. That's okay, really, because it is Patty's story that is compelling, not Latin declensions. I found myself making flashcards of interesting vocabulary words, quotes, and points of grammar. These really do come in handy, and I don't mean simply for impressing my friends with my rudimentary Latin language.

My challenge to you is this: think of a book you've always wanted to read. Maybe it's Moby Dick or Little Women or The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Think of a movie or mini-series based on a book that you enjoyed and read the book for a much more nuanced understanding of the plot and characters. Maybe you watched Poldark, Little Women, or Emma. Did you watch The Durrells in Corfu? Read one of Gerald Durrell's many books, or Lawrence's. I just discovered Margot wrote a memoir, too. Post a comment on this blog about what you're reading or intending to read. I'm so interested to know! Let's keep each other company during this unfortunate time of social distancing and self-quarantine.

P.S. If you haven't watched The Durrells in Corfu, a PBS Masterpiece miniseries, I recommend that, too.

Thursday, August 1, 2019


This might be the favorite book of my summer reading season. There's still another month or so of heavy reading ahead of me, but Colum McCann's book is going to be hard to beat. It's more than a novel, it's a multifaceted, multi-voiced tale of New York City during August 1974, where each voice
relates to the others or a certain remarkable event. I can't reveal many details without taking away the astonishment aspect of this story. The wonderment is less in the content than in the magnificent telling. Evidently, the National Book Award judges felt the same way since this book won that award in 2009. It also won the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award which is also a huge honor.

I met Colum McCann in June, at a writers' conference where he spoke about his writing and research process. I sat enraptured as he spoke of living among the subterranean homeless people who live in New York City subway tunnels. This research was for another book, but when reading Let the Great World Spin, I could imagine him researching its characters as thoroughly. How else could he write convincingly in the voice of a prostitute or a radical priest?

After his talk, as he signed my book, I awkwardly attempted to chat him up, He was polite, but my questions were dumb. I was starstruck. He explained that he wrote something in Irish (we'd say Gaelic) that my gosh, I was so starstruck I forgot. I probably wrote the translation down somewhere. Here is a photo of that treasured autograph:

Colum McCann is from Ireland technically, although he has demonstrated that he is a citizen of the world. One of his central characters in this novel is an Irish guy who comes to the United States to visit his brother. (For this tiny bit only McCann could write from his own experience rather than his virtuosic research.) The brother is a father (a priest) who works in a nursing home but looks after a colony of prostitutes working near his home in the Bronx. That alone would be enough of a story for a typical novel, but McCann adds more fully-realized characters and stories, relates them all to each other and the spectacle of a tightrope walker who walked a wire strung between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974.

Here's something unique: McCann collaborated with musician Joe Hurley to create a song cycle based on the book. "The House that Horse Built (Let the Great World Spin)" is the result. I just now learned of it, and that Patti Smith sings on it. YES I'm going to score a copy!

You still have some summer left. There will be stormy days and super-hot days. My recommendation is to make yourself comfortable with a glass of ice-water, possibly infused with strawberries, and read this book.

Monday, July 1, 2019


Do Phoebes benefit from making their nests near humans so that humans will chase away predators? I don't know, but naturalist Bernd Heinrich thinks that might be the case. He writes about phoebes in his essay, "Phoebe Diary," and provides another example from nature: "some tropical bird species rear their young near wasp nests and depend on the insects to repel predators." So, replace tropical birds with phoebes and wasps with humans, and the idea seems plausible.

Heinrich has been writing about nature (birds, insects, trees, flowers) for decades, but I've only been reading him for the past few. This collection of essays is a treasure trove of interesting nature writing accessible to people like me who never bothered to get a Biology degree or learn to identify birds outside their own state.

Did you know the top, vertical branch of a conifer is its leader? It contains special hormones called gibberellins which promote its upward growth while inhibiting the growth of nearby buds and twigs. Lower branches still grow outward, though, which produces the conical shape which helps it grab essential light in a forest. If you haven't guessed, we're talking about basic Christmas trees here.

Two of Heinrich's special interests in nature are ravens and irises. He's written on both extensively. The book, Mind of a Raven, was a top-seller, not solely in nature books. It's on my TBR (To-Be-Read) list with a star next to it. As for irises, Heinrich spent so much time observing these flowers that he noticed the buds always unfurl in a counterclockwise direction. This observation led him to discover that most buds do unfurl this way, too. He wonders how they know to do that, and I wonder how that question ever occurred to him.

I sincerely endorse this compelling book of nature essays for anyone who wants to learn more about birds, bees, flowers, trees, and basically our planet. Yellow birch trees grow on rock. Kinglets huddle. Bees regulate their hive temperature. Carnivorous lady fireflies eat male fireflies of other species when responding to their mating calls. Really, this stuff is fascinating and you should read it. In a hammock. Or a treehouse. Or a park bench.

Friday, May 17, 2019

RUN, RIVER by Joan Didion

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” 

Joan Didion, "The White Album" from The White Album

Run, River (1963) is a novel by one of my favorite essayists, the writer's writer Joan Didion. I never met a Didion essay I didn't like, a lot. She writes about suburban shopping malls, the opulent mansions in Newport, lots about California including the Manson family, and all sorts of social commentary. She wrote a couple of memoirs after losing her daughter and her husband within a couple years of each other. I'd never read one of her novels until this month, when I downloaded Run, River and listened to it in the car. I didn't know if my fascination with her writing would carry over to her novels.  It took me some time to get into it, but by the halfway point I was engrossed. The character development and nuances of storytelling are masterful. I don't know how Didion did it, but I started thinking I was (protagonist) Lily, while alone with her in the car. We have little in common, so it wasn't that I related to her thoughts, feelings, and bad decisions. I just understood her thanks to Didion's fantastic writing.

Lily, Everett, Martha, Joe, Ryder, and a few parents and offspring populate the novel. I'm not going to give awayany secrets, because the way Didion reveals those secrets is part of the beauty of the novel. At least one of those characters end up dead, and please don't expect this author to tell you straight out how this happens. Nope, she casually mentions that person's funeral merely as a point on a timeline when she's describing another event. Wait, what? Did I miss something? If I had been reading a print book, I could have paged back a bit to see what I accidentally skimmed over. With an audio book, there's not a possibility to go back especially when driving. It would have been a waste of time anyway, because this was simply a cavalier mention of a death that hasn't happened yet. Eventually, Didion gets around to telling us what happened to this character in the most deliciously suspenseful way. There are plenty more storytelling treasures here.

That quote at the top of this post is a favorite of many Joan Didion fans. It comes at the beginning of her autobiographical essay, "The White Album" from a collection by the same name. The essays were written between 1968 and 1978. "The White Album" is the essay in which she writes about Charles Manson, meeting Jim Morrison and the Doors, and other tales of 1960s California. She demonstrates her unique gift for people-watching in these essays, and guess what: she "watches" her fictional characters as astutely. Through her descriptions of Lily, Everett, and Martha, along with insight into what they are thinking and how they are reacting, the story crescendos to that death I told you about (vaguely). "We tell ourselves stories in order to live..." and to understand how others live. The people of Run, River make mistakes and bad decisions and live their lives, and Joan Didion helps us understand them. Sometimes we read stories in order to understand life, don't you think?