Someone recently posted a meme quoting a passage by Carl Sagan, the sage of the heavens, from Part 11 of Cosmos.
“What an astonishing thing a book is,” Sagan wrote. “It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
The folks at Voices of Monterey Bay love books. We read them. We write them. We try to write them. And we love to share what we’ve read.
As 2018 comes to a close, we asked some of our friends to share with readers the books they read this year that rocked their world. And we asked them to tell us why. The following are what we read. But it shouldn’t stop there. Your invited to join our Virtual Book Club. Let us know, in 300 words or less, the book that proved to you that humans are capable of magic. (Send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The following are the books we read that helped us get through 2018:
God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. By Victoria Sweet | Riverhead Books, 2012
Modern medicine is a parade of wonders that cannot be denied, yet there are some ways of healing people in centuries past that have been left behind. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Victoria Sweet’s memoir of her time at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, when it was famously “the last almshouse in America,” the place that took in chronically ill and destitute people who had nowhere else to go.
Sweet, who spent two decades there as a doctor, spent her spare time (!) getting a Ph.D in the history of medicine. Her thesis focused on 12th-century nun Hildegard of Bingen, a healer who ministered to her religious community and recorded her observations of what made patients better.
Sweet reflects on the wisdom of Hildegard and other physicians of the past, who believed that much could be cured with simple steps, including one that is most overlooked these days: giving patients time to heal.
Growing up as the daughter of a doctor, I also saw my father’s practice go through some of what Sweet describes in her book, from a time when patience and listening were important parts of the doctor’s skill set, to the modern emphasis on brisk efficiency and bureaucracy.
The book also deals with Laguna Honda’s conversion from poorhouse to shiny new county hospital while Sweet grieves for its older, funkier version. Her patients’ stories are a series of little miracles in which “tincture of time” was vital to recovery.
— Kathryn McKenzie
These days 90 percent of my reading is daily journalism, mostly about our federal government. I’m another dazed rubbernecker transfixed by the carnage.
This unwelcome fixation made me read an old copy of “Senator Joe McCarthy” by Richard H. Rovere, who covered D.C. for slick magazines from 1944 to 1979. I knew little about the Wisconsin senator beyond the fanatic caricature distilled from film, literature and music. Rovere’s book, written in 1959 two years after McCarthy’s death and five years after his humiliating fall from power, provides a lucid, smart overview of a backbench legislator’s whirlwind rise to enthrall two presidencies, hold veto power over executive appointments and make generals, legislators and CEOs tremble. My copy was a 1973 reissue, obviously timed to Watergate. It should be republished today, as Trump is beset by more troubles than Richard Nixon ever could imagine.
Rovere portrays McCarthy as America’s “most gifted” and first national demagogue. Trump clearly is the second.
McCarthy and Trump are in many ways alike. Both are fabulists and liars. Both rise by stoking fears about vast plots against America. For McCarthy, it was communists and fellow travelers burrowed into our government. For Trump, it’s non-white immigrants and internationalists. Both deftly manipulate the media. Both shake America’s overseas allies.
Still, Rovere’s book left me with hope that the country will weather the Trump era and be better for it.
McCarthy was a far better demagogue than Trump. He worked hard. Trump is lazy. McCarthy knew how Congress and the capital worked. Trump doesn’t care. McCarthy’s reign lasted four years; he was admired by 50 percent of Americans. Trump’s fall could be quicker, and he hasn’t hit 50 percent since Inauguration Day.
In his final chapter, Rovere steps back, with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, and concludes things could have gone far worse but for McCarthy’s own weaknesses and pushback from big sectors of America: the Warren Supreme Court, organized labor and religion, “powerful sections of the press” and, finally, his fellow senators.
“McCarthy offered a powerful challenge to freedom, and he showed us to be more vulnerable than many of us had guessed to a seditious demagogy — as well as less vulnerable than some of us feared,” Rovere writes.
I can imagine similar sentences being written about Trump in a few years.
— Larry Parsons
I’ve come to learn that honesty is key, not only in life but in art. And this book takes honesty arm-in-arm for a walk around the block. It includes confessions the author hid from those closest to him; an admission that he might not even want to change; a stinging realization that despite Tomlinson’s career achievements, he’s never really grown up. It’s this kind of courageous introspection that makes this book searing, painful and lovely.
Elephant is a beautifully written memoir about the author’s lifelong struggle with food and weight. It’s also an homage to Tomlinson’s white working class family, a love song to the South, and yes, an ode to Wendy’s. Tomlinson looks not only at his own life but analyzes what’s going on with the obesity epidemic in the United States and weaves it all together through a yearlong journal of trying to change his ways and get healthy.
Here’s the kind of writing that wins my heart:
“This will be as close as I ever get to bragging about my body: I’m seventy-three inches tall, and the top six inches are sexy as hell. My eyes are Paul Newman blue. My hair is congressional quality. Everything from the bridge of my nose north has treated me pretty well.
“From there down, I’m a Superfund site.”
A disclaimer here — Tommy is a fellow journalist and I count him as a friend. But I’d love this book no matter who wrote it. As an overweight man in America, Tomlinson lays bare his soul with painful admissions about his junk-food addiction and now, his effort to save his own life.
Note: This book won’t be available until January, but you can pre-order it here.
— Julie Reynolds Martinez
Alexie’s memoir has his mother, Lillian Alexie, as the epicenter. She’s the tremor in Alexie’s life that gave birth to him, that denied affection to him, that made him who he is now: the storyteller, the lies weaver, the enchanter, the best-selling author. Lillian Alexie made fabulous quilts, his son tells us, and he honors her and their complicated relationship in the sweetest, most heart-wrenching, 454-page long love song. Along the way, he also pays homage to his Coeur D’Alene and Spokane heritages, and mourns the destruction of his people’s way of life by the European settlers.
Consider his poem Eulogy: “My mother was a dictionary/ She knew words that had been spoken for thousands of years/She knew words that will never be spoken again.” On and on, Alexis reminds us of the destruction the United States of America has caused on Native peoples, of the crimes committed against the original inhabitants of this continent.
I began reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me the year I began re-assessing my Indigenous lineage – even if I wasn’t fully conscious that’s what I was doing. Therefore, the book was painful to read, extremely so, and I didn’t know until now the pain was very personal.
But Alexie is also irreverently hilarious (as in the piece in which he’s taking a dump at the funeral home) which somewhat balances the pain and makes the bitter pill a bit easier to swallow.
In the book, Alexie tells us of a white friend who said to him: “Native Americans were the victims of genocide, so why isn’t there a Museum of the Native American Genocide.” The author muses that Indians would spend years arguing about whose tribe suffered the worst massacre. But he also says it’s because the United States looks away at the pain it’s caused.
Reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a good way to stare at the pain and begin reflecting on what we would need to do to make amends.
— Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Carmel resident Flo Thomasian Snyder unwittingly became a Major League Baseball pioneer in 1958, the year the Dodgers broke Brooklyn’s heart and moved to sunny Los Angeles.
Thomasian was young, unemployed and bored to tears, lounging on her parents sofa when she heard the news and seized the day. Knowing nothing about baseball, she figured the incoming Dodgers might be hiring, applied for a job.
She was hired — the only female in a testosterone-driven world, where she came to know Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges, PeeWee Reese, Carl Furillo, Maury Wills and other legends.
The Dodgers won the National League pennant the following year and beat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series, a high point in Thomasian’s lengthy career in various capacities with the team.
Her 175-page book not only is loaded with fascinating (and often hilarious) anecdotes, but also is adorned with dozens of historic photos, many of which you won’t find anywhere else. For a baseball fan, this one is a home run.
— Dennis Taylor
The argument against “Babbitt” is that Sinclair Lewis obviously despised every one of its characters. Not a single endearing creature exists in George F. Babbitt’s orbit, not even a dog. None of them are monsters, sure, but there is an off-kilter Rotarian familiarity to the people who inhabit Lewis’ fictional town of Zenith; they conspire to render “Babbitt” as among the most bleakly hilarious literary works of the 20th century.
I turned 65 not long ago. It was an occasion to plunder my past with ruminations and remembrances. I coincidentally picked up “Babbitt,” for the first time, a week before that birthday. Our family has a loose connection with Sinclair Lewis — legend has it that my grandmother got her smallpox vaccination from Lewis’s father when she lived in Sauk Centre, Minn. — and I’ve read “Main Street” several times. Earlier this year I plowed through “It Can’t Happen Here,” which should be required reading for every registered voter in today’s America.
I thought I might be prepared for Babbitt. But the timing was wrong. Babbitt is brilliant and sad and laugh-out-loud hilarious. But Lewis is an acerbic companion, happily skewering every empty Anglo-Saxon assumption of comfort, security and happiness.
“Babbitt” reeked of mockery, a comic elegy on a squandered life, when it was published in 1922. The slings and arrows persist today. Babbitt’s Zenith is populated with the gregarious, neighborly people we still meet at chambers of commerce functions and other fraternal/religious gatherings, the people with a veneer of practiced dignity and bonhomie, people unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge the despair of diminished expectations and the terror of their empty existence.
The mirror that Lewis holds up to us reflects infuriating insignificance. It’s certainly not a hopeful validation for readers in the reflective stages of old age.
— Joe Livernois
Ever since “Moneyball,” I have said that I would read anything by Michael Lewis. He is supposed to be a financial guy, but this latest book, “The Fifth Risk,” isn’t about money.
I feel like weeping whenever I remember the tales he tells here. It’s not about the usual Trump stuff: women and Russian spies who were paid off. It’s about Americans who used to work in government, and who loved their work. Who would do almost anything to serve us all. Really, there were people like that and now they are gone, gone, gone.
This short book is the psalm sung in the National Cathedral for the death of something that used to be alive in the land.
— Helene Constant
Jonathon Mayberry tasked 18 short story writers with an assignment: Write a short story (they range from 7 – 24 pages) using some or most of the elements from the Alien movies. But it must be about the Colonial Marines – those hard-core space soldiers depicted time and time again in all the Alien movies. Usually the Colonial Marines are mushed, mashed and mutilated by those double-jawed, acid-blooded beasties known as Xenomorphs.
The stories often run smoothly together, each depicted as just another C.M. mission. All utilize background info we Alien Sci-Fi addicts are familiar with – pulse rifles, synthetic androids, the Weyland-Yetani Corporation, drop-ships. Characters from the movies are casually referred to make the reader feel at home (or in that metallic hallway being stalked by…something…not all the critters are Xenomorphs)
The stories delve into heroism, stupidity, greed, love, hate, corruption, abandonment, betrayal – lots of betrayal, fear, politics, and power.
The line from the Alien series by the character Hudson sets the plot’s glue, “Is this a stand-up fight or another bug hunt?”
Each story is just that — a bug hunt. For any non-Alien-franchise-muggles — a bug hunt as is when the Colonial Marines are sent in to … well … fix a situation where aliens may be present. The Colonial Marines refer contemptuously to aliens as bugs — a mistake they make at their own peril.
A consistent element (one very present in the franchise too) is the many female marine characters – all are kick-ass. I only have one problem with this 359-page book – it ends. I wanted more.
— Paul Karrer
Years ago, while she was a reporter for the Fresno Bee, Diana Marcum wrote my favorite newspaper piece of all time. The meticulously crafted tale told of the reverse migration of the Okies and the Arkies, Dust Bowl refugees and their descendants giving up on California and returning for the now-greener pastures of places like Mountain Home, Ark.
Later Marcum won a Pulitizer Prize for her Los Angeles Times stories documenting the toll the drought was taking on the working poor of the San Joaquin Valley. Now, the San Joaquin plays a key role in her latest work, another story of migration and the reverse, this time centering on the Azores, the Portuguese islands that eventually populated much of rural California, including the Central Coast. Regularly, the Azoreans of Monterey, Salinas and Watsonville gather for festivals of music, food and pageantry. This is a love story about those people and their windswept homeland. It turns out to be a personal love story as well, maybe a bit too much Chick Lit for my taste but Marcum makes it work.
An excerpt: “Even in ancient times, they were off the beaten path. They seem to appear on old world maps, then disappear again for hundreds of years, lost to fog and currents and the vagaries of the sea. Over the centuries, they were rumored to be the remnants of the lost continent of Atlantis or the last kingdom of the Lusiads, founded by Lusus, the son of Bacchus, the god of wine. Some Azoreans told me they believe their ancestors to be disgraced Portuguese nobles and bastard sons. Others thought the original inhabitants were peasants shipped from the mainland against their will to colonize. Recent archaeology finds suggest there may have been even earlier, unknown inhabitants who disappeared before the Portuguese arrived, raising the question of how people got to the middle of the ocean before the known advent of sailing ships.”
— Royal Calkins
For many people, prison abolition is an uncomfortable topic to discuss. Part of the discomfort stems from the cascade of questions the topic raises. If we get rid of prisons, what will we do with members of our society who we perceive to be a danger to others? How will we suppress crime in a society where detention in prisons is outlawed?
In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Dr. Angela Y. Davis has questions of her own. Why do so many Americans equate incarcerating an ever increasing portion of our population with securing personal rights and liberties? Why was the American public so quick to accept the mass proliferation of prisons? If we have determined that racist institutions have no place in our country, why do we continue to support prisons, which disproportionately ravage black and brown communities?
In the book, Davis historicizes the origin of the current American prison system of incarceration from its inception in the American Revolutionary period as a response to Europe’s capital and corporal punishment. While incarceration appeared to be a progressive alternative to capital and corporal punishment, Davis questions whether mass incarceration makes sense for contemporary societal needs. Using past societal practices that were once thought to be irreplaceable (i.e., slavery, lynching, and segregation) as reference points, Davis invites readers to abandon thoughts of prison abolition as an improbable possibility for our future and proposes that prisons’ current omnipresence is not a sufficient reason to justify their existence.
While the book offers little in terms of concrete alternatives, it serves as a wonderful introduction to a topic most Americans would rather not think about.
— Eric Mora
In contemporary parlance, we call those who have been sexually assaulted “survivors.”
We do this to affirm their agency and to challenge language that victimizes. But not all who endure sexual assault survive. Myriam Gurba’s Mean, described by Coffee House Press as “True crime, memoir, and ghost story,” unearths dual narratives of women who have experienced sexual assault at the hands of the same perpetrator. The ghost of the story is
Sophia, a woman who we learn is described in accounts of her murder as a “transient … bludgeoned to death.”
Gurba searches newspapers and court documents for information about Sophia, learning that, like Gurba and the perpetrator, Sophia was Mexican. Gurba also discovers Sophia’s profession (she was a farm worker who picked strawberries) and more. In Mean, Gurba reflects on what it means to have survived the assault, and to live with the presence of Sophia’s ghost.
Because the assault occurred in late adolescence, Gurba also narrates this time in her life, and her transition to being a college student in the mid-1990’s at UC Berkeley. As she comes into her identity as a queer, mixed-race Chicana, Gurba invites the reader to think about how norms of acceptable womanhood shape our early adult experiences. The title, Mean, comes from her manifesto early in the book that proclaims: “Being mean to boys is fun and a second-wave feminist duty. Being rude to men who deserve it is a holy mission. Sisterhood is powerful, but being a bitch is exhilarating…” This stance informs much of the book’s tone which is by turns irreverent, challenging, funny, and deeply sad. I loved this book before the narrative even began when Gurba’s epigraph cites that great Chicana philosopher Jenni Rivera who meanly, delightfully asserts, “Lo mejor que te puedo desear es que te vaya mal.”
— María Villaseñor
I first read Plainsong years ago but it qualifies for year-ender treatment because I read it again this year. Plainsong invites a second visit because of Haruf’s genius at making simple words into something nearly as large as the plains of eastern Colorado. That’s where he builds the town of Holt, populated by residents made simultaneously harder and softer by the lonely landscape.
It is a relatively thin book but sturdy enough for multiple storylines about the challenges of real life and the people who weather them. One plot is about Tom Guthrie, whose depressed wife walls herself off in a rear bedroom before hauling herself away to the far away city in an attempt at healing.The main tale, though, is about teenager Victoria Roubideaux, cast out of her home for the sin of pregnancy. She ends up, of all places, in the unadorned homestead of the brothers McPheron, seemingly simple bachelor farmers with no clue about teenage girls, pregnancy or babies. Hilarity does not ensue. Instead, Haruf creates a world of simple decency and respect, a place where integrity is more than a campaign buzzword.
Haruf, who taught English at Southern Illinois University and died in 2014, wrote other well-received novels but none as moving or notable as Plainsong.
Here he writes about Victoria returning from Denver:
”The bus went on and they crossed into Holt County, the country all flat and sandy again, the stunted stands of trees at the isolated farmhouses, the gravel section roads running exactly north and south like lines drawn in a child’s picture book and the four-strand fences rimming the barrow ditches, and now there were cows with fresh calves in the pastures behind the barbed-wire fences and here and there a red mare with a new-foaled colt, and far away on the horizon to the south the low sandhills that looked as blue as plums. The winter wheat was the only real green.”
— Royal Calkins
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. By Sarah Hepola | Grand Central Publishing, 2015 & The Rum Diary. By Hunter S. Thompson | Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998
Blackout gave me personal perspective on life as a professional writer from Texas. And The Rum Diary showed me a little of what hell might look like.
In Blackout, a first-person memoir, I saw what someone else saw firsthand. She takes you into her life, and lets you look around.
Reading her story is like living vicariously through her words, and especially so because I grew up in Texas and much of the action takes place in Austin and Dallas. You really get quite the vivid idea of both cities, and more, through her blurry storytelling.
The Rum Diary, on the other hand, is what it must be like if you take every journalists worst fears, some of their desires, and sprinkle in some generational chauvinism and white nationalism (i.e. racism). This is the first and only work of Thompson’s I’ve read, but I imagine I might enjoy more of it.
I guess I chose to read both of them for their appeal as “works by journalists.” But, being a developing twenty-something, I’m actually looking for all the inspiration I can find. Turns out, all you have to do is study the experts.
What I got from both books, in their individual and striking ways, is excruciating storytelling crafted with compelling and provocative structure.
— Kyle Martin
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, scratch the first part. Given scandals, corruption, border deaths – I won’t go on – it’s important to step back for considered looks away from the relentless barrage of breaking news.
Michael Lewis’ “The Fifth Risk’’ analyzes the damage done at unglamorous agencies like Agriculture, Energy and Commerce when they are “led’’ by new appointees clueless about their basic functions.
Miriam Pawel’s “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Changed a Nation’’ renders the twin legacies of Pat and Jerry Brown, two successful governors with different styles but similar values. (Incoming Governor Newsom should read it.) it, too.
For solace, I tried “The Sweet Flypaper of Life’’ (First Print Press), a re-issue of Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava’s 1955 tone poem about Harlem life, freed of stereotypes.
“Waking The Dead,’’ Scott Spencer’s 1986 novel about the clash between ambition and principle for Fielding Pierce, a young would-be politico enmeshed in Chicago politics, and his one-time girlfriend, Sarah Williams, an activist for Chilean refugees caught in the diaspora after the assassination of Salvador Allende, still resonates.
Obsessed with Sarah, whom he’s led to believe was killed in a politically motivated bombing, Pierce is tempted to walk away from his Congressional race.
Once elected, and his delegation is greeted with applause, he knows it came “not because they liked me or knew anything about what I had believed… but because I had made it through the torrents to this breeding ground where we could… spawn more and more two-year terms. I had won.”
When this moment passes, and He Who Will Not Be Named is a distant memory – these works serve as reminders that a better world is possible. If we make it so.
— Paul Wilner
Kathryn McKenzie is an editor for Voices of Monterey Bay
Larry Parsons is a retired Monterey County journalist
Julie Reynolds Martinez is an editor for Voices of Monterey Bay
Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an editor for Voices of Monterey Bay
Dennis Taylor is a freelance writer from Salinas
Paul Karrer is a retired teacher
Royal Calkins writes The Partisan for Voices of Monterey Bay
Eric Mora is marketing and membership coordinator at National Steinbeck Library
María Villaseñor is an assistant professor at CSU Monterey Bay
Helene Constant is a Carmel resident and former newsperson at KFAT-FM. She can still hum “Dropkick me Jesus through the goalposts of life.”
Kyle Martin is a freelance writer and a contributor to Voices of Monterey Bay
Paul Wilner is a journalist and a contributor to Voices of Monterey Bay
Joe Livernois is an editor for Voices of Monterey Bay
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