Category Archives: best books

October typhoon?

Veeka (left) and her cabinmates at a Girl Scout camp she attended this summer in Carnation, Wash.

Veeka (left) and her cabin mates at a Girl Scout camp she attended this summer in Carnation, Wash.

We were supposed to be gone on a Girl Scout camping weekend today, but there’s been dire warnings about some huge typhoon hitting the Seattle area this weekend, so all sorts of things have been cancelled around the region, including our camp. Which is OK, in that it’s been raining all day and there’s nothing more miserable than tromping around a campground in the rain. So our major outing today was to Home Depot and Value Village. That said, there hasn’t been that much wind here at all so far.
Things have quieted down a bit with Veeka back in school. Last weekend, I was at a conference of regional journalism professors in Tacoma. I’m pleased to say I’m about to sign a contract for my 6th book and am spending most of this month working full time finishing up the manuscript. (More on this later when the contract is signed.) I’ve been doing some emergency substituting in local elementary schools and it’s not been bad at all, although I am exhausted when I get home.
My father’s 92nd birthday was Sept. 26, so I brought a white rose by my mother’s place. A year ago, we had a quiet dinner together. He’s been gone more than 3 months now and it will be so odd having the holidays in another month without him.
Since the place I live in is so tiny, I’ve been going through lots of boxes and tossing things that have been around more than 45 years. These include my scrapbooks as a young girl. When I was 7, the first big news event of 1963 wasn’t the death of President Kennedy but, as noted in my scrapbook, the death of Pope John Paul XXIII on June 3, several months before. I still remember the former. I was walking home from school one fall day (everyone always walked at least a mile to school in those days) and some kid rode by on his bike to say the president was dead. I didn’t believe it until I got home and saw it on the TV.

A rose for my father's 92nd birthday

A rose for my father’s 92nd birthday

My scrapbook from that year is filled with photos of brides and many drawings of birds. I loved going into the woods and drawing what was available in coastal Connecticut: towhees, blue jays, hummingbirds, goldfinches, scarlet tanagers, orioles, blue birds, pine warblers and red-winged blackbirds. Sadly, there are a lot fewer of these songbirds in the world today.
In the next scrapbook, from 1964, I found a small notebook of photos of students from my first-grade class. Amazingly, I could remember all of their first names and some of their last names. More than 50 years later, I remember names like Fay Steinhilber, Elizabeth Percy, Pam Van Ness, Melanie Carpenter, Roberta Samuels, Candy Simone, Robert Wallace, Debra Acara and Colleen Dougherty. Isn’t it odd how they stay with you? I still remember my teachers from Great Neck Elementary in Waterford: Mrs. Lyons (first grade); Mrs. Orsey (2nd), Mrs. Edgecomb (third) and then in Severna Park: Mrs. Fudjack (5th), Mr. Smith (6th) and Mrs. Taylor (7th). The name of my 4th grade teacher escapes me…
I saved tons of Valentines and birthday cards and it amazes me how all my aunts sent me cards and my maternal grandmother, Olive, would write me letters. And I was only 8! Everyone sent so many letters and cards back then. I even got a birthday card from Poodie, my grandfather’s dog. There are also letters from my first penpal (a girl in Sidney, Montana called Colleen Jensen). Those were the years when we first started using zip codes.

Veeka at a park in Bothell

Veeka at a park in Bothell

Every so often, I like to pinpoint some fascinating books I’ve run across and that I had time to read this summer: One is Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia,” a fascinating look into one of the world’s most polluted cities because of all the nuclear waste in the area’s rivers and air. The major city in the area is Chelyabinsk, a city not far from Kostanai, the Kazakh city where I spent 6 weeks adopting Veeka. Folks I met in Kostanai told me that Chelyabinsk was the largest city within a day’s drive and they would visit it ever so often. You may have heard of the city when a meteor fell near it in 2013. The reporter, who had been in and out of Chelyabinsk for 40 years, gives an amazing profile of a Russian region where media rarely visit. It used to be a “closed” area because of all the plutonium plants in the area. She writes a devastating portrayal of how Russians live and believe outside of the famous cities to the west. In Chelyabinsk, anyone in power is corrupt, all the officials are on the take and if you don’t toe the line, local Putin appointees will see you go bankrupt. Depressing, but a great read, as it shows how hopeless the residents feel over a situation that will not get better.

My mom got honored at St. Mark's Cathedral in September for overseeing a massive needlework project to cover all the cushions in the cathedral chapel.

My mom got honored at St. Mark’s Cathedral in September for overseeing a massive needlework project to cover all the cushions in the cathedral chapel.

Another was The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. I’m fascinated but repulsed by these creatures; it’s hard for me to even look at them. They’ve got the worst of all worlds: a loathsome-looking head attached to tentacles. But this author talks about how she got to know successive octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston and how these creatures get to know humans by touch. They can feel your emotions through your skin, so if an octopus wraps one arm/leg around you, it’s sensing the chemicals in your body, plus it can tell whether you are male or female. The writer talks about them having memory and dreams, how they can be lonely and desire human company and how she learned how to pet them and communicate love to them and how the octopus responded back. If you see Hank the Octopus in the new Finding Dory movie, you realize how they can change color in quite amazing ways to blend in with their surroundings.

This place is Rattlesnake Ledge and that's Veeka sitting by the remains of our picnic dinner after we hiked up. There are sheer drops off the ledge so naturally I didn't let her go close to the edge.

This place is Rattlesnake Ledge and that’s Veeka sitting by the remains of our picnic dinner after we hiked up. There are sheer drops off the ledge so naturally I didn’t let her go close to the edge.

I have also been reading “The Rope,” a recent book by Kanan Makiya, written from the viewpoint of a young Shi’ite revolutionary from 2003 to the death of Saddam Hussein in 2006. He lays the blame for the ruin of present-day Iraq not at the feet of the Americans – who despite their faults gave Iraq its best shot ever at establishing a democracy – but at the feet of the majority Shi’ites who could not see beyond their partisan politics to want to build a united Iraq. He points out the lying and betrayal is the local currency in Iraq and that absolutely no one is to be trusted, not even your own kin, as the hero discovers at the end of the book. Thus, a Jean-Jacques Rousseau-style social contract was rejected and replaced by a social where there is no trust in anything; where you never know if the person next to you is a suicide bomber intent on blowing you up. And you can’t have a functioning society without some trust.

The book is an easy read and I found the author’s unveiling of the nature of the Arab tribal mindset fascinating. So much of this inborn resistance goes back to Ishmael and the enmity between him and Isaac that never got resolved. I visited Iraq, albeit the Kurdish part of it, in 2004, so have been fascinated by it ever since. That said, it’s a most desolate piece of real estate I’ve ever seen. BTW, the speech Saddam gives at the end of the book is amazing.

Veeka and a friend at the Washington state fair in Puyallup.

Veeka and a friend at the Washington state fair in Puyallup.

I’ve also been reading “American Wife,” by Curtis Sittenfeld, a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush. The author tries to get inside the head (and thoughts) of a First Lady and does a good job at guessing what it must be like to be a public figure. What I found fascinating was the character’s interior monologues about fame and power and whether being the wife of the President makes her complicit in his good – and bad – decisions. Is she responsible, she wonders, for the deaths of many Americans and even more Iraqis in the war in Iraq? When people beg her to try to change her husband’s mind on certain topics, she reasons that hers is not a Hillary-and-Bill-Clinton marriage where one got two for the price of one. So, she doesn’t try to influence her husband. Various reviewers found fault with the book but I liked it enough to continue to the end.

During my Canada trip, I also read Sittenfeld’s latest, which is “Eligible,” It’s a take-off on Jane Austen and what “Pride and Prejudice” would look like if moved to the 21st century. It’s pretty funny and very easy reading. This book was about five unmarried daughters and how four of them ended up with spouses within a year. The end wrapped up a bit too quickly to be real but there were so really profound parts as well and it’s definitely the thing to take along for easy reading.

Cool books for a hot season

lattinStill can’t make any announcements yet about where I’m going, but I did list my home for sale today and am busily cleaning things up so that people can walk through the place. It’s such an inbetween time at present: waiting for things to happen and packing, cleaning and organizing. This will be a cross-country move, so putting all sorts of moving parts together is mentally exhausting. So while I’m in this space of not being able to say much, I will talk about books. frank

Yes, books. Like today, I just got Frank Schaeffer’s latest book in the mail: Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God. (I am still on the list of active members for the Religion Newswriters Association, which is how I get free stuff in the mail). I was surprised to learn that his latest is self-published, as he’s had some very successful books in recent years. So why go it alone? The cover has a picture of him in paint-stained jeans and T-shirt, looking rather sour. Am not sure what that photo has to do with the title, so I’ve been skimming the book to find out. It’s basic autobio stream-of-consciousness writing. I don’t think this is Schaeffer’s best work, judging from my quick read. Maybe I should tackle his writings about his son, who was in the Marines, and how the absence of America’s upper classes from the military is affecting our country not in a good way.
I’ve read some other books lately that deserve mentioning. One is Ruchama Feuerman’s In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, which is an enchanting novel about a New York Jew who moves to Israel, gets a job as an assistant to an elderly kabbalist/rabbi and his wife while finding his true love and getting enmeshed in an international scandal about the Temple Mount. I got to know Ruchama after I read her book Seven Blessings, about matchmakers in Jerusalem and what they go through to match couples who don’t want to be matched and about a woman who to her surprise ended up as a bride. Ruchama liked my review and we’ve been in occasional touch ever since. The kabbalist book came out first online, then its print version debuted this spring. Ruchama is such a good storyteller about Semetic cultures that I find fascinating. Living in Israel for many years gave her the background she needed to make her stories real. kabbalist
Recently I finished Don Lattin’s Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, about three men: Aldous Huxley, Bill Wilson (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) and Gerald Heard, a British philosopher and how their three lives met and meshed in 1960s California. Interspersed with this is Don’s tale of a life as a religion beat reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner (at different times) and how he battled alcoholism and other evils while on the beat. Of course I am always interested in tales of other religion writers, as our life callings are tough to describe to outsiders. Don, who I’ve met multiple times at RNA conferences or covering some celebrity, has a readable, engaging style, so it didn’t take me long to whip through his book. Like so many of us, Don got burned out covering religion, and felt that in order to find his way to God, he had to stop writing *about* God.
brothel1Lately I’ve also read Daniel Walker’s “God in a Brothel: An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue,” about his work uncovering sex trafficking in southeast Asian brothels. What was interesting was his chapter about sex trafficking in Atlanta and how the local politicians don’t have the stomach to put an end to it. What was so sad is how hopeless the situation is for millions of girls sold into a life of sexual slavery and made to do unprintable things. Those who get rescued are a drop in the barrel compared to the need out there. Also sailed through a pleasant love story “A Merry Little Christmas” by my friend Anita Higman. She gave me the book two years ago and I swore I’d get around to reading it. When I knew Anita in Houston, she always wanted to write Christian romance. Finally she has realized her dream. anita
Another book I read was David Bena’s “In the Crucible,” about a Marine fighter pilot who ends up as a prisoner of war during the first Iraq war and endures 18 years in a gulag of prisons scattered through Iran, Turkmenistan and finally Russia. How he finally gets back to the USA only to find out that the U.S. government considers him an embarrassment and only good for assassination bait, was a really good read. I liked all the details about Siberia, a place I’ll probably never get to and it was so readable and interesting, I stuck with it through the end, which had a cliffhanger ending where he was pursued by the Russia mafia and the FBI. David Bena, by the way, is an Anglican bishop who I met back in 2010. I am only now getting around to reading his   benabook, which shows how behind I get.  One thing the book emphasized was the worldwide power of Russian mafia networks; something I have never thought about or encountered but which are a terrifying reality in other parts of the world. I am reading more books, ie a biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a quintessential Tennessean. Am also wondering how long we’ll have hardcover/paperback books with us. Once I dreamed of retiring as a reporter and writing books; something one could do way back when, as the money was good. Today that is impossible, hence I am trying to make my way in academia.