The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

Central Library: PR6052.A6657 S46 2011
As I near 50, I find myself re-evaluating my past in ways that weren’t possible even a few years ago. I used to rely on my memory as something solid and real. As memories become softer, less focused, my reliance on their veracity diminishes.

Tony Webster, the sixty-something narrator of The Sense of an Ending, undergoes a similar transformation as he remembers and re-evaluates several relationships from his youth. After receiving notice that he will be inheriting a friend’s journal, he attempts to unravel mysteries and construct a narrative that reconciles his own memories with those of others. It’s no easy task, either intellectually or emotionally, but Webster tackles it with dogged self-assurance,  self doubt, and self-effacing wit.

This book lingered in my mind for days, evoking a sweet melancholy that made me hunger for more books like this—witty,  moving, and profound. This is the first Julian Barnes book I’ve read, but it will not be my last.

In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

Central Library: RA784 .P643 2009

If you’re looking for a good read about food, read this book. If you’re looking for a new way to think about food, read this book. If you want to have a healthier diet, but you’re tired of counting everything from fat to fiber grams, this book is for you. If you just want to read an interesting, well-written, even entertaining book, this is for you.

Pollan argues that attempting to break everything down to the smallest bits isn’t always the best strategy for understanding the whole. Humans have evolved to gain nutrition and sustenance from food, and we will be more healthy, happy and satisfied if we stick to food. How one defines food will make all the difference in how successful this strategy is in producing greater health.

Food is what our great, great grandmothers would recognize as food. He suggests we shop around the edges of the supermarket, focusing on fresh produce, meats and bakery items and avoid the frozen, canned, and heavily packaged stuff in the middle. For meat, focus on grass-fed animals, which haven’t been fattened with corn, which is not a natural diet for it, and haven’t been injected with heavy doses of antibiotics and hormones.

The book’s main theme seems to suggest that we take a more relaxed view of our relationship with food. We don’t need worry about whether we’re getting too much of this or not enough of that if we eat a well-balanced diet of real foods, cooked slowly and eaten slowly, hopefully with loved ones there to share the meal. Start with real food and experiment with herbs and spices in order to achieve good tasting meals that make your mouth water. Good taste is key to good digestion, and good digestion is necessary for good health.

I have read exactly two books that have really influenced me to make changes not only in how I eat, by with my entire relationship to food—The Diet Cure, by Julia Ross—and In Defense of Food.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Central Library: PR9619.3.B7153 P46 2008

The People of the Book is my favorite kind of book—full of suspense and history, overwhelming me with the immensity of time and the intensity of a moment.

The narrative opens in 1996 with book restorer Hanna Heath flying into to Sarajevo to restore an illuminated manuscript that surfaced after the war. The Sarajevo Haggadah, a real book living in a fictional story, had been hidden for protection from the war.

During the course of her examination, Hanna discovers items that form the basis of the proceeding chapters—a moth, a missing clasp, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair. Her research brings her increasing information about the book, but only the readers discover the events that Hanna can only guess at, telling the story of the book backwards in time to its creation in the late 15th century.

This novel engages so many of interests—mystery, history, science, family, myth, culture, and religion. The story is a braid of the entwining lives of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Europe—through conflict and contentment.  It is the story of how strongly all groups have influenced the other’s culture, philosophy, art, and religion.

The writing is compelling, the characters full and heart-breakingly unforgettable, and the settings rich and colorful. It is a book that has come alive in me, along with its people.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Central Library (PT9876.22.A6933 M3613 2008)

This book kept me up at night.

Not only did Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo compel me to keep reading late into the night, it also kept my mind running while I attempted to drift off to sleep.

So many mysteries. What will connect the protagonist with the title character? What is her background, and how did she get to be the way she is? What happened to the girl who disappeared? If she was murdered, who did it? Is her disappearance connected to a series of brutal murders which appear to be connected?

But the mysteries, compelling as they are, are not the only attractions. Larsson writes some intriguing characters and proposes some ethical and moral dilemmas that I’m still debating with myself.

And the best news is, there are two more books in this series—The Girl Who Played with Fire (PT9876.22.A6933 F5713 2009) and Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (PT9876.22.A6933 L8413 2009). The death of the author makes more books unlikely, though I read a rumor that an unfinished fourth book is being finished now.

I heard that the second book ends with such a breath-taking cliffhanger that readers couldn’t wait for the American version of the third book, so they ordered English translations from overseas.

I think I’ll wait to read the second until I have the third in hand.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

This is about the “trilogy,” not just the book. However, UTA is short one of the five* books in the series, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The full “trilogy” includes Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy (PR6051.D3352 .H5 2004), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (not available here), Life, the universe, and everything (PR 6051 .D3352 L5 1982 ), So long, and thanks for all the fish (PR 6051 .D3352 S6 1985), and Mostly harmless (PR 6051 .D3352 M7 1992). 

 One word… whimsical.

Why do I love thee, HGG?
I love thy whimsy.
Three times three.

(Or should that be nine times six?)

Arthur then comments, “I’ve always said there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.”

If this statement scares you, steer clear of this series. If it sounds rather fun to explore strange new worlds with characters named Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, and Slartibartfast, strap in and take off.

*Apparently, Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer and Adams’ widow, Jane Belson, have written a sixth book for the series called And Another Thing…, but it’s not included here as I haven’t yet read it. Also, UTA Library doesn’t have it.

Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, by Steve Krug

SEL Books: TK5105.888 .K78 2000

I confess an interest in usability sparked by my previous experience as a technical writer. I developed print and online help for software, and I wanted to understand how best to organize help so that people can actually use it—can actually (gasp!) find what they need.

But, but, BUT! I want to emphasize that usability is relevant to everyone who creates anything—not just a Web page or a product, but also a sign, even an email. How are you going to ensure that people are going to see what they need to see. People skim email. How do you get them to focus on the important parts?

Usability books can help you to think about design in a different way, to flip around your viewpoint so that you think about how the user interacts with what you produce. Along with Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, I recommend Don’t Make Me Think to just about everyone, because they’re both directed toward the general public.

Krug’s book is a quick read. It is well-organized and broken up into small, easy-to-digest chunks. In other words, he applies his design ideas to his own book, thus providing not only good information but a good example to follow.

Don’t Make Me Think really does make me think, but in a good way.

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

Central: PS3611.R38 H57 2006

The History of Love moved me. It shoved me, knocking from my comfortable existence. It awakened me from intellectual lethargy.

One of the reasons that I love The History of Love so much is that reading is something of a central character. All of our main characters are transformed by reading. The book-within-a-book (the novel The History of Love that is published in Chile by Zvi Litvinoff) influences the lives of both Almas, Leo, Isaac, both parents of Alma Singer, Zvi himself, and his wife, Rosa. All of these people make major life choices that relate to this book. It connects them all—across time and space, across culture and geography, across war and peace, across want and plenty.

Reading is immensely important, for many reasons. I believe reading transforms the reader (and the writer, as well, but that’s another story). Reading not only transports us to places we’ve never been, it takes us to places and times we can never go—the future, or the past, or places that exist only in our imaginations. It also introduces us to people we will never meet, living in circumstances completely off our radar screen, and with points of view we may never have considered. Reading stretches us, moves us, startles us, and disturbs our comfortable views, while it also comforts us, soothes us, tickles our funny bones, and fills us with wonder.

There are other reasons that The History of Love means so much to me. It is something of a mystery, as Alma seeks her namesake and Leo seeks connection with his son. The narrative draws us in as it whirls around in time and space, sucking us into an eddy of questions and desires. And the characters drew me in. I become very fond of Leo and Alma and Bird. Indeed, when I had thirty pages left to read, I waited three days to finish, so reluctant was I to leave behind these funny, sweet, quirky, lost characters. I need not have feared. They will be with me always.

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson

SEL Books: Q325 .J65 2001

This book has solidified some of the ideas I’ve been formulating for past dozen or so years. Immensely exciting! The focus of the book is on emergence—the ability of multiple entities to display intelligent behavior while working as a group. Related terminology includes self-organizing systems, swarm intelligence, complexity theory, and chaos theory.

I have been looking for connections for a great many years, which is why I’m fascinated by comparative anything (comparative literature, comparative religion, comparative linguistics, etc.). Give me an apple and a lugnut and I’ll find some common denominator. (Give me a little time, though.)

It amazes me that slime molds and ant colonies work as an intelligent whole, while each individual organism has the individual intelligence of, well, a slime mold.

This book does not provide any breakthroughs or new information that hasn’t been out there for years. What it does do is gather and organize the information so that we in the general public can get a sense of the mind-bending breakthroughs going on in just about every field of discipline (economics, urban planning, physics, education, management, gaming, biology, etc., etc., etc.).

The main contribution this book makes is to urge us to be asking the questions. How is intelligence formed? How do we measure it? Can we measure it? What kind of emergent systems are on the verge of intelligence? Computers? Robots? The World Wide Web?

An exciting world is emerging.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Central: PS3606.O38 E98 2006

Every once in a while I read a book that I wish would not end. This is one of them.

Admittedly, I found the characters difficult to connect with at the start, though they immediately intrigued me. Both of the two main characters—an 11-year-old boy and an aged old man—are out of the ordinary. The narration passes back and forth between them, their stories paralleling for most of the book and finally connecting.

I developed a deep fondness for these two characters, who seem to be polar opposites—old and young, fearless and afraid, strong and delicate, mute and verbose.

The child, Oscar, still mourns his father’s death  some two years before in the World Trade Center attacks. He finds a key, and sets out on a quest to discover what it opens. He desperately hopes to find a pattern, an intention, a meaning that will bring some kind of sense to his suffering.

The old man is on a quest of his own, but revealing that would reveal too much. What I will say is that the book left me with a sweet, lingering sadness and a desire to appreciate every moment.

Adam’s Curse: A Future without Men, by Bryan Sykes

SEL Books: QH600.5 .S98 2004

By turns fascinating and disturbing, Adam’s Curse explores the possible causes, ramifications, and solutions to a currently intractable problem–the human male is facing extinction.

The human male is facing two dangers–decreasing sperm count and the deteriorating Y chromosome. Dr. Sykes predicts that, if no solutions are found in the meantime, human males will disappear from the earth within the next 125,000 years (roughly 5000 generations).

This sounds like an awfully long time to come up with a solution, but when we’re talking about changes that occur slowly, planning ahead apparently can’t begin too soon.