Audio Biography

I’m half way through my pile of biographies that I’m reading in March so I’m really right on track for the 75 book challenge.  (Sneaking in the third book in the Knit series helped since it was a very quick read.)  When I got in the car for a five-hour drive to visit family, I plugged in the iPod and was pleasantly surprised to be reminded that my audio book was a biography of a sort as well.  I hadn’t listened to it for awhile…no long driving and lousy weather for walking.

So, I had sort of forgotten that I was listening to Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller.  I had seen the book in the Philadelphia train station but had Audible credits so went for the audio version.  I liked the narrator, Susan Ericksen, although she had odd cadences sometimes.  And, it was long for an audio book, more than 20 hours.  But then, it spanned over 5 decades in the lives and times of these women.  And the content was engaging, telling the story of a generation through the lens of three extraordinary women who both reveled in and pushed back against their roles in that generation.  Their stories begin separately but then weave together through music and musicians–Jame Taylor is a shared experience with Carly Simon taking him through his years as an addict.

I was most interested in Carole King partially because I knew so little about her and partially because she seemed to make the biggest transformation, from native New York songwriter to rustic Idaho rancher.  She achieved fame early and seemingly quickly and then spent the rest of her life trying to live up to her work in Tapestry.

That need to meet others’ expectations was a theme for Joni and Carly, too.  Joni’s confessional poetic songs touched other women and when she tried to move away, into jazz, they struggled to follow her.  Carly’s early work was more popular than that of her husband, James Taylor, but she suffered from anxiety attacks that eventually put an end to most of her public performances.

This book helped make my biography reading a little more diverse…the books on the pile are all white guys and my inner feminist was feeling a little left out.

An Environmental Pioneer

I started to read Bound for Glory AND the biography of Aldo Leopold. I’m about half way through the former but have finished Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire by Marybeth Lorbiecki. It was short and I sometimes missed having greater detail about the life of this extraordinary man but I liked the illustrations and feel like I have a good understanding of both his life and times.

I think Leopold’s greatest lesson for us is how he merged his personal and professional lives into a spiritual whole that benefited the world. His early passion for the outdoors as both a watcher and a hunter forged a strong foundation of knowledge, skills and dispositions that made his path seem preordained. Professionally, he helped shape the Forest Service and national wildlife management practices. Personally, his love for the Shack was his personal chance to put his beliefs into practice in a very real way.

Also, the biography shows how Leopold himself learned about living with wilderness. While his path may have been preordained, he did not come into the world knowing the answers. Instead, he used his knowledge and skills to both investigate and learn. For instance, I was surprised at his attitude towards predators like wolves described early in the book. Certainly an environmentalist must understand their role in the natural world. But, I’m writing from a 21st century perspective. Leopold’s early attitude was part of the culture of the first half of the 20th century so it took him some time to break free. Leopold’s editor, Albert Hochbaum, described this learning process:

Albert dashed off one more letter on the subject: Aldo’s unique gift was not that he was “an inspired genius,” he said, but that we was like “any other ordinary fellow trying to put two and two together.” The Professor simply “added up his sums better than most.” Wrong trails taken were as important as right one (p. 167).

The title of the book comes from Leopold’s own description of the moment when he realized he was on the wrong trail when it came to predators as he described fierce green fire in the eyes of  the mother wolf he had shot:

I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view (p. 167).

Leopold was pragmatic about other people’s commitment to wildlife preservation.  When he was accused of only wanting to preserve wildlife so it could be hunted, he suggested that hunters and conservationists needed to work together.  He was also was also honest about his own impact on the world and described a middle way:

I realize, that every time I turn on an electric light…I am ‘selling out’ to the enemies of conservation. When I submit these thoughts to a printing press, I am helping to cut down the woods. When I pour cream in my coffee, I am helping to drain a marsh for cows to graze, and to exterminate the birds of Brazil…What to do? I see only two courses open to the likes of us. One is to go live on locusts in the wilderness, if there is any wilderness left (p. 144).

Lorbiecki goes on to describe Leopold’s other course: “The other, he explained, is to help businesses and consumers become conservation-minded so they find ways to enjoy some comforts of modern life without ruining the land (p. 114).

Like Woody Guthrie, Leopold was a prolific writer.  He had things to tell the world and no matter what else was going on in his life, he wrote and published.  He had good advice for his students who often had to go through multiple drafts before Leopold approved:

Think of it this way. In spite of all the advances of modern science, it still takes seven waters to clean spinach for the pot…And for all my writings to this day, it still takes seven editings, sometimes seventeen, before I let it go off to press.

I wonder what Leopold would think about the more spontaneous nature of much blog writing?

I enjoyed the book, wanted more and have now moved on to Leopold’s own work: A Sound County Almanac.  I’m reading the edition from the 60s that combined his original work with other writing.

New Project 365 Mosaic

Starting with the 26th photo for the year…


1. 26/365 for 2010 Muddy Day Walk, 2. 27/365 for 2010 They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To, 3. 28/365 for 2010 My Girl, 4. 29/365 for 2010 Downy Woodpecker, 5. 30/365 for 2010 Decorations, 6. 31/365 for 2010 Rabbit Tracks in the Snow, 7. 32/365 for 2010 Sun and Icicles, 8. 33/365 for 2010 Icicles and Honeysucle, 9. 34/365 for 2010 Baby Sweaters, 10. 35/365 for 2010 Shaker Shells, 11. 36/365 for 2010 Why Do I Always Wait?, 12. 37/365 for 2010 It’s Snowing!, 13. 38/365 for 2010 Mockingbird, 14. 40/365 for 2010 Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, 15. 39/365 for 2010 The Cabin in the Snow, 16. 42/365 Bookshelf Decoration, 17. 41/365 for 2010 Chandelier, 18. 45/365 for 2010 Noble Dogs, 19. 44/365 for 2010 The Garden Gate, 20. 43/365 for 2010Nandina, 21. 49/365 for 2010 Look Up, 22. 47/365 for 2010 Books on the Shelf, 23. 48/365 for 2010 Louise, 24. 51/365 for 2010 White Throated Sparrow, 25. 46/365 for 2010 Cardinal in the Snow

The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie

I declared March to be Biography Month and have finished my first one: Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray.  It was first rate and here’s my review which I’ve also posted at LibraryThing:

I didn’t know much about Woody Guthrie except the myth and a few bits and pieces that came out in Arlo’s movie Alice’s Restaurant.  The story behind the myth is much more intriguing and downright tragic.  Guthrie was the outrageous spirit who shocked the world into thinking about things they would rather ignore and who lived out his beliefs each day of his life.  He ignored the niceties and lived close to the bone, hurting in some way almost everyone with whom he came into contact, including his three wives.  At least twice in the book, Guthrie friends comment that people with great talent aren’t necessarily great people.

One particularly intriguing point is made close to the end of the book.  While Guthrie’s family suffered hard times in the depression, his siblings went on to lead fairly prosperous middle class lives. Guthrie chose poverty, his restless nature making a settled life impossible.

Even after finishing the book, I’m not sure I know the real Guthrie. He was depicted as a slovenly, ill mannered man, unable to be monogamous, seemingly determined to annoy even those who loved him almost unconditionally.  Something of a let down for me, I suppose, raised as I was on the myth, and yet there is another side to the story, a sense of something almost mystical about Woody who lived by his own lights and his own thoughts even while trying to find his way in the world.  He was living what others were talking about, using his gifts to bring attention to injustice.

And, what a life he led!  Part of the generation of writers and thinkers whose Communist sympathies were popular during the New Deal but came up against the McCarthy era red hunts.  He seemed to be all over the country and then back again, riding the trains, making detours, writing and writing and writing.  The words seemed to flow from him, the constant no matter where he was, from the woods of Topanga Canyon to the swamps of Beluthahatchee, he wrote…songs, poems, articles, memories, fiction, borrowing typewriter time from friends until he could afford his own.  It was the words that kept him going, the words that told the story of not just Guthrie but of America.

What to Read Next…

Book PileAbout 3/4 of the way through the biography, I downloaded Bound for Glory on my Kindle and started the first few pages.  Now, I’m torn:  Bound for Glory is semi-autobiographical so it would sort of count towards my biographical goal.  But I posted a picture of the month’s reading…I had a plan.  Aldo Leopold is next on the pile and then I’ll probably want to take a detour and read A Sand County Almanac.  What to do?

The suspense builds…

There’s No Accounting For Taste

I just finished my first Early Reviewer book for LibraryThing: The Cart Before the Corpse by Carolyn McSparren.  A mystery set in Appalachian Georgia with a backdrop of carriage racing.  I enjoyed it…not great literature but in the same tradition as Janet Evanovich and Diane Mott Davison.  You can read my review at LT.  Here’s the funny part: I was all excited about my review so once it was posted, I went to the page and read the other review.  That reviewer HATED the book!  Thought it was boring, figured out the murdered right away, etc. etc. etc.  Oh well, as my father says, the world would be very dull if we all thought alike.  I did find myself second guessing my review but I really did enjoy the book.

The mystery was my first book of 2010.  I joined the LibraryThing 75 book challenge so I’ve got just 74 to go.  I better pick up the pace a bit.  I’m still working on Scandalmonger by William Safire and hope to find time to finish it tomorrow.

Project 365 Update: So far, I’ve kept up with taking a picture each day rather than drawing on already posted picture.  You can view my pictures here.

A Year of Reading

Since I’m not going to finish another book between now and midnight tomorrow, I can report my book count for 2009: 51. That includes both text and audio. The first book I recorded in LibraryThing was A Secret Rage by Charlaine Harris. And the last was Why We Believe What We Believe by Andrew Newberg. My favorite audio books were The Bartimaeus Trilogy, written by Jonathan Stroud and read by Simon Jones. Just wonderful!  You can view the whole list here.

The last book I read was actually My Life in France by Julia Child.  Excellent…you can hear her exuberant voice although it sounded like she was sometimes tough on her collaborators.

And the book that will take me into the new year is Scandalmonger by William Safire who died in September.  It is set in late 18th century America, which so far seems much like early 21st century America at least in terms of political practice.  I’ll use it as a lead in to McCullough’s biography of John Adams, which has been laying around for awhile.  It’s dauntingly long and I have watched the series so I haven’t been in a hurry.  But I have some time before the semester starts and thought I would tackle it.  Then, for fun, I’ll follow up with the mystery I found that features Abigail Adams called The Night Daughter. I found it at a Barnes and Noble in Annapolis, Maryland, during a day-after-Christmas shopping spree with my family. I have a basic understanding of this time period but am looking forward to learning more.

A Christmas gift from a friend may lead to more reading…The Bibliophile’s Devotional has an entry about a book for each day of the year.  What a lovely gift!

Happy Reading in 2010!

Mid-December Reading & Listening Update

For the first time in a very long time, I went on a road trip and came home with fewer books. I visited my parents and read and then returned two books to my mother: The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman and Knit Two by Kate Jacobs. The former was a sometimes heart-wrenching, yet somehow amazingly light-hearted, portrait of the family that lived at and ran the Warsaw Zoo at the time of the Blitzkrieg. Very sad…many animals were killed in the initial attack, but the zoo became a hiding place for Jews.

The latter–the sequel to Friday Night Knitting Club, which I also borrowed from my mother–was a good, if quick, read. It seems like there are just one or two too many characters to really keep track of and get to know them all very well. I’m not sorry I read it, and I may borrow the threquel when my Mom’s done with it.

I only came home with one book but it’s a doozy: Inwood’s three-inch History of London. I added it to the pile in the bedroom, not sure when I’ll read it.Beaumaris Castle

One random note: I’m reading a National Geographic Society book called The Age of Chivalry. It is a lively overview that includes a pull out of the Bayeaux Tapestry. The end pages are a schematic of Beaumaris Castle, which is on the Isle of Angelsey in Northern Wales, one of the castles I visited during my trip last year. I got the classic castle picture there…the swan in the mote that you see here. You can view some more pictures, too. And, for fun, you can Create Your Own Tapestry.

I also got plenty of time to listen to audio books since it’s a five or six hour road trip to see my folks. On the way north, I listened to Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler. Excellent and perfect for the audio format because you can clearly hear the difference between the narrator’s voice and the voice of Jane Mansfield. The same is true for Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict that I listened to on the way home.  Not quite finished so I’ll have to take a walk or ride the bike! Well-narrated books are a combination of a audio-friendly prose accompanied by a pleasing voice.

I started my book group book: Why We Believe What We Believe, thinking I had until after Christmas.  But it turns out the meeting is Sunday afternoon.  Guess I’ll have to step up the reading schedule but I’m confident I’ll finish.

Reading Update

Since I last posted, I’ve read and listened to three books and made it half way through another…

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene: An interpretation of the Gnostic Gospel. I also read some of the other gospels in The Essential Gnostic Gospels by Alan Jacobs. These were book group selections. Most of the Gnostic Gospels were found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The Gospel of Mary, however, was acquired in Cairo in 1896 as part of a codex that also included the Aprocrypha of John and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. These two were also included in the Nag Hammadi collections. With the exception of two short fragments found at Oxyrhynchus in Northern Egypt, this is the only copy of the Gospel of Mary. The extant text is missing about 10 pages. But what remains is something that is missing from the Bible: the voice of a woman. You can read the Gospel of Mary at the Gnostic Society. They also house the Nag Hammadi library.

In preparation for book group, I bought Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels but haven’t had a chance to read it. During book group, I took advantage of the Kindle to purchase two more. I bought Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, which is evidently concerned with Pagels’ own faith and the battle between the Gospels of Thomas and John. I also bought Ron Miller’s The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice, recommended by a member of the group. They all look interesting but I just wonder when I am going to read all these books. It is easier to ignore the Kindle books so I’m going to work on the analog books first.

Which simply underscores the fact that I’ve been dealing with digital books almost exclusively for the past few weeks. I’ve been listening to audio books: wonderful recordings of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. I have finished the first two (The Amulet of Samarkand and The Golem’s Eye) and am almost done with the third. Just terrific…I am using them as an incentive to get some exercise but I’ve also had a couple road trips so I got through them quickly. Next up on the audio list is Confessions of a Jane Austin Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler.

On the Kindle, I’m reading Sharon Kay Penman’s riveting fictional account of a fascinating family: Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their four sons. It’s called Devil’s Brood, and it picks up where Time and Chance and When Christ and His Saints Slept, a book I read several years ago, left off. Penman brings these people to life, and I’m at the part where Henry and Eleanor are beginning to reconcile after their estrangement. She is still a prisoner but in a gilded cage. I was reminded of the scenes in Penman’s Welsh trilogy where she describes the relationship of Llewellyn and Joanna. That series was definitely the impetus for spending time in Wales last year.

Along with Penman, I’m browsing through one of the books I bought at the Harvest Festival, The Age of Chivalry, a book from the National Geographic Society. In includes a fold out of the Bayeux Tapestry.=, the graphic novel version of a momentous historical event.

I dug through the big pile of books in the bedroom and pulled out all the books related to English history:
Penman’s The Sunne in Splendor, the story of Edward IV and Richard II and the War of the Roses. The content goes along with a book on my Kindle, The White Queen, which focuses on Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville. I can’t wait to see how Penman interprets the story of the two princes.

What else is on the list?
Here Was a Man, Norah Lofts
The Rose Without a Thorn, Jean Plaidy
Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, Nancy Goldstone
The Wives of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser

And, how could I forget? I did read an analog book: Queen’s Bastard by Robin Maxwell, a fictional story of the son of Elizabeth I and Robin Dudley, Earl of Leicester. It was fun and referenced another book I’ve read by Maxwell: The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. I bought it in Hay on Wye at the Hay Castle Bookstore.

A Reading Week in Review

With my book group’s next meeting looming on Sunday, I finally picked up Switching to Goddess by Jeri Studebaker.  I found myself alternating between being irritated by her somewhat flippant, often silly-sounding tone and being impressed by the way she was really saying that the Emperor (that is contemporary religions) really don’t have any clothes.  I really got tired of the references to “snooty snobby bully boys” to refer to the gods of contemporary religions.  But her tone allowed her to attack prevailing ideas without sounding too shrill and much of what she had to say about the negative influences of religions rang true to me.  She was making a well-reasoned and researched argument which I think suffered in its message because of her tone.  And, while I agree that we need to move away from the more war-like focus on religions and I really agree with much of what she has to say about living in small, sustainable communities, but I’m not sure her notions of getting these religions to “switch” to the Goddess is realistic in light of research into adopting innovations.  I think she would probably argue that this isn’t an innovation since we are actually re-adopting something that we carry with us from our ancestors.

Would I recommend the book?  Sure…her introduction to the history of Goddess worship and her overview of various peaceful communities was as lively as any I’ve read.  Much of the other well-known books about the Goddess are older, written during more angry feminist era.  Studebaker is firmly placed in the 21st century and her comments about global warming and climate change touch the contemporary world in a way that other books I’ve read have not.  For Studebaker, there is a feminist element but her larger concerns are with the world.  She also directly addresses the recent flurry of books calling for the end of religion in general (ie, Sam Harris and Richards Dawkins), suggesting that it would be easier to get people to switch religions rather than abandon it altogether.

And now for something completely different…my sister recommended Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy.  I listened to it and absolutely loved it!  Simon Jones, the narrator, was properly snarky as Bartimaeus the djinni and alternately scared, proud, and confident as Nathaniel.  It’s officially a kids’ book but I think younger readers would miss the ironic voice and sly political commentary of the setting in a world where all the major leaders are powerful magicians.  I’m eager to get started on Book 2, The Golem’s Eye.

Now, it’s back to The Hemingses of Monticello.  I’m enjoying the book but had to take a break so I could be prepared for book group…