Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Review: Three (+1) Books, and a preview

Three +1 Books I Liked in 2013  
(There were going to be more than three, but it took me so long to put the three together, that'll have to do.)

1.  Roger Scruton's Dictionary of Political Thought (the original 1982 ed.; I should get the 2007 update), which lives in my bathroom and often keeps me there, reading. 

I am loving reading the dictionary for its insight and humor (unintentional? surely not).
 I wish I'd known Scruton's book back when I was writing geography books for teens and despairing of how to explain political concepts clearly, and in a small space. 
To sum them up well, you really need to understand them in all their complexities, which I don't, or you need to borrow from someone who does. 
This is who I needed.

Here's an example, about the defense of the "uselessness" of liberal education (the last line is my favorite):
"The idea has traditionally been that uselessness is an essential precondition of culture, which is essential both to rhetoric and to social grace, which are in turn essential to government. Hence uselessness in education is the greatest utility in public life. None of those conceptions is now very fashionable."
 2. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson (2006), which I read when I was researching sanitation. 

Reading about how sewage kills people (via cholera, etc., not to mention drowning in the stuff) shouldn't be so... fun, but for some [biologically advantageous?] reason, disgusting stuff attracts as well as repels, and Johnson uses that to lure the reader into caring about what could be dull topics such as civil engineering and epidemiological research. 

This book further expanded my view of history––invisible infrastrucutre matters!–– and it added to my list of heroes the folks who brought us sewers (Joseph Bazalgette, et al.).

Further, I love that someone wanted to tell this story and share their enthusiasm: 
"Look, everybody! Puboic health is sooooooo interesting. No, really, it is! Here, let me entice you with some body fluids..."

Speaking of fluids, I spilled wine on the library copy (above), so I ordered a copy online and cut-and-pasted the library labels onto it, to avoid the extra fine you have to pay for replacing a book. 
(The library says you can't do this, but I worked in libraries and I'm sure I did it right--got the same edition and everything.)

3. The Hare with  Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal (2010)

No photo of my copy, because I lent the one I'd picked up from a Little Free Library. 

Do you have Little Free Libraries in your city? 
They look like giant stand-alone birdhouses, or empty dollhouses mounted on stakes, where people can leave books for other people to take. I use them a lot.

Instead, here's a photo Marz took of a sign on the Little Free Library some homeowners put up on their lakeside property:
it's a perfect example of what Minneapolis can be like, a passive-aggressive stew of high minds and tight asses.
* * * Forgodsake, why didn't they just say,
"Limit of 5 books per person, please"

Marz says it feels like they're restraining themselves from adding,
"Our intention is for all citizens of our city 
to enjoy Public Radio."

This sign could illustrate some entry in Scruton's dictionary about how attempts to create and maintain free, open, share-and-share alike institutions have to take into account 
1. some people will take advantage of the free system

2.  other people will adopt a Big Brother attitude, to police the (no-longer-so) free system

And here's a photo (right) of the 1.5 inch  amber-eyed "Hare with Raised Paw" itself, from the gallery at EdW's site.

The book is about how Edmund inherited 264 of these little netsuke and went looking into how they came to him.

I liked the book because, like Ghost Map, the author tells a good nonfiction story about something I care about. In this case, the way material objects (like the china plate with the tea leaf pattern I have from my grandmother) can carry and illuminate family history, and how family history is shot through with strands of political and cultural history too.
Oh--one more. 

Speaking of good nonfiction stories about political ideology made real:
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barnara Demick (2009)

I guess all these books make me think about how we accept our everyday situations as more or less normal, and how really interesting it can be to see them as history on the hoof and to recognize ourselves as characters in that history, agents of political concepts, and makers of artifacts, all the while at the mercy of our biology.

And while they all are disturbing in parts, all 4 of these books are also plain old fun to read. (I think.)
Preview of a book I intend to love in 2014, a Christmas present from A. in Sweden:

Swedish Cakes and Cookies, 
a modern version of a book published just after World War II.

Come over for some cardamom cake? 
Karl XV's Wreath cookies? (Ingredients: butter, whipping cream, and flour)
Below, right: Marz, fallen asleep reading


Anonymous said...

I'll check out "Nothing to envy". Thanks for the tip. Happy new year!!

Fresca said...

It's really riveting--I hope you enjoy it ("enjoy" is maybe not quite the right word, though it is good reading).