Bookends: April 2013

The first day of each month, I’m posting a summary of what I read the previous month and what I plan to read in the coming month. I would love if this could become a conversation in the comments about what’s on your reading list, too!

I’m not sure where April went. One minute it was March 31 and crocuses, and the next it’s the first of May and azaleas. I’ve done lots of activities with church and with friends and with the kids. I organized a homeschool ASL class. (ASL=American Sign Language. I thought that was common knowledge, but I’m getting a lot of blank stares when I tell people about the class.) I’ve gotten more sleep (overall) than I usually do. All of this means I’ve had a pretty light reading month. Read More

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Thus, gentle Reader, I have given thee a faithful History of my Travels for Sixteen Years, and above Seven Months; wherein I have not been so studious of Ornament as of Truth. I could perhaps like others have astonished thee with strange improbably Tales; but I rather chose to relate plain Matter of Fact in the simplest Manner and Style; because my principal Design was to inform, and not to amuse thee.”

This book took me a long time to read. I couldn’t figure out why it was taking me so long until I started quoting sections to my sister and my spouse and on my blog and realized just how much translation English from this era requires. So, I let myself off the hook a little bit and just tried to enjoy my leisurely reading pace. I’m glad to have read this book, but I’ll also be glad to move onto to something written in more contemporary language.

I admit, I think a fair amount of this book was lost on me. Throughout it I was unsure about whether the opinions Gulliver expressed were meant to be his alone or if they reflected Swift’s opinions as well. Read More

Hope, Despair, and Car-Light Living: An Earth Day Post

English: Map of Laputa and Balnibarbi for the ...

English: Map of Laputa and Balnibarbi for the 1726 edition of Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s classic satirical novel, Lemuel Gulliver travels to the city of Lagado on the island of Balnibarbi. Here the people have embraced a thoroughly intellectual manner of problem-solving. New innovations will improve building, manufacture, agriculture, and every pursuit in which the city might engage. Among the benefits promised: “one Man shall do the Work of Ten; a Palace may be built in a Week…all the Fruits of the Earth shall come to Maturity at whatever Season we think fit to chuse, and increase an Hundred Fold more than they do at present.” Trouble is, these methods haven’t been perfected, and the people are suffering for it, going without adequate food and safe shelter as they wait for the innovations to catch up with their needs.

Like the people of Lagado, we are suffering for the imperfections of our schemes for improvement except that we’re suffering with asthma, cancer, obesity, heart disease, ailing communities, disconnection from friends and family, depression, and a host of other afflictions that result from polluted air and water and habits borne of the automobile-dependent communities in which we’ve trapped ourselves.

Also like the people of Lagado, we persist in our current, imperfect modes of living. “Instead of being discouraged, [the people of Lagado] are Fifty Times more violently bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair.”

Most discussions about the need for change towards a more sustainable and healthier way of living address our intellect. We hear a lot of numbers, projections about how many years of fossil fuels we have left, how much we need to reduce carbon emissions so that we’re only moderately screwed rather than comprehensively screwed. But numbers don’t address those things that keep us in our patterns of behavior: Hope and Despair. Hope and Despair live in our hearts; addressing our intellect isn’t going to get at our hearts.

In order to help people change, we need a direction. We need to get a taste of a better way of living so that we develop a craving for it, and if we crave it enough and can envision it clearly enough and in large enough numbers, we’ll be able to make a change.

Right now, people in most parts of the United States cannot envision a safe way to get to the places we need to go—work, grocery stores, schools, parks, libraries—without an automobile. Walking to school, biking to work, taking the bus or the train are simply not options from most of the neighborhoods of most of the people I know, including my own. We can’t just say, “Drive less,” and expect people to be able to do that easily—or at all.

My family is a one-car family, but this didn’t happen spontaneously, and it didn’t happen because of some deeply-held conviction about our role in helping the environment. But once we experienced it, we loved it. We became committed to it, and we sought it out each time we moved.

Living now in the Boston suburbs, we’re still a one-car family, but we’ve compromised our values in some pretty significant ways. We came here committed to car-light living, but for those already entrenched in a car-dependent way of living, there are extraordinary, sometimes intractable barriers to making changes in the direction of car-light living. And for so many people, they’ve never had the benefit of seeing just what living car-light can be like.

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What if they could feel the pleasure of walking in the open air to the grocery store or to school or to baseball practice (without needing to walk in the street)?

What if they could experience the healthful rush of biking to work or school in the early morning (without worrying about being hit by a car)?

What if they could reduce the amount of time they spent at work by telecommuting from a commuter train (without needing to drive fifteen miles to get to a train station and then take 2.5 hours of travel to get to their destination)?

What if they could bike with their children to a summer concert in the park? What if they could walk to dinner at a local restaurant without feeling the need to don reflective safety vests? What if they could spend 20 minutes commuting and get their daily workout at the same time? What would they be freed up to do if they bought only one tank of gas each month?

Car-light living isn’t just about the environment. Moving about our community without a car increases the odds of interacting with our neighbors and strengthens community ties. It allows for a more intimate experience of the place where we live and helps us to feel more connected to it both physically and spiritually. It doesn’t just promote healthier bodies, healthier communities, and a healthier environment—it’s really, really fun and fulfilling.

If people could get a clear vision of What Might Be, could they develop such a craving for it that they could band together and make it happen?

I’m probably too idealistic. Even if it were possible (which it probably isn’t), maybe experiencing these things would not have the profound effect on others that it has had on me and my spouse, but I think it would be more likely to encourage people out of the malaise of Hope and Despair than feeding them numbers. Were there a way to bypass the intellect and appeal to the heart, I think that’s when we would find people rising up and saying, “This! This is how we want to live! This is how we want our children to live!” and saying it loud enough and in large enough numbers that it would just have to happen.

Okay, yes. I am too idealistic. But I’m just not willing to accept the Hope-and-Despair alternative.

Bookends: March 2013

The first day of each month, I’m posting a summary of what I read the previous month and what I plan to read in the coming month. I would love if this could become a conversation in the comments about what’s on your reading list, too!

It would be so much cooler if I posted an April Fool’s post, but alas! I’m playing this one straight and patently uncool.

Despite my best intentions, I did not complete any books from my Cavalcade of Classics this month. It was one of those months when great books just kept sneaking into my currently-reading pile. As pleasant as it is to delve into four or five books at a time, it isn’t the most efficient way to actually finish any one of those books.

In other words, I’m still working on Gulliver’s Travels.

But I did manage to complete a fair number of books this month; that list follows. Links are to my reviews, either on this site or on Goodreads. Titles without links are books I’ve not reviewed yet:

Grown-ups’ Books:

The Middle Passage by Tom Feelings (Picture book for adults and older children illustrating the capture and transport of slaves from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.)

Stories: All-New Tales edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarantonio (a variety of supernatural or otherwise scary short stories written by a variety of authors. I got this on audiobook and have not listened to all of it. Once I finish it, it will show up on a later Bookends. Follow the link to my Goodreads review of what I’ve read so far.)

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (McEwan’s latest, written from the perspective of a young British MI5 employee in the 1970’s. Because it’s by McEwan, you know it’s got to have a twist (or two) before the final page. My sister and I read this for our “Sisters Book Club.” We intend to write a joint book review to post on Imperfect Happiness, but so far that seems to be more difficult than we expected it would be. We’re not entirely sure how to write a detailed review without revealing too much about the plot.)

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelly (nonfiction; a series of vignettes written by two hospice nurses about the final moments of dozens of individuals and the similarities between their experiences.)

Walking Home by Lucy and Susan Letcher (memoir; the second of two books about the Letcher sisters’ travels on the Appalachian Trail. Their first, Soutbound, was about their trip from Maine to Georgia. This one is about their trip back north.)

Of these, I think I liked Final Gifts best. It offered me a new perspective on death and dying, and has given me much to consider. It was also surprisingly enjoyable to read.

Kids’ Books:

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (fictionalized memoir of the author’s experiences as a Vietnamese refugee settling in Alabama; written in verse)

The Complete Book Of Dragons by Edith Nesbit (short stories about—well, dragons. And princesses and princes and naughty children and witches and evil kings)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (written from the point of view of Ivan, a captive gorilla living in an indoor circus off the interstate)

Magic or Not? by Edward Eager (my favorite of the Tales of Magic series. This one introduces a whole new group of kids and a lot more ambiguity about whether the magical occurrences are truly magical or just coincidences.)

I’m not sure I have a favorite among these; they were all very good. Maybe Magic or Not? edges the others out a bit, although I feel a little strange picking it over a book that got the National Book Award and another that won the Newbery Medal.

Currently Reading

Like at the end of February, I’m still reading Some of My Best Friends are Black by Tanner Colby and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I’m also reading the biography Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny by Alexandra Lapierre, which a friend at church loaned me (one of those books that snuck its way into my currently-reading pile).

My daughter and I haven’t started a new book since we finished Inside Out & Back Again, so we’ll have to decide what’s next on our list.

To-Read for April (and beyond)

In April (after we’ve reviewed Sweet Tooth), my sister and I plan to start reading The New Jim Crow together. We’re going to take it slowly and follow the study guide from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, so we will not have that one done by the end of April. I really want to finish Gulliver’s Travels, and I would love to start an finish another of the classics on my list. Next up will either be a re-read of Pride and Prejudice or Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. As much as I love Dickens (and I do love Dickens), if I go with Oliver Twist I’m going to want to read something fun by a contemporary female author either at the same time or right after. What that would be, I really don’t know right now, but I’m sure I’ll figure out something. I might also end up reading The Fall by Steve Taylor with some friends. But I’m also planning to try to exercise and meditate more regularly, and I’ve recently starting attending a new discussion group, so I might need to de-prioritize frenetic reading.

What have you enjoyed reading in the past month? What’s on your to-read list for April? If you blog your answer, please post a link in the comments (and/or link back to this post, if you’re so inclined).