An Open Book: What I Read in November

Someone asked me the other day if I liked to read. More than just “liking” to read, I can’t imagine what my day-to-day life would be like without a book in hand.

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Three-line review: As Conor’s mom enters the final stages of cancer, Conor is visited by a monster that manifests from a yew tree in their backyard. The monster tells the boy cryptic stories, indulges his destructive behavior and pays attention to him when the rest of the world treats him as if he’s invisible (after all, he’s going through a particularly “difficult time”). This touching book illustrated with detailed black-and-white drawings is coveted by many people, and while I can see it being a quality read for teenagers going through similar situations, I simply wasn’t moved by it the way many people were.

Favorite lines:

Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the monster began, this country had become a place of industry. Factories grew on the landscape like weeds. Trees fell, fields were up-ended, rivers blackened. The sky choked on smoke and ash, and the people did, too, spending their days coughing and itching, their eyes turned forever toward the ground. Villages grew into towns, towns into cities. And people began to live on the earth rather than within it.

The answer is that it does not matter what you thinkthe monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.

You do not write your life with words, the monster said. You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.

113015 - The Big BurnThe Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Three-line review: My dad recommended I read this book, but it wasn’t until I hiked the John Muir Trail this past summer that I really became interested in the history of the U.S. Forest Service and those who helped establish protected lands in the United States (after all, many of the mountain peaks we climbed were named after them). This is the very readable story about the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and a massive forest fire in August 1910 that emphasized how important it is, how understaffed it was, why the country needs such an agency and under what conditions it should be managed. Egan has compiled a day-by-day, then hour-by-hour and moment-by-moment, account of the events that led up to this forest fire that killed hundreds of people, many of whom were firefighters who never received the accolades or compensation they deserved for their sacrifices.

Favorite lines:

Koch hired crews of seasonal rangers to go with his full-time assistants. They strung telephone wire, built trails, rescued hunters and hikers. In the winter, they snowshoed deep into the forest, traveling for days at a time on little but tea, sugar, raisins, and hardtack. They felled dead, standing trees for firewood and tried to stay warm wrapped in wool blankets – years before anyone had sleeping bags. Koch learned to read the sky and the human heart. 

Despite his girth, William H. Taft was always the smaller man when in Roosevelt’s presence, or so he felt. Roosevelt was the human volcano; Taft was a putting green. Roosevelt sucked the air out of a room; Taft tried to be invisible. Roosevelt barked; Taft had a low, monotone voice, punctuated by a random and annoying chuckle. Roosevelt burned two thousand calories before noon and drank his coffee with seven lumps of sugar; Taft was the picture of sloth: multiple chins, a zest for five-course meals and long baths.

At times Pulaski could imagine the valley before the railroads, mines, and sawmills – the way the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River cut through the mountains on its meander west, the blue-green rise and fold of the forests, summits of salt-and-pepper granite holding the alpenglow at day’s end.

113015 - Beatrix PotterBeatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

Three-line review: I’ve always known Beatrix Potter as the creator of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddle-Duck and other children’s book characters, but I had no idea that she was also a self-trained expert in botany, animal physiology and fungi as well as a savvy businesswoman and land owner/farmer. This exceptionally detailed biography of Potter has been constructed primarily from her diaries and letters written to friends and family over the course of her lifetime, and it provides an in-depth look at her life from childhood through the legacy she left behind after passing away – it turns out that being an accomplished children’s writer and illustrator was only a small part of who she was. While I appreciated the detail, this book was quite long (400+ pages), so I grew a bit bored at times.

Favorite lines:

Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. 

Much of her creative energy derived from a remarkable visual inventory of past experiences and an extraordinary memory for detail. By 1903, Beatrix Potter had emerged as a writer and artist who was not only expert in the art of story-telling and illustration, but who had confidence in her intuitive sense of how she might market her creations. Artist and entrepreneur emerged as one.

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