by Marylaine Block
note: if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here
American Life and Culture American Politics Animals Gender Issues History Journalism and Media Language and Mind Medicine and Medical Ethics Race Social Issues Sports Teaching Technology and Science Travel Essays, Columns, Creative NonFiction
J.J.C. Andrews. The Well-Built Elephant and Other Roadside Attractions: a tribute to American Eccentricity. The American spirit of why not has applied itself to architecture. Hundreds, even thousands of people, have asked themselves why perforce a building has to be a rectangle, and have instead produced buildings shaped like elephants, mother Goose, Noah's Ark, doughnut holes, big ducks, covered wagons, pirate ships, shoes and boots, dinosaurs, coffeepots, artichokes, whales, pigs, hats, zeppelins, fish, milk bottleshamburgers and pickle barrels.
Books about American Life and Culture
Chris Ballard. The Butterfly Hunter: Adventures of People Who Found Their True Calling Way Off the Beaten Path. Including a butterfly hunter, a man who makes artificial eyes, a professional mushroom collector, a "spiderman" who makes his living doing whatever people need done at the tops of tall buildings, a female lumberjack, and a professional model railroader who's building an authentic 1:87 scale model of the route from Troy NY to the Canadian border circa 1951, complete with tiny prostitutes in Troy's red light district.
David Brancaccio. Squandering Aimlessly. Brancaccio is a PBS reporter on financial matters who decided to explore what people might do with a really large windfall - blow it shopping at the Mall of the Americas, gamble in Las Vegas, invest it, indulge in socially responsible investing, buy a home in a retirement community, etc. His explorations are intriguing.
Mark Nathan Cohn. Culture of Intolerance. A cultural anthropologist examines our certainties and ways of doing things and finds the underlying assumptions not only are not necessarily valid, but are also extremely odd in comparison with how other cultures do things. Makes mincemeat of the Bell Curve and our hatred for affirmative action, and makes clear that our assumptions have been used against us for the benefit of the rich and the corporations, none of whom will admit how much their wealth and privilege is owed to government and societal protections.
Alastair Cooke. Talk About America, a collection of short pieces he wrote back in the sixties. It's kind of odd to read them now, because though much of what he has to say remains true, a great deal has changed. For one thing, he's commenting cheerfully on how our fondness for dogs reveals us as a gregarious lot--much better a sort than a nation of cat-owners, say. Well, he's not the first to think that. A few years back when the population of pet cats first surged ahead of pet dogs, Cullen Murphy or somebody wrote about what a sad indicator that was about American life, how it revealed a nation of people too likely to live alone and too busy to care for dogs. One of the things you would like, I think, is the essay on how one man constructed Golden Gate Park out of the unlikeliest least friendly-to-life-forms land, and by trial and error found many varieties of plants that would thrive in the salt sea air and brackish water available there. Great essay. Also notable: a nice essay about attending an honest to God town meeting, where the town's budget was debated, line by line, another about the end of the era of the iceman, and one about European preconceptions of America (he was told, when LBJ became president, to write about rich Texans and oil wealth, none of which had anything to do with LBJ, so he wrote about where LBJ really came from and why he was a passionate new dealer).
Frank DeFord. There She Is: the Life and Times of Miss America. This was published in 1971, so much of this is outdated, but much remains constant. The evolution of the pageant from cheesecake and notoriety to solid middle class respectability, using the Jaycees, chaperones and scholarships for credibility, is detailed, as well as how the pageants work at local levels, how the judging works, and other behind the scenes stuff about the competition itself. Also a bit about the grueling nature of Miss America's schedule during the year.
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. A powerful indictment of a built landscape aimed at making cars happy, written by prominent developers of new urbanism projects.
Charles Edgley and Dennis Brissett. A Nation of Meddlers. Argues that every day in every way we're meddling more and more with each other's lives, not just with rules and laws, but with enforced therapy, self-help books, talk shows that encourage the belief that everybody needs to spill their guts out to heal, etc.
Bob Dotson. In Pursuit of the American Dream. Dotson traveled around the country, learning about the stories of ordinary Americans' lives, which of course were not ordinary at all - the folks who run the mom and pop jail, the Flying Fathers hockey team, the people who teach the children of the circus, the Texan who lobbies for wildflowers…
Bob Garfield. Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream. Explorations of people pursuing the impossible dream, from spiritual seekers in Santa Fe to Strip Joints for Jesus to Morris Katz, the man who paints more painting faster than anybody else in the world, the man who manufactures public telephone condoms to protect the public from germs, to competitors in a poetry slam. Fascinating stuff.
Neal Gabler. Life the Movie. About the way entertainment has triumphed over news, celebrityhood over celebrity accomplishments (what good is a celebrity without a story to tell, a "lifie" about dysfunctional families, triumph over poverty, etc.) and over real life, to the point where many people don't think they're real unless they can appear on television.
Barry Glassner. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Mainly because news media sensationalize events far out of proportion to their likelihood of personally affecting them. Quite an indictment of journalism.
Joshua Hammond. The Stuff Americans Are Made Of: the Seven Cultural Forces that Define Americans-a New Framework for Quality, Productivity, and Profitability. Like DeTocqueville before him, Hammond finds that we continue to be driven by these forces: 1) Insistence on Choice; 2) Pursuit of impossible dreams; 3) obsession with big and more; 4)impatience, NOW; 5) Oops! Acceptance of Mistakes (because we want it now and don't bother to plan); 6) improvise and fix; 7) obsession with what's new. He provides lots of statistical and anecdotal evidence toback him up. But as a management consultant, his focus is on how to use these cultural forces to develop new products and to manage a business.
Lesley Hazleton. Driving to Detroit. This woman with an amazingly varied background (British, resident in the US for 15 years, reporter in the middle east, English teacher, car reporter for a Seattle newspaper, pilot, houseboat owner) sets out for the Detroit auto show by auto (actually, 4 wheel drive SUV), by way of important automobile icon sites: the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Craig Breedlove is working on breaking the sound barrier by car, Pebble beach for an antique car rally, the spot where james Dean's car crashed, the Saturn plant at Spring Hills, TN, the ultimate automobile graveyard, the outfit in Cincinnati that armor plates cars. A fascinating trip, with interesting observations about cars and history and Americans.
Alex Heard. Apocalypse Pretty Soon. Heard spent the 90's investigating some of the millennial cults, UFO believers, survivalists, cryonics believers, etc. He tries hard to be fair and let them present their beliefs - for one thing, none of these groups much cares for cynics or reporters - but some snideness does assert itself from time to time. Interesting stuff.
Barbara Holland. Bingo Night at the Firehall. A wonderful book about her move to her family's old summer home in the Virginia mountains, 80 miles and a lifestyle away from Washington metro area. An outlander, she was never fully welcomed into the community, though she wrote regularly for the local newspaper. Her home is isolated, and her work is isolating. Nonetheless she slows her life down to the pace of a world in which "competition leaked out of our gene pool a hundred years ago." She reflects sadly on the encroachment of suburbanites who are moving in, outvoting the locals, destroying the culture they found there and admired as quaint. She has wonderful insight, and a gift for precision of language. Also don't miss Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity and Other Indulgences, an entertaining collection of brief essays about the things Americans are too Puritan to fully enjoy.
James Davison Hunter. Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War. Deals with how people handle serious cultural conflict, with abortion being the primary, though not the only, example throughout. And what he found is troubling -- that first, most people simply don't know enough to make a rational, evidence-based case for any side. Hardly any of the pro-choice supporters, who loudly defended Roe v. Wade could explain what Roe v. Wade actually stipulated. At the same time, the press that should have supplied them with information failed them. But the institutions that should have taught people moral reasoning also failed -- the churches, the schools -- so that people had no strong coherent value system by which to make judgments. They were thrown back on nothing but feelings and anecdotes to defend gut-level commitments not to positions but to their slogans -- pro-choice or pro-life. In spite of this, people strongly committed to either side of issues were able to reach out to each other and work together on the parts of their issues they shared common ground on, though not without being regarded as traitors by their own side.
Mark Kingwell. Dreams of Millennium. A fascinating history of end-of-millennium foolishness and hysteria, doomsday cults, fin-de-siecle cynicism, etc.
James Laxer. Discovering America: Travels in the Land of Guns, God & Corporate Gurus. A Canadian, Laxer has spent his life being bemused and amazed by the antics of us neighbors to the south, so he set out to travel through 38 of those states, getting up close and personal.
William Leach. Country of Exiles. He finds the spirit of place under assault from the forces of international business, a university-research establishment devoted to multiculturalism, convinced that patriotism is parochialism of the worst sort. With anonymous malls and office complexes and suburband developments springing up at every highway intersection, identifiable historical place becomes harder and harder to find.A culture whose economy is dominated by tourism and gambling sacrifices genuine place to facades of place - the Sphinx and Eiffel Tower can just as well be in Las Vegas as anywhere else. Cosmopolitanism mocks those who claim that Americans should come first in America.
Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins. Reading National Geographic. Shows you how far from neutral pictures can be. This is all about what they select to write stories about, how they choose to photograph them, which photos they select, and how they caption them. All of these decisions are affected by their understanding of what their readers, mostly white middle-class, are interested in, or will at least tolerate in small doses, and by the prejudices of their readers (no more than one story per issue either about Africa or with large numbers of black people in them), and by their values (celebrate countries as they become more like us, treat other countries as optimistically as possible).
Michael Medved. Hollywood vs. America. Medved makes a compelling case that Hollywood goes out of its way, against its own economic interests, to treat American middle class values contemptuously. He points to movie after movie that show religious people as charlatans, villains and fools; movies that show endless amounts of (frequently degrading) sex, but almost never between married couples; endless violence and depravity. He points out that, despite the fact that many such movies bomb, and many family-oriented films have made a bundle at the box office, the industry continues to specialize in sickness.
Faith Middleton. The Goodness of Ordinary People: True Stories from Real Americans. Middleton conducts a PBS call-in show, where she throws out questions and asks people to call in with their answers. The questions are things like "What would your life look like if you were guaranteed not to fail? And What teacher will you always remember? And What is it that nobody can ever take away from you? Who believed you at a critical time? What lie are you glad you told? The answers are fascinating, as are the lives of the people who answer them.
Nicolaus Mills. The Triumph of Meanness. Tracks the rise of meanness, in corporate profiteering at the expense of employees and communities, sexual warfare and a cheerful nastiness toward men, the nastiness against immigrants, illegal and otherwise, resurgent racism, and reporting with attitude.
Jack Mingo. How the Cadillac Got Its Fins. The stories behind some of our most commonplace household items, the things we kind of take for granted were always there, like Hallmark cards and Readers Digest, and why our cars ended up looking the way they do. Amusing and interesting 2-5 page tidbits of the history of the ordinary.
Marion Nestle. What To Eat. An aisle by aisle guide to the American grocery store, the food claims and truths in each food group, and the politics and economics behind each product and claim.
Michael J. O'Neill. The Roar of the Crowd. Another discussion of how television has changed our lives, but here with an international focus. He argues that television is a fundamentally destabilizing political influence, in that it flaunts an abundant, luxurious lifestyle in front of people who cannot possibly afford it.
Ray Oldenburg. The Great Good Place. About the third place that is neither home nor work but a neutral place for casual mingling - bars, beergardens, soda fountains, general stores, main street, diners, barber shops, and such. I wrote about it in Here Comes a Regular.
Susan Orlean. Saturday Night. Orlean set out across the country to explore the various meanings people attach to Saturday night - the biggest party night, eating-out night, murder night, etc. She talks to people at the biggest restaurant in the country, polka dancers, drug dealers, society hostesses, church ladies who sponsor zydeco dances, and lots more.
Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art. it is utterly fascinating. The authors, immigrants from Russia where they were artists, set out to find out what ordinary people value in -- well, they won't call it art, because they find that word intimidating -- the kinds of pictures they would choose to surround themselves with. They did a combination of polling -- the complete poll, with both questions and answers, is reproduced here -- and focus groups, where they asked people much more subjective and open-ended questions, including, if they could hire their favorite artist, and money was not an issue, what would they want that artist to paint? On the basis of that data, they painted the ideal American picture (and since they conducted their survey worldwide, also the ideal Finnish, Russian, French, Kenyan and Icelandic pictures). The color preference was overwhelmingly blue, the picture type a landscape, with a preference for wild animals in the scene. Human figures were OK, with no significant preference for modern day figures over historical figures. So the painting was a lakeside scene, lots of water and blue sky, with green grass and bushes, deer frolicking in the water, a couple and a boy, maybe with a fishing pole (not clear), and George Washington standing off to the side. (Denmark's was quite similar, except that a man in it was planting a national flag, and three ballet dancers were en pointe beside the sea). The authors also came up with each country's least wanted paintings, which were largely nonrepresentational geometric art with lots of yellows and orange. Lest the leap from poll results to paintings was too steep, they then went and tested the paintings on their focus groups, and by George, they liked them. See my column about this, at But We Know What We Like
Robert D. Putnam. Bowling Alone. Documentation of all kinds regarding the plummeting rate of participation not just in public life but in group life since 1960. He examines a number of possible culprits: sprawl, working moms, TV (the most convincing villain of the piece), and generational change (many of the older folks haven't changed their habits at all, but they haven't passed them on to the younger generations either. The last chapter is hopeful in that he sees all kinds of parallels between now and the Gilded Age, and sees the possibility of a new progressive era coming out of our discouragement with this gilded age.
Jon Ronson. Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson, a Jewish guy who spent several years living with conspiracy theorists of various stripes -- Muslims, Randy Weaver's daughter, the leader of the kinder gentler Ku Klux Klan, etc. The one thing uniting them was their conviction that the Bilderberg club met in private to determine the fate of the world. So of course, he set out to get inside the Bilderberg Club, and did in fact penetrate the hotel in Portugal it was meeting at, and the Bohemian Grove ceremonies. Needless to say, his Jewishness became a bit sticky at times during all this. Pretty fascinating stuff. Side note: when he ordered a copy of Protocols of the Elders of Zion from Amazon, it helpfully pointed out that he might also like Mein Kampf.
Andrew Ross. The Celebration Chronicles. Ross spent a year living in this Disney-made town designed for community, and finds it deeply flawed - by the chintziness of Disney, cutting corners on design, by the contractors who hired illegal workers who had never pounded a nail before rather than pay premium prices for skilled labor, by the excessive expectations of families who sought guarantees for their children's future from the schools. For all that, this is a well-realized picture of the people and their dreams and endurance.
Juliet Schor. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need. Studies why we overspend, finding that in the age of TV, we no longer compare ourselves with people in our own neighborhood, whose lifestyle might be achievable, but model our wants on what we see in the media, the things that belong to people far out of our financial class or reach. Thus no matter how much we make or have, we are chronically dissatisfied, chronically in debt, trying to get more. And we do this at the expense of time with home and self and family. Some discussion of those who opt out, for voluntary simplicity.
Charles Slack. Blue Fairways: Three Months, Sixty Courses, No Mulligans. Business reporter Charles Slack fulfills a kind of dream, playing his way through the public golf courses that line route 1, from Maine to Key West, in hopes of improving his game, meeting people, and getting to understand the country better. He succeeds in all of those, as well as acquiring a new appreciation of the pleasures of home (his wife delivered a baby in the middle of his trip, which he came home for for three months). An interesting book.
Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger. Poplorica. Tells the stories of inventions and events that changed our culture: the paper diaper, TV dinners, shock jocks, the cult of green lawns, the Edsel, permanent press clothes, etc.
John Stilgoe. Outside Lies Magic. Stilgoe investigates fences, the ecology of highway cloverleaf interchanges and strip malls, the effect of fire insurance on the appearances of old downtowns, disused and/or restored railroad roadbeds, electric lines, and much more. A book that teaches you how to really SEE, and wonder about, what you're looking at.
Hank Stuever. Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere. Stuever explores topics like self-storage units, commercial Kampgrounds, the actors who have spent more than 20 years playing Jesus and Judas in traveling shows of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Japanese robot dog, modern weddings, an el cheapo funeral home, etc.
Paco Underhill. The Call of the Mall. About how unsatisfactory malls are as shopping experiences, because, while stores are designed by merchants, malls are designed by real estate people, who are only concerned about getting the maximum dollars per square foot. Not only does the mall design itself do nothing for the shopping experience, he says, but the rules and high rents it imposes on merchants make it difficult for them to do anything interesting and user-friendly with their displays and come-ons. He thinks malls are pretty much dying because of the lousy shopping experience they offer; few new malls are being opened any more, and a lot of malls have actually died and been brought back to life as ethnic malls or government buildings or sports complexes. Also, see his first book, Why We Buy, on the anthropology of shoppers.
Lawrence Wechsler. A Wanderer in the Perfect City. These are pieces that mostly appeared in the New Yorker, about unique individuals pursuing private passions with striking enthusiasm -- a rocket scientist turned wall street analyst turned circus clown, the Danish cheesemaker who creates a museum of modern art for Denmark, the chessmaster whose new improved version of chess starts with a blank board, Nicholas Slominsky, musician extraordinaire and writer/editor of several editions of Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, etc. Wonderful book.
William Zinsser. Willie and Dwike. The true story of one of America's great jazz duos, Dwike Mitchell on piano, and Willie Ruff on French horn and bass. They both came from a background of family conflict and abandonment, but music helped them get through. They met and joined forces at a segregated army base in the 1950's, which had one of the best bands in the country--making me marvel once again that racism, despicable though it is, created some rich communities of talent. Willie and Dwike travel around the country, giving not just concerts, but also talks and demonstrations in schools everywhere they go. Willie is a born teacher, self-taught and widely read, eager to make kids understand jazz, and for that matter, classical music. These are wonderful people to travel along with, good minds to get inside of for a while. And Zinsser is the perfect chronicler.
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Donald Bartlett and James Steele. America: What Went Wrong. Originally published as a seven part series in the Philadelphia Inquirer, this series had thousands of requests for reprints, leading to its publication in book form. The answer to the question, in short, is that our government changed the rules about how business should treat its employees and community, and stopped being the referee, preferring to side with corporate interests. A stunning account of the viable businesses destroyed, pension funds raided, people thrown out of work, as a result of the corporate takeovers of the 1980's and the S&L scam artists who destroyed people's life savings.
Books about American Politics and Government
Douglas Brinkley. The Great Deluge. The horrors of Hurricane Katrina that we all saw on TV were just the tip of the iceberg. Mayor Nagin was uncaring and willfully ignorant about the plight of his city's poorest residents, the New Orleans police department was guilty of dereliction of duty, racism and looting, Michael Brown was a hapless fool wasting time on crossing the bureaucratic Ts and dotting the Is, Chertoff ignored the Hurricane Center's warnings and everything Michael Brown did tell him. But the heroism of individual rescuers and doctors and nurses is the inspiring other side of the story.
Barbara Ehrenreich. The Snarling Citizen. A collection of her columns. This woman is as funny as Molly Ivins, every bit as liberal, and as feminist, but she is more analytical and insightful.
Stanley Greenberg. Middle Class Dreams. Bill Clinton's pollster talks here about what he found out in all the focus groups he conducted with "Reagan Democrats"--working class white men who felt the Democratic party cared more about blacks, women, and the poor, than about them and their problems. Greenberg finds that they dislike the rich, and big business, as much as they dislike the poor, while the libertarians are put off by the Christian conservatives who have become so important in the Republican party.
Jeff Greenfield. Playing To Win. If you ever want to run for political office, read this book first--a practical campaign and strategy manual cum history of American political campaigns. Full of funny stories and sound political advice.
William Greider. Who Will Tell the People? Greider works much the same ground as Bartlett and Steele, though in substantially greater depth. He gives you excellent cause to fear what GATT will do to wipe out environmental protection laws both here and abroad as well.
Molly Ivins. Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? Molly is that most improbable of creatures, a Texan feminist liberal. But, like her politics or not, you can't help liking Molly, a woman who calls a protuberant abdomen a "beergut that belongs in the Smithsonian." The title of her book stems from the day her column pointed out that if a particular Texas legislator's IQ was any lower, they'd have to water him twice a day. This resulted in an advertiser boycott, and her newspaper promptly put up billboards all over Dallas saying "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" But she can, and she does. Her columns cover Texas politics, than which there is nothing more colorful--where else would they be debating a "clean crapper" bill?--and US politics at large. She's brash, she's loud, she's direct, and she's a hoot. The follow-up collection, called Nothing But Good Times Ahead is also worthwhile.
Naomi Klein. No Logo. About the way the corporate world has seized control of public space, branding everything in site, while destroying jobs and choices. But also about the way people have struck back, reclaiming public space and fighting against corporate crimes and corruption.
John Podhoretz. Hell of a Ride. An insider's marvellously snide account of the Bush re-election campaign. Podhoretz was a conservative true believer who was appalled at Bush's complete inability to come up with a compelling reason why he wanted to be President, other than that it was kind of a fun job.
Alan Wolfe. One Nation After All. About the Middle Class Morality Project, which aimed at not just polling representative members of the middle class from four different areas of the country, but also interviewing them to get behind the poll numbers and understand the nuances of meaning. He concluded that we are nowhere near as polarized, or involved in a culture war, as polls and politicians make us sound, and that in fact, we cling to the middle ground with a fervor that would have surprised even deTocqueville, who predicted it. Pretty clearly, the middle class dislikes extremes and hostile dialogue, and wishes to preserve privacy and individuality to the point that even when it disapproves of other people's decisions, or religion, or whatever, it still doesn't wish to impose its own morality on other people. The attitude toward immigration is also lots more nuanced than the politicians understand. Apparently we're close enough to our own immigrant backgrounds to understand that immigrants contribute something important to the country, at least as long as they learn the language and come here legally. Very interesting book, and in some ways quite hopeful.
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Douglas Adams. Last Chance To See. Adams can't even talk about endangered species without being funny. This is an account of various expeditions he made with a TV crew in search of endangered animals as part of a BBC series.
Books about Animals
Peter Brazaitis. You Belong in a Zoo. The entertaining life of a keeper of reptiles and eventual curator of the Central Park zoo. Lots of funny stories here, one of my faves about the difficulties he was having with getting adequate shipping containers for alligators. Attending a funeral, he realized that the plain pine boxes that coffins are shipped in are a perfect size, so he called a manufacturer and inquired about pricing. Then he asked if they could punch air holes in them. Dead silence, and then a strangled voice says, "I'd better go get my supervisor."
Roger Caras. The Cats of Thistle Hall. Or rather, the animals of Thistle Hall, since the Caras family keeps a collection of cats, dogs, birds, cows, llamas, and such at a sizable farm. The daily schedule very much revolves around the needs of animals, and as many of them as there are, each one is known and appreciated for its unique personality. This is a charming book, about a way of life that unfortunately very few of us could afford.
Paul Gallico. The Silent Miaow. Gallico claims to have translated this from the feline--supposedly he found a poorly typed manuscript written by his cat, composed of words of advice from an older and wiser cat to young kittens seeking to make their way in the world. It has detailed instructions on how to worm your way into a household on a temporary basis, turn that into a permanent basis, take the household over entirely, and make sure that henceforth, noone will ever do anything without your express permission. Whoever wrote it, I assure you this is God's own truth. And it's got great cat photos besides.
Charles Goodrum. I'll Trade You an Elk. Goodrum's father was a humble park employee with dreams of grandeur in depression-era Wichita. Given a collection of people's discarded pet ducks and bunnies, and no money at all, he started wheeling and dealing to turn this motley collection into a genuine zoo. Young Charles was sucked into the irresistible force of his father's schemes, becoming chief peacock hatcher among other roles. This is a delightful book.
Earl Hamner. The Avocado Drive Zoo. Hamner, creator of the Waltons and writer for numerous other TV shows, is almost as big a sucker for animals as his wife is, though not quite. Between him and her and their kids, they accumulate pups and mice and rats and snakes and coyotes; a rabbit and guinea pig who live together happily in a cage. Fun book.
James Herriott. All Things Bright and Beautiful, not to mention All Creatures Great and Small. Actually, if you love animals, you have almost certainly already discovered these charming stories about a veterinarian in northern England, and the animals, and owners, he serves. But if you haven't, do run out to your library or bookstore and get one of these immediately.
Barbara Holland. Secrets of the Cat. Holland has observed and loved a lot of cats, and in larger quantities than most of us will ever observe them, and the book is as beautiful a study as you will find of feline behavior.
Eugene Linden. The Parrot's Lament, and Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity. The stories, many of them pretty funny, make clear that there are a number of animals who, when it's to their advantage, can plot and scheme, trade for goods, figure out how to outwit their keepers and escape.
Desmond Morris. Cat Watching. Questions and answers about why cats behave the way they do. And the answers appear to have a great deal of plausibility, although, any experienced catwatcher will assume the alternative explanation that a cat does what it does because it damn well feels like doing it, thank you.
David Petersen. On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life. Petersen and his wife live in a cabin he built on a mountain outside Durango, deliberately seeking to acquire nothing more than they need, and getting as much of that as possible from the natural world, hunting elk and mushrooms and wild turkeys and rabbits. One of the unaffordable luxuries is health insurance, which is a problem when his wife develops melanoma. It's a hard life, and an unforgiving one if you make one false, overconfident move. And it may be unsustainable, as developers move ever closer and threaten the habitats of the creatures he admires.
Rupert Sheldrake. Dogs That Know When their Owners Are Coming Home. Sheldrake is a scientist who sets out to gather data and conduct experiments on dogs and cats and other animals who seem to have some sort of telepathic link with their owners. His theory to explain it, something about morphic fields, doesn't convince me, but the body of evidence he puts together sure does
David Taylor. Is There a Doctor in the Zoo?, and Zoo Vet and many others. Taylor is a veterinarian to exotic animals, so it is not surprising that his adventures are, well, a little more exotic than the good Dr. Herriot's. Like the time he had to transport a whale across England in a truck that was not refrigerated, and had to improvise a coldpack with what was at hand--i.e., popsicles. These are wonderfully amusing books.
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Mary Catherine Bateson. Composing a Life. Examining her own life and that of four other gifted women, anthropologist Bateson discusses the virtues of the interrupted life, that includes multiple simultaneous tasks and roles. She thinks this model of a life has much to offer, more in fact than the single-minded quest model embraced by men.
Books about Gender Issues
Bird, Caroline. Lives of Our Own: Secrets of Salty Old Women, is, I sincerely hope, my future. As one who looks forward to being a salty old lady, I found this book a rare treat--a chance to get inside the heads and lives of some really fascinating women. These women are artists, teachers, politicians, volunteers, writers. These are women who are fully, compellingly alive, brimming with energy, vigor, intelligence, concern and caring. Many of them have laid aside one life, and taken on new identities, as their children have grown up, they've retired from their jobs, or they've gone through divorce or death of a husband. The book reinforces my belief that, as women get older, they get more interesting. And I intend to be a LOT more interesting before I'm done. Like Janis Ian says, "this train still runs."
Jonathan Coleman. Exit the Rainmaker. About a college president who couldn't stand his life anymore and walked out on it. Jonathan Coleman explored the man's life to find out why he did it, and the book is fascinating. I wrote a column about this book and Sally Warren's book Dumped, the other side of the coin. See it at http://marylaine.com/myword/schmucks.html
Ellis Cose. Man's World. Along with Warren Farrell (see below) this is a must read for women who want to understand the burdens, as well as the privileges, of maleness.
Susan Douglas. Where the Girls Are. How the girl groups of the 1960's helped promote the re-birth of feminism ("It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To" as liberation anthem?). But more generally about the conflicting cultural images of women, and the difficulties women had in choosing their roles in a time of major transition.
Susan Faludi. Backlash. She argues, with convincing documentation, that men have struck back against the gains women made in the '60's and '70's, with the deliberate assistance of the Reagan and Bush administrations. In every aspect of life, from the clothes we wear, to the images of femininity we are expected to model ourselves on, to the female voices that are allowed to surface in mainstream media, Faludi finds the fell hand of men seeking to restore the previous male dominance. It is a diatribe, but a powerful and convincing one.
Warren Farrell. The Myth of Male Power. Farrell is a feminist who is interested in women's problems, and wishes women would return the compliment. It annoys him that feminists fail to understand that, though much of the world is run by white men, that doesn't mean that all white men get to share in that power, that in fact, many men are as oppressed by that power structure as women are. He points out some things about men that women need to acknowledge and value--the extent to which men are disposable sacrifices, the people who are sent out to die for their country, the people who do dangerous, necessary things like fighting fires and building dams and bridges. He presents an excellent analysis of male culture, and women should really take the time to read it if they want to have any hope of understanding the men in their lives. (Of course, it would be nice if they would also read Susan Faludi and Deborah Tannen.)
Ann Fessler. The Girls Who Went Away: he Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption... The result of hundreds of interviews with women who never stopped grieving for the loss of their babies, and never forgave the people who forced them to do it. Anger rings through their accounts: that they alone were held responsible, not the men who got them pregnant and abandoned them; that they were not told of other options; that they were not even told anything about the process of childbirth itself; that they were not allowed to grieve but expected to resume their normal lives and act as if nothing had happened; that they were repeatedly given (and took to heart) the message that they were not good enough. In many cases, the loss and the inability to acknowledge it left them emotionally crippled, unwilling to commit to their other children because of the fear that these children too would be yanked away from them.
Letters to Ms. A collection of letters women wrote to Ms. Magazine in the first 15 years of its existence. This book serves as a fascinating introduction to feminism, because it answers, in the deeply felt dilemmas of its writers, the questions: Why does the women's movement exist? How has it affected women's lives? How has it failed them? Essential reading for women (and men) who weren't around when the movement began.
Mariah Burton Nelson. The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. She talks convincingly about the way sports reinforces sexism, and helps to restore men's declining sense of power and dominance. She also talks at length of how sports can liberate and empower women.
William Pollack. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. In which he points out that our society is far too rigid in demanding that boys separate from mother and family at set time periods, regardless of whether the boys are ready to do that, and that they force boys into macho toughness, force them to conceal their pain, deny their feelings.
Caryl Rivers. Slick Spins and Fractured Facts. Should be read along with Susan Faludi's book Backlash; both books examine the incorrect cultural assumptions of the middle-aged white men who dominate journalism that lead to false reporting, particularly where issues of gender, class and race are concerned. She's outraged, but also amusing.
Nan Robertson. The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and the New York Times. Robertson tells the story of the painful struggle of women to be hired by, then treated as equals by, the New York Times. With the exception of the period when Eleanor Roosevelt refused to grant press interviews to any but female reporters, the Times didn't much bother themselves with women at all. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act they were forced to hire women, but not necessarily to treat them as they would any promising male employees. Ultimately it took a court case to force the Times into the 20th century. And the women who fought, and won, the good fight, all mysteriously disappeared from the Times and were forgotten even by the later women whose careers at the Times were made possible by their struggles.
Joan Ryan. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. About the abusive treatment and near starvation of young gymnasts and ice skaters, resulting in early osteoporosis, anorexia and bulimia, and often serious (and disregarded) injury.
Judge Judy Sheindlin. Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever. Judge Judy advises women to take responsibility for themselves, quit denying reality, learn the rules of the games they choose to play, nurture themselves as well as others, take risks and learn from failure, etc., all in an amusing engaging way.
Deborah Tannen. You Just Don't Understand. Also, That's Not What I Meant. Tannen, a psychologist, studies the conversational styles of men and women, and finds that much of the misunderstanding between the genders comes from the extreme differences between the two. The books are full of taped conversations, and you are bound to recognize some of the conversational morasses you yourself have been part of, and for the first time, understand why it was going wrong.
Carol Tavris. The Mismeasure of Woman. Women continue to be judged and found wanting by psychological and scientific assumptions that male behavior is the norm, and women are hopelessly inadequate males. Tavris takes the psychological community to task for this in a fascinating book.
VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment. Pretty fascinating survey results and interviews, and a must-read for women.
Jan Waldron. In the Country of Men. As a woman deeply disappointed in her father and the men in her life, yet resolved to raise her sons to be good men, she is seeking to understand the imperatives men labor under. She has watched her brother and her sons ruthlessly expunge certain parts of themselves in the interest of becoming masculine, and it distresses her at the same time she's not convinced society offers boys any other way of growing up. As one who was asked to expunge large chunks of myself when growing up, in order to become more feminine (and no, I never got really good at it, because I didn't want to part with those chunks), I found the question just as interesting. I followed her, step by step, musing about my own men, and learned a great deal.
Bailey White. Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living. You may know White from her short sketches on NPR, is a Southerner, but not precisely typical--of Southerners or women or anything else. Her mother is odder still. The stories are just about their lives in a household where astounding quantities of stuff accumulate, wiring is hard to find, the bathtub is on the back porch, they read Jane Austen to the alligators, and unknown friends give them eggs to hatch of unidentified species. These are quietly amusing stories, by one of the few women whose mother was odder than mine, though equally lovable.
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