Category Archives: On the Bookshelf

Lost and Found

We read books to find out who we are. -Ursula K. Le Guin, author (21 Oct 1929-2018)

So true!

It’s not just the self-help books that work that way, either.  It can be cookbooks. ( Will I enjoy preparing Korean food?) It can be science fiction, for a kid who feels like an alien wherever they’re growing up and going to school. It can be nonfiction about science, history, race relations, archaeology or anything else, when we want to understand who we are as a species or race or nation – or civilization.

In researching Four Lost Cities, science journalist and SF writer Annalee Newitz visited the archaeological sites of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, Pompeii in modern Italy, Angkor in Cambodia, and Cahokia near the Mississippi River to find out who what happens when a city ends.  Pompeii is the one that was obliterated by nature. Rome promptly resettled many evacuees elsewhere.  In the case of the other cities, people seem to have dispersed but continued to use the place as a graveyard for a long time (Çatalhöyük); lost interest in city life as climate changed and rulers made bad decisions, leaving contingents of monks to stick around tending the temples (Angkor) ; or upped and moved on (Cahokia.)  This is a fascinating exploration of the life and death of cities – and the tenacity of human cultures – with more than a little relevance for our own day.


The Hoarder in You


Someone in my writer’s group recommended this book as very helpful given the situation he found himself in. Someone else bought a copy and reports that thanks to this book, his home has become more livable, with less clutter and more grace notes of beauty.

My condo, home office and all, happens to be extremely neat. But out of general interest, I got the book through Interlibrary Loan and. … oh yes, this is proving helpful to me too.

For one thing, most of us have stuff that we don’t need and we’d be well served by turning loose of.  Even if it’s highly organized, a home too full of stuff is a spiritual downer. The Hoarder in You‘s author Robin Zasio explains how shopping opportunities fuel cluttering. She describes the cognitive distortions that result in clutter or worse. (She addresses pathological hoarding, too, so this book is HIGHLY recommended if a family member or friend has this problem.) She has good hints like if you don’t know where you’ll put it, don’t bring it home.

For another thing, I now recognize how cluttering has happened right here in my home office. It’s in my to-do listing. I have a hard time not sticking something sparkly new onto my to-do list.  I already have lists of lists. Some of my to-do lists are so long they’re unwieldy, in their way not unlike a listing pile of physical clutter.   🙁

It’s time to work on this.

The Library Book

Front cover of THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean came out in 2018 to rave reviews in library circles. I’m glad I got around to reading it! As a lifelong book lover who writes books and works in a library,  this book resonated with me. I read it in small sections (at lunch at work!) to make it last longer.  🙂

Central to the book is a devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. The cause of the fire was never established, despite the existence of a suspicious character who might have been there that morning.  The backbone of the book is the fire, the fruitless investigation into its cause, and the hard but finally successful recovery from the fire.  On that backbone, Ms Orleans arranges all kinds of good information.  She tells the turbulent history of that library from its founding on. Along the way, she reflects on her own lifelong love of libraries.  She even describes experimentally burning  a book – a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451 (!)

Here’s one of many wonderful passages in this book that’s all about libraries, librarians, books, and being human.

The silence was more soothing than solemn. A library is a good place to soften solitude;  place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post.  You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. . . . I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary; and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them.

The inside back cover has a picture of a traditional library book pocket and card.  And that’s charming.

Inside the back cover of The Library Book is a picture of an old-fashioned checkout slip pocket.





A powerful book, this, and beautifully written.  Author Robert Macfarlane explores the caverns, crypts, mines, tombs, glacial caves, underground nuclear waste storage facilities (!), subterranean rivers, and forest root systems beneath our unknowing feet. He meets able guides in all these realms, people who know their way through the caves or mines or catacombs.  And he ponders how human technology can change the world.  The striking book cover painting represents a holloway – a road so well traveled that it’s worn way down into the ground.  Specifically, it’s looking through a holloway toward a nuclear blast.

Highly recommended.


Texas A & M University Press 2019

Here’s a book of photographs of Houston emphasizing the connection to the Apollo program. The photos are as inevitable as astronauts, as exuberant as the space-themed murals and painted traffic signal control boxes around town, and as subtle as the Hermann Park statue of Sam Houston pointing east – toward  a full moon in the night sky.  In addition to the photos, author Ray Viator includes well-researched information about the inception of Johnson Space Center and its ties with area universities and research centers. But the images are why I leafed through the book again and again. Not sure which was my fave, but maybe the Hubble-telescope-inspired, meteor-fragment-containing window at Webster Presbyterian Church.




To the strict constructionists who think the Internet, including email, texting, Twitter, and all, is ruining the written language – this book says, “Well, no.” Author Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist who approaches Internet language as more like informal speech than like composed, grammatical writing. For once in the history of linguistics, there’s plenty of such material for her analysis. The informal, spoken word very seldom got documented in ages past.  Now it does.  She has real fun with it all and makes the reader better appreciate the casual, fluid, inventive qualities of Internet language and, for that matter, everyday speech.  Recommended!



Here is a recent (2018) and wonderfully interesting book about structural engineering.  Yes, that topic is interesting – HIGHLY interesting when it come to skyscrapers!  The author, a structural engineer involved with notable projects including London’s towering new skyscraper, the Shard, shares her wonder at bricks and concrete, spider webbing and wind loading, bridges, and  the sorts of calculation that are crucial to the structures of civilization.  She takes the reader around the world to see notable buildings from ancient to modern times. And she looks into the American past to salute Emily Warren Roebling, the defacto chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Recommended!

Lenten Sacrifice


Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. … I myself have written, “If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

–Kurt Vonnegut

A quarter century ago Peter Menzel published his remarkable book, Material World.  Subtitled A Global Family Portrait, it portrayed statistically average families representing thirty nations.  The most memorable feature of the book was a series of photographs of each family’s worldly goods:  they’d emptied their homes for the photographers and deposited all of their material possessions in front of the homes so that these fascinating collections, meager or extensive, could be photographed.

Think of all of the objects you have in your home.  Almost  every one of those items arrived with the promise that it would in some way make your life richer, fuller, better.

And almost without exception, every one of these items ended up with you taking care of it:  you have to wash it, wax it, renew its registration, dust it, change its oil or its batteries, update its software, or otherwise service it in some way.  Possessions we acquired to make our lives better now possess us instead.

It is the season of Lent when many liturgical Christians give something up.  I once worked with a woman who faithfully gave up chocolate for Lent every year.  A friend of mine – a Lutheran minister – gives up Facebook  for Lent.  Imagine that – more time to interact with flesh and blood friends and family in person!  (Wasn’t Facebook’s original premise that it would help us stay connected?)

It occurs to me that giving up whatever promised to make our lives better, but doesn’t serves us as intended, is worth doing. For example:  fear’s original purpose was to help us human beings survive in a dangerous world.  But some fears we may own now are, like snowmobiles and salad shooters, far more trouble than they’re worth. What if we gave up some of our fears for Lent?

Suppose we gave up our fear of being found out for who we really are?  The fear of being different,  unlovable, hopelessly inadequate, or too strange for anyone to like us? Jesus emphatically said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Meaning we are worth being loved by ourselves. And what if we gave up our fear of our neighbor? You know, the one whose skin color, foreign origins, socio-economic class, politics, or sexuality prompts useless, burdensome fear.

We might find that once Lent is over we don’t need to resume these fears. Or at least that they wouldn’t stick to us quite as stubbornly after Easter Sunday.

Today, April 11, is the twelfth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s death.