I read four books in the past month that I hadn’t read before. The one I read aloud to my seven-year-old Lydia was the only one I’ll want to read again. I’m glad she finally agreed to let me read it! Sometimes she strongly resists reading a book or seeing a movie that older family members recommend, even though she almost always enjoys the experience when she finally relents. In this case, her older brother had read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon in school when he was eight or nine and had told me how wonderful it was and that I really should read it . . . but I’d never gotten around to it . . . and then I saw it in the used book store and got it as a Christmas present for Lydia. She was very stubborn about wanting us to reread familiar books instead of books we got for Christmas, and she resisted this one especially, even when I went around wistfully singing the title to the tune of that lullaby from Frozen 2. Finally, one day when it was time to start a new book, I just picked it up and began reading without announcing the title, and after a few pages she was clamoring for more!
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
This children’s novel has the tone and style of a Chinese folktale but is set in a fictional place that is not explicitly China. Minli and her parents live in a poor village at the foot of Fruitless Mountain, struggling to grow a little rice. Her father’s stories of dragons, the wise Old Man of the Moon, the red cords that tie people to their destinies, and the evil Magistrate Tiger inspire Minli to dream of improving their lives. Soon she sets out on a quest. Her parents pursue her at first, but after talking with a wise goldfish peddler, they decide to trust Minli to do what she needs to do and return home safely.
Minli meets a dragon who escaped from a painting and is unable to fly, a boy whose best buddy is a water buffalo, a mysteriously elegant girl, a king in disguise, a pride of friendly lions, a terrifying green tiger, and a pair of brave and lucky twins. She visits many interesting places–my favorite was The Village of the Moon Rain, where seeds rain from the sky every night and the people plant them to grow the forest that is restoring ecological harmony and producing medicinal tea. It’s an excellent adventure with a happy ending.
The story is told in short chapters with beautiful, full-color illustrations. Whenever a character tells a story (which happens often), it’s in a special font with a title, emphasizing the importance of listening to stories and learning to hear what they can teach you.
That was the highlight of this month! One of the books I read to myself was pretty good, though, just not the type that holds up to rereading:
Good As Gone by Amy Gentry
This is a well-written suspense novel that gets pretty grim and disturbing. Although the plot twists are effective and believable, I think I’ll remember how it turns out so that it wouldn’t be as interesting on a second reading.
Julie was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom when she was 13 years old. Eight years later, she turns up at her parents’ front door. As they try to assimilate her back into the family and help her heal from whatever happened to her, Julie’s parents and sister have doubts about whether it’s really her and whether they really understand what happened that night.
The author has worked with victims of sexual and domestic violence, which clearly gave her some insight into how people get pulled into terrible situations. This story makes more sense than many “woman victimized by men” plots; Julie’s level of innocence is realistic, and most people of both sexes are a mix of good and bad. This was a big relief after reading
Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown
Alice and her husband Nate just moved from New York City to a house in the suburbs that’s a fixer-upper in 2018. It was new in 1955 when Nellie and her husband Richard lived there. Nellie lived in the house for decades and just recently died, leaving behind her trusty cookbook and some perennial plants in the garden she nurtured so carefully. Alice, who is supposed to be taking time out from the working world to write a novel and have a baby, becomes fascinated with Nellie’s life, especially after a neighbor gives Alice a stack of letters that Nellie wrote to her mother yet never mailed.
That’s a fascinating premise. Unfortunately, the author takes it in what she believes to be a “feminist” direction, in which women “stand up for themselves” by lying and killing instead of talking. Nellie’s behavior is somewhat understandable, once you know she was raised by a mentally ill single mother and then married an abusive man. Alice does not have this background. Alice does not have a good reason for lying about how she lost her job, how much writing she’s really doing, whether she’s trying to conceive, or whether she’s smoking cigarettes–yet she feels very justified in being furious about what Nate did behind her back, and the author agrees with her, wrapping up a “happy” ending in which Nate has to compromise so Alice can have what she wants . . . and if it doesn’t work out, Nellie’s story gives Alice a plan for getting Nate out of her way.
The letters written by Nellie exist only to inform Alice about Nellie’s story. There is no good reason why she should ever have written them or let anyone keep this incriminating evidence. But she gets away with it, fulfilling this “feminist” fantasy in which women aren’t adults responsible for our own actions and men always deserve to be treated worse than they’ve treated women. Alice is more like a whining, rebellious teenager than an adult. Really annoying!
Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
The Geography of Nowhere, an earlier book by the same author, is a book that blew my mind with its clear and engaging explanation of how and why America’s built landscape got so trashy and horrible during the second half of the twentieth century. I was excited to read this sequel, which promised to describe the process of “remaking our world for the 21st century” using the principles of traditional architecture and New Urbanism to create mixed-use environments on a comfortable human scale with less emphasis on cars.
About 10% of the book is about that. Well, maybe 20%, but it certainly seems that a minority of pages are discussing positive solutions for improving the built landscape of ordinary neighborhoods. Kunstler does get into detail about specific design principles (with illustrations and references) and talks us through some planned communities like Seaside, Florida; the reclamation of an inner-city neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island; the post-hurricane restoration of Corning, New York; the replacement of a defunct strip mall with a mixed-use development in Boca Raton, Florida; a developer’s change from suburban sprawl to mixed-use urbanism in Columbus, Ohio; and why New York City continues to thrive. There’s also a chapter explaining what’s wrong with the typical American property-tax system and how it could be improved to reward better buildings and more intelligent land use.
But most of the text is devoted to explaining what’s wrong with suburban sprawl and ranting about it in detail. It’s well-written and making valid points, but it’s not working toward a positive future. If anything, it discourages the reader from believing in change by emphasizing all the resistance from local governments, banks, and corporate interests, and by emphasizing what an overwhelmingly huge proportion of America has been paved with crap.
The book also includes a startling number of long digressions into topics that are related but wander far away from what is supposed to be the book’s focus. Kunstler’s explanation of how Black Americans were pushed into living in deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods deserted by whites is relevant, but instead of exploring any of those densely-populated, car-optional communities iand showing how their built environment supports a different social fabric than suburbia . . . he went into complaining about welfare, affirmative action, single mothers, “political rage,” and his desire to return to a shame-based society, ultimately concluding that these “underclass” people ought to be institutionalized so that they can learn that “self-esteem derives from individual effort and achievement.” Yeah, that’s totally in conflict with your central thesis that better neighborhoods, populated by diverse family types and income levels, create a sense of community that builds better people, but go off. . . . There’s also a whole chapter profiling an organic farmer, nostalgia for 1950s New York City, complaints about attending magnet school, and a whole chapter on “the essence of my private life” listing various things the author likes without regard to their relevance to urban planning.
The most bizarre thing in this book is Kunstler’s argument for windows that are taller than they are wide: “Vertical windows frame the human figure in an upright, neutral, and dignified way. Horizontal windows frame the human figure in a way that implies that the inhabitants are either sleeping, having sex, or dead.” I wonder if the author has ever walked around a thriving human neighborhood in the evening when some people have turned on lights but not closed drapes, so you can see into windows. It’s quite rare to see a horizontal window framing someone lying down at windowsill height. Instead, a horizontal window typically looks into a scene in which multiple human figures can interact: a table surrounded by people sharing a meal, a living room with multiple chairs and couches sharing the view from the window, etc. This isn’t a terrifying modern concept; in older homes, it’s common to have two or more vertical windows placed right next to each other so they act as a horizontal window.
Overall, this book is a hodgepodge that will add very little to your understanding of how to design a thriving human environment. Read The Geography of Nowhere instead!