The Debatable Land by Graham Robb

For those with an interest in British history, the border country of Scotland and EnglandDebatable Land is always a fascinating area to study.

The Debatable Land comprises the southwesternmost section of the Borders.  When the two countries were independent of each other, this area developed a long reputation for inaccessibility and lawlessness.  The reiver culture, in which rival families on both sides raided and stole from each other, defined much of the border region.

The Debatable Land functioned almost as a country unto itself.  Officials from either side were often clueless about governing the area.  The reivers themselves varied.  Certain high-handed individuals plundered their neighbors ruthlessly; others allied with whomever was the flavor of the month in power.  To call oneself English or Scottish was a state of flux.

This book is a study of the geography and the unique environment that gave rise to the culture of the borders.  The main focus of the book is the five hundred year stretch of time prior to the unification of Scotland and England, when the culture of the reivers was most active.  The author also expounds on Arthurian legend, Celtic and Roman influences in the area, and how the Scottish referendum of 2014 affected the border region.

The Debatable Land is fascinating in detail, but can be a bit of a slog in places.  However, for those who love historical minutiae and maps, and don’t mind digesting it slowly, the book is a worthwhile read.

If you’re interested in other books about the Borders of Scotland and England, try The Marches : A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland and/or Battle Valleys : A Portrait of the Border.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I borrowed a copy of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls years ago from a classmate.  Iglass castle was picking through his small bookshelf, and he recommended the book to me.  We had very different thoughts about what’s important in life, and I desperately wanted to know what was important to him because I wanted to understand him.  Now to the book.

The Glass Castle is a memoir of a woman who lived through poverty.  What I liked about the book, actually, is that the author did not wallow in it.  I liked that she did not go on about the misery of being poor and living in uncertain circumstances.  Jeannette has a story to tell, and I believe it’s not all about overcoming her impoverished childhood.  I believe a lot of it has to do with her relationship with her father, of coming to terms with who they were, and most importantly who they were together.  At least that is what I found poignant to me.

A few years after I had read the book almost feverishly, the movie was released.  I had long said goodbye to my classmate, but I still wanted to see the film.  So I did, and although I cannot say that it was a perfect movie, I thought that the director (Destin Daniel Cretton) casted the movie well, especially with Woody Harrelson as the father.  They were as believable to me as the real life characters I imagined them to be while reading the book.  Even though my memories of the details of the book were a little fuzzy by then, I believe Cretton did a good job overall of making the book come to life.

There is a beautiful passage in the book about a tree I want to share.  I will quote it here:

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree.  I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house.  I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.  Mom frowned at me.  “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said.  “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Those words struck a chord in me as I have been through struggles in my own life as I am sure many have, albeit of a different kind.  What Jeanette’s mom calls beauty, I would like to call strength and character.  And they can be beautiful indeed.

I highly recommend discussing this book with your friends.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

I must first confess that I was a little skeptical when I started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Upthe popularlife changing organization book by Marie Kondo.  Let me also confess that I am fascinated with everything Japanese, but don’t believe that there is a magical way to clean your belongings, or that it can change your life.

I ended up abandoning the book a few pages in. What was most useful to me in the pages that I did read were how to fold clothes. I know it can be silly to know there are proper ways to fold articles of clothing, but I am now convinced, as I have adopted her methods of how to fold T-shirts and socks in my laundry routine. Kondo’s follow up book Spark Joy has further instructions with illustrations.

Even though I gave up on the book, I was relentless and checked out the audio CD upon realizing that there was such a copy. I am proud to report that I listened to the entire set.

I don’t think this book is just about the art of organizing. Please don’t let the title of a book fool you, because beneath its fancy cover usually hides the true message of the book. So what is the message behind The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you ask? That is up to the reader’s interpretation, and I encourage you to read the book wholeheartedly and find out yourself.

Personally, even with the book’s inspirational methods, I am still trying to declutter a lifetime of belongings in my bedroom and it is painfully hard to let many things go. The book recommends that you purge your belongings as much as you can in one go, in a particular order by the type of items. The task is as much as a mountain to climb for me as it was when I first started. For me, the hardest part of the decluttering process is realizing that I don’t need so many things in my life for the sentimental value they hold.

Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up if you need an extra nudge to clean. There are actually no magical quick and easy fixes, but the book will give you that extra nudge.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)


Kayak Morning : Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats by Roger Rosenblatt

Tkayakhe author muses on existence while navigating a kayak through the inlet waters of Long Island.

Loss and grief are the main themes here.  Rosenblatt’s grown-up daughter died a few years ago; his aquatic meanderings are his way of coping with feelings that refuse to disappear.

The setting for his adventures is Penniman Creek in Quogue, Long Island.  On his travels, Rosenblatt meditates on water and what it symbolizes.  He also observes the kayak itself, and how the construction of it makes it unique for navigation.

Rosenblatt’s companions during his solitude are blue herons and egrets, fish of all types, the occasional crab.  A reminder of death is a picked-over fish skeleton.

Kayak Morning is a book that is quickly read, but best savored slowly, a mashup of meditation, literature references, and open water.  It’s pretty much a book-length essay, but one that is broken up into easily digestible portions.  There’s a dreamlike poetic feel to much of it.

For outdoor enthusiasts and the bereaved, and anyone else who enjoys floating through good prose.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

A Year of Less by Cait Flanders

The Year of LessIn recent times, I have realized that, like many American people, I have fallen into bad habits of consuming way too much.

I borrowed a copy of A Year of Less by Cait Flanders, wanting some help on purging my belongings, a project that I had intended to start on for months or maybe a year.  I was then delighted to find that the book is actually a memoir, one of my favorite genres of writing, chronicling the life of a young woman wanting to spend less and save more.  Not only that, she purged other things in her life such as unhealthy food and television.

I found it rather poignant and insightful to find how she dealt with her life’s happenings, especially the divorce of her parents.  Although it may not be apparent as to why her parent’s divorce is in a memoir of living on less, describing that aspect of her life helped me understand what was important to her and what was not.  I believe that was what the book was really about.  Denying herself made her aware of the things she most wanted in her life – the things that made her happy and gave her meaning.

I do not want to spoil what happens to her at the end of the book.  I have gone through similar questions that Cait has had about jobs, money, materials, traveling, etc.  I recommend that you take a read at this blog-turned-book and gather what one person has to say about life.  I as a young woman personally found myself agreeing and saying, “I totally understand!”

The library has copies of this book in print and also as an eBook through the North Carolina Digital Library.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

This is my first foray into an Alan Lightman book.  I’ve seen others come down the pikeSearching for Stars (Screening Room comes to mind fairly recently) but haven’t made the commitment, until this one, which appeared interesting and was reasonably short.

Lightman asks the big questions in this collection of essays that ponder the universe from its far reaches to sub-atomic territory, the minutiae of nature, and how spirituality and science contradict and complement each other.

We start out with a sliver of an essay about the Font-de-Gaume cave in France and Lightman’s impressions of the people from 17,000 B.C. who created the paintings there.  From there Lightman shares his thoughts on the vastness of the universe during an epiphany while on his back in a boat.

These are the mere beginnings.  As you read along, your excursion will take you into Buddhism, early Christian writers, quantum physics, and the possibilities of multiverses.  Lightman, who doesn’t necessarily profess a belief, still feels a need for spirituality within the scientific world, and is glad to include both Saint Augustine and Albert Einstein as persons worthy of discussion.

Not all of the essays are easy reads.  Some are short and quick; the first one about the Font-de-Gaume cave is over in a few minutes, a small gulp of prose.  Other more lengthy entries require a definite focus, and certain concepts that the author brings up were beyond my knowledge.  The pluses?  Lightman writes accessably and the book gets you thinking about things beyond the mundane.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Will & I by Clay Byars

Will & IIt begins with a singing lesson, and these lessons serve as a refrain throughout this no-nonsense memoir of a man finding himself in the aftermath of injury and stroke.

As young men, Clay Byars and his identical twin brother Will were living the fairly privileged lives of college students.  One car wreck later, Clay had serious nerve damage in his right arm.  A botched surgery to correct this resulted in a horrific stroke, which deprived him of bodily movement below the eyes.

To his family, life was over for Clay.  For Clay, it was an uphill battle to regain use of his limbs.

It began as limited movement of his right leg and thumb.  After long periods of therapy, Clay was eventually self-mobile, although he has had to maintain a personal regimen of diet and gym work to keep up his body tone enough to function – which he does.  Clay even manages a large extent of independence, in that he lives by himself, thankfully with neighbors who keep an eye on him and help him with the occasional odd job.

Will & I is a quietly told, unsentimental account that lacks the sensationalism that often flavors recovery memoirs, and a quick read.  I liked how Clay relates his story very matter-of-factly, and concerning his interactions with family and others, it’s obvious that he isn’t a saint.  In a way, this is refreshing – his story is inspiring without being heavy-handed.

Clay also downplays regret.  For sure, it’s here, and there are places where he muses over the differences between him and his brother, who went on to marry a former girlfriend of Clay’s and have kids.  He briefly considers what could have been, and then quickly shifts back to what is more immediate.

I’d read that Clay had worked with John Jeremiah Sullivan on the book’s structure – read Sullivan’s Pulphead for some super good essays.

(William Hicks, Information Services)