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The Opposite of Fate; A Book of Musings by Amy Tan

opposite of fateMany readers know Amy Tan as the author of novels exploring life in China and the lives of Chinese immigrants to the United States.  These are based in part on her own family history.  In The Opposite of Fate, she has collected her autobiographical writings and her essays about her writing.  Much of what people have written about her life is incorrect, and she gives us the real story.

Tan’s life has had tragic elements: the death of her father, the murder of a close friend, and her struggle with Lyme’s Disease.  Her relationship with her mother, an immigrant from China, has sometimes been difficult.  However, her life is not, by any means, entirely sad.  In addition to her great success as an author, she’s enjoyed playing in a rock band made up of authors, including Dave Barry and Stephen King, and had a very happy experience when she played a major part in script-writing and decision-making during the filming of her first blockbuster novel, The Joy Luck Club.  I read many portions of this book out loud to my husband, and he remarked many times, “Amy Tan is funny!”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

stranger in the woodsIn 1986, Christopher Knight drove his Subaru deep into the Maine woods, left it to rust, and disappeared for nearly thirty years.  He maintained his solitude until 2013, when the joint efforts of a game warden and the Maine State Police led to his arrest during a break in at a nearby summer camp.

During his long sojourn in the woods, Knight ceased to exist to his family and the outside world, but his existence was all too real for residents nearby.

Even though Knight kept to himself almost entirely, he did not live off wild game and foraging.  Rather, he developed a routine of breaking into local lake houses for food and necessities.

To his credit, Knight did little if any damage.  What was unnerving wasn’t what he stole (usually canned goods and batteries, but occasionally items of intrinsic value to their owners) but how he consistently bypassed the notice of alarm systems and residents.  Some owners were fairly blasé about his burglaries; others were livid and frightened by the repeated break ins.

Until his arrest, Knight was a local legend.  After his arrest, he was a lost soul, with no inkling of how to live in modern society.

The Stranger in the Woods explores the psychology of Christopher Knight – his motivations, his lack of need for human contact, and his sense of ethics when living his hermit-like existence.  Throughout the book, the author compares Knight’s time in the woods with other hermits in history and analyzes what a “true” hermit is.

After reading this book, I remembered at least two other titles about individuals who were at odds with society and largely embraced the solitary life.  Try The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen or Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer for alternative reads.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

genius of birdsMost of us don’t consider the term “bird brain” to be a compliment!  However, scientists who study the intelligence of birds, using experiments, collections of anecdotes about bird behavior, and brain imaging, find them far from stupid.  Many species have rather large brains, considering their size, and even those with small brains may have amazing abilities.

In addition to describing various scientific studies, The Genius of Birds includes many wonderful anecdotes about birds.  A New Caledonian crow worked an eight-step puzzle in two and a half minutes.  Observers in the jungle have heard parrots cursing, apparently having learned these words from escaped pets.  Chickadees use a sophisticated “language” to warn other birds about the size and actions of predators.  Sparrows in New Zealand have figured out how to open and close automatic glass doors.  Some birds make and use simple tools to retrieve food.  A crow held a sharp stick in his beak and, armed with this weapon, flew in hot pursuit of a jay.  Some birds hide as many as 33,000 seeds, scattered across dozens of square miles, and can remember, months later, where to find them.  A mockingbird can learn as many as two hundred different songs, including those of other birds and those sung by humans, by practicing them over and over.  Bowerbirds carefully assemble and decorate artistic bowers, which they use to attract their mates.  Although scientists cannot completely explain how birds find their way during their long migrations, they have determined many possibilities, including birds’ orienting themselves by the North Star, their detailed memory of landscapes, and their awareness of smells, sounds, and the magnetic field.  Birds can reorient themselves when blown off-course by a hurricane or taken miles out of their way by researchers.

Since most of us sometimes forget where we put our car keys and may get lost easily without a GPS, these stories may be humbling!

This well-researched, easy-to-understand book is a wonderful read for bird-lovers.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton

for-the-gloryHamilton, a British sportswriter, tells the story of Eric Liddell, a runner in the 1924 Olympics.  You may remember Liddell from the Academy-award-winning film Chariots of Fire.  Because he considered competing in the Olympics on Sunday a violation of his faith, Liddell declined to enter the 100-meter race.  Instead, he ran in the 400-meter race, held on a different day.  Despite his relative lack of experience in the longer race, he won the gold medal and set a world record for that event.  This biography corrects some errors in the film’s portrayal of Liddell’s Olympic career.

To me, the most interesting part of Liddell’s life came after the Olympics.  Despite great acclaim for his victory, as well as the many exciting and profitable offers that he received, he followed his career plan to become a missionary in China.  This became very dangerous when the Japanese invaded China, and finally he sent his wife and children to safety in Canada.  Liddell, along with many other foreigners, ended up in a Japanese internment camp.  There he faced a life of hard work, primitive, crowded conditions, and a near-starvation diet.  Liddell endured these difficulties without complaint, treating everyone from prostitutes to Japanese guards with courtesy.  His jobs in the camp were teaching science (without books or lab equipment) and improving morale by organizing games and sporting events.  Realizing the great need for the camp’s young people to find diversion from their harsh lives in captivity, he allowed them to enjoy sports on Sundays and also served as referee.  Although he had declined to bend his faith’s rules about Sunday observance for personal gain and glory, he willingly did so to serve others.  He also cheerfully helped the other internees in every possible way, from cleaning latrines to counseling.

For The Glory reminds me of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the biography of Louis Zamperini.  Zamperini, like Liddell, was an Olympian captured by the Japanese during World War II, and his story was also made into a movie.  Both of these are fascinating biographies of heroic men.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

First Women : the grace and power of America’s modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower

First Women tells about the presidents’ wives from 1960 to the present: Jackie Kennedy, Ladyfirst-women Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.  Brower drew much of her information from numerous interviews, including those with former White House staff and with members of these women’s families, and from the first ladies’ extensive correspondence.

I’d never considered that first ladies, after having many similar experiences, have a special ability to give one another understanding and support.  Deep friendships among some of them have crossed party lines.  On the other hand, the book includes less heartwarming encounters, as well as some of their catty comments about one another.  The book tells about the first ladies’ roles as wives, mothers, and working on issues that matter to them.  Their husbands could depend on them for emotional support and often for advice and assistance.

Whether many of these women are historical figures to you, or whether you’ve lived through all of their husbands’ presidencies, you’ll find much of interest in this book.

Brower’s earlier book, The Residence, is about White House staffers.  It’s also a good read.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk : The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

grandmaEmma Gatewood lived a hard life.  She married a husband who proved to be abusive, had eleven children, and worked her fingers to the literal bone.  At the age of sixty-seven, she took a walk as “a lark” that ended over 2,000 miles later, becoming the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail.

Gatewood started light with a pack she pieced together, carrying some bare necessities.  Along the course of her travels, she met plenty of “trail angels” who sheltered and fed her.  There were also times when people were inhospitable, she was eating wild berries for sustenance, used a shower curtain that she’d brought for rain protection, and stayed warm by heating rocks in a fire and sleeping on them after they’d warmed up enough.

Her journey was arduous, as are all along this trail, but Gatewood’s was particularly heinous.  1955 was a year of vicious hurricanes that flooded the northeast without mercy; Gatewood reached New England right when these storms hit.  There were rivers that were nigh impossible to cross.  Some she crossed alone, others with help.  One of the luckiest meetings she experienced was sharing a trail shelter with a Catholic mission group that included some of Harlem’s most notorious gang leaders.  Everyone involved realized a common need, and Gatewood got through some of her worst crossings by help from this group.

The press soon got wind of Gatewood’s “lark” and as she progressed, journalists of all kinds were at any town of size along her way, quick to get in a picture or story, and Grandma’s legend grew.  And yes, Katahdin was hers, hard-won but attainable.

Gatewood was just getting started…

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is a nice mix of trek account, family background, and social commentary of the 1950s, when society was changing and people were becoming more sedentary due to the convenience of the automobile.  The news of an older lady walking in the middle of nowhere was a novelty, and a necessary jolt in the arm for the general public to remind them of the benefits of exercise and the great outdoors.

Gatewood’s comments on poor conditions of portions of the AT raised more awareness of the trail and its importance to hikers; in the following years, there were improvements to shelters and accessibility.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Treehouse : Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See by Naomi Wolf

treehouseA decrepit house in rural New York beckons the author as a place of rejuvenation.  Many visits and much labor later, the property becomes a retreat for others, including immediate family, friends, and Wolf’s father, whose life and ideals set the tone for this book.

Leonard Wolf has led a colorful life.  Born in Romania in the 1920s, he immigrated as a small child to the United States.  During the 1940s onward, he was prominent in the American Bohemian community on the west coast as a writer and teacher.  Wolf never amassed a fortune, but stayed true to his ideals.  He continued to teach and publish long after other movements (the Beats, the Hippies) made their mark.

The author discusses her father’s unconventional method of education and how her own teaching approach evolved during the stretch of time they were renovating the country house.  Her father comes to visit there from time to time, offering his help in painting and building a treehouse for Naomi’s daughter.  The treehouse evolves as well; near the book’s end, you’ll find the final result as something far different from what they had originally planned.

Visitors to the house find that Leonard and the property are catalysts for change in their own lives.  Several of Naomi’s friends and students come at troubled times; they find, if not answers, then other avenues for creative and personal growth.  And even the neighbor that Naomi hired for clearing out the overgrown yard explores his own creativity, far beyond what they hired him for, and the property and treehouse are much improved because of his work.

The Treehouse is a worthy read for anybody hitting a dead end with a creative endeavor, or going through a trying emotional time.  It ultimately recounts the reconnection of a daughter with her father, but there is much more to the book than that.

(William Hicks, Information Services)