Book Review: ‘Log from the Sea of Cortez’ stands test of time

I would be hard-pressed to put John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez (The Viking Press, 1951) into one genre. This, in part, it what is so captivating about the book.

This classic by the renowned author is definitely largely scientific. After all, it’s about the expedition to collect marine animals from the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck’s friend marine biologist Ed Ricketts was the lead scientist aboard the vessel.

The descriptions of the specimens collected were both interesting and a bit too much science for my liking. Fortunately, the team’s approach to collecting them, preserving and studying them is mostly informative and entertaining.

This book is also a bit of a travelogue. Details of the land, the water, the people, the scenery were all vivid. Even so, in some ways it was hard to recognize the descriptions of the places in Baja that they visited. After all, they were there in 1940—long before much of the region became the tourist destination it is today.

This in turn made the book part historical.

It is definitely philosophical. That is the part I was not expecting. It’s also what gives it depth and connects all the tangents.

Steinbeck without question is an incredible storyteller. That is why this tale remains worthy all these decades later.

Book Review: ‘Women in Sunlight’ a delightful escape

I’m in Italy sitting in a piazza, people watching as I eat my decadent gelato dreaming about what delightful food will grace my plate at the next meal.

Oh, the power of books.

Women in Sunlight (Penguin Random House, 2018), a novel by Frances Mayes, was the perfect trip I needed in December. (She also wrote Under the Tuscan Sun.) Listening to the book transported me, got me out of the gray, dreariness of Northern California, and into a world I’ve often dreamed about. A summer in Tuscany to write, eat incredible food, and drink luscious wine, well, it’s been on the to-do list longer than I’d like to admit. The book, unbeknownst to me at the start, attempted to satiate this dream of mine and stirred a renewed desire to make it come true.

It’s about four women from the United States who find themselves in Italy for various reasons. Three new friends travel there, having leased a house for a year. The other has lived there for 12 years.

Maybe it was relatable because the women are close to my age; not something one often finds in novels.

The book is about their lives in both countries, their friendships, and how life continues on after death and divorce. While this may seem like a simple premise for a book, we all know life is not simple. We are thrown curve balls that nearly wound us and others that we hit out of the park. Life is no different for these women and the people in their lives.

Plus, there are so many other characters to become acquainted with. While there is a large a entourage, it is not difficult to keep track of everyone.

Mayes is such a talented writer. Her descriptions riveting to the point it’s like you can smell and taste the food she describes, or clearly see whatever she recounts—whether it’s the scenery, the people, the art, even the joys and sadness of the people who soon feel like friends.

It’s one of those rare times I didn’t want the book to end, and I where I would most definitely like to indulge in the next chapter, so to speak, of their lives.

Book Review: Learning to belong in ‘Braving the Wilderness’

Belonging. There can so much wrapped up in that one word. With how divided our society has become, it seems like belonging can be even harder today.

Brené Brown tackles this concept in her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 2017).

Brown is a professor, best-selling author, lecturer and podcast host.

The main sentiment was, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Being who we are can be difficult when what we want is to belong. But as Brown points out, there is a huge difference between belonging and fitting in. We belong when people accept us for who we are; we fit in when we adapt to someone else’s norms or to what a group finds acceptable.

Much of what is in the book is practical information that isn’t necessarily earth shaking. What she has done, though, is pull research together, give real life examples, and present a case for the importance of belonging.

First you have to be belong to yourself. That is what can be so challenging.

I listened to the book, which seemed to be more powerful than if I had read it. I think this is because Brown did the reading, so it was as though she was talking to me. It also afforded me the opportunity to rewind if I wanted to hear it again. Of course reading something you can reread it. For me, though, hearing her words proved to be powerful.

Book Review: Learning about more than 100 gutsy women

I can only imagine what the conversations must have been like when it came to deciding who would be included in the book and who would be left for volume two, assuming that is ever written.

The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience (Simon & Schuster, 2019) is a narrative about well more than 100 women. Some are names most people will recognize such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Sally Ride, Anne Frank, Billie Jean King. Some are lesser known and others I had never heard of before.

That is in large part why the authors wrote the book—to give a voice to women who we should all know about, but who never made it into history books or headlines. Some are dead, some are young. Both sides of the political aisle are represented.

Chapters categorize these women: Early Inspirations, Education Pioneers, Earth Defenders, Explorers and Inventors, Healers, Athletes, Advocates and Activists, Storytellers, Elected Leaders, Groundbreakers, and Women’s Rights Champions.

In many ways they all fit in the category of “women’s rights champions.” It’s not that every woman had that as a goal. But being successful in a man’s world often means a champion for women. They are all truly gutsy.

I learned so much in these 464 pages. For some of these women many books have been written about them already, or they have shared their own story. What Gutsy Women does is give highlights, insight and context, and even an introduction to people I would like to know more about.

And for the women who the authors know personally or who had an impact on their lives, this is shared.

Many will already know who the authors are, but I left that until now so that would not influence your opinion of the book. The authors are Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton.

Book Review: ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ reveals realities of Nazi occupation

Plenty of stories have been told about the heroic efforts of non-Jewish people helping out those who were the targets of Nazis during World War II. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017) offers the unique perspective of a couple who owned the zoo in Warsaw, Poland.

Author Diane Ackerman uses Antonina Zabinski’s diary to piece together what life was like at the zoo during the German occupation of Poland. With this being a true story, it was even more compelling to read.

Most of the animals were killed, sent away or essentially stolen. It would be hard to justify feeding them when food for humans was scarce. There were other complexities as well that involved the Germans wanting to have superior animals, just like they wanted to create what they deemed to be a superior race of humans.

Animal cages became places for humans to hideout. Silence was a necessity so as not to tip off the soldiers who were nearby. The lengths the couple went to to disguise their hideout are told in a captivating manner.

The intricacies of the underground world in Warsaw are told in some detail, which shows the lengths people went to to help others. Those who helped the Jews had everything to lose. But humanity had everything to gain, which is why to me these people are the true definition of hero.

Maybe I needed to read this book now because it’s important to remember there are plenty of good reasons to stand up to the government, to fight for justice, to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

By the time Warsaw was liberated, the Zabinskis had helped more than 300 people.

Book Review: Delving into history, lives of inmate firefighters

With California ablaze every year, one question to ask is: Who is extinguishing those fires?

Jaime Lowe in part answers that question in Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

Lowe started the project by focusing on one inmate—Shawna—who died while on the fire line. From there the author’s research took her into the inner workings of the state prison system. She delved into the history of prisons. She got to know inmates behind bars and once released.

This is a multidimensional book.

The book was featured by the Los Angeles Times book club, with the author giving a presentation in September. I agreed with Lowe when she said every woman she spoke with was worthy of her own book. She does a good job of telling “the rest of the story” about these women as she got to know them.

Breathing Fire also shines a light on the prison system and the firefighting program. I had no idea it would be so hard for these women (and men) to get jobs with fire crews once they were released. Naively I thought that was a large part of the reason for having the program.

Instead, the firefighting program is source of nearly free labor for the state.

As Lowe was working on the book the state law changed to create an easier path from prison firefighter to non-prison firefighter.

This book kept my attention the entire time. I learned so much. And while at times I was frustrated with the choices the women made, I was more furious with the system that continually failed them—and continues to do so today.

I’m glad this book came to my attention; I learned a lot and will always be grateful to everyone on the front lines of a fire. But I have a whole lot more respect for those who are relegated to wearing prison orange as they work to extinguish every fire.

Book Review: Alice Marble biography not just for tennis fans

The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery (Penguin Random House, 2020) is bound to appeal to people who don’t play tennis, but it is definitely a book for those who love this racket sport.

Robert Weintraub’s biography about Alice Marble (1913-1990) filled in pieces of this tennis star’s life that I did not know. It also corrects some of the errors or omissions from Marble’s two memoirs; one of which I’ve read.

Marble played at a time when the major tournaments like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open were for amateurs. This meant no money, just a trophy. How she made ends meet is all laid out in the book.

She won 18 grand slam events—singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. She is in the Tennis Hall of Fame.

She was born in Beckwourth, California, grew up in San Francisco, then lived in Southern California, and spent her last years in the Palm Springs area. She left her mark on the tennis world every place she lived once she took up the sport.

This book is more than tennis. It’s a glimpse into what the world was like at this time—politically, before-during-after World War II.

Marble was friends with A-list movie stars. She was a frequent guest at Hearst’s San Simeon. Will DuPont was one of her benefactors.

She was coached by Eleanor Tennant. Plenty is written about Tennant, who was a force in the tennis world.

For anyone who likes books about athletes and likes to learn about the time period the person played, this book is for you.

Book Review: ‘Emerald Mile’ a jewel full of adventure, river history

At times I felt like I was on the raft, wanting to hold on, to jump to the high side to balance it. It had been a long time since I was so engrossed by a book.

Author Kevin Fedarko easily transported me to the Grand Canyon River. And while many years ago I took a multi-day rafting on this majestic river, this story wasn’t about an ordinary paddle. “The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon” (Scribner, 2013) at times had my adrenaline rushing in the confines of my home.

Fedarko does more than merely write about an event that occurred in 1983 after an epic winter runoff. That alone would have been interesting and worth of my time—especially since I knew nothing about the Grand Canyon speed record.

“The Emerald Mile” has a ton of depth to it. It’s about the history of the river, about how dams started plugging her up, and the people who were involved in all of this. This book is part adventure-outdoor thriller and part history-political retrospect.

The buildup is necessary to understand the significance of the Glen Canyon Dam nearly coming apart because of the torrent of water rushing from the melting snow in Colorado. Fedarko creates a reverence for the river itself.

Just when I thought Fedarko was going off on some irrelevant tangent he wove it all together in a suspenseful, interesting manner. His adeptness to paint a picture with words  brought the story to life in colorful detail.

This book came recommended to me from Cliff Taylor, who I met when I had an extended stay at his place in Mulegé in Baja California Sur last November. He told me he had a bit part in it, then laughed. His bit part is funny; well, the description of him is.

This book was the perfect escape from life’s stressors.

Book Review: ‘My Own Words’ a look at RBG’s legal work

So much has been written about and by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed to read more. I’m glad I did.

“My Own Words” (Simon & Schuster, 2016) was published when the Supreme Court justice was still alive. It was written with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.

It’s a comprehensive collection of her speeches, decisions and dissents up until that time. They are woven together in a way that builds upon each other.

The narrative by Hartnett and Williams brings context and therefore clarity to the words.

It’s far from being a quick read because it’s all about the law. While some of the cases were well known to me, others not so much, and some not at all. The speeches were interesting because those went beyond the law into the thinking behind her interpretation of the decision’s outcome.

What would likely make this book interesting to anyone is the history and law. One does need to agree with RBG’s decisions to appreciate this book.

It would be hard to argue she was not a great legal scholar. That alone is reason to give her words your time.

Book Review: ‘Nature Fix’ proves importance of getting outside

Reading (actually listening to) “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017) could not have come at a better time.

I have long been a strong advocate for getting outside. I just didn’t know all of the science behind why or how truly beneficial it is to one’s entire well-being.

Having recently moved to suburbia has me a bit on edge. There’s just so much dang concrete here in Chico. This is after years spent in Tahoe as well as the last three winters in Baja with its expansive beaches along the Pacific Ocean as well as mountains. I had daily views of the outdoors, I could walk in nature from my front door. I don’t have that anymore. Now, mostly, I need to drive; though, fortunately not far to be immersed in Ma Nature.

What author Florence Williams taught me is how people thrive when nature is part of their lives. Even photos of nature can help. There are physical, mental and emotional benefits to nature.

Williams shares various studies that have been conducted by researchers throughout the world about the effects nature has on people. It’s more than just becoming unplugged from devices and not being cooped up indoors. There is proof that Mother Nature is like a positive drug without negative side effects.

It made me realize that perhaps some of the difficulty I was having adjusting to Chico was really a lack of nature. It’s amazing now when I take AJ to Bidwell Park that I literally feel a calmness come over me. I’ve been transformed from the concrete of my neighborhood within just minutes. Even better, my neighborhood has walking trails that are not concrete that go by man made lakes. It’s not Lake Tahoe or the Pacific Ocean, but it’s something–something good.

While the book has plenty of facts and figures to back up the message, it’s written in an easy to understand manner. It is definitely not a scientific journal.

If you ever doubted the power of the outdoors, this will have you convinced doctors should be writing “get outside” on prescription pads instead of take some drug.

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