Although I’m not very consistent with it, I find it helpful to blog my books because it helps me think more clearly about them. It’s the adult version of narration, if you will. I was going to do a full post on a couple of these books, but the best-laid plans of mice and all that.
So this is a post covering what I’ve read this month, with the exception of something I know I’m forgetting, but I can’t remember what. Which, yes, is the definition of “forgetting.” Hush.
First, a bit of pool-side summer fluff. Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International is free for Kindle. If you like action/adventure/fantasy campy fun with lots of monsters (and I do), it’s an absolute blast. I bought the second one and am planning on buying the next couple for the beach.
Early this month, I listened to the audiobook of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I remember first hearing about it on a RadioLab five years ago when the book first came out. This is an amazing story of one woman and an amazing scientific discovery. It is equal parts fascinating and horrifying. On one hand, the HELA cells, of which Henrietta Lacks is the source, are one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the story of Henrietta’s family after her death is heartbreaking, and the callous way science treats the sources of tissue samples is disturbing.
I was going to have my 15-year-old listen to this, but I’m going to wait for a couple of years. The details of what happened to Henrietta’s children after her death are distressing, and I want to give her a few more years before exposing her to these painful realities. But it will definitely be on her reading list as a junior or senior. It’s a well-told story that combines important topics of scientific discovery, the moral and ethical limits of science, our countries struggles with institutionalized racism, and the importance of mothers.
There are a lot of “wow” moments in this book, but most impressive to me–even more than the amazing HELA cells themselves–is the strength of Henrietta and her children, particularly Deborah, in the face of intense trials. Even if you aren’t going to read or listen to the book, take ten minutes to listen to the RadioLab piece. I listen to a lot of podcasts, but I remember listening to this story even five years later.
The next book I read was also equal parts fascinating and horrifying, at least horrifying to some. Actually, I found it great fun, but for the grammatically persnickity among us, it might be troubling. In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English John McWhorter traces the rough and tumble history of the English language. I learned of this book from the fascinating podcast History of the English Language. If you like words and language and history, both of these resources are highly recommended.
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McWhorter talks about how the intermingling of English speakers and their predecessors with all sorts of neighbors — both on friendly and unfriendly terms — shaped not only the English vocabulary but also English grammar. We picked up odd bits here (the meaningless “do”: Do you want a drink?) and dropped a bunch of stuff there (all the endings that make learning foreign languages so…challenging.) The Viking that gave us skirt and disk, also helped us get rid of the superfluous (from our point of view) endings.
But my biggest takeaway from both the book and the podcast is that English is still — and probably always will be — in flux. And it’s always tending to ease of use, simplicity, and efficiency. While grammarians may try to force English into its Sunday best, sit politely with its ankles together, and sip tea, English is born to go brawling and maybe even slumming. So while irregardless and “I could care less” cause us Grammar Nazis to cringe, the reality is that these formations will probably be accepted language within our lifetimes.
Finally, I read Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. As I told a friend on Facebook, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so beautiful, uplifting, and heartbreaking at the same time. It reminds me a great deal of Home by Marilynne Robinson, which is also a lovely, bittersweet book. I have one minor quibble with the book, and that’s the chapter on war toward the end that’s a bit jarring. By itself, it is a well-written chapter with important things to say. It just seems out of place in Port William, which may be the point. But anyway, it took me some effort to get back into the flow of the rest of the book. Your mileage may vary.
While I don’t necessarily agree with the extent of Berry’s idealization of rural life, he does paint a lovely picture of a time and place that is almost completely lost. And the wisdom he shares about the Membership and belonging and accepting are for any age and any people, not just those on small farms in a quiet, green valley.
What have you read lately? What are you packing in your suitcase this summer?