Readings I’ve Enjoyed

The Good Earth (1931) – Pearl S. Buck Buck, the daughter of missionaries, spent much of her life in China and many of her novels are about China and its people.  The Good Earth, her best known novel is about Wang Lung, a peasant farmer who, with the help of his wife,  O-Lan, becomes wealthy.  They struggle through famine, warfare, and other challenges along the way.  And along the way wealth brings about changes in Wang Lung, though he never loses his love for the soil.  To me, O-Lan, though not pretty or particularly intelligent, is the heroic figure in this novel.  Wang Lung and O-Lan have a number of children including a daughter who is developmentally disabled.  Despite her handicap, Wang Lung has a special bond with her.  Buck had a daughter who had a similar handicap, and it is obvious that Wang Lung’s daughter, “the poor fool,” is modeled on Buck’s own child.

Music as a Mirror of History (2016) – Professor Robert Greenberg This is an offering from The Great Courses.  Most of the courses are available in either audio or video formats.  This is one that works well in the audio-only format because it’s all about the music and the history.  Video would be nice perhaps, but it wouldn’t add much to your understanding.  Professor Greenberg is often irreverent and occasionally a bit crude, but he’s always entertaining and informative.  Most of his courses focus almost totally on the music he has chosen, but this course is, I think, more history than music.  You’ll want to  listen to this course more than once if you expect to absorb all of the interesting information contained in it.  I highly recommend any and all of his courses.  He is a natural performer, and his ability to grab and hold your attention makes his lectures memorable.

The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality (2017) – Don Lincoln This Great Courses course must be seen and well as heard.  It is a deep dive into the world of quantum physics by a teacher who is excellent at making complex science accessible to those of us who aren’t physicists.  That being said, you will probably get lost at times if you’re not a physicist.  What I’m saying is that the course is worthwhile even though you probably won’t understand it all.  After watching and listening to Lincoln’s lectures, you’ll have an idea of just how complex but fascinating subatomic physics is.  And those articles you see about quarks and the newest subatomic particle that’s just been discovered will make more sense to you. The visuals in this course are superb.  As an alternative to The Theory of Everything I suggest Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  It’s not as in-depth, but it’s much easier to understand.

The Illustrated Man (1951) – Ray Bradbury The Illustrated Man in Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name has tattoos (or illustrations) all over his body. Each one has the ability to magically “come to life” so you can watch the story associated with the tattoo.  Though I’m not particularly interested in science fiction about travel to other planets and such, I was captivated by Bradbury’s ability to take a vague idea and develop it into a fascinating story.  For instance, he envisioned a spaceship blowing up in outer space and leaving the astronauts floating in different directions, and wondered what might happen to them.  He didn’t know, so he wrote a short story to find out.  Of course his imagination took over and gave us a very good story – one I would never have imagined.  There are 18 stories all of which, except for one, had previously been published.  When some of the stories ended, I thought, “Is that all there is?  What’s the point?”  But some of the stories like “Marionettes, Inc.” had a good storyline with an ending that would have made O. Henry proud.

Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World (2015) – David Lehman Frank Sinatra was arguably the greatest male vocalist in the history of popular music.  He was also a very complex human being.  David Lehman discusses it all in this excellent profile of “the chairman of the board.”  My takeaway from Lehman’s book is that Sinatra the man could be kind and thoughtful one minute and angry and violent the next.  We know that he sometimes trashed the furniture in his hotel rooms, but he also aided many people financially when they were down and out – and often did it anonymously.  He didn’t read music, but he would study every song before he sang it and develop specific ideas about how to approach it.  In effect, he developed a game plan for everything he sang.  He seldom did more than one take and became very upset if he was forced to record a song more than once.  A great singer? Always.  A good human? Sometimes. 

The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel (2019) – Marie Benedict The beautiful and talented Viennese-born actress Hedwig “Hedy” Lamar was much more than an actress.  She was also an inventor.  This biographical novel is about both aspects of her life.  She was not trained in science, but seemed to have a natural knack for scientific thinking.  She married a German businessman who seemed like a nice, thoughtful guy.  After their marriage, she learned how brutal he could be.  She also learned that he was doing business with the Nazis.  Eventually she got away from him, ended up in the U.S., and became a well-known actress.  During World War II the U.S. used torpedoes that could be guided to their targets by remote control.  The problem was that the enemy learned how to detect the guidance signal and its frequency and then interrupted the communication.  Lamar had the idea that multiple frequencies could be used with both the transmitter and the receiver in the torpedoes knowing what the sequence of the frequencies would be and when the switches from one to another would occur.  Since the enemy would not know what the ever-changing frequencies would be, they would be unable to divert the torpedoes.  Unfortunately, Lamar never received credit for her brilliant idea – in part because no one could believe that a beautiful actress could be capable of such complex thought.  Benedict’s novel is based on Lamar’s life, but includes dialogue, etc. that he (by necessity) made up. 

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution (2018) – Todd S. Purdum Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II both had very successful careers before they teamed up.  Rodgers had a very fruitful partnership with Lorenz “Larry” Hart until Hart’s heavy drinking made it impossible for Rodgers to depend on him.  Hammerstein wrote lyrics for operetta greats Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml, as well as the great Jerome Kern (especially notable was 1927’s Show Boat).  But the Broadway musicals they created together were and are truly unforgettable.  Their first collaboration in 1943 was Oklahoma! which, for the first time, fully integrated the musical numbers into the storyline.  Something Wonderful is the story behind their collaborations – from Oklahoma! in 1943 through their most beloved collaboration The Sound of Music in 1959.  Purdum had lots of stories to tell along the way, and anyone interested in Broadway will quickly devour Something Wonderful.

The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind (1999) – Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff,  Patricia K. Kuhl There is some debate about whether or not the human brain in newborns is a blank slate.  That debate will probably never be settled, but this book shows through numerous experiments that babies are capable of thought far earlier than many people imagined. For instance, if a young child sees a toy car go behind a piece of cardboard and come out at the other end, it will quickly learn to expect the car to do so every time it goes behind the cardboard.  It gets confused if the car does not come out where and when it is expected.  The authors site numerous experiments like this to show just how much babies can think.  One of the interesting takeaways for me was the realization that even babies get bored and look for new experiences.  If you give a baby a toy it will play with it for a while, then discard it.  Give the baby a new toy and the sequence of events will be repeated.  I never tired of learning about the ingenious way researchers found to test their ideas about the intelligence of babies, and I was constantly delighted to realize how much their young minds function.

Henrietta  & Eleanor: A Retelling of Jekyl and Hyde (2018) – Libby Spurrier As the title indicates, this book is a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde but the setting is modern-day London and Jekyl is a woman, not a man.  It is an Audible Original with a full cast, music, and sound effects.  It’s 2 hours 50 minutes long, and  once you start listening to it, you won’t want to stop.  I’m a fan of old-time radio and I assure you that it’s as good as anything produced during radio’s golden age.  The audio book is only available through Audible and Amazon since it  is an Audible Original.

Weird Things Customers Say in Book Stores (2016) – Jen Campbell Jen Campbell works in a bookstore in London.  She has had customers say some very weird things.  Her first experience with this concerned a woman who entered the store when Campbell works.  The woman said she had just finished The Diary of Anne Frank and wanted to know if Frank ever wrote a sequel. At first Campbell thought she was perhaps the only one who ran across odd people, but she soon found out that many, many booksellers had had similar – and sometimes even weirder – experiences.  So she gathered tales from booksellers in many countries and published Weird Things.  I must say that some of the stories in the book made me laugh, while others made me shudder at the thought of the customers mentioned ever getting their hands on the nuclear codes – or even a driver’s license and an automobile.  Here are a few examples:

Customer: Do you have a book on the Enlightenment?

Bookseller: Sure.

Customer: Excellent.  My son’s just about to start studying it at school.  It’s all about the light bulb being invented, right?

            (At a university bookstore)

Customer: I’m looking for a book for my Northern Anthropology Class.

Bookseller: I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that class. Do you know the title, or have your syllabus with you?

Customer: No.

Bookseller: Right. What’s your overall course in?

Customer: Literature.

Bookseller: Oh. (pause) So, not anthropology?

Customer: No.

Bookseller: Right. Are you looking for the Norton Anthology?

Customer: Yes, that’s it!

Customer: Do you have any Willa Catheter?

            (A child is playing with a book on the floor and rips it.)

Child’s mother: Oh, Stephen (she tuts in a non-serious way).  Do be careful.  (She takes the book off the child and puts it back on the shelf)

Bookseller: Excuse me?

Child’s mother: Yes?

Bookseller: Your son just ripped the head off the tiger who came to tea.

Child’s mother: I know. Children, eh?

Bookseller: Yes, but we can’t sell that book now. It’s damaged.

Child’s mother: Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.

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