Category Archives: book recommendations

Book Recommendation: The Overstory by Richard Powers

So I heard about this novel that was about …  trees. I had no idea what a novel about trees would be like. But I like trees (that may be an understatement), so I got my hands on a copy. I started reading it, and sure, trees appeared in the initial parts. But I didn’t immediately see where things were going, or why the reviews I read had framed this as a novel about trees. That said, at some point, I’m not sure when, I really got into it.

What a world that Powers creates! His rich descriptions of all aspects of the varied trees that the cast of characters encounter and engage with took me back to childhood nature walks where I was encouraged to notice and revel in the minutiae of a natural world all around us that is all too easy to take for granted. What I’m saying is: stick with it, even if this book doesn’t immediately grab you.

In fact, if you need a break from a cubicle or other dreary workspace, or if inhospitable weather is getting you down, that might be a particularly good time to get this book, and immerse yourself in a story of twisting and turnings, both in the roots below us, the branches above us, and the lives of the people around us.

Book Recommendation: Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg

Looking for a fast, fun read that gets your brain juices flowing about how to make a flourishing community? Well, look no further than Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life

That full title is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll give my own gloss: in that book, Klinenberg introduces the idea of social infrastructure – all the places and stuff and systems that can help us develop and thrive as social beings (or get in the way of social flourishing). With chapters about libraries, residential neighborhoods, schools, green spaces, and more, this book really gets you thinking about how those things (or lack thereof) impact quality of life for everyone in a community, whether they realize it or not.

I have very fond memories of my family walking to the local Carnegie library on Friday nights with an old, half-broken picnic basket to fill with kids books. I remember the “ka-thunk” sound of the librarian putting cards into the slot on the top of a machine that would stamp on the due date and then tucking them into the special envelopes at the back of the books. I remember the majestic-seeming stuffed bison head that hung at the top of the stairway, and the smooth glide of the drawers in the adults’ rooms card catalog. Everything about the public library was, to me, a source of wonder and delight – may we all, together, take the necessary steps to ensure that our public libraries, parks, and other elements of our social infrastructure do as much to support the flourishing of the new generation as they did for me when I was young.

Book Recommendation: My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, which is about about her childhood, education, and early career up through her first appointment as a judge, is a book that I’ve had on my list for a while, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m really glad I made time for it. Her writing style drew me in right from the first few pages, and her story shed light on places, times, and cultural practices that I didn’t know all that much about. When you add to that Sotomayor’s finely tuned skills in self-reflection, by the end, the book left me feeling like she and I could be old friends.

Sotomayor’s life has been different from mine in many, many ways, but I found a lot of what she had to say about growing up resonating with me. (What she had to say about integrating logic and emotions was particularly welcome to me.) And, since part of her stated purpose for writing it was to be of use or reassurance to others whose ambitions somehow outstrip the circumstances of their upbringing, I can safely say that the book served that purpose for me.

Book recommendation: The Mechanical by Ian Tregilis

Let the summer reading commence!

The Mechanical, by Ian Tregilis, is an adventure story set within an alternate history in which Christiaan Huygens used alchemy to create and enslave thousands of mechanical people, which allowed the Dutch to maintain a worldwide empire for over 250 years. The story puts you inside the perspective of a range of characters, including a mechanical named Jax, a noblewoman at the head of a French spy network, a Dutch pastor, and many more. It is a fun read that can be taken at a galloping pace, but if you slow to a walk, there is a lot to think about regarding free will, sectarian religious disagreements, colonialism and slavery, human reliance on technology, and other substantial philosophical issues.

You can read a sample at https://www.orbitbooks.net/orbit-excerpts/the-mechanical/ and the good news is that once you get sucked in (like I did) there are two more books in the series: The Rising and The Liberation.

Book recommendation: Teeth by Mary Otto

Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America is a great book, one that I strongly recommend.

Whether you are interested in health care justice; the history of dental practices, education, and policy in America; ways to use public and private resources more efficiently; the biology of the human mouth; or ways to alleviate the significant suffering of your neighbors, this book by Mary Otto has something for you.

Painful toothache, oral disease, and tooth loss are chronic, widespread, devastating problems in our society. Huge numbers of our fellow citizens have no access to dental services, whether because of lack of money to pay for insurance or dental services on the private market, shortages of dental providers in many geographical areas, or a number of other reasons. These dental problems often make it difficult or impossible to get or keep various types of jobs. These problems are easy to ignore IF you are a relatively well-off person with access to dental care on the private market. Such people often blame dental problems on the individual choices of those who suffer them, without a full understanding of the facts about access to dental care in the US. Otto’s book shines a brilliant light on that bigger picture.

The good news is that these dental problems are largely preventable. All we need is the will to devote some of our existing resources to the solutions that have already met with significant success in places where people have fought hard to implement them.

Book recommendation: Animals in Translation

While I was terrified of dogs as a child, basically never had pets, didn’t grow up on a farm, and thus haven’t spent a lot of time directly interacting with animals, I’ve always enjoyed learning about them. That is part of why I loved a book that I read recently, Animals in Translation. If you aren’t familiar with Temple Grandin, the author of the book, this is a great way to start learning about her important work. Her accomplishments are staggering – it is safe to say that by restructuring the physical environments in which livestock animals live and die, she has done more to improve the safety and well-being of domesticated animals in America than any other individual.

Temple Grandin’s success is possible because of her autism, not in spite of it. As a person whose sensory experience of the world differs from most humans, she is able to see things from a perspective that she says is like that of non-human animals in many ways. By translating that perspective into action, she has earned her fame. And by translating her first-person experiences and expert knowledge into a highly engaging book, Temple Grandin gives all of us incredibly valuable insight into the inner lives of both people on the autism spectrum and non-human animals of various kinds.

Book recommendations about democracy & the workplace

Elizabeth Anderson’s new book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), was even more of an eye-opener for me than her last one (The Imperative of Integration). In her latest book, Anderson defends answers two main questions: (a) “why do we talk as if workers are free at work, and that the only threats to individual liberty come from the state? (xx)” and (b) how could we talk differently about the ways that employers constrain workers, potentially helping restructure workplaces to better serve the interests of workers?

In answering those questions, Anderson critiques the ideology that undergirds the dictatorial control that many employers exert over their employees, both on and off the job. In doing so, she carefully analyzes the historical context in which that ideology arose and explains why that ideology (which appeared to be rational prior to the Industrial Revolution) cannot be defended in the world as we now know it.  The book also includes critical comments from two historians, a philosopher, and an economist, as well as Anderson’s responses to them, which I found very useful.

While reading it, I couldn’t help but think back on Richard Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, another excellent book about how workers could have more say in their working conditions, and the many benefits that could be gained from structuring workplaces as democracies. I particularly appreciated the clarity with which Wolff explains distinctions between various kinds of capitalisms and socialisms, which are easy to mix up (and often are mixed up).

While you are at it, or if you want something on the lighter side that engages with similar ideas, why not try The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki?

Book recommendation: New York 2140

The earth’s climate is changing, and humans are a significant cause of that change. The effects of climate change include, among other things: rising sea level and global average temperature, increasing severe weather events, ocean acidification, desertification, extinction of species, not to mention the illness, displacement, and other problems that will accrue directly to us humans. Those are the facts, the reality we have to face up to. But questions about how best to move forward are hard to answer, and it is hard to motivate people to productively address the situation. I think that is partly because it is hard to imagine how those big changes will impact identifiable humans who we care about.

Thankfully, we have Kim Stanley’s Robinson’s excellent novel, New York 2140, to help us with that. It is a real page turner full of interesting characters, dramatic events, and human ingenuity in the year 2140, after sea levels have risen 50 feet, turning much of the city into a new Venice of canals instead of streets and people living in the upper floors of skyscrapers with submerged bases. I liked the book’s attention to the economics involved in bringing about and adapting to the climate crisis – I don’t see a lot of that elsewhere, and it gave me some good food for thought.

You may also want to listen to a great interview with the author about his book on Science Friday.

Book recommendation: Minimizing Marriage

Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, by Elizabeth Brake, is a thoughtful, respectful investigation of the moral and legal status of marriage as it actually exists and as it could exist in a more ideal society.

Brake argues forcefully that current marriage practices privilege amatonormative relationships (those between monogamous sexual pairs) in ways that unjustly discriminate against other caring relationships (like friendships and relationships between people who live together without sexual/romantic intimacy) and thus that we ought to extend marriage rights to a wider range of voluntary relationships between consenting, caring adults.

I couldn’t agree more. I wish I had written this book, but thankfully Brake already has, and has done so more skillfully than I ever could. Now I just hope that more and more people read it.

Book recommendation: A Primate’s Memoir

We’ve entered summer reading season (hooray!!). What do you like in a book for summer?

(a) humor
(b) plenty of adventure
(c) a window into the cultures, politics, and economics of far off places
(d) science that doesn’t require expert background knowledge
(e) all of the above

If you choose (e), then allow me to recommend A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert Sapolsky. I loved this book!!