Favorite Books of 2018

The first week of January I usually go over the list of books I read the prior year and make a list of my favorites. Note, these are the books I read in 2018, not necessarily books published in 2018. (In fact, very few are from 2018 as I rarely buy hardcover books.) They are in approximate rank order of favorites, though on any given day the order will likely change (though I don’t think there would be much movement in the top 3).

For those of you curious about such things, I read 123 books last year (that’s a kind of fun number, isn’t it?)—more poetry than anything else, but fairly evenly balanced with fiction and nonfiction. My list, however, is not at all balanced, running heavily nonfiction. I have not been in much of a fiction place for the last year or so. A book really has to knock my socks off to make an impression. That’s probably reflected in my list. Also, I read a lot more light/escapist fiction than nonfiction. Light books can be a nice diversion, but they tend not to have staying power.

In contrast, these favorite books have staying power, often occupying my thoughts for days after I finish the book, and sometimes much longer. Here are the books that I most loved in 2018:

1. You Can’t Touch My Hair, by Phoebe Robinson is hands-down the best book I read in 2018. I recommended it to more people and learned more from it than any other book I read last year. This is a race-based book, mostly focused on black women. It is very direct, and will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but most of the friends I’ve recommended it to have also loved it. Some have even recommended it to others.

2. The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon is one of the few fiction books on the list. This is a YA novel, but I’ve been recommending it to my friends and it has been well received. I liked it so much I didn’t want to put it down, and read it in one day (344 pages—not long, but not a novella). Highly recommended to one and all, and especially people interested in immigration issues. The only thing I regret about this book is that I got it from the library, so now I don’t have my own copy.

3. Homer’s Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper was a surprise December find. It was mentioned at Thanksgiving dinner; I got it from the library in early December. I expected this memoir about a blind cat to be sad (possibly even pathetic) but it was the opposite. Little Homer is just a crackerjack; an intrepid explorer, and a charmer. If you like cats, you might want to meet Homer.

4. After the Stroke, by May Sarton. I’ve loved all of May Sarton’s journals, and this was no exception. This is the first time I’ve read this particular journal (I have reread several of her others) so that made After the Stroke particularly refreshing. This journal focuses primarily on her recovery from a stroke—both regaining her physical strength and her writing strength. A lovely book.

5. My Cat Saved My Life, by Phillip Schreibman. Apparently 2018 was a good year in cat books for me! This short memoir is too short to really say much about without giving away the store. If you like cats at all (or are thinking about getting a cat, or like reading books about people and animals) check it out. Can easily be read in an afternoon, though I stretched it out over several days.

6. Grace, Eventually, by Anne Lamott. Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual writers. She’s good at reminding me of things that I need reminding of; she’s got a wry sense of humor; she makes me think; and sometimes she comes up with good suggestions for every day life.

7. The Panther and the Lash, by Langston Hughes. Poetry of great power. This was a reread for me, and while I liked it the first time I read it, I loved it this second time.

8. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, by Krista Tippett. This book is based on a wide variety of people that Tippett has interviewed over the years, which she portrays through five categories: words, flesh, love, faith, and hope. I am quite sure I will reread this book.

9. Great Tide Rising, by Kathleen Dean Moore. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this book made me look forward to climate change, it certainly made me dread it less. It gave me both hope and faith, and gave me some good ideas about changes I can make and things I can do as an individual that can indeed help save the world.

10. Slow Medicine, by Victoria Sweet. Sweet, herself a medical doctor, tells the story of things she learned—both fast and slow—in medical school, internships, and residencies. Based on the concept of the slow food movement, Sweet suggests that while fast medicine is good for many things (e.g., broken bones, heart attacks) it would be well complemented with slow medicine, which is often good at those very things that fast medicine has more trouble with (chronic conditions like eczema, for example). I found it fascinating and it got me interested in traditional Chinese medicine.

11. Covering Rough Ground, by Kate Braid is an excellent, fun book of poetry that I truly enjoyed. These poems focus on her experience as carpenter, a rare woman in a world of men. A book of wonderful empowering poems.

12. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber is not your typical spiritual read, but Bolz-Weber is not your typical pastor (or pastrix, if you will—the derogatory label that she has adopted with pride). She is quite profane and takes no shit. Unconventional to be sure. Interesting? Yes. Compelling? Yes. Did I learn something? Yes. Will I read her again? Absolutely.

13. Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. I read this book after I saw the movie of the same title, which I loved. For those of you who missed it, this is the story of African American women and the roles they played at NASA and in the space program. The book is quite different from the movie, as per usual, since it’s difficult to get a whole book into a 2-hour movie. The book has a lot more background information and a lot more science, more people and more relationships. I loved both the book and the movie. Don’t make me choose.

14. Reflections on Aging, by Bruce McBeath & Robin Wipperling is almost a coffee table book. As I was reading through it, I thought it a bit skimpy and light. But. Later I went back to it, looking for a snippet I remembered, and found myself rereading huge chunks. Found myself saying, “I should reread this every five years.” And I think I will.

15. Now the Green Blade Rises, by Elizabeth Spires, is a poetry book that had been on my to-read shelf for over a decade. Why in the world did it take me so long to discover this poet? Delightful poems. And she has several more books; so much to discover!

16. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce was my final book of the year. This is a rather quirky novel about a man’s pilgrimage to visit a dying friend, and the impact the journey has on him, his relationships, and total strangers. An excellent book to wrap up the year.

That’s it. The best of 2018, from where I’m sitting in Minnesota.

What was your favorite book of 2018?

Talking about a Revolution

Bernie Sanders was in Minneapolis today, with bagels at 9:30 a.m. and a town hall meeting at 10. We planned to arrive around 9:15 (more to secure a chair than a bagel). I’m familiar with the neighborhood and figured I could find us a parking spot within a couple blocks of the venue. But we hit a snag when we saw cars circling around several blocks from the venue, quickly took the next spot we could find, and walked the seven blocks.

Oh my. Oh my oh my. People on people, far more than we expected. It was a line. A very long line. We walked to the end of the line—about three blocks long and not single file. Standing. Waiting. It was the most wonderful atmosphere. Casual chitchat, people listening to other comments and chiming in, mostly about how excited we were to see so many people out at a town hall meeting on a Sunday morning.

The line actually did start moving, and unbelievably we made it into the building. Lots of people got in line behind us—at least another three blocks worth. I would estimate the crowd at 5,000, and my spouse estimated same. It was standing room only by the time we got inside (there were no bagels to be seen, though I did see one person eating one, so I believe they brought some, though probably not 5,000).

We found a small staircase so we could see him above the crowd. It was exciting. It was exciting to be in the crowd, watching Bernie Sanders, listening to him affirm almost everything I believe in.

  • We need to act on climate change
  • Universal health care (like pretty much every other developed nation has)
  • Citizens United is a go-card for billionaires
  • Reducing the negative impact of free trade
  • Increasing the minimum wage
  • Addressing the growing wealth gap
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Tax rates on the wealthy that are higher than the tax rates paid by their minions

A political revolution. Making the people at least as important as the corporations. Imagine that.

The crowd was vast, and I was glad to see lots of young people there, as well as parents with young—and also teenage—children. A lot of people wore political T-shirts, and I sure as shit wish I had a Wellstone T-shirt I could wear but I don’t, so I wore my University of Minnesota sweatshirt (which was probably better since it was in the 40s this morning). I saw someone sporting a Mondale-Ferraro button. A classic Greenpeace sweatshirt. It had a bit of the feeling of a festival.

As we left, we were walking down the street and started talking to a woman walking beside us. She had told some friends she was coming to see Bernie Sanders today, and they asked, “Who is he?” She bemoaned the fact that they know practically every major league football player, but have never heard of Bernie Sanders.

I think most people know more football players than politicians, and this has suddenly struck me as wrong. What are we doing? Why aren’t we paying attention?

They were sold out of T-shirts by the time we got there, but I got a button and a bumper sticker. And a lot of hope.

Climate Hope

I’ve made good progress on Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, closing in on the last 100 pages. I have learned some amazing things:

  • In 2013, the oil and gas industry spent nearly $400,000 a day lobbying Congress and government officials. Yes, that is $400,000 a DAY. Just in the United States.
  • Agroecology, a farming method using sustainable methods coupled with modern science and local knowledge, produces more per acre than industrial farming while limiting use of expensive products such as chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and patented seeds. Not only are these methods better for the soil, they sequester carbon in the soil, avoid fossil-fuel based fertilizers, and tend to use less carbon for transportation to market (primarily because they are often local or regional).
  • Most fracking operations are exempt from regulations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. (This is referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.) But fracking has been found to put drinking water—including aquifers—at risk. An Alberta study found that methane concentrations were six times higher in water wells within a kilometer of a fracked gas well. Some people can start their tap water on fire!

flaming water 2

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has joined a lawsuit opposing fracking-related activities near his Texas home. Even the perpetrators know it’s not a good thing to have in your backyard. Much better that it’s someone else’s backyard. But that’s the problem with the growth in exploring, fracking, and extracting: It’s closer to pretty much everyone’s backyard. Even CEOs with $5 million homes. But in a way, that’s also the good news. It’s no longer hidden in remote areas or “sacrifice zones.”

As these extreme forms of oil and gas extraction expand, so does the pushback from local communities.

  • In Greece, they are fighting a plan to cut down old-growth forest and reengineer the local water system (yikes!) in order to build a huge open-pit gold and copper mine, along with a processing plant and a large underground mine.
  • Pungesti, a farming community in Romania, built a protest camp in response to the country’s first shale gas exploration well.
  • In New Brunswick, Canada, they are opposing seismic testing ahead of a possible fracking operation.
  • Numerous protests and blockades have arisen in the rural U.K., often blocking access to fracking sites. (About half of the land in Great Britain is under consideration for fracking.)
  • Herders in Mongolia are protesting plans to increase open-pit coal mining.
  • In New South Wales, Australia, opposition to increased coal mining continues to grow.

There have been victories! When the natural gas industry tried fracking around Ithaca, New York, they faced formidable opposition including researchers at Ithaca-based Cornell University. The research conducted not only kept fracking out of Ithaca but contributed to more than 150 fracking bans and moratoriums across the state of New York.

After efforts to open the South of France to fracking, France became the first country to adopt a nationwide fracking ban.

It’s enough to give one hope.

woman with featherIt didn’t surprise me to learn that women are playing a prominent role in these protests. In New Brunswick, the image of a Mi’kmaq mother, kneeling in the middle of a road before a line of riot police, holding up a single eagle feather, was seen around the world.

And it isn’t just blockades and protests that are cropping up. There is a growing campaign calling for a worldwide ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic region as well as the Amazon. There is also a push for a global moratorium on tar sands extraction anywhere in the world.

Divestment is another strategy that is growing some decent legs.

Under increasing pressure, the World Bank (as well as several other large international funders that Klein doesn’t name) has announced that they will no longer offer financing to coal projects (“except in exceptional circumstances,” which sounds like a major loophole to me).

Young people have been particularly involved in the divestment movement, most especially at colleges and universities. Their rationale: These are the institutions entrusted to prepare them for their future, and it is the height of hypocrisy for those same institutions to profit from an industry that is basically destroying their future. The movement is growing. Within six months of its launch (toward the end of 2012), there were divestment campaigns on more than 300 campuses, and more than 100 cities, states, and religious institutions. More and more, these organizations are announcing they will divest their endowments of fossil fuel stocks and bonds.

More hope.

There is much more to do (and nearly 100 pages more to read in the book), but I no longer feel so lonely on this issue. And I know there are things I can do. Like contact my alma mater and ask them to divest. Ditto some of our local foundations. Next steps.

Reading Theme: Foreign Country; Conclusion: Yikes!

Klein bookAfter I finished No Ordinary Time, the 700+ page tome by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for some crazy reason I picked up another large tome (500+ pages) the next day. Oh, truth be told, I picked it up because I couldn’t wait to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It has made for an extremely interesting read alongside some of the books for October’s reading theme: foreign country.

The first book it paired with in a creepy futuristic way was The Windup Girl,Windup by Paulo Bacigalupi. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, in a post-petroleum world, the U.S. is holding much of the world hostage through developing and dispersing plagues (affecting primarily crops, but animals are often fallout), and then offering genetically engineered foods and seeds which resist the plague. Does this sound scarily like Monsanto to you? Not to worry, the company is Agri-Gen (with Pur-Cal as a strong competitor). Shades of General Mills, Cargill, and ADM. NOT a future very difficult to imagine. In fact, we are already halfway there, with our round-up pesticides and our round-up-pesticide-resistant seeds. Oh, and of course the seeds are sterile. The greatest abomination against nature I can think of—to deny seeds reproduction. It is the very essence of seeds to grow and provide more seeds.

Next, capitalism. I’ve only just started Lost and Found in Russia, but as Russia moved away from Communism they applied “Shock Therapy”—the approach favored by the World Bank and grounded in Western economic theory (think Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics). As a result of this recommended approach, prices shot up, with inflation reaching 2000%. Within a year, over 40% of Russians were living in poverty (compared to 1.5% before the “economic revolution”). The seriously dark side of capitalism.

L PerdidaEven the graphic novel I’m reading, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, brings up issues of capitalistic dominance. A Mexican says to a visitor from the States, “You grow up with the dollar who rides on the backs of the poor people of the world, and guns in every closet, and Hollywood that tell you you are right! . . . I am also upset at the government of the United States and el NAFTA! They do not leave me alone! . . . [Y]ou represent the invasion of American Hollywood and imperialism of cultural and economics.”

Eula Biss, in Notes from No Man’s Land, also mentions NAFTA. (I meant to read this for theBiss award-winning books theme for last month—it won the National Book Critics Circle Award—but I didn’t finish it until early October. An excellent book focusing on racial issues, and the best book on race by a white person that I’ve read yet.) After a trip to Mexico, Biss reflects on the American-owned power plants and maquiladoras on the U.S-Mexican border, and the opposition of the Zapatistas and the Indian peasants in Chiapas to NAFTA.

While Clinton was promising that NAFTA would “lift all boats,” the Zapatistas warned that NAFTA would bring falling prices for corn, falling wages for workers, and the loss of land to foreign investors. That is exactly what happened. Because Iowa corn imported into Mexico is heavily subsidized by the United States government, the price of corn in Mexico fell by half during the first ten years of NAFTA. More than a million farmers were displaced from their land and forced to migrate to the cities or the United States, where they became day laborers, picking U.S. crops.

So wouldn’t you think that Mexico would just give preference to local corn? Well it turns out that they can’t. It’s illegal. I have learned from Klein’s book that under the rules of the World Trade Organization, supports for local industry are considered protectionist. In fact, favoring local industry constitutes illegal discrimination. Whoa. Yes! “[T]he most basic rule of trade law is that you can’t privilege domestic over foreign.” Have you ever heard such a cockamamie law? Not to mention destructive—to our local workers, our local economies, our environment, and the world.

We always (at least I always) want to blame the Republicans for these huge agreements thatclinton 2
benefit the rich at the expense of pretty much everyone else but most especially the poor and even more especially, poor farmers. But no, this time it was the Democrats—Bill Clinton, specifically, with the support of the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, National Audubon Society (that just breaks my heart), Natural Resources Defense Council (they used to be my #1 national charity), and the World Wildlife Fund. (In case you want to know who didn’t cave to Al Gore and big business, that would include Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and a lot of small organizations.)

We have a very serious uphill climb ahead of us. It’s not all doom and gloom. Naomi Klein is even cautiously optimistic. If we act now, in a very serious, concerted way, actually privileging the planet over the economy, we could avoid the tipping point. We don’t have to return to the neanderthal stage. Though if we don’t do anything, we probably will. I haven’t gotten to the optimistic part of the book yet. I’ll get back to you.

Hot, Soon to be Hotter

Hot BookI’m reading the book Hot, by Mark Hertsgaard. It’s about climate change. I thought it was going to be a bit of a slog, but in fact it’s readable and compelling, and even with a personal slant (Hertsgaard has a young daughter, and he is particularly concerned about climate change as it will affect her life and world).

Here’s something amazing I learned: white roofs and white pavement. White roofs and pavement reflect more sunlight away from the earth’s surface. (Okay, I did know about the white reflecting while black absorbs which is why we wear white in the summertime.) Here’swhite roofs what I found amazing: “Retrofitting all urban roofs and pavements in the world would yield emissions reductions equivalent to taking all the world’s cars off the road for eighteen years.”

Hello, white roofs and white pavement: That sounds really easy. The retrofitting part is expensive, but why in the world are not all roofs and pavements going forward increasingly (or even exclusively) white?

I’m about a third of the way through the book, and this morning I’m reading about the Climate Change Action Plans of various cities: Seattle, Chicago, New York. I got to wondering if Minneapolis has one. So I went online and sure enough, there it was: Minneapolis Climate Action Plan.

I am going to read it tonight. Then I got to thinking, though: Minneapolis is only a small part of the larger Twin Cities Metropolitan Area, so I went to the Met Council website to see if they had anything. Met Council is the planning body for the 7-county metro area. Their mission is “to foster efficient and economic growth for a prosperous metropolitan region.” That sure seems like it would need to include climate change, but I couldn’t find anything. But I didn’t dig very deep before I emailed them to ask. Sometimes it’s nice just to be direct.

One thing I learned at the outset of the book was a bit about terminology. I had thought that “climate change” was the new and more accurate descriptor and replaced “global warming.” Not quite. Global warming refers to the man-made rise in temperatures caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change refers to the effects these higher temperatures have on the earth’s natural systems, resulting in stronger storms, deeper droughts, more flooding, and a rising sea level (among other things).

I also learned about the difference between mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (taking action to address the impact of climate change). Apparently adaptation was a major bone of contention in (at least some) environmental circles: They feared if adaptation was included in climate change plans, mitigation would get pushed to the back burner. (And, in fact, according to Hertsgaard, they were right—most particularly in the United States: “Beginning in the early 1990s, government officials, corporate spokespersons, and academic critics, especially in the United States, did invoke adaptation to fend off calls for mitigation.”)

But now we have no choice. Now we must do both. tree

Some things are both adaptations and mitigations. In Chicago, they planted more trees to increase canopy cover in residential areas as well as in empty lots. This provides much-needed shade in the increasingly hot summers (adaptation) and the trees reduce greenhouse gases (mitigation). There have got to be many more things that mitigate and adapt at the same time. I will probably run across more as I continue the book.

Hot is not bleak. It provides hope. The climate crisis is potentially “the greatest opportunity our society and world has ever faced. If we do what it takes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels and prepare for the impacts we see are under way, we will transform the economic foundation of modern civilization.”

I already have an idea. You know how golf is on the decline and some golf courses are closing? (Two, right here in Minneapolis!) They could be turned into urban farms. Using the right methods, farming enriches the soil, and the plants will help reduce carbon. And of course it increases the local food supply and reduces the food carbon footprint. School kids could visit the farms and learn how food grows. Or the kids could work on the farm. What a great learning experience from so many perspectives!

Future Urban Farm?

Future Urban Farm?

Or the golf courses could be planted with trees, which would be a great mitigator (and a lovely wooded area in the city). Or if appropriate, it could go to prairie (which would also sequester a lot of carbon). But it seems to me this trend of declining interest in golf could be a very good opportunity for both adaptation and mitigation.

So tonight I will read the city plan, and then I will read the older (and more technical) state plan, and then I will read the most recent (2014) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. (There are two of them, one on mitigation and one on adaptation.) Once I’ve better educated myself, I’ll see where I might fit in to be able to help.