A Summer Check-In

It is raining today. The slow, steady, chill gray rain I associate with spring—or November. But we need it; July is usually our wettest month, but the thunderstorms stayed away this year and the fields are dry and the gardens thirsty.

It is a good sort of day for reading.

Purple Coneflower
The purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) don’t seem to mind that it hasn’t rained.

I’ve been reading a decent amount this summer, for me at least. Not all of it has followed the plans I outlined back in May. There were holds I’d forgotten about, books I’d been meaning to read and finally decided to pick up. And of course, I’m always subject to reading whims, no matter how carefully I make a list.

Although we are roughly two-thirds through the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, and I’ve only finished five (of a realistic goal of 10), I do feel confident at finishing out the summer strong. I’m midway through several books and have a few children’s classics planned for August.

It’s been a less good summer for writing—for me at least. The weather has been miserable more days than I’d like (I don’t deal well with heat and humidity), and my brain turns to mush. So, rather than writing up full posts for everything I’ve read/am reading, I thought I’d just share some brief notes here.

67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence (Howard Means, US, 2016)

I’ve long been interested in the history and aftermath of the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings, since a high school government class session on the topic around the time of the 30th anniversary. Attending Kent and walking past the location of the protests and shootings nearly every day (the then-architecture building overlooked the site) only increased my interest, and this is the third book I’ve read on the topic. (Previous reads are 13 Seconds and Above the Shots.) While it might seem that three books on a single topic might become a bit redundant (and it can be at times), something that I have learned is that multiple sources can each bring something different to the table. 13 Seconds was published within a year of the event, and so brought with it the contemporary perspective. Above the Shots and 67 Shots were both published within the last 5 years, and have a longer perspective on events, the aftermath, the legacy, and even the discovery of possible new evidence in 2007. Above the Shots was also an oral history, the first oral history on any topic I’ve read, and as such brought a wealth of viewpoints, from student protestors, student observers, student conservatives, townspeople, national guards. It was the first time I really began to understand the context of the real fear on the part of the town and larger “silent majority.” But I will never understand the impulse to wish violence on another.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain, US, 1876)

I have the start of a longer post on this one drafted but suffice it to say I can’t believe it took me this long to read this entertaining adventure story!

The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien, England, 1937)

I decided this spring that this year demanded the comfort read of returning to Middle Earth. Either that or I was looking for an excuse… 😊 Regardless, it was fun to return to Bilbo’s adventures with the dwarves: avoiding trolls, goblins, and giant spiders; tricking elves and dragons; even attempting his hand at mediation. The Hobbit has a completely different feel from The Lord of the Rings; it strikes me always as closer to a children’s book than the later adventure, and perhaps more importantly, as if the mythology is less finished. Not, that is, that the underlying history of Middle Earth is lacking here—throughout references to Tolkien’s other stories and poems abound, though they may only be apparent to readers of his posthumously published work. But instead of orcs we have goblins, instead of Sauron we have references to a shadowy Necromancer. And of course, we know that the first edition of The Hobbit has a slightly different story of Bilbo’s obtaining of the one ring than later versions—Tolkien had not yet decided on its importance to the next story in the sequence, or the role of Gollum. Regardless, it is a story I am always charmed by.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (Cal Newport, 2012)

This was not on my original 20 Books of Summer list; I had quite forgotten it was on the holds list from the library until it came in, months after placed on hold. I guess the pithiest description is “career advice.” Newport takes issue with the very common contemporary advice to “follow your passion,” not because he thinks that this will only work for a few (i.e., you may be passionate about basketball, but not have the skill and size to make the NBA), but because he believes that passion is a result of being “so good they can’t ignore you” rather than what will lead to THE job you’ll love. While I don’t exactly disagree with him, it does seem that there are some careers (architecture school, I’m looking at you) in which a certain level of passion may get you through the tough times to come out the other side. But his advice about focusing on and earning “career capital” – that is, skills that are valuable, but not necessarily common – is invaluable. Building up such capital will give you ever-increasing amounts of control over your career, and control over our time or life direction is often what truly will give us career contentment. If you need or want to make a career change, he advises that the best way is to build on the skills you already have rather than taking a complete 180, which will only set your career capital back to zero.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Richard Rothstein, 2018)

Another deviation from my original 20 Books of Summer plans, I first heard about The Color of Law, as one of a number of titles recommended earlier this summer as protests over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to a broader discussion of racism in the US. Rothstein’s premise is to argue that housing segregation in the US—that continues to this day thanks largely to income disparities between Blacks and whites, plus zoning designed to maintain property values*—is not solely the result of de facto segregation (that is, social and cultural reasons), but was de jure (that is, government-created).  It is not perhaps the most exciting of the titles recommended (it’s not difficult writing, yet dry enough I could only read it in short bites), but it is very illuminating as to the history of segregation in the US, specifically how government policies created or encouraged it, even outside the Southern states. I read it with a mixture of anger (the very racism/prejudice underlying neighborhood segregation is abhorrent to me) and resignation (from my awareness of the explicitly racist times and system in which the politicians and policy makers were operating). But it is important to know the history to make good decisions moving forward.

*It’s hard to argue against wanting to maintain property values. It’s also hard to separate out how much zoning designations were designed based purely on racism vs. economic classism. But there is no question that zoning regulations often deliberately permitted industry or other unpleasant activity adjacent to existing Black neighborhoods (but not near existing white neighborhoods). Nor is there any question that one of the factors behind the US’s current affordable housing crisis is zoning regulations designed to maintain property values that prevent development of multi-family or even densely developed single-family housing in many parts of the country, thus helping maintain a shortage of housing and pushing prices up ridiculously. My jaw dropped to learn that an “unimproved,” i.e., 2-bed, 1-bath Levittown house might go for $350,000 in 2018 (vs. the $8,000 it originally sold for, equivalent to ~ $75,000 c.2018).

A brief stroll in the shade of a local park.

As for books I am currently reading, I’m about one-quarter through a collection of essays on creativity, Wheesht, by knitwear designer Kate Davies. I’ll probably write more about it when finished, as her perspectives often goes against the current perceived “wisdom” about creativity and making. I’m ahead of schedule for the Mysteries of Udolpho readalong and hoping to finish early. It’s not quite what I expected—I’d say more romance and less terror! (Catherine Moreland and Isabel Thorpe, you misled me [Northanger Abbey])—but it started rolling along nicely in the second volume.

I’ve also just started The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, another deviation from my 20 books list (why do I even try with lists?). Only a few pages in, but I’ll have to hustle – there’s a deep hold list behind me, so no renewals on this one!

Then of course, where The Hobbit leads, The Fellowship of the Ring must follow. A reread, but it is so enjoyable to dip back into Middle Earth. Even if I know there are dark, dark times ahead. I’m hoping (though this seems unlikely) to have the trilogy finished by Labor Day. I’m also planning to start my reread of The Wind in the Willows this weekend. It feels like it should be an August book, so I’m determined to make it an August read.

If I finish all those, I’ll make my ten. Perhaps a bit of a challenge, but I’m cautiously optimistic. After all, the forecast is for more humidity, so there’s not much else to do but read!

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