Did anyone see the lunar eclipse? We were skunked here by clouds and rain showers. I made a desperate dash for the porch at 5:30 AM in hopes of sufficient clearing, but nope. How about this capture from Gifu in Japan!
This week and next week, the Chariot assumes sleigh-like features in hopes of assisting you with your shopping for the festive season. I have compiled suggestions from a range of readers whom I admire. My charge to them was to share a book they truly love, without restriction to genre, topic, or vintage. We’re doing non-fiction this week, to be followed by fiction and poetry next week.
I hope you’ll enjoy this fine assortment of eclectic and discerning picks, and that you’ll join me in thanking these stalwart Friends of the Chariot. If you are a paid subscriber, please do chime in with your suggestions in the comments. And if you are not yet a supporter, now is your chance to support me in bringing you the best in writing about our relationship to the earth. And to the moon too!
We’re starting close to home with someone near and dear, my husband Jay Panetta, retired professor of Music History at Wellesley College and the editor of The Concordian, a newsletter (see, it’s catching!) about the much-beloved class of vintage wooden sailboats.
Jay recommends Sandfuture by Justin Beal, a biography of the architect Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the twin towers at the World Trade Center.
Beal, a sculptor and first-time author, has produced an uncommonly nuanced meditation on modern architecture and its dilemmas, the evolution of cities, and the making and meanings of art. This compellingly wrought cultural history, highly personal yet at the same time admirably broad in outlook, engages with all manner of profound themes.
Next up, is Rebecca Hussey, Professor of English at Norwalk Community College, who writes the wonderful Substack Reading Indie, and from whom I have gotten so many great book ideas. She suggests Ross Gay’s jewel box of an essay collection, The Book of Delights. I love this book, too!
Who wouldn’t want to share some delight for the holidays? Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights fulfills the promise of the title: it’s a collection of short essays that chart a year’s worth of joyful and beautiful experiences. Gay manages to acknowledge the world’s darkness while never losing sight of all that is worth celebrating. This book makes an excellent pairing with Gay’s book-length poem Be Holding, a celebration of Julius Erving that begins with basketball and then heads in the most surprising directions.
Nilanjana Bhattacharya is an ethnomusicologist who writes on South Asian popular music and film, and a Principal Lecturer at Arizona State University. She recently discovered How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy, which I now have on my bedside table—thanks to my Thinking Like a Mountain subscription from Point Reyes Books.
Over the last few years, I have been paying more attention to trees. I find myself dwelling on the miracle that they survive at all, and on the fact that many of them have witnessed and will continue to witness far more than I will within my own lifetime. I have garnered a new respect for what trees know, and I may focus more on trees than I should.
Last spring I read a provocative piece by the Indian scholar Sumana Roy, calling for the postcolonial literature syllabus to liberate its texts from serving as national ambassadors and allow them to revel in the aesthetic, and in pleasure. When I looked her up to see what more she had written, I was astonished to learn that she was also a poet, short story writer, and novelist. And then I discovered that she had written How I Became a Tree.
In this book, she revisits her own encounters with trees while alongside a gentle, gurgling stream of others’ encounters with trees in Bengali novels, the works of Buddhist scholars, a poem by D.H. Lawrence, the research of botanist Jagadish Bose, a story by Jean Giono, the films of Satyajit Ray, and Annette Giesecke’s writing on Ovid—among so many others to answer these and other questions you may not have realized that you’ve had all along.
Speaking of Point Reyes Books: owner Stephen Sparks, the dean of environmental booksellers and author of a forthcoming book about fog, offers you this pick: Being a Human, by Charles Foster.
The best things I read are often those that make me pause when finding a spot for it in the store: where, exactly, does this book go? In the case of Being a Human, should I shelve it in anthropology? Travel writing? Nature? Memoir? In truth, it's a little bit of all of those and more: a rant, a rumination, an ode to what's been lost as the so-called enlightened mind has superseded the denigrated primitive. Charles Foster is no armchair philosopher. He's an active (an often hungry and shivering) guide on this marvelous, opinionated 40,000-year journey through our mental--and therefore, physical--evolution.
And what is more quintessentially human in today’s world than the supermarket? Walt Hickey writes the fascinating Substack newsletter Numlock News and works as a data editor at Insider, and he wants you to know about The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, by Benjamin Lorr.
So much of this year has been defined by gesturing vaguely at the supply chain and alluding to dark and unspeakable difficulties. However, nothing has been better at helping me understand how food gets to me than this book by Lorr: it’s fascinating, it covers a topic you’ll never look at the same way again, and I had trouble putting it down.
Travis Hughes, an M.D./Ph.D. student at Harvard Medical School, recently found a book that can take you down the interior aisles of human experience.
Compelling clinical narratives from a leading neuroscientist and practicing psychiatrist illuminate the inner workings of the human mind in Projections: A Study of Human Emotions, by Karl Deisseroth.
One human known for his titanic emotions and psychological complexity was Lyndon Johnson. Eric Davis, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Middlebury College, reminds us of an absolute classic: Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro.
The third volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is a synthesis of research and narration that is a masterpiece of the biographer’s art. Delving deep into the Senate of the 1950s, an institution pervaded by racism, Caro recounts how, with determined yet shrewd leadership, a legislative body whose members disagreed on policy could see bills through to passage, foreshadowing the enactment of civil rights, voting rights, and Medicare legislation once LBJ became President.
G. Elliott Morris, who was a valued source for The MidPod, has an essential newsletter here on Substack for understanding the data behind American elections. His forthcoming book Strength in Numbers will make the case for the value of polling in American elections, and provide the context that voters need to understand it. This is his recommendation.
I think everyone should read Athens: Portrait of a City in a Gilded Age, by Christian Meier. We can learn a lot by studying both the progress and the mistakes of history—both of which were present in Athens. This is especially true now, as many of us turn to thinking of new ways to reform a crumbling democratic system at home.
An uplifting portrait of a small New England town as seen through the eyes of its beloved police officer. Kidder takes the reader into every corner of Northampton life, from the County Courthouse to Smith College to the seamiest drug-infested rat holes of human existence and bad behavior. Still, the story manages to be funny, light, and totally captivating as we accompany Officer Tom O’Connor on his daily beat. I was so sad when this book was over!
Bookseller Nick Chase at The Corner Bookstore in New York City loved a big-city memoir: Always Crashing in the Same Car, by Matthew Spektor.
As a bookseller, one is always reading multiple books at the same time, but this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and cultural criticism was always calling my name from the teetering pile. I loved it.
Amey Miller, whose remarkable debut novel Snakes was published this year, has discovered a recent book that speaks to our American crisis of culture and religion: My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, by Macy Halford.
One of my greatest reading pleasures in the last while, this book speaks eloquently to what ails us, and what can solace and enliven us. Neither a takedown of her Texas evangelical past, nor a rubber stamp of all its aspects, it situates Halford herself in the memoiristic middle, as a young person working to find her way, in the middle ground. Her description of her subject Oswald Chambers speaks to my own religious beliefs, and it is so interesting to see the influence of Scottish culture on them.
To wrap up, we have two books that navigate watery realms. The first is a memoir that I have heard lots of good things about: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. Tsui has a fan in Chris Fischbach, former publisher at Coffee House Press and currently a freelance editor, consultant, and teacher in Minneapolis.
It's a perfect gift for anyone who loves or ever loved swimming, and it will definitely have them pining for the pool, their favorite lake, or the ocean. A hybrid of her life in the water, combined with reporting on various well- and lesser-known swimmers from around the world, this is a remarkable book about life, humanity, and our ancient ties with H2O.
And finally, from me, a radiant and meditative family adventure on the waters of the Pacific Northwest that is too little known and read: The Curve of Time, by Wylie Blanchet. After Blanchet was widowed with five young children in 1926, she took her kids and the family dog cruising on their wooden powerboat, on a series of summer expeditions filled with challenging weather, abundant wildlife, quirky characters, and an ever-deepening appreciation of indigenous Haida communities and culture.
That’s it for this week. Tune in next week for fiction and poetry picks from a fresh crew of thoughtful readers, including Emily Raboteau, George Watsky, Nicky Gonzalez, Matthew Aucoin, and January O’Neill. Happy Elving! xo Nicie