Sunday, January 31, 2010

Too Good to Eat

When I went to southern China a few years ago the guide asked, as guides should do, "Is there anything you don't eat?" I answered, "dogs, cats, monkeys and snakes." I know that dogs and cats are eaten in China, that snakes are also eaten in the areas near Thailand and Laos. I don't know if they eat monkeys there but I know monkeys are called "bush meat" in parts of Africa and perhaps other jungle countries. Snakes are just too abhorrent to me to even think of eating, and I know some people in out Southwest eat rattlesnake.

I've just read in today's NY Times that the Chinese government passed a law making it illegal to kills and serve dog or cat, punishable by fine and jail time. The same very short article quotes a restaurateur in Guiyang, a city I visited, as saying that dog is the best and most popular item on his menu. Immediately a picture popped into my head of the restaurant we ate at there -- I'm sure it wasn't his. I think I knew what all the meats were that we had that meal.

Look at these pictures of dogs and cat and think about whether you could eat them, short of actual starvation when, for sheer self preservation you would eat anything, from the family pets to boiled shoe leather. You might choose shoe leather first. I read of many Chinese laws that are as abhorrent to me as eating or sleeping with a snake, but this one sounds like a move toward a greater understanding of the love we and our most usual animal companions share.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Indian Clerk, David Leavitt

This dandy-ish fellow, who has a scholarly look because of book and glasses, is G. H. Hardy, one of the great mathematicians of the early 20th century, a don a Trinity College, Cambridge. I don't at all understand what he accomplished, but the book I just finished [thanks to the loan by a friend], a novelized biography, by David Leavitt, emphasizes his recognition of an Indian mathematician who was stuck in a do-nothing job as a clerk. Ramanujan was, Hardy thought, possibly the most brilliant mathematician of the 20th century. But he had next to no formal education. Hardy saw that Ramanujan was brought to Cambridge where they worked together, and wrote some jointly authored papers. The name of the book is appropriately, The Indian Clerk.

This does not sound like an interesting book. Of course not. The book is a picture of life in that rarefied atmosphere just before and during WWI, peripheral characters are Bertrand Russell, D.H.Lawrence, some of the Bloomsbury group, and, very incidentally Winnie the Pooh. Most touching to me was the utter inability of Hardy and Ramanujan to communicate in any way except about mathematics. Also very painful to read was the ignorance of the medical treatment given Ramanujan when he became ill and finally, just after the war, was able to go home and die.

The book is thick and dense; such books, if they are well written, as this one very definitely is, immerse the reader in a world s/he would not know otherwise. A novelist cannot create a past world he did not live in with total fidelity but that is really only a quibble to the reader. At least it is when the novelist is a serious person of real intelligence with much research under his belt who is trying to make a world that is totally believable. I remember only one moment when something pricked me out of complete surrender and I thought, I don't think that could be correct -- and now I don't even remember what it was, it's lost in all the rest that I happily believed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Genetic Happiness?

Somewhere in the blogosphere is quote by Robertson Davies, the late Canadian novelist, about happiness. I meant to copy and remember it but I didn't so I may be remembering askew and aslant. But I think the crux of his elegantly put thought was that people are born with genetic or temperamental skews toward optimism or pessimism, or, otherwise put, happiness or unhappiness. I realize we are in a period when attributing all kinds of things to genes is in vogue and that very little is that simple -- maybe blue or brown eyes or maybe even that is not so simple.

I think everyone who has been a young mother whose friends were mostly other young mothers, knows that children are born with very noticeable temperaments. In those young mother days we also firmly believe that whatever we do will greatly influence our children's future lives and we feel anxiously responsible. We worry about our raised voices, our timing of toilet training, our strong desire to give a tantrum throwing two-year old a whack on the seat of his diaper padded pants. As we watch those children grow into teens we are often totally bewildered: what did we do to deserve what they're doling out to us? But time goes by and in it's fullness they become adults and some temperamental characteristics we noticed way back in earliest babyhood assert themselves. Some are solid and serious, some are silly and flighty, some are a mass of confusions, and so on. Some become adults who find their place in the world and are happy in the overall scheme of things. Others have problem after problem and in the worst cases serious depressions and misery.

So what do I know about happiness? I do believe Davies is right; some tendency is inborn and whatever we did as young mommies didn't change that. Whatever my mother did didn't make much difference either. I am a person who has an inner sense of balance which has been upset at certain points in my life. I am asked to make a list of ten things that make me happy; it's both good to do and ridiculous. We aren't asked to define happiness: for me it's mostly contentment interlaced with moments of quiet pleasure. Sometimes there are periods of acute pleasure -- watching DVDs of operas last fall, especially of Beverly Sills in Marriage of Figaro, and the second act of Tales of Hoffman, just as examples.

We can increase our own happiness by seeking out the things we love; and we can increase other people's happiness with acts of kindness, random or calculated. Happiness by it's definition is a good about which everyone would agree. And those who don't have a genetic disposition are, perhaps, even more susceptible to gifts of happiness than others. Davies said something more profound and eloquent, I'm sorry I've had to ramble instead of quote.

[Photo: I am hiking toward a wonderful castle in the Czech Republic on a beautiful sunny day. Isn't that something that would make anyone happy?]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tagged -- 10 things that make me happy

I have been tagged to list ten things that make me happy. I've thought about it and can't do specifics - how can I say Mozart and not Schubert, dogs and not cats; Vermeer and not Lucius Freud? Can't do it. So here are ten broad areas. They are not in priority order, because what makes me happy is what is happening at the moment -- moments [now] is all we have. Photos sometimes cover more than one topic.

1. People: Of course family, my daughters and all the rest, people who are nice to me, people who talk about interesting things, people who listen, people who are funny -- a sort of 1A: conversation that is full of real communication, that is fun, honest.

2. books - good book that tell me ancient stories and stories of places and times I cannot visit, stores that are funny and true and invent. Books that give me information of all sorts, and I include magazines, newspapers, also drama -- we cannot leave out Shakespeare or Ibsen or Mamet or Shepherd or any of the others. Books that make me think and laugh and cry and see the world as the varied, good and awful and amazing place it is.

3. Music, the classics, traditional, my own on the piano, and the big entertainment, operas and ballet, and all the other dancing. There is so much music, I can never know enough of it.

4. travel -- whether it's to beautiful, beleaguered Tibet or a few miles down up the road to a lovely beach, all travel - I want to see the whole world and I have never been unhappy about a trip I took [but I am unhappy about the insult and intrusion of the idiotic security methods in airport, that part of travel I hate.] 5. Walking/hiking, whether in the Himalayas or Central park, the street from my house to the post office. Walking is my favorite exercise; it is travel at human pace, time to really look around, really see where I am and what I share the world with.

6. writing. I have loved writing since I learned how to do it, loved filling out tag-lists, questionnaires, writing notes and letters and stories and novels and plays and poems and non-fiction, blogs about anything at all, even love crossword puzzles and Scrabble because they are akin. Love that I can say what I think even if no one is listening.

7. quilts -- I love turning fabric into different designs, useful items, and decorative items. I love seeing what others have done, the invention the careful techniques, the history, the different types in different parts of the world.

8. arts and crafts -- from the 45,000 year old cave paintings to today's geniuses [but not all of today's art, for soe of it is ugly and some I don't understand] Museums make me happy, craft shows are fascinating and full of the invention of the human mind in all sorts of materials. And 8A -- fashion. I am very fashionable but I love the joie de vie, the textures, the colors the exuberance and endless variety.

9. nature -- animals, birds, plants, insects, fishes -- all the variety and beauty and wondrousness of nature that shares the planet and minds its own business [even the dread mosquito is minding his business when he sucks my blood]. Even in a desert nature is beautiful, in the middle of the ocean, likewise.

10 food. I'm not a gourmet cook or a connoisseur of food and drink, but, like everyone else, a good meal, however plain or fancy makes me happy. And those wonders that are all too rare today -- truly ripe peaches, plums, raspberries, tomatoes ... to find one is pure happiness ... and then there's chocolate ....

Friday, January 22, 2010

The urge to hibernate

It's been consistently cold for a month; colder here on Cape Cod than it was in NYC and cold in longer stretches. While my apartment is adequately heated there are drafts [no storm windows which are really needed]. The sun has been out, sometimes fairly strongly, a few days warm enough to melt snow. But there is no doubt it's the deep center of winter. I am tired of feeling trapped indoor. I took a walk of about a mile this afternoon, all bundled in down and earmuffs. The wind was chilly on my face but I walked fast and got my heart rate up enough that I could feel a thin layer of sweat forming on my torso. It was good to walk even under a gray sky with that nip at my cheeks and nose.

I have plenty of energy during the day, and have never been prone to napping. BUT it gets dark early and I pull the drapes to keep out drafts and settle in for some computer time and then reading as always. However, I find I'm getting sleepy early, say 9:30 instead of 10:30 which is the average time in the summer. And I am happy to den down into the bed under a duvet and a quilt. I am happy to sleep a full eight hours and then perhaps lie snuggled and warm for another half hour only vaguely thinking about getting up and beginning the day, because it is still dark. I understand the hibernation impulse although I get restless and begin craving coffee usually a little before dawn actually comes, or doesn't so much come as the sky just gets lighter gray. Could have I have been a black bear in a previous incarnation?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

We've got Wednesday

So these are the Himalayas.
Mountains racing to the moon.
The moments of their start recorded
on the startling ripped canvas of the sky.
Holes punched in a desert of clouds.
Thrust into nothing.
Echo -- a white mute:

Yeti, down there we've got Wednesday,
bread and alphabets. ...

Yeti, crime is not all
we're up to down there.

Yeti, not every sentence
means death. ...

We've inherited hope --
the gift of forgetting ...

And she goes on -- Waslawa Szymborska -- enumerating the things of civilization down where the oxygen is richer and temperature more livable. Often on Wednesday I think of this poem. Wednesday is in the middle of the division of time we call a week -- it's arbitrary of course this division of time we Westerners have imposed upon the world. Szymborska is one of my favorite poets. She is the fine looking lady in the picture above, Polish, living in the beautiful city of Krakow, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. A book of selected poems, View with a Grain of Sand, is the only readily available source of her work translated into English. Every poem is a gem. I've been recommending it to people every since I discovered it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Friendship Q uilts

"The Friendship Quilts" will be the name of the novel that I began during NaNoWriMo. I awoke before 5:00 this morning with a new bit of a twist to the final scene. I had discovered the big twist but this early a.m. revelation was the icing on the cake -- or so I thought. I got up and as soon sa I was properly fueled with coffee and toast and jam, I set to writing the last ten pages -- and discovered another small satisfying twist.

No, it is not a mystery or any other kind of genre novel; it is a literary novel about outsider art and a young woman writing her dissertation on that subject and the men in her life as well as the elderly quilter whose quilts give the novel it's name. I have been working along regularly, finding scene after scene, some complicating the further scenes. Discovering characters that needed to show up and complicate the story. The writing has not always been easy but it was been a pleasure. I am not a 'stare at a blank piece of paper" kind of writer. I write when the idea has been triggered, and then as I write people speak and act in ways I was not anticipating. To this point, with a full size novel, one can imagine, since the first of November until the middle of January, I have not been stumped for more than a day or two.

In Cohen's The Mature Mind, which I wrote about a few days ago, he says that the mature mind is better at conglomerating things, better at pulling together ideas than the younger mind. This seems to have something to do with the ego getting out of the way with the "what if I fail?" scenario and a new pleasure experience. Or maybe I'm interjecting my experience for however he said what he said. I made no outline, I made no character notes, I just wrote the story as it came to me. I have no guarantee that it's any good, of course. I know I have much work to do, going back and interlarding references to people or events that will come up later -- because I didn't know about them the first time through. I know there are awkward scenes and a great deal of flabby writing that needs to be fixed up, strengthened, vivified. But that's all cosmetics; the story satisfies me. I feel good about reaching the end. It is not a big bang and yet it reminds me of the end of a fireworks display with a whole series of little pops before the final burst of color overhead. That is profoundly happifying for a writer.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Before the Earthquake

Yes, one person can make a difference, but extraordinary dedication and energy is needed in a place like Haiti. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder is about Dr. Paul Farmer's years dedicated to helping the people of Haiti -- the poorest of the poor far up in the mountains. It is a double portrait -- of the misery that is rural Haiti and the dedication, intelligence and dogged perseverance of Paul Farmer.

It is very hard to take this kind of information into our minds even when we are simply reading and know we are not able to do anything about the pain in which others live day in and day out. There is a practice in Buddhism, when a meditator consciously tries to feel others' pain and takes it as his/her own in the hope of relieving what the others are suffering. My logical mind has trouble understanding that this could work at all, although I think I understand that one might wish to take on another's pain -- certainly when the sufferer is someone you love. Many spiritual practices baffle me. I believe those who practice such meditations are sincere but I wonder if it helps anyone at all. On the other hand I understand and admire the Paul Farmers, Albert Schweitzers, Mother Teresas of the world and am deeply grateful some people have the drive and ability to take on such work. Reading about what they do, even though they can accomplish such a small bit in the total, is inspiring and sustains faith that true goodness exists.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Crazy World

Last Sunday's NYTimes Magazine had a sizable article that I only got around to reading this morning It said we [America specifically, "First World" in general] are defining for the rest of the world the meaning of mental illness, that it is a chemical imbalance, or partly genetic and amenable to drug therapy and so on, not caused by the evil eye or by malignant spirits or any other traditional reason. The article seemed longer than what it had to say and it seemed, as I thought about it all day, to leave out some considerations: for instance, in other parts of the world the influential doctors are likely to have studied medicine in the US or Europe so they were trained to think in the western manner. Likewise they have been as much influenced by the drug companies as are our own doctors, to believe that the latest, greatest psychotropic will do wonders.

The article also says that when people believe a mental illness if biochemical in nature or genetic they have less empathy with the person than if they think it is a reaction to something circumstantial [like depression because of personal tragedies] where the feeling seems to be circumstantional kindness is helpful. It is not perceived as helpful in rebalancing messed up brain chemicals. [Need I say that these are my words and not exactly those of the writer?] At the same time the author, writing of course in a well respected media organ, does not seem to suspect that the now omnipresent media could have a hand in spreading this attitude, for good or ill.

The world is a complicated place. For the most part we are constantly bombarded with bits of information that may or may not be true, that we may or may not internalize and that we seldom stop to look at with a critical attitude, seldom wonder just what we are doing and why. It's much easier to suck it all in than to stop and question. We're often afraid too many questions will make us crazy -- and who will sympathize?

[Phote: a rather large water monitor--lizard--is in the grass; this seems an appropriate picture for this post since mental illness is an odd creature too, it seems almost prehistoric and we don't know if it's dangerous or not. Click to enlarge]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti Earthquake

Every time I hear the word "Haiti" my heart and stomach convulse. I have met Haitian people, all the ones I've met have been in the helping professions [nurse, psychologist, etct] and have been wonderful people. So to read about the dire poverty, as I have recently in the book about James Farmer's work there, has been very, very painful. Now the earthquake which killed so many thousands, and with relief work so very difficult, I am deeply sad and distressed. These natural disasters are utterly Hairheart breaking and, of course, affect those who have the least defenses against their horrors.

In my comfortable life I sometimes think about the Buddha's belief that life is suffering and think, I cannot really understand that. I am far from suffering. But then I read about things like the earthquake in Haiti and realize that suffering is so great is elipses my comfort and makes it meaningless.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Authors talking about writing

The occasion was an all day session for the members of the Adult Lifelong Learning center on the subject of local writers. Five each poets, fiction and nonfiction writers talked to an audience of 120 about what they do. Most read some of their work.

I don't know if it was meant to be inspirational or educational. I'm not in need of inspiration but found it wonderfully entertaining. Two writers went beyond reading and talking to performing and were a very delightful surprise. One poet says she knows all her work by heart and truly performed her poems some of them moving, especially the political ones. I was also mesmerized by the animation that seemed to change her face as she performed. Another writer who is a maritime historian who teaches at Harvard and Woods Hole, but is originally from Spokane told us that when she first came East she was asked by someone, "How did you ever become interested in the sea living 3000 miles away?" To illustrate the sense of her novel, she ended her talk by singing, magnificently, a sea shanty.

Of the fifteen, all with Cape Cod connections, most have largely local reputations.
Two who are nationally known were Martin Sandler and William Martin [interesting - two Martins, huh?]. As the sea shanty singer's story illustrates a certain provincialism is at work here. I hear it frequently. The plus for me personally was that I had an opportunity, which a newcomer needs, at the coffee breaks and lunch, to chat with people I've met but not had a chance to get to know, which I consider quite valuable. A day well spent.

The photo is just because I don't like posts without photos.]

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why not?

You see things: and say "Why?" But I dream things that never were: and say "Why not?"

So wrote George Bernard Shaw in Back to Methuselah. This vegetarian who was still writing plays into his 90s, is an example of an aging person who did not lost his powers as he aged.

By the way, speaking of playwrights who don't lose their power, I wrote a couple posts back that Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex in his 70s. He wrote Oedipus at Colonus at 92. Perhaps not as perfect but who's to quibble?

I"m reading a second book by Gene Cohen, The Creative Age. He gives one example after another of people in many fields who achieved much after age sixty. And he wages the battle against the stereotypes of deterioration and old age being synonymous. John F. Kennedy who, unfortunately, did not live to an old age, nevertheless did not believe in stereotypes. He said, "The great enemy of truth is very often not the lies -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic."

I am going to spend all of tomorrow listening to people over 55, the majority over 65, reading from and discussing their literary works, fiction,nonfiction, poetry. I expect an interesting day.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Mature MInd, Gene Cohen

From the summary of The Mature Mind, the Positive Power of the Aging Brain, by Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph. D. :

"A great deal of research, both psychological and physiological, has demonstrated that creativity is good for one's health. And it's not just that people who are engaged creatively are healthier to begin with. The very act of engaging one's mind in creative ways affects health directly via the many mind/both connections. Our rains are deeply connected to our bodies via nerves, hormones,and the immune system. Anything that stimulates the brain, reduced stress,and promotes a more balanced emotional response will trigger positive changes in the body."

Cohen describes large NIH sponsored studies that support his conclusion. This book is the best news I've read in a very long time. Among the findings that I especially am glad to read of is that the right brain/left brain functions we've all read about are indeed true for those young people who were in the original brain imaging studies. But finally gerontologist like Cohen began to look at mature brains doing the same tasks. They found the mature brains uses BOTH sides for problem solving and came up with very creative answers.

The title, as you see is Mature MIND, and I'm writing about brain. Cohen calls mind/brain two sides of the same coin and does not philosophically try to define mind. That would be another book of a different sort. I am content dealing with brain although, of course, I believe I have something called mind. But it seems unnecessary -- at least right now -- to quibble about which is what. I am happy to celebrate what I have suspected, that creativity does not fade. Oh, there are critics who write that this or that novelist, poet, composer did all his best work before he was 40. Some did, but I suspect if a tally were done as many would have done brilliant work later in life -- once people began living in good health beyond 50 or 60.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mature Creativity

Sophocles was 72 when he wrote Oedipus Rex. I recently came across references to Gene Gohen's books, The Mature Mind and The Creative Age. I broke my very long standing decision to avoid in favor of local books stores, -- at least they wouldn't be sending me emails about what I might also enjoy. But I am planning to teach a course called "Writing with the Whole Brain" and I feel I need to read The Mature Mind immediately. It and The Creative Age arrived today and I've read only the introduction so far.

I am immediately in love with a book that tells me the drama I consider the greatest ever written -- period. End of discussion. Jaw droppingly perfect -- was 72 when he wrote it. This is mature wisdom and skill!! I'm sure I will be blogging about other discoveries from these books. Cohen is a gerontologist who took up a challenge in a college course given by Eric Erickson -- find out more about the aging mind. Little was known and what people thought they knew was often wrong. The former direction was always to look at the deficits and not at the life-long accumulation of wisdom, plus the breakthrough to intellectual freedom -- often, they've now found, using both sides of the brain for tasks that younger people must do with only one side of the brain. Integration! Synergy! I shall be glued to my chair reading for the next several hours, well days, because I am a slow reader and an underliner too.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Paradox

The human brain can't tell time accurately said a major article in today's New York Times Science section. It cited the experiences we all have had of sometimes thinking only a little time has passed when we are deeply involved in a task, only to find it's been a much longer time than we thought. On the other hand time seems to crawl when we're bored or anxious. There were more sophisticated examples of how we feel we spent much time when we've done many things in a year, or that it a year passes suddenly when it seems nothing much happened that year. Many permutation, including some often cited experiments of people living for weeks in caves with no external stimuli who thought six weeks had actually been four, and whose circadian rhythms had adjusted to longer than 24 hour days.

This morning I awoke when my bedside clock said 5:56. I turned on my clock radio that was going to come on at 6:00. This is relevant because I realized a couple days ago that the last time I reset the clock -- because I accidentally unplugged it -- I set it about four minutes slow. It is set to come on at 6:00 so I can hear the the very short news broadcast on the local classical music station. I especially want to hear the temperature and weather forecast.

For a very long time I've been aware that I can wake myself when I need to; and this even extends to waking myself just before a wake up call when I'm traveling even if I've traveled six or eight time zones the previous day. I don't know how my brain adjusts and tells the local time -- it's a great mystery. So is having found my eyes open at 5:56 this morning when it really didn't make much difference whether I heard that forecast or not, I wasn't going anywhere anyway. What's my brain doing and why? Damned if I know. I'm just quietly amazed that people who I take to be serious scientists are still muddling around and don't really have any answers to how we experience time.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Auspicious Reading

Somewhat more than half my life ago a young man who died still young, and whose name I remember only because it's inscribed in the copy of the Wilhelm translation of the I Ching which he left behind did me the great favor of introducing me to this most awesome of wisdom books. For a long period I used it weekly -- not for predictive purposes [although, I admit, I am not immune to superstition] but because I found its wisdom something I wanted to make a deep part of my life. I kept a record of the hexagrams I threw and became convinced of two contracitory things: the coins fall randomly as any good scientist will tell you. And I occasionally have th ability called telekensis, i.e., I sometimes made the coins fall so I got the readings I wanted to get -- as any good scientist will tell you is not possible.

I became aware of how my New Years eve coins were tending. I was getting all yang lines, I knew if I got six in a row it would be the first hexagram, "The Creative." Not a frequent reading. On the final throw I got a changing yin line which made the reading "Breakthrough." But the reading changed to "The Creative" after all. Often the names of the hexagrams tell most of the story. Actually both have fairly lengthy commentaries, especially The Creative. No matter how I look at it, even considering the commentary in Breakthrough that misfortune was a possibility [it always is!] I feel very positive about this reading, both as points to ponder and -- yes, I admit it -- as a prediction for the year we've just started.

Wishes are usually stronger than reality which is why we humans cannot shake off superstition. I did not have a reading in mind when I began to throw the coins, but I couldn't have hoped for a better one. The profound good sense in the Wilhelm transation of Confucius' commentaries seems to me the best advice for living a balanced and, generally, serene life.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Eclectic reading, as usual

Since 1964 I've made only one new year's resolution: to try to read 100 books that year. Books! Magazines, how-tos, cookbooks, newspapers and all the other stuff I read don't count. Why '64? Because that's when I graduated from college and my thought was that never wanted to stop learning so I would read to learn, not [usually] for entertainment alone. I have a small notebook in which are listed every book, author, date since then. Only 3 or 4 years was I able to get to 100. The average is in the high 60s. For 2009 it was 67, the last one being finished last night. I read very eclecticly and rarely the new book of the moment as I buy a great many at used book stores.

Some good books I read this year in three categories: poetry, nonfiction and fiction.

Poetry: Mary Oliver, three of her books [plus went to a reading she gave]
Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, a no nonsense guide to writing and reading poetry, with some of his poems in it
Billie Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room, poems
Garrett Hongo, The River of Heaven, poems
Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid, poems and memoir -- title poem unforgetable!

Nonfiction: 1599, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro, really a year in London.
Life and Death of a Druid Prince, A. Ross, D.Robins, fascinating anthropology
Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow, Benjamin Holt/ Opal Whitely, painful biography of a child prodigy including her diary
The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester, the making of the OED
Best American Travel Writing of 2000, anth. ed. Bill Bryson, one of the annual collections, a particularly good one
The Zookeepers Wife, Diane Ackerman, novelistic biography
A Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horowitz, recounting the exploration of the US
Mad Dogs and an Englishwoman, Polly Adams, dog sledding in the Yukon
Smara, Journey to the Forbidden City, Michel Vieuchange. classic travel in the Sahara by a Frenchman in disguise
Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts, the death of books as we know them [!?!]

Fiction: Nadine Gordimer, Get a Life
Elfrida Jelinke, Lust -- Wanted to find out what this Nobel winner wrote. Hated it.
Anchee Min, Empress Orchid about the last Empress of China, her early years
Linda Hogan, Mean Spirit, a wonderful Native American writer, book move into magic realism now and then
Irwin D. Yalom, Lying on the Couch, By and about the world of a shrink, very fun read
J. G. Farrell, The Seige of Krishnapur,
One of three important books written before he died much too young.
J. M. Coetze, Disgrace, a frightening picture of South Africa
Muriel Barbary, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, A book I'd never have read without a friend's recommendation.

Now I am going to my bookshelf and decide what fiction I will read next, and I'm going to Amazon to order a nonfiction I know I want to read. I recommend all the above to anyone. Some are hard to find, some not