Saturday, July 31, 2010

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

By Daniel Levitin

New York, Dutton, 2008

Week 32 Non-Fiction

Ever had a song stuck in your head for days on end? Ever wondered how you were able to sing a lullaby to your baby that you hadn’t heard since you were a baby? Did you and your partner ever have “your song?” Daniel Levitin addresses these things and more in an enlightening book about music, biology, culture, history, and evolution. I listened to this in the car with the author reading the book.

Levitin is a musician, a music producer, a musicologist, a product of the 1970s, and a neuroscientist. He is imminently qualified to discuss this topic. He reduces the history of mankind (and throws in a huge dose of biology) to six types of song and how those six types can be found throughout history. They are: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Think about it—all the songs with lyrics that you know can fit into one of those categories. One of the most interesting stories he tells is about how ancient armies used drums to intimidate their enemies. Just the sound of the drumming as the army prepared for the attack struck fear into the hearts of the enemy who suddenly felt ill-prepared in the face of such solidarity. The MSU Fight Song—a friendship song; The alphabet song—a knowledge song; You are my Sunshine—a love song. Levitin calls music “the soundtrack of civilization.”

Along the way, Levitin helps us understand how music developed, how it survived, how some families are musical and some are not, and develops a theory for the power that music has played throughout history. One concept he presents over and over is that you are here with your genetic pool intact, because your ancestors didn’t die in childhood.

One interesting thing for me is to watch my grandchildren become another generation of singers, musicians and actors. I see my genetic pool at work. My granddaughter, Isabela, born in Guatamala, is musical to the core. Lucky her—to have me for a Grandma. I can help that gift develop, even if we have no idea of her genetic background.

This is a fascinating read. As I was listening to the CD, however, I wished that there had been more music. It needed to be there. Just telling me about a particular song wasn’t the same as hearing it. After all, I’m a musician.

I am sure that there are much more learned reviews of this book. But please, remember, I was listening to it on a long car trip. I didn’t have a chance to write anything down. Yet, I felt an affirmation that the music that is in my soul will be passed down to my children’s children. Our music is here to stay. And by the way, “Our song” (my first husband, Lee’s and mine), was the “Theme to Mondo Cane”—“More than the greatest love!” As song by Bobby Darin.

Here is Daniel Levitin’s website:

The New York Times review:

Interview with Daniel Levitin:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home

by Rhoda Janzen

New York, Henry Holt and Co., 2009

Week 31      Memoir

Rhoda Janzen says that she was in a “weird personal space” when she wrote Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. She was on sabbatical from the English Dept. at Hope College in Holland, Michigan; her husband had left her for a guy he met on; and she had been in a terrible car accident with many broken bones. What to do when you are 43 years old, and your life is in shambles? Go home to your family?

Well, that is exactly what she did. She went back to the Mennonite community in California where her father and mother lived and where she had grown up. With nothing to do and time to kill, she began writing down the stories that her parents told, musing about the conservative and confining upbringing she had tried to escape, and putting her heritage into the context of her current life.

What emerged is a very funny narrative of those months among the Mennonites, a clear-eyed look at her circumstances, and the emergence of gratitude for life with all its ups and downs. Janzen says that she wrote with humor because sometimes “serious content is best framed with levity and humor.” Often the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes they are poignant, but always they are filled with love for family, friends, and life.

The New York Times reviewer says: “Janzen is as sharp about the cognoscenti and academics she now lives among as she is about Mennonites and her family’s eccentricities. Her tone reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s deadpan, affectionate, slightly hyperbolic stories about urbanites and Minnesota Lutherans, and also of the many Jewish writers who’ve brought mournful humor to the topics of gefilte fish and their own mothers, as well as to the secular, often urban, often intellectual world they call home now. It’s the narrative voice of the person who grew up in an ethnic religious community, escaped it, then looked back with clearsighted objectivity and appreciation.”

I think the best part of the book is the portrayal of her family and particularly her mother. I was reminded of the deadpan way David Sedaris tells stories about his family, with love and a lot of self-deprecating humor. Janzen’s mother says what’s on her mind, no matter what, when, or where. And her observations are both pithy and funny. I also enjoyed her descriptions of the agonies of growing up Mennonite—the food, the clothes, the embarrassment of public school. The chapter on the five worst Mennonite school lunches is particularly funny. As a child who never had a HoHo or package of potato chips in my lunch, I really got a kick out of her descriptions, although I never had to face cold hot potato salad or borsht in my lunch.

As Janzen comes to grips with her husband’s betrayal and plots a course for her future, the nurturing warmth of her family helps her move forward. She says that this time for her was a demonstration of what it means to love—to go backward in order to go forward.

I am in Duluth this week with my mother, and I was telling the hospice chaplain about the book, about Janzen’s appreciating anew her background that she had tried so hard to forsake. I mentioned that for most of us, the faith of our childhood has given way to something quite different. My mother looked at me keenly and said, “In what way is your faith different now?” I was a bit stunned at the clarity with which the question was asked; my mother is currently not known for her clarity! I responded that I think that my faith is more inclusive now; there are not so many dos and don’ts that guide me, and that I am more intuitive in my thinking and less didactic. Yet, I—like Janzen—treasure the upbringing that made me the person I am today. I can do all the things Janzen says she learned—to put together a dinner for ten in an hour; to sew a dress, or in my case, a costume, and celebrate the arrival of a host of overnight guests. Training obviously pays off!

I can highly recommend this book. It has gleaned lots of critical support and is sure to become a book club favorite.

Here is the New York Times review:

This narrative video shows Janzen at her home on Lake Allegan (familiar to many people from West Michigan) and shows a lot of family pictures:

An insightful interview:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I See You Everywhere

By Julia Glass

New York, Anchor Books, 2008

Week 30       Fiction

While I was reading this novel, I had my twin granddaughters at my house, and as the novel unfolded, I compared the relationship of Maya and Cecilia, my granddaughters, to Clem and Louisa in the book. Maya and Cecilia are incredibly close and supportive. Louisa and Clem have had a rivalry from birth for primacy in their mother’s life. Rather early on, Louisa realizes that Clem is her mother’s favorite, and while that colors her feelings about her sister, they are bonded to each other, as only sisters can be.

Louisa has a life as a magazine editor in New York, and is monogamous. Clem is a biologist, who travels the world rescuing animals and bedding co-workers. Yet, whenever something happens in one of their lives, they immediately seek out the other. The book spans a 25-year period, and the two sisters take turns telling the story, a device that seems to work well.

Frankly, I didn’t really relate well to this book; I couldn’t help but love the adventurer, Clem, and never got “into” Louise and her anxieties. Yet, when an unexpected tragedy emerges in the last part of the book, I couldn’t stop reading. At that point, I found that I cared. Like all good novels, the reader’s identification with the characters intensifies until the book’s climax. I did think that the cover really told the story well.
Reviewers called this Glass’s most auto-biographical novel. One of her books, Three Junes, was the National Book Award winner, so her writing is well acknowledged. The Seattle Times reviewer says,

“There is a constant danger that this story, with its recurrent theme of feuding between the sisters, will become monotonous. But such is the power of Glass' writing that we glide along with her. A deft twist at the end makes for a most moving finish.”

The interesting thing to me is that I wasn’t annoyed with the feuding, as were many of the reviewers; I only saw the bond. Could that be because I am so bonded to my own sisters that it was what I recognized? Or is it because feuding is just one component to the complex sister relationship that I know so well? I am reminded of the old song, “Lord, help the mister, who comes between me and my sister, and Lord help the sister that comes between me and my man!” I sang that song to my granddaughters, and even though they are just nine, they understood.

Here is the review in the New York Times:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential

By Caroline Myss

New York, Harmony Books, 2001

Week 29 Spiritual

Frankly, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about this book. I slogged through the first 200 pages of Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential thinking all the time “I am really out of my league this time.” The book was lent to me by my quilter, Patrick, as a spiritual book that I must read. Before I began to read it, people noticed it and commented: “Oh, you’re reading Caroline Myss now.” So, it was with some anticipation I began this alternative (for me) spiritual book. After 200 pages, I decided I just didn’t care anymore. So, dear readers, for the first time since beginning my year of reading, I quit a book.

Caroline Myss has a PHD in religion and is a mystic and medical intuitive (whatever that is). In Sacred Contracts she lays out a plan for human potential that includes some sacred, some psychology, some hocus-pocus. She makes the case that every soul has a sacred contract signed before they are born, and our lives are spent trying to learn the lessons of the contract. She discusses the 12 archetypes that rule our lives, and we are to discover which archetypes are in our souls and understand how we should operate with them.

This part of the book I found interesting, because she uses several examples to show how the archetypes operate within specific individuals. In the back of the book, she describes a huge selection of archetypes along with examples of these archetypes at work in various movies and literature. She also includes a long series of questions to ask yourself to try to figure out which 12 archetypes fit into your life. I didn’t take the time to ask those questions or try to figure out the answers. An interested reader could use the book as a workbook to chart a life course.

There’s just too much going on in this book—archetypes, chakras, spinning wheels. I think that if she had just devoted a book to archetypes, I would have thought it was an innovative and interesting book. I also had questions about the basic premise that we each have a sacred contract that comes before our birth. She defines sacred contract as “an agreement your soul makes before you are born. You promise to do certain things for yourself, for others, and for divine purposes.” Our goal in life is “manage your personal power and fulfill your sacred contract.” I did like this quote: “We fear our own empowerment because it represents changes in our lives that would remove us from the warmth of those who love us for being vulnerable. And we fear being empowered because then we can no longer claim that we are not responsible for our actions.”

This is what Publisher’s Weekly had to say in a review of the book: “Myss offers her readers a new system for blowing away pedestrian notions of their purpose on the planet. She espouses the ancient notion that our souls enter into a kind of contract before birth that we agree to have various human experiences and even (in Myss's version) to encounter certain people in order to learn lessons. The author includes a technique for arriving at 12 archetypes that rule different areas of our life from career to sex to our highest aspirations. While each of us is controlled in different ways by four "survival" archetypes Child, Victim, Prostitute, Saboteur the other archetypes that flavor our relations to the world are up to us and as richly different as Vampire and Messiah. One value of Myss's ingenious system is that, like the I Ching, it teaches readers to use symbols not as one-dimensional descriptions but as a call to reflection and imagination and a means to see ourselves in a greater light.”

This would be a valuable book to utilize in a workshop or a class. It was too much for a one-week read. I became overburdened with concepts and ideas and work that needed to be done for it all to make sense. I needed to hear Myss speak in order for it to make sense to me.

I just watched a video Caroline Myss talking about another of her books, Anatomy of a Spirit, and there was a lot of psychology in the interview that made sense to me. The thought I had as I was watching the interview is that she may be better in workshops and interviews than she is in her books. She comes across as very logical and sincere. Authoritative even. Here is a brief interview about the book Spiritual Contracts. The second part deals with the book (about 5 minutes into the video).

Here is her website:

She also has a weekly Sacred Contracts radio show on Sirius Radio, which you can find out about on her website.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother

By Madeleine L’Engle

New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974

Week 28      Memoir

Ever since my mother’s health and memory began to fade, I have been planning to read this book by the author and Christian apologist, Madeleine L’Engle. I really only knew her work from the children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the Newberry Medal in 1963, and remains one of the most popular of all Newberry medal winners. Much like C.S. Lewis, she writes all her books from a Christian perspective, although her novels and children’s books are not overtly Christian.

Madeleine L’Engle was a prolific writer with over 60 published works. She died at age 88 in 2007. The Summer of the Great Grandmother is one of a set of memoirs called The Crosswicks Journal. The other parts of the series are A Circle of Quiet (1972), The Irrational Season (1977), and Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage (1988), written shortly after the death of her actor husband, Hugh Franklin. All are based at the family summer home, Crosswicks, in Goshen Connecticut.

In The Summer of the Great Grandmother, everyone has gathered at Crosswicks for the season, which begins with the marriage of L’Engle’s younger daughter and ends with the death of her mother. Two little great-grandchildren arrive for the summer about the same time as Madeleine’s mother, and so the four generations (10 people in all) spend this “summer of extremes” together. The great grandmother is failing rapidly – Alzheimer’s has taken over, and the whole family is affected. L’Engle begins her book: “This is the summer of the great-grandmother, more her summer than any other summer. This is the summer after her ninetieth birthday, the summer of the swift descent.”

Interweaving the details of the summer, L’Engle tells the story of her mother’s life along with details of her own childhood. She tries to remember her mother as she was, but she is filled with questions that she wishes her mother could answer, but of course she cannot. Over and over she cries out for understanding. She says, “I want my mother to be my mother. And she is not. Not anymore. Not ever again.” Another time she says, “I am furious with Mother for not being my mother, and I am filled with an aching tenderness I have never known before.” Yet, she says time and again that she is so glad that she can do this for her mother—have her at Crosswicks surrounded and cared for by family. When she needs peace and quiet, L’Engle retreats to the nearby pond, out of view of the house and her mother’s constant needs. At night she sleeps in the tower room because her mother calls out in fear all night, and Madeleine can’t sleep even though they have caregivers on duty 24-hours a day.

Most of my friends are in the same situation as I am—very elderly parents in nursing homes and in great need. My mother used to come to the family cottages on Lake Michigan for the summer, but last summer was the first that we didn’t have her with us. So this summer, my family has rented a small apartment near my mother’s nursing home so someone can be with her most of the time. Is this her last summer? We don’t know, but at least we have this special time with her.

As you can probably imagine, I related completely to this memoir. I kept affirming, “This is my life.” The faith questions L’Engle asks are my questions, her prayers are my prayers. She is constantly praying for her mother's death so that she can be relieved of the fear and anguish that is resulting from her descent into Alzheimers. I pray the same prayer: “Please let Mother slip away.”

Additionally, as L’Engle is telling the story of her mother’s life, I became filled with questions about my mother’s ancestors—things I don’t know and will probably never know, because Mother can’t remember those details most of the time. At least, our mother knows us, and while she can’t quite remember who the great grandchildren are, she remains our loving mother who can still score over 300 points in a Scrabble game and express her joy that we are there with her. And she always asks the question, “What’s going on with you these days?”

When you read Madeleine L’Engle, you know her intimately; if she lived near you, or went to your church, she would be your friend. I would have liked to have known her and shared this summer of the great grandmother with her. By reading her book, written 35 years ago, somehow I did.

Here is the obituary for Madeleine L’Engle from the New York Times:

An interview from Christianity Today magazine:

Friday, July 2, 2010

A note from Marilyn Johnson

I received a note from the author Marilyn Johnson, whose book This Book is Overdue was reviewed in the last posting. She gives us some other websites to look at in connection with her book and with librarians. Thanks, Marilyn.

Dear Miriam Downey,
What a wonderful note to get -- thank you so much for reading the book and writing about it!
I've been working on a website for the book that might interest you (see below)-- I've gathered lots of extra features --it might be a more useful one to link to than
and I'm trying to be out there using the social media tools that librarians taught me about to help raise awareness of the importance of libraries. I hadn't heard the NPR stories you mentioned. NPR has really supported the book (Brooke Gladstone conducted one of the first interviews with me about it & she was great), but I guess they just couldn't resist....too bad!

Thanks for sharing the book! I'm proud to be week 25!



Marilyn Johnson

This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All

By Marilyn Johnson
New York, Harper Collins, 2010

Week 27      Non-fiction

The American Library Association met last week at a convention center across the street from NPR’s Washington headquarters. Twice they did stories about the convention that I happened to catch on the All Things Considered afternoon news show. The first one concerned the journalist’s guilt over a book overdue from the DC library for three years. The second concerned an event at the convention where book cart drill teams from various libraries competed for honors.

I happened to be reading This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All and was appalled at the stereotypes perpetuated by these news reports. The hair-pulled back, glasses on the nose, frumpily dressed librarian is way a thing of the past, as Marilyn Johnson can attest to in her look at the modern library and modern librarians. The new library is digital, up-to-the-minute, and innovative. The new librarians are tattooed, wired, and witty. More than anything, they are totally connected to information. And Johnson witnesses to this as she travels across the country meeting and learning about all types of libraries and librarians.

Johnson wrote this book in response to another book she wrote called The Dead Beat, which was a discussion of obituaries and those who write them. Johnson, herself, used to be an obituary journalist. As she wrote and read, she discovered that some of the most interesting obituaries belonged to librarians. Who were these people? Why had they led such interesting lives?

I have long maintained that if you wanted to know a person committed to civil liberties, meet a librarian. Johnson confirms this in a chapter in which she discusses four Connecticut librarians who refused to turn over usage records to the FBI and challenged the Patriot Act in court. “So here was the case in a nutshell: quiet librarians who wanted to keep quiet about their patrons’ records were told to give up those records and to remain quiet about it. The librarians fought to be heard, and finally they were. Now for the rest of their lives, they would be noisy, in defense of keeping quiet."

She writes about librarians who run a reference desk for patrons of “Second Life,” librarians who blog, librarians who train students from third world countries to automate schools and libraries, librarians who help the homeless access email, government records and Social Security, as well as those librarians who are digitalizing and archiving important records and historical documents.

It is kind of a meandering journey through the new world of libraries, but I learned quite a lot about what I have been missing since I retired—like accessing DIIGO, a great resource for highlighting and making notes on websites (for research projects). Above all, it made me remember why I became a librarian in the first place, and why I love helping clients find the information they need.

Would the average reader like this book? I think so. It is an interesting journey into an area that most people know only one aspect and have only one stereotypical opinion. And oh, what a different world this book presents! It certainly makes you look at the reference librarian at your public library in a totally different light. If the journalist worrying about his overdue book had just read This Book is Overdue before he filed his story, he would have been asking the librarians he interviewed totally different questions than how to avoid the huge fine he had encumbered.

Johnson closes by saying: “I was under the librarians’ protection. Civil servants and servants of civility, they had my back. They would be whatever they need to be that day: information professionals, teachers, police, community organizers, computer technicians, historians, confidantes, clerks, social workers, storytellers…”

Here is a review of the book from the New York Times:
and an interview with the author on The New Yorker blog:
Here is Marilyn Johnson’s website: