The hammering from daily political news has kept me away from devouring my normal quota of books on contemporary politics. If you too are on overload, here are some non-fiction alternatives I’ve recently enjoyed.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candace Millard, published in 2006, was loaned to me by thoughtful neighbors during my recovery from surgery. It was a thoroughly enjoyable diversion, an account of Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to unexplored Amazon River tributaries, after the failure of his 1912 Bull Moose Presidential bid. I had, of course, known all about TR’s testosterone-driven trips hunting in Africa, mastering the Dakota Badlands, and charging San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders. Even if his trip to the heart of uncharted Amazon territory started out in that spirit, this book reveals TR as an authentic environmentalist and caretaker of the natural world. Millard has thoroughly researched the rain forest ecosystem, its animals, many of them dangerous, the perils of disease, impenetrable jungle, unnavigable whitewater rapids that crushed their dugout canoes and consumed their provisions, hostile Cinta Larga tribesmen and impending starvation. Roosevelt himself hovered for weeks on the brink of death due to a wound exacerbated by flesh-eating bacteria, and his son Kermit struggled with malaria during the entire trip.
My husband and I traveled through several parts of Brazil in November 1986, and had a memorable Thanksgiving dinner (with piranha appetizers) in an isolated indigenous Maue village in the Amazon jungle south of Manaus. Our trip there via rivulets under a canopy of vine covered trees in a rickety 4 person boat was an exciting but far tamer adventure. Those memories made reading Roosevelt’s adventures 70+ years before all the more fascinating.
Before Her Voice Was Still: A Friendship in the Shadow of ALS is a poignant memoir of author Judith Wurtman’s coming to grips with the diagnosis and demise of her dear friend Susan, a downward journey that took place between 2014 and 2018. The book is a clear-eyed portrayal of the ravages of ALS. It is as intimate a look as one imagines possible when not suffering the disease oneself. Wurtman explores the hopes and limitations of what Judaism offers to people faced with terminal illness; the contemplation of the meaning of having a soul and the possibility of an afterlife– or not; the vagaries of the pharmaceutical industry offering hope and then disappointment in clinical trials; the leavening contribution of humor, however dark, and honesty between dear friends. Most of all, it shows that, even when confronted by a terrible fate that neither science nor human aspiration can reverse, sustained support by a committed friend, one’s chosen family, can ease the pain and loneliness of unspeakable affliction. The book could have used an extra round of copy editing, but it is an informative primer on ALS and a compelling insight into friendship and loss.
Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl is a delicious memoir by the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine during its last, glorious decade. I received this book from a college classmate and friend after surgery when I couldn’t bear to read one more word about politics. I love to eat, but I’m not a foodie. I can cook, but I am not, as is my sister, particularly creative. Reichl went from being a restaurant critic for the New York Times to Gourmet and entered a highly charged world of glamour, high fashion, lavish food, limos, exotic travel, five-star everything, sharing with the reader her aspirations as a journalist, her self-doubts as a rising executive, her insights into the egos of the publishing world, and her take on the rise of celebrity chefs who rose to prominence all the while exploring broader issues of feeding and pleasing with food. It’s not a book I would ever have selected for myself, but it turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. It’s an intimate view of an aspect of journalism with which I had little familiarity. Her personal reflections on her experience, from life in the fast lane to her interior insecurities, are so thoughtful and well written, and her skills as a story teller are most impressive.
Lost and Found in Spain: Tales of an Ambassador’s Wife by Susan Lewis Solomont is a short memoir by the wife of President Obama’s ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont. An accomplished businesswoman, philanthropist and community leader, Susan Solomont bristles against devolving into the 1950’s “wife of” role thrust upon her when her husband is named to the high diplomatic post. While not great literature, Solomont has a simple, accessible style that gives an intimate look at the private lives and public responsibilities of their 3 ½ year sojourn in Madrid. It was a life of luxury, celebrity, discovery, loneliness and personal growth. Part travelogue, part foodie’s adventure, offering a deep dive into religious identity and Judaism in Spain, the book reveals the sacrifice and opportunity involved in such choice diplomatic postings. It challenges everyone who has to adapt to total life change over which there is little control.
In my next blog, I will share some thoughts on the fiction I’ve been reading.
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