His new book is The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life.
Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Like many people, when browsing for something to read, I often choose a book based on its first lines. I suppose what I’m hoping to find is some immediate connection, either in subject matter or, more often, in the author’s “voice.” It doesn’t always work out, of course; sometimes those first lines are misleading, and the hoped-for connection isn’t actually there.Visit The Monkey's Voyage website.
On the other hand, sometimes it works the other way around.
For the past couple of years, my wife, Tara, has been raving about Animal, Mineral, Radical, a collection of essays by B. K. Loren. As a result, several times I’ve picked up the book and read its opening lines: “Writing is listening,” Loren proclaims. “I have never believed writing has anything to do with having something to say.” And I’ve thought to myself, “That is really not me. I wrote a book precisely because I did have something to say.” And then I’ve put the book down.
But Tara kept raving about Loren’s book, so eventually I read on…and got hooked. As I began reading, it occurred to me that I ought to relate to the author at some level because, like me, she’s into nature, and she lives in a place I once lived in, the Front Range area of Colorado. And, to some extent, those connections did materialize. Her descriptions of transcendent encounters with coyotes and mountain lions reminded me of my own meetings with wild animals, and an essay in which she describes living downwind of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, where radioactive and pesticide-laden dust drifted like fine snow, made me wish I had never lived anywhere near the place. Ultimately, though, what made me love this book was how it so clearly and poetically expressed the author’s humanity—her sense of mortality, and sadness, and rejuvenation, and connection, to the world and to other people. If that makes Animal, Mineral, Radical sound heavy, well, it is heavy, but it’s also funny and hopeful. One of my favorite essays in the book, called “Snapshots of my red-neck brother, and other undeveloped negatives,” begins with scenes that make the author and her brother seem like products of different worlds, but ultimately reveals a complex and touching relationship.
In the movie Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins, playing C. S. Lewis, says, “We read to know we are not alone.” That’s exactly what I felt many times while reading Loren’s book, in ways that were unanticipated and deeper than I had expected. I might even have to go back to those opening lines and try to figure out what I was missing before.
Two other books I’ve read recently also surprised me with unexpected connections. One of these, I have to admit, I read because the author, Thor Hanson, wrote a nice blurb for the back of my own book. But I don’t think that’s what made me like his book, Feathers. As with Animal, Mineral, Radical, I started Feathers thinking I would relate to it for one reason—because I’m a birder and the book is all about the most obvious feature of birds—but ended up enjoying it for an entirely different reason as well. Basically, I felt a kinship to the author—he comes across as an inquisitive and modest naturalist and scientist, things that I at least aspire to be. Hanson’s book is sprinkled with entertaining personal anecdotes, but they’re all in service to explorations of the natural and cultural history of feathers; he never seemed to be writing about himself to satisfy his ego. By the time I finished the book I felt like I had been listening to stories—fascinating stories at that—told by a trusted friend. (The anticipated bird connection ultimately came through strongly for me too. For instance, I recently discovered the remains of a dove in our backyard, probably the leftovers from a hawk’s meal, and found myself sifting through the pile, picking out all the anatomically distinct kinds of feathers, and contemplating what Hanson wrote about their evolution.)
The third book on my list is one of the hundreds of children’s picture books that my wife and I have read to our daughter and son. Many kids’ books are truly painful for adults to read—the awful, abbreviated book versions of Disney movies should be avoided like the plague—but we’ve also come across dozens of real treasures. One of my favorites is Tea With Milk by Allen Say, whose books often tell some sort of Asian/American cross-cultural story. My heritage is mostly Japanese, and that alone might make me especially receptive to Say’s books, but Tea With Milk also brings up a specific topic that I’ve become aware of through my family’s history. Specifically, many Japanese who immigrated to the U.S. later returned to Japan, some of them staying for good, others eventually moving back to the States, as my mother’s family did after living in Japan for a year. Tea With Milk deals with this little-known aspect of immigrant history. The book is about a Japanese-American girl named Masako whose family, living in California, decides to return to Japan and remains there. It turns out to be a story of displacement and disconnection, because Masako is culturally more American than Japanese and is discriminated against in Japan. (My mother’s experience immediately came to mind here; she told me that, when her family lived in Japan, the other kids made fun of the way she and her sisters talked, and would throw stones at them on the way to school.) Masako feels both constrained by Japanese culture, especially as it applies to women, and alienated from everyone around her, but she eventually finds a connection with another displaced person, a Chinese businessman. This couple, it turns out, are Allen Say’s parents, who, despite their initial alienation, stayed in Japan, where Say was raised. (He now lives in the U.S., to add another layer to the story.)
For me, as an adult who reads great piles of children’s books, one of the pleasures of reading Tea With Milk and other books by Say is that, despite their straightforward form, they manage to delve into profound issues and to avoid simple, stereotypical stories. Toss the words “Japanese,” “American,” and “prejudice” together and many people will conjure up images of white Americans sending Japanese-Americans to World War II internment camps, or other forms of racial prejudice. Tea With Milk tells a less obvious story of discrimination and disconnection, and gains strength from its novelty. I should also mention that Say illustrates his books with beautifully composed watercolors. Oh, and, crucially, our kids like these books too (even if some of the subtleties fly over our three-year-old’s head).