Books to lift your spirits

Last week, I began reading The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, the story of Gustav Klimt’s friends and patrons among Vienna’s Jewish bourgeoisie  in the early 20th century.  I reached the section on the arrival of the Nazis over the weekend, and by Monday night, the story had turned so horrific that I found myself lying in bed and staring at my bedroom ceiling long after I’d turned out my light.

It’s a fascinating book that personalizes the holocaust in a way I hadn’t experienced since The Diary of Anne Frank.  I recommend reading it.

But not right now.

This morning while I was having breakfast, I started thinking about non-fiction books I would suggest to friends during this time when the world seems dark and uncertain — books that made me smile and, just picking them up again, brought back wonderful memories of reading.

I’d love to get other suggestions.  But for now, here are some favorite books from my own shelves that are worth reading anytime and are especially good to pick up right now:

  1. Beatrix Potter:  A Life in Nature by Linda Lear.  A classic biography.  It’s the story of a talented woman who was ahead of her time and found happiness on her own terms, doing what she loved.  It turns out Potter was not only clever and determined, she was also extraordinarily generous.
  2. My Life in France by Julia Child.  One of my favorite books of all time.  It’s a cookbook, a love story, and a travel narrative.  But what’s most remarkable is the way Julia Child, even with her terrible French, made friends everywhere she went.  Her warmth and curiosity inspired strangers to invite her to dinner and hand over their family recipes.
  3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.  The second of my “stories from France” recommendations.  This is Carhart’s memoir of a friendship he developed with a man who ran a piano repair shop.  Through that relationship, Carhart met all kinds of people around Paris and discovered gems hidden in the city that few of us get a chance to see.
  4. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.  A classic fish-out-of-water story set in a small town in France.  You will laugh and cry as you read this book — and dream of moving to a small town.  Or maybe simply getting to know your neighbors better.
  5. A Walk in the Woods or In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.  The story of Bryson’s hike on the Appalachian Trail and his tale of traveling through Australia.  Both are hilarious, educational, and moving.  Everywhere he goes, Bryson encounters wackiness and kind strangers who are eager to help.
  6. My Losing Season by Pat Conroy.  Conroy’s memoir of his senior year as captain of the Citadel Bulldogs basketball team.  The book is about winning and losing, and it’s wonderful to follow Conroy, who came from an abusive home, as he discovers the joy of friendship.
  7. Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.  The story of the University of Washington’s ragtag-bunch-of-underdogs crew team that beat the east coast powerhouses to advance to the 1936 Olympics, where they defeated Hitler’s German rowing team.  In this story, the good guys finish first.
  8. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.  The memoir of a biology professor at the University of Hawaii who grew up in a small town in Minnesota.  The book is remarkable for its beautiful writing and Jahren’s father who passed on to her his love of science.  Jahren fought tough obstacles as a woman in the sciences, but this is really a story about friendship and the power of great parenting.
  9. The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto.  A tour through the real woods that inspired Milne’s beloved books.  Aalto’s flowery writing style may make you crazy, but she does a good job of capturing the magic that was Milne’s childhood and the kindness that created Pooh.



Power to the People

An amazing story has been unfolding here in Puget Sound for the past 8 months, and recently, we’ve come to the exciting end of Book I and are ready to embark upon the sequel, a new adventure.  The tale has nothing to do with our humdinger of a presidential election, but it’s truly an American story.  Or maybe it’s more of a story about what we’d like our whole country to be.

We have a delightful little radio station here called KPLU (88.5).  It’s an NPR affiliate that broadcasts from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and, when it’s not running NPR programming (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air), it airs local news, jazz, and blues.

It’s a gem of a station with a loyal audience, including myself.  I wake up every morning to KPLU and listen to it at night while I do the dishes and fold laundry.  And it offers one of my favorite radio shows, Bird Note, a two-minute program about birds that combines narrative and nature sounds.  The first time I heard it, I thought, “That’s really odd,” and now, every morning, I look forward to the distinctive oboe theme that opens each segment.

Last year, Pacific Lutheran decided it wanted to get out of the public radio business, so it approached KUOW, our 800-pound radio gorilla at the University of Washington, about buying it.  KUOW is a great station, but it’s very different from the much smaller KPLU, and its plan was to shut down KPLU’s news department and make the station all jazz, no NPR programming, no local news.

Fortunately, last December, due to outcry from KPLU listeners, who want news with their jazz, the purchase agreement was modified to allow for a competing bid.  The community would have until June 30, 2016 to raise $7 million to take control of the station.  Friends of KPLU was formed and it kicked off a fundraising campaign, with the goal of keeping the station independent.

It seemed like a crazy dream, and as the money began trickling in, the reality of just how big a number 7 million is began to settle over KPLU listeners.  Donations were coming in steadily, but every day, as we got the donation update, we also received the reminder that we still needed millions and millions of dollars to buy the station.

And then suddenly, we were only 2 million away.  Then 1 million.  And on May 26, more than a month before the deadline, Friends of KPLU announced that 20,000 people had donated money and the $7 million goal had been reached.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the story isn’t over.  PLU still has to accept the community offer and KUOW has to withdraw from the bidding.  But it looks as though those things will happen.  Also, the station will need to change its call letters (with help from listeners), form a community board, and raise money for operations under its new name.  Programming will remain the same, but the station will be something different:  truly public.  Owned and operated by its listeners.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”  The story of KPLU affirms that there’s enormous power in individuals coming together for a common cause, and that there are few obstacles that can’t be moved by people who believe they can make a difference and are willing to invest the time and resources to do so.

And there’s another saying I like:  “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

We’re being hit hard right now by stories of an ineffectual primary system, an unjust justice system, and a Congress that works for the corporations that give them money, rather than the voters who elect them.  It’s easy to say that our most fundamental institutions are corrupt beyond saving, but, as the community effort to purchase KPLU shows, there are a few planks in the foundation of our country that remain strong:  Freedom of speech and our ability, as individuals, to donate money to causes we believe in without censure from our government.  Also freedom of the press and the opportunity we have as citizens to take ownership of media organizations and run them as we see fit.

This story also demonstrates that each voice matters.  It’s tempting to dismiss this idea with cynicism, especially right now, but the truth is:  KPLU’s audience spoke up, and PLU and KUOW listened.  Maybe because it seemed like the right thing to do.  Or maybe because, in America, we still cheer for the person willing to pull out a tiny slingshot, draw back his or her arm, and take on a giant.