Welcome to Reading Things, a quarterly newsletter from the Thingelstad Family, sharing thoughts on and about books! Thanks for reading with us! 📚
In this issue: My Brigadista Year, We Are Not From Here, Minecraft: The Mountain, Caste, To Shake the Sleeping Self, and Four Thousand Weeks.
I love sports! I like soccer, baseball, and so many others. But you know what sports I like the most? Winter sports. I like hockey, sledding, skiing, ice skating, and others. Now, have you done these? Well you probably should because winter is going to be over soon. While you’re at it you can make snowmen and igloos. Once you are done with all your fun winter activities you can come inside, make a hot chocolate, and read a good book. Now you’re probably thinking what book? We have a few suggestions! — Tyler
Katherine Paterson (2017), 198 pages.
They say never judge a book by its cover. Hmm. Imagine a smooth wooden shelf in a small overfilling bookstore in a cute New Hampshire town.1 Then me, squatting in front of the shelf. There are big windows to the left — the sun streams in and tingles my back, lighting up the books piled up to my right. Sitting there, I didn’t want to spend any money. That’s when the golden, earthy, jungle-y, adventurous spine caught my eye. It didn’t take up much space on the shelf compared to the other books, but it didn’t need to. I felt compelled to at least pick it up and look at it. It was called My Brigadista Year. Hmm. Brigadista… Spanish. Spanish… Awesome! It’s a lot to say about a cover and some pages, but at that moment this cover and these pages felt like the most precious ones on earth.
Walking out of the bookstore with the rest of my family, my excitement about this book wasn’t the loud, crazy type of excitement. It was more subdued — a deeper, slower excitement. I was excited to read the book, but I mean, it was just a book. Just a cover and some pages. It was a few months later when I picked up My Brigadista Year from the bookshelf in my room and opened to the first page.
Este relato follows a 13 year old Cuban girl who lives in Havana with her protective parents and encouraging abuela. Set at the peak of the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, Lora’s family cheers Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government on as they overthrow Fulgencia Batista’s long lasting regime. Although Castro’s new government will eventually become a regime of its own, Lora is determined to participate in his plan to bring literacy to all of Cuba in just one year. Called Brigidistas because of their army brigade status, Lora and her fellow young volunteers were shuttled to the remote mountains of Cuba and paired with a family of “students” for an entire year. Lora and her new family soon warm up to each other, and Lora realizes that she is not the only one with something to teach. Every season in the mountains brings a new way of life and Lora is forced to navigate the nature, the lessons, the people, and the danger as she adapts to life on a dirt floor in a tiny house in the middle of nowhere.
This libro really struck home for me because of the overarching themes of family, love, teaching, and farming. Like, literally all of my favorite things. It is a grounding, heartwarming read. — Mazie
1: A cute New Hampshire town that also happened to be home to some not-so-cute leeches who, when exploring a very cute stream with Tyler later that day, attached themselves in the hundreds to both of my legs when I slipped and fell in the stream. I thought it was moss that I was slipping and sliding on as I glided down that cute little stream in a moment of pure joy and freedom. Well, the next moment found me stranded in the middle of this disgusting stream, screaming my lungs out as I was taken physical and mental prisoner by hundreds of slimy creatures wriggling up my legs. The only thing I heard from my parents, on the shore of this disgusting stream, was laughter. They thought it was mud.
Jenny Torres Sanchez (2020), 344 pages.
I picked this book up at Content Books (my favorite book store) this summer. Content compiled a summer reading list and while none of the adult books appealed to me, several of the YA books did. Go figure; I guess I’m young at heart. Normally I don’t have a big backlog of books, but after buying several books from Content’s summer list and other books here and there, I quickly developed a pile of books that I owned but hadn’t read. This winter I’ve begun to make my way through the pile.
I highly recommend this book. It’s not a lighthearted read, but it is a devastatingly honest look at the journey many kids make trying to come to this country from Central America because of the impossibility of where they were born.
The story chronicles Pulga, Chico and Pequena as their life in Guatemala quickly becomes untenable and they make the decision to leave and try and make it to the States. They don’t tell anyone of their plans and head out in the cover of night. They leave behind family that loves them, and a country that they love, but it really seems that they have no other choice.
Pulga has been dreaming of leaving for a long time and has researched, saved and prepared, but Chico and Pequena haven’t really considered it, and actually leaving everything behind is an act born of desperation for all three. They spend the remainder of the book on the journey. The author does an amazing job of putting you there with them. It is a gut wrenching journey spelled out in agonizing detail.
While this book is listed as a junior high book, I think it’s more appropriate for high school. I don’t think I’d want my junior high student reading it, unless they were very mature and the book was being discussed in class or in some way while they were reading. Some YA books that I’ve read are a bit simple and while they are fun to read as an adult, they don’t offer much to chew. This book is not that. This book can and should be read by adults. — Tammy
Max Brooks (2021), 272 pages.
This is the seventh book in the Minecraft series. The first book was The Island where a kid gets trapped inside Minecraft and has to learn all these things and finds stuff to live. Then at the end he leaves the island to search for life.
Then we start the seventh book in the middle of the ocean, hopeless. Now in the middle of the ocean, he can’t find any land and is trying to find other people. He finally sees land. It is an ice biome. He searches it for awhile, cold, hungry, and near death, but then finds a person named Summer.
They both have been stuck in Minecraft. Summer has been there for awhile and feels settled and she has found a lot of things, like another dimension. Summer and Guy become friends and stay together. Then Guy wants to go somewhere else with Summer to start a new life and maybe even get out of this place, but Summer does not want to leave since she is so settled.
They get in a big fight in the Nether and get close to dying. Guy goes out and starts to find a new place to live without Summer but can’t go without Summer so he goes back. When he gets back Summer is not home. Guy wonders if Summer never got out of the Nether and died.
Will Summer survive? Will Guy come back to the Nether to save Summer? Now come and read this adventure packed book and see what happens to them and their relationship. — Tyler
Isabel Wilkerson (2020), 496 pages.
Caste is a powerful book that describes a very intentional, structured system behind the racism that we still struggle with in the United States. Wilkerson compares three caste systems: the United States, India’s Castes, and Nazi Germany. There is much in this book and I won’t even attempt to capture the arguments. It is worth reading and reflecting upon.
While reading Caste I found myself exploring the architecture of it in my brain. I found myself comparing Caste to two very different books: The Selfish Gene by Dawkins, and Hegemony or Survival by Chomsky. Both of those books took topics that I had some understanding and awareness of, and flipped it in such a way to show a completely different side of it. Selfish Gene made me question the very concepts of free will and what motivates us to do what we do. Hegemony shows a view of US Foreign Policy that was like opening up a secret book of plans. Caste laid the groundwork for an economic structure, powered by racism, that made me see the topic of systemic racism in a completely different light with a very clear set of incentives, structure, and objectives.
Surely humans have both conscious and unconscious biases, and those biases can be amplified to an extreme of racism that is caustic and damaging. But perhaps there is also a fundamental framework, a super-structure, that was created with absolute intent and clarity, that is then justified and allowed to exist on the poison of racism. Understanding what we are dealing with is fundamental to improving, and Caste does a phenomenal job illustrating that broader framework. — Jamie
Jedidiah Jenkins (2018), 336 pages.
This is another book from the summer reading backlog that I just finished a couple of weeks ago. I also highly recommend this book. I thought it was a great read; a travelogue of a 30 year old guy trying to find himself while on an epic bike journey that spanned two continents and a year and a half. I picked up the book thinking that Jenkins must be this super athlete who had prepared for this journey for many months or years, but quickly realized that just like Bryson in a Walk in the Woods, or Strayed in Wild, Jenkins doesn’t do much preparing before he heads out.
He begins the journey in Oregon and ends many months later in Patagonia, South America. He’s a good writer and describes both the external and internal journey well. We meet many characters throughout his travels and you get a sense for both the drudgery of the trip and also the wonder and self transformation. I couldn’t help but think back to We Are Not From Here while reading this book. It was an interesting contrast seeing some of the same landscape through completely different life experiences.
About a year ago, we watched the Long Way Up show that follows Ewan McGregor and his friend Charlie Boorman as they ride motorcycle from the tip of South America back to California. It’s a great show, 11 episodes on Apple TV, and would be an awesome complement to this book. — Tammy
Oliver Burkeman (2021), 288 pages.
This book has been making some circles online. I found it referenced by a blogger that I follow and the topic intrigued me so I jumped in. The premise of the book is that we all get our 4,000 weeks (approximately, and assuming we live to be about 80) and that this “finitude” is something that many of us choose to not acknowledge. The reasons to ignore that finitude are fairly obvious, most of us don’t like to think about the fact that we will all die. But in the act of ignoring the fundamentally limited nature of our time we may miss the things that will ultimately make our time here rewarding.
Burkeman comes to this topic as a reformed productivity nerd. I felt a bond with him on that point. Like many, I’ve spent energy on how to be more productive, how to get more done, etc. His realization comes from the fact that the inbound list of things to be productive about is infinite. Getting better just means doing more stuff. There is no end. Ever.
Perhaps it is the fact that I just turned 50, but I find myself thinking more about the simple fact that there is no more time to get. We have what we get. It disappears at the same linear rate for all of us. Four Thousand Weeks is filled with ways to contemplate that limited time and what we want to do with it.
One way to use our time is with hobbies. I love hobbies. I’ve often said that I have a hobby of having and making new hobbies.
There’s a less fancy term that covers many of the activities Setiya refers to as atelic: they are hobbies. His reluctance to use that word is understandable, since it’s come to signify something slightly pathetic; many of us tend to feel that the person who’s deeply involved in their hobby of, say, painting miniature fantasy figurines, or tending to their collection of rare cacti, is guilty of not participating in real life as energetically as they otherwise might. Yet it’s surely no coincidence that hobbies have acquired this embarrassing reputation in an era so committed to using time instrumentally. In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit. The derision we heap upon the avid stamp collector or train spotter might really be a kind of defense mechanism, to spare us from confronting the possibility that they’re truly happy in a way that the rest of us — pursuing our telic lives, ceaselessly in search of future fulfillment — are not. This also helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a “side hustle”, a hobbylike activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind. (page 158)
There is a broad point to Burkeman’s book considering the “value” of time, and arguing that some of our views of value have become a bit distorted. I agree strongly with that point, and I also believe that we all must determine what that value is for us and our 4,000 weeks here on this planet. — Jamie
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