Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel

Can’t say when the last time I read a book written by a seventeen-year old, but this memoir by a high school student was touching and well-written despite Nicolaia Rips' youth. Growing up in New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel gives one a head start, at least when it comes to knowing interesting characters.

The Chelsea’s fame reached its ascendency in the 60s and 70s with noteworthy residents:  Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Patsy Smith, who wrote her own memoir about it, Just Kids.

First Nicolaia describes how she came into being. Her mom was a globe-trotting artist, and her dad had zero interest in raising a child, but somehow the artist got pregnant, and the couple began a new way of life. Though not immediately.

While pregnant, her Mom traveled through Europe and along the Silk Road in Asia. Her dad, a non-practicing lawyer and writer, stayed in New York and added a psychiatrist’s office to his daily rounds of coffee shops. He also denied that he was the father, accusing a gay friend for parenting the child. However, once Nicolaia was born, he came around and warmly embraced being a dad, but still the family remained footloose, decamping for several years in Italy, and then roaming North Africa and India, before returning to NYC and the Chelsea Hotel.

Happy Birthday, National Park Service, 100 Years!

Terry Tempest Williams writes passionately about our natural world in the tradition of Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopard, Annie Dillard, and Edward Abbey.

This book--timed to come out with the hundredth year anniversary of the National Park System--argues strongly about the necessity of keeping our park lands protected. It also reinforces why we need them in our modern world.

“Whenever I go to a national park, I meet the miraculous,” she writes in the opening section. She also says that our national parks “are blood. They are more than scenery, they are portals and thresholds of wonder.” Having just returned from Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I heartily second that.

Although she has visited many parks, and some, over and over, she has chosen twelve to highlight here. And I love how she does it. Not only does she share personal anecdotes about each of the twelve, but she uses various formats to do so.  For example, in the Big Bend section, she includes journal entries she wrote while there. Through riffs, all on a color theme, she shares what she saw and experienced there.

Living with a Dead Language

They say that you really learn about a people only when you learn their language. Multiply that for a culture long gone, say, that of the Romans.

This book by a former editor describes her love for Latin-- how she went back to college to study it after thirty-five years in New York City publishing.  I can’t believe I even picked it up after all my complaints about being forced to take Latin in high school. But the fact that I continued studying the language after the mandatory first two years tells you something.

But this is a book about much more than Latin. It’s about following one’s passion. Along the way, Ann Patty reveals much about her life. She describes sharing a home with a man entirely opposite herself. Her partner, an arborist, lives for the outdoor life. He hikes and skis, even on the coldest days. She’s definitely a city person even though she now lives in upstate New York, often rushing back to the city for cultural events.

Half-Earth: our Planet's Fight for Life

The central premise of this book is that in order to save many of the world’s species, humankind has to do something truly radical, that is, create wildlife and nature preserves over half the earth. 

Renowned entomologist and conservationist, Edward O. Wilson, presents in this book many examples of how interconnected life is in on our planet, and then makes a clarion call to save it. As someone who has actively worked for conservation for decades, Wilson is very knowledgeable.

He points out that of all the fauna and flora now on earth, we know only 20% of them at most at the species level. And much less about how they work together to maintain this web of life. To learn all these species, even were they to survive, would take at least a couple more centuries.

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens

We lived in Alaska when this volcano blew spectacularly in 1980. Two months later, we flew from Seattle to the east coast, and the pilot flew over the great mountain, so everyone could get a glimpse at the destruction. Yet, it wasn’t until ten years later that we made the trip to Southern Washington and visited the monument itself.

My husband and children and I stared in horror at the skeleton trees still standing, and at the grey scar that extended for miles down the mountain. In that moment we felt the cataclysmic power of nature. Other than the dead trees, the landscape looked like it could have been on the moon or some barren planet.

Ten years later my husband and I returned, and this time we were amazed by the rebirth of forests, the greenery. You could still see the damage the eruption had caused, but much of the forest was verdant again. Amazingly green and vibrant.

When Breath Becomes Air

As a young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi had the difficult task of preparing patients and their families for death. As a brain surgeon his patients included everyone from young children with epilepsy, to teens shot in the head during gang violence, to people of all ages suffering from brain tumors.

Then there was the man who spoke only in numbers. He enunciated well, and spoke with a conversational lilt to his words yet no one understood him. The numbers signified nothing, and left him feeling more alone.

Unlike many doctors, Dr. Kalanithi enjoyed the challenge of discussing death with his terminally-ill patients. His undergraduate and graduate studies of philosophy and literature helped him make these talks both meaningful and helpful while always being cognizant of where the patient and family were coming from in their understanding of the patient’s condition.

But then in his last year as a resident when he was the chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford, he woke one day with intense back pain. He had a checkup but nothing serious showed, so he flew to upstate New York for a reunion with dear friends that he had long been anticipating.

In Order to Live: a North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom

Born weighing less than three pounds, Yeonmi Park, had to fight to survive infancy. Her can-do spirit and inner resiliency also kept her alive through the Great Famine that struck North Korea in the 1990s.

Park describes the horror that descended upon North Korea after Russia and China stopped supporting their economy. In the far north, Park’s mother and father had to scramble for work. Most of the manufacturing jobs in their city disappeared so Yeonmi’s father began selling on the black market.

Even doing this dangerous work, the family tottered on the edge of famine often, and at other times did quite well. But well in this context was relative. In the flush periods, the Parks had rice three times daily, and meat only two or three times a month.

Park also describes the rigid class groupings the North Korean government enforced. There were three classes (songbun) and movement between them went in only direction, down.


M Train

This absorbing new memoir by artist, poet, performer, and rock star Patti Smith provides a personal take on her daily life: her dreams, philosophical musings, friendships and myriad exotic journeys.  Favorite black jacket, check.  Watch cap, check. Black coffee at Café ‘Ino, check.

Unlike Just Kids, which focused on her past, her life with artist Mapplethorpe in the famous Chelsea Hotel, in this book the past and present intertwine. Coffee, the connecting themes.

Appropriately enough, it begins with a dream. One of many that thread through the book. Next Patti describes her trip to French Guiana in the 70s. After her husband promised her a trip anyway in the world. Patti--idiosyncratic as always--chose the place where French writer Genet was imprisoned. They were almost jailed themselves on the way back when their driver was caught ferrying a man in the trunk to the airport.

The Best American Essays 2015

The year 2015 has rushed out the exit door, but no worries, this wonderful mix of essays is not time-centric.

My favorite in the collection I randomly chose first. Sorry, editor, Ariel Levy, I just dive into these collections and start reading wherever my finger lands. Tim Kreider’s “A Man and his Cat” describes a single fellow’s devotion for his cat.  How one small nonhuman creature fills his home with love and his life with a sense of purpose.

On the other hand, in the humorous sounding essay “My Grandma the Poisoner” John Reed makes a strong case that the early deaths of several relatives and the upset stomachs and inertia of certain houseguests were not accidental. Reed found himself comatose for fourteen hours several times after eating a Grandma meal.

The sweet and spot-on “65” describes how aging has affected one boomer’s life.  Mark Jacobson milks the slowing down and aches and pains of age for all they are worth. The tone is light but the sentiments serious, especially when he ponders the overarching question, how did this happen to me.


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