Foreword Reviews

Best of 2020 Interviews: Part One - Foreword This Week

For all the pain and uncertainty of the past year, from week to week the interviews in Foreword This Week always seemed to offer a wonderful respite from the daily toil. As we do every year, we’re excited to offer you a carefully curated selection of our favorite questions and responses from the year’s fifty-plus interviews between reviewers and authors. Please set aside a few minutes to give this a thoughtful read—we know you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewer Kristine Morris interviews Joan Frank, Author of Try To Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place

It seems to me that there’s a whole group of people out there who are always looking for “someplace else” to be—a personal Shangri-La, a Neverland, or on some days, maybe even another planet. This urge, this feeling that we don’t quite fit in where we are and need to find a “better fit,” can be uncomfortable. After many years of travel experience, what might you say to these people?

What might I say to people seeking a better fit somewhere? “Welcome to the human tribe!” Because it feels like such a primal drive in us: the curiosity, the longing; above all, the storytelling (to ourselves and others, even as fantasy) about Elsewhere or Yonder or The Great Far Away (the title of an early novel of mine, quoting the answer Georgia O’Keeffe gave when asked what she painted). You’ll note, I hope, that one of the epigraphs for this collection is from the song “We Move Around,” from Stephen Stills and the band Manassas. Its opening lines: “What do we do, given life? We move around.”

Reviewer Jeff Fleischer Interviews John Connelly, Author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe

What do you most hope the audience comes away with after reading From Peoples into Nations?

I suppose the primary thing has to do with respect for diversity. Not everyone looks at the world the way people do in North America or Western Europe. A number of peoples whom we consider very close, partly because of huge émigré communities in the west, partly because of recent inclusion in western institutions, like NATO or the EU, look at the world in radically different ways than we do. They think of history not as some distant and anonymous force, let alone as a succession of dates and events, but almost as a personal entity that can intervene unpredictably and decisively in the story of one’s own family and community, destroying centuries’ old institutions in an instant.

Nothing made by humans is stable. In East Europe that fact places a huge premium on arguments for self-defense: the East European story is of small peoples. Without a strong patron, they can disappear. The region has produced more history—and been more touched by history—than other regions. Perhaps no place on earth concentrates so much that was new to humanity in the twentieth century: the region gave the world the terms genocide and ethnic cleansing and illiberal democracy. But it also fostered opposing movements and trends: people power, human rights, the worker trade union Solidarity (Poland), playwright Vaclav Havel’s notion of living in truth (Czechia). And more recently: the students in Belgrade who ousted Milosevic (Otpor), and in the past year a fascinating movement that emerged in the streets of Belgrade called simply For a Decent Slovakia.

Reviewer Joe Taylor Interviews Taras Grecoe, Author of Possess the Air: Love, Heroism, and the Battle for the Soul of Mussolini’s Rome

Today we are witnessing a return to autocratic rulers, extreme nationalism, and, some say, a disenchantment with democratic institutions as in the time of Hitler and Mussolini. In the US, fears about socialism could extend the presidency of Donald Trump another four years. Can you comment on these parallels? How is Lauro de Bosis relevant?

We’re living in a time when the strongman—the authoritarian, the autocrat, the dictator—is once again on the rise. Instead of radio and newsreels, the modern version of Mussolini is communicating through Twitter and cable-news networks. And people in the Western world once again seem willing to “voluntarily abandon free institutions”—which scholars agree is a crucial precondition of Fascism and authoritarianism. (I’m very much thinking of Trump and his disturbingly successful attacks on the free press, the judiciary, the rule of law, and all standards of decency, but also Bolsonaro in Brazil, Dutarte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungary, and the figures of the xenophobic right on the rise in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Austria). I believe this is happening because the generation that remembers the sacrifices it took to defend these institutions—the generation that fought the Second World War, and oversaw the decades of peace and international cooperation that followed the war—is dying off.

When the Italian Fascists were seizing power through the use of violence, and Il Duce was giving that violence legitimacy by winking at the brutality invading everyday life, Lauro de Bosis chose to resist. He did it not in the name of Communism or Socialism, but in accordance with his own deep patriotism and love of liberty. His is the story of a principled individual who took a courageous stand for liberty, reason, and peace at a time when his fellow citizens seemed all too willing to embrace irrationality and belligerent nationalism.

That’s why I see Possess the Air as a story for our time: we need to refamiliarize ourselves with models—heroes out of the past—who show us how people of conscience reacted when the world seemed to be abandoning the unglamorous work of communication and cooperation in favor of pandering to prejudice and xenophobia.

Reviewer Rachel Jagareski Interviews Lenore Newman, Author of Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food

Lost Feast provides so many fascinating explanations for how the North American diet was heavily shaped by the frontier, industrialization, and government policies to become saturated with meat, sweets, and “convenience” foods. How can we radically reshape our diets when these foods continue to be so much cheaper and readily available than alternative ingredients?

This is a huge problem. I’m exposed on a daily basis to the latest food and nutrition science and yet I can’t walk past a bowl of potato chips or say no to a slice of cake. And there is no question that the healthiest foods are more expensive and more difficult to prepare.

I think the best thing we as a society could do is to end subsidies for the foods we know to be harmful in large amounts. We currently subsidize meat, dairy, and sugar and yet broccoli farmers are largely on their own. At the very least we should level the playing field. Some of my friends are surprised that I love stores such as Trader Joe’s where I can buy a big bag of shredded carrots and chopped kale. Yes, I have knife skills, yes, I know how to process raw vegetables, but at the end of a busy day, I just want food to be easy. We need to make good food cheaper than the alternative, and we have to make it easy. Teaching cooking skills is important, too, but the first two really do matter.

Reviewer Jessie Horness Interviews Amy Symington, Author of The Long Table Cookbook: Plant-Based Recipes for Optimal Health

I love the joyfulness of the plant-based recipes in your book—big, beautiful, colorful pictures, plenty of rich, indulgent foods. Knowing that shifting habits, especially eating habits, is hard, are there any particular starting points you recommend for folks looking to integrate more plant-based meals in their diets?

Shifting your dietary habits can be hard so I always say stick to what you know/like! Take a favourite recipe you already like and make some simple plant-based substitutions! Lentils and mushrooms for ground beef, tofu ricotta for ricotta, coconut milk for cream. A lot of the recipes in the book are comfort food classics from my childhood—shepherd’s pie, pot pies, the artichoke chowder, etc. and they make me so happy when I cook them. This will help to create a roster of go-to recipes for you that eventually you will be able to make blind folded!

Be prepared! Ensure that your pantry and your fridge is filled with good, healthy, plant-based food/snacks and that will end up being the default. Meal plan—even just one meal! This ultimately saves time and money and reduces your food waste! Not to mention it is better for your belly/health! Be kind to yourself! If you don’t stick perfectly to your goals, don’t beat yourself up. Changing your habits, particularly when it comes to diet, can take a long time, so cut yourself some slack! Just try to do better tomorrow. And then the tomorrow after that. This is a much more sustainable approach than expecting to change your lifestyle overnight.

Reviewer Melissa Wuske Interviews Lise Van Susteren and Stacey Colino, Authors of Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times

Many people are living such harried lives that it’s hard for them to tune into, much less respond to, what their bodies are saying. What are some doable first steps for these kinds of people?

Stacey: It helps to periodically hit the pause button during the day and check in with yourself: Consider how you’re feeling, whether you’re carrying tension in a particular part of your body or breathing shallowly. Then, take a few minutes to close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and relax your body from head to toe. This is really about making it a priority to take your own emotional pulse then to calm it, as needed.

Reviewer Camille-Yvette Welsch Interviews Jim Kristofic, Author of Reservation Restless

In moving through the landscape, you read the clues to see who and what had been here before from animals to people. You call it the beginning of narrative intelligence in humans. Can you explain that further particularly as it impacted you as a writer?

That particular detail tells its own story about the spirit of curiosity. You see the land laid out before you. But you don’t know much about it. You have your fantasies about the land. You have your analogies. But they are not the deep knowledge of people who’ve lived with it for centuries. And I don’t just mean “humans” when I say “people.” You get into the depths of knowledge and you learn that kangaroo rats are a people. Coyotes are a type of people. Eagles are a people. They have their own nations living alongside you. They have their own customs. You watch them. You learn things. You learn that we’re not the only thing going on around here.

So it’s a mystery in plain sight. And you get your whole life to try to understand it. But one life is not enough. You learn the truth of Charles Bowden’s four rules that he articulated in his book Inferno, about the Sonoran desert and all deserts:

You are in the right place.

You do not belong here.

Deal with this fact.

Time’s up.

Reviewer Matt Sutherland Interviews Eva Holland, Author of Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear

For people who worry they’re fearful to an unhealthy extent, will you offer a sense of perspective? What is too much fear? How do we recognize whether or not we’re controlled by our fears and that it’s time to do something about it?

It’s a hard thing to define, and to some extent we all have to set our own limits and say: This has gone too far for me, or, This is no longer an acceptable level of fear. But for me, it was about my fears impairing me from doing things that were important to me both personally and professionally. They made my world smaller to a point I could no longer accept, and remaining restricted in those ways seemed worse to me than trying to put in the time, money, and pain involved in trying to face them down.

Everyone’s calculus on that will be different. But I’ll give an example from the book: If you have, say, a fear of mice, but you only react when you actually see a mouse, and your home is mouse-free, then I’d say that’s something most of us could live with. If, however, your fear of mice leaves you anxious about the potential presence of mice all the time, like a woman I wrote about, if you can’t sleep at night for fear of mice, for instance, even though your home is mouse-free, then that is probably too much fear, and it’s time to take some action. It’s about the extent to which our fears bleed into and take over our lives.

Reviewer Rachel Jagareski Interviews Julian Hoffman, Author of Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places

Do you envision that the movement to decelerate climate change and preserve wild places and wildlife will be strengthened or eroded in the aftermath of this global pandemic?

This is a really important question. I think we’ve reached a crossroads, and the road that we were on is now permanently closed behind us, because there’s no going back to what “normal” was before. Too much has already irrevocably shifted. A number of airlines will fail, countless businesses will close.

The big question will be whether politicians choose to kickstart collapsing world economies by further loosening environmental regulations and throwing everything they have at growth at all costs, or whether they’ll steer a more transformative, positive, and affirmative response to this pandemic. There are already signs that some European governments are looking at embracing greener practices and policies in the aftermath of the coronavirus, and public polls are beginning to show that people don’t want to go back to the way things were, suddenly seeing clearer skies and waters in their surroundings. The opportunity definitely exists to use this terrible situation as a springboard for creating a better, more equitable, and greener future. The choice is ours.

Reviewer Jessie Horness Interviews Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, Author of A Fish Growing Lungs: Essays

In “Unsent,” you speak about how writing is exposure to the self of things we may not know or want to know. Would you speak a little about the process of writing a work that draws on vulnerable specificity to such great effect?

Ah, vulnerability. It’s much harder for me to admit directly to someone that they hurt my feelings than it is for me to publish a book that says I did a lot of cocaine and was in a psych ward. I think this is because I still wish to seem invulnerable and because I no longer feel burdened by those parts of my past. I’ve been in recovery for a while now, and part of that means I have a deeply-held belief in the possibility of change. In that way, I am a great optimist. This isn’t to say that there aren’t things I’ve done that I deeply regret, but this is to say that there’s still a lot of stigma around drug use and mental health issues that is pure garbage and I’m able to talk about it as such. Part of this, though, is that I’m no longer doing cocaine or on the precipice of a nervous breakdown. If I were still in that position, I might feel differently.

I am an inconsistent journal-keeper, and I also had copies of most of my old medical records from rehab and my first post-psych-ward psychiatrist. These were very difficult to read at first. It’s one thing to think, “Oh, yeah, I was a real asshole back then,” and another to read a medical professional’s opinion on how awful I was. I’d get a few pages in and then run outside my apartment, cry, and smoke like three cigarettes in a row and then shove the papers back in a box for a month. This happened maybe three times. And then finally I was so sick of myself feeling bad about myself that I just toughed it out on my porch with a pack of cigarettes. In retrospect, it was pretty gross.

Reviewer Melissa Wuske Interviews Jennifer Louden, Author of Why Bother?: Discover the Desire for What’s Next

You have an intense, determined optimism. Can you share a message of hope, particularly for librarians (our readers) who are living with drastic changes in the present and are facing an uncertain future for their livelihoods?

I feel for anyone who loves their work and can’t serve during the pandemic. It’s like not being able to fully use your heart. That’s exhausting because you feel powerless.

You don’t want to fight these emotions or the truth that life has changed. Fighting and denying reality is also exhausting, and often sets us up to believe we have more control than we do.

It’s very helpful to spend some time every day reminding yourself you are safe and you are a resourceful person who has always managed to handle what life brings—not perfectly, but well enough. We humans hate uncertainty, which makes soothing our brains with reminders we are okay, safe, and have resources very important; as does creating routines and rituals that give us a measure of predictability.

You may also find it helpful to spend time remembering the spark of your calling to be a librarian. My guess is there is something bigger and more enduring that brought you to the work that is always with you even when you aren’t working. Nobody can ever take that from you, and remembering that and feeling that can remind you that no matter the future, you will express yourself in ways that bring you alive and serve ideas, serve people, serve books.

Matt Sutherland

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