book reviews, comics, history, literature, nature, science

Book Reviews, April 2016

I bought a stack of books at the annual library sale and got started on reading some of them in April.  I couldn’t help rereading an old favorite in the hopes that I would find it just as enthralling again.  (Spoiler alert: I did.)  I also read another funny science book by Mary Roach and a more serious picture book of extinct species.  To round out the month, I read a superhero origin story and a Newbery Honor winning kids’ classic.

  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach is a funny and interesting book on what happens after we die.  Years ago I read and enjoyed her first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but I hesitated in reading the follow-up on the afterlife because I wasn’t all that interested in the topic, or at least what I had assumed would be her take on it.  I needn’t have worried.  Roach makes almost anything interesting with her lively and humorous writing.  I rediscovered her last year when I read her book on the digestive system, and I then decided that I would happily read any of her books.  I especially liked the early chapter on souls and the hunt for them in the body.  I also learned about the dubious study that supposedly found that the soul weighs 21 grams.  There were many other good bits: the hunt for reincarnated souls, testing the effectiveness of mediums, and the search for ghosts.  One particular story involved a farmer, with the help of his father’s ghost, finding a new will that changed the entire family’s inheritance.  I won’t give away what Roach’s investigation into the matter finds.  Overall it was a very enjoyable read, but I would probably recommend one of Roach’s other books first.
  • The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is a fun origin story about a mysterious and short-lived Golden Age superhero named the Green Turtle.  As explained in an afterword, the original Green Turtle only lasted five issues in 1944.  He fought in China against the Japanese, but curiously it wasn’t ever known if he himself was Chinese or not (rumor was that his creator Chu Hing wanted him to be Chinese).  His face was never shown; he was mostly drawn from the back or when he was in profile or was facing the reader, he had his face covered in some way (i.e. with his arm or obscured by another character).  In fact, the publisher had him colored a garish pink, possibly to accentuate his Caucasian skin as a Chinese superhero might not sell.  Another recurring element to those stories was that Green Turtle was always on the verge of telling Burma Boy, his sidekick, his secret origins, but never gets around to it as he is always interrupted.  So in steps Yang, 70 years later, to write an origin for Green Turtle, possibly the first Asian American superhero.  The story takes place in Chinatown in a stand in for the Bay area, where gangs thrive.  Young Hank helps his father tend the grocery store while his mother wishes better things for all of them.  After she is saved by a superhero, she pushes Hank to become a superhero, too, even though he doesn’t have superpowers.  It’s a fun tale about identity and heritage that plays on many of the conventions of the superhero origin.  A brief warning for younger readers: the story includes stereotyped language about Asian Americans to place it into historical context.  It doesn’t condone the language, but rather shows how the stereotypes are wrong.  If you like superhero origin stories, definitely check this one out.
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.  I think I loved this book because much of the action takes place in libraries as the characters conduct research with old documents and letters.  Much of the story is related in letters, an obvious homage to Bram Stoker’s famous novel.  It’s not a particularly deep novel, and the characters are not fully formed, but for a suspenseful thriller, I can hardly imagine a more successful novel.  I read the book over ten years ago when it first came out and I really liked it then.  I forgot much of the action since then, so I picked it up again hoping to have a similar experience.  Part of me worried it wouldn’t hold up.  I needn’t have fretted.  I loved it all over again.
  • A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals with text by Tim Flannery and illustrations by Peter Schouten is a sobering look at the effects of humanity on the animal kingdom.  The book includes 103 species (mammal, bird, or reptile) that have gone extinct since the year 1500, most of them in the past 150 years.  Peter Schouten’s illustrations are beautiful and naturalistic.  I was reminded of the Audubon calendars we had in our house growing up.  It was rather haunting to see animal after animal that is gone forever.  Some of the species are familiar, even famous for their extinction: the gigantic moas of New Zealand, the Dodo of Mauritius, the Great Auk in the North Atlantic, the Passenger Pigeon of North America, and the Thylacine (aka the Tasmanian Tiger).  I didn’t know about Steller’s Sea Cow, a gigantic relative of dugongs and manatees.  It was the largest mammal (besides whales) to live in modern times, at up to 30 feet long and weighing approximately 10 tons.  They were all hunted until there were none left by 1768.  The text by Tim Flannery, an introduction and commentary on each species to accompany the artwork, is informative on what was known about each species and its demise.  Sometimes a bird would be hunted for food by humans.  Such was the fate of the Rail (a kind of bird) on Wake Island during World War II—during hostilities between the Japanese and American forces, the Japanese soldiers faced starvation and ate the birds to survive.  More often the reason for extinction was the introduction of some other invasive species that disrupted the life cycle.  Black rats might eat the eggs, for example, of some other island bird.  The rats came to shore from aboard the ships that explored the South Pacific and other faraway once diverse habitats.  Sometimes people destroyed the habitat for these animals, usually for agricultural reasons.  Flannery also notes that a few species went extinct when naturalists gathered the last few remaining specimens for natural history museums.  Our knowledge of the species came at the expense of their extinction, a truly bittersweet result.  This book is a good complement to Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, showing example after example of humanity’s devastation of the natural world.
  • The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is another classic of kids’ lit that I managed to miss when I was growing up.  I thought maybe I had read it because I have some vague memory of a book I randomly picked up at the library that had to do with kids and some Egyptian mystery, but then I forgot the title and could never find the book again when I went to look for it.  I don’t think it was the same book, but regardless, The Egypt Game is a good book for elementary age kids to read.  It has a lot to say about friendships, imagination, and figuring out how to deal with disappointment.  The initial main characters are April and Melanie.  April has recently moved in with her grandmother, who herself has recently moved into a new two bedroom apartment so she would have enough room for April and herself.  Melanie lives one floor down from April, and they become friends because of a shared interest in Egyptian history.  They start to imagine that they themselves are living in ancient Egypt with its gods and ceremonies, priests/priestesses and pharaohs.  The game is a secret they play in a fenced storage lot behind a junk shop, but they eventually end up inviting others to join them.  I’m looking forward to the day my kids are old enough to read it so I can talk to them about their own Egypt games.
Advertisements
Standard
book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature

Book Reviews, March 2016

The book reviews for this month are another varied bunch–a historical mystery, some short stories about a party, a coming of age graphic novel, and a book about the Bible.  The last one goes longer than usual since I had a lot to say about it as it relates to my recent wrestling with modern scholarship on the Bible.

  • The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) is an intriguing mystery from British history.  The Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg and bored out of his mind.  Friends visit him and bring him books to read, but it isn’t until he becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III that he engages his deductive skills.  He wonders what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, Richard’s two nephews who most everyone believes that Richard himself had killed in order to secure the throne.  Grant has trouble reconciling the awful crime with the face of the man in the portrait, so he sets out to figure out the mystery of what happened to the two boys once and for all.  It’s a fascinating historical whodunit (and often funny), tracing various historical sources with a detective’s eye for evidence and motive.  I especially liked how it emphasized mythmaking in the historical record and how those myths can come about.  I was able to follow the historical characters and events, but I have some familiarity because of the many British literature courses I’ve taken.  I now wish I had paid even more attention to the history bits in those classes.  My only complaint is that the front cover of the book had the blurb: “One of the best mysteries of all time,” which raised my expectations too high.  I enjoyed it plenty, but it probably never could have lived up to that statement.
  • Mrs. Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf is a collection of stories that serve as a good companion to her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway.  From the introduction to the book we learn that the stories were written at the same time as or just after the writing of the novel, the latter of which was especially unusual for Woolf.  She usually moved on to something different when she completed a novel.  But she was interested in what she called in her writing diary “party consciousness,” that something about the gathering together of so many people under one roof that was both more artificial and more real than everyday life.  In the course of seven stories we encounter a guest whose speech would fill a book and others who stand on the fringes hardly able to utter a syllable.  There are misunderstandings and miscommunications as social opposites are introduced to one another.  One woman worries the entire night about having worn the wrong dress that is not the current fashion.  She had thought to wear something unique, but instead ruminated on the decision the entire party.  Another man thought that he was so above the other party goers and their frivolity that he could barely deign to converse with anyone, and when he did it was with only the utmost condescension.  I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book, but I have to say that it works best as a companion to the novel.

this one summer

  • This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, is a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  Rose and Windy are like most kids: they want to grow up.  They talk about their soon to be developing breasts.  They go to the tiny convenience store to buy candy and rent classic horror movies, which they watch to feel older.  The 18 year old guys who clerk at the store don’t care that they aren’t old enough to be renting R-rated movies.  Those guys are fascinating to the girls, but the girls can hardly put into words how they make them feel.  The guys have their own drama with the young women their own age in town, which Rose and Windy watch as well, trying to figure out what is going on.  And in her own cabin, Rose’s parents are having conflicts that she thinks she gets, but like most everything else, she misunderstands what’s really going on.  It’s a beautiful story.  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.  I would definitely recommend this book.
  • Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns is an essential book.  I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  In three main sections, Enns looks at supposed problems in the Old Testament that his incarnational analogy help resolve.  The first is the matter of the close parallels of material from the Old Testament with Ancient Near Eastern literature.  For example, the epic of Gilgamesh has a flood story that possibly predates the account in Genesis.  The law code of Hammurabi of Babylon has laws that are similarly worded to laws in Exodus.  Enns points out that the Bible is part of the cultural context in which it was given, meaning that the law codes should be similar and it should have similar myths concerning origins (myth here meaning a story to explain who we are and where we come from, not that it is made up).  The second section deals with the diversity of the Old Testament.  By diversity, he means that there are multiple voices speaking, sometimes in tension.  For instance, in Proverbs sometimes the wisdom that is expressed in one verse contradicts what one finds in another verse (e.g. Proverbs 26:4,5 “Do not answer a fool..” vs. “Answer a fool…”).  It turns out that the wisdom of Proverbs is situational.  Another example that is even more forceful is the difference of the historical account in Chronicles with the similar accounts in Samuel and Kings.  The account in Samuel and Kings emphasizes the centrality of worship, and the kings are evaluated on their ability to centralize worship in the temple (i.e. get rid of the high places and Baal and Asherah worship).  The texts were likely written during the exile in order to explain why they were in exile.  It was because they didn’t follow God and get rid of idol worship that they were handed over to foreign powers.  But in Chronicles, which in the Jewish Bible is placed at the very end after all of the prophets and not directly after Kings, the point is to explain how they can be God’s people after the exile.  It is from the point of view of those who returned back to the land and began again with Ezra and Nehemiah.  Chronicles emphasizes the unity of the people and elevates the stature of figures like David and Solomon making them into heroes (much like American history often elevates the Founding Fathers, glossing over their failures).  I first encountered this multi-voiced history of Kings and Chronicles in Josh Way’s excellent podcast on the Bible (click here to listen or read the transcript).  Enns points out that diversity in Scripture is to be expected because God is speaking to different situations throughout Israel’s history, accommodating himself to wherever they find themselves at that point.  The third section concerns the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.  The gospel writers and Paul use the Old Testament verses in ways that we wouldn’t normally consider proper if we heard them used in the pulpit on a Sunday.  They seem to wrench things out of context at times in order to make their own point.  One example includes Matthew’s insistence that Jesus going to Egypt with his parents to avoid Herod is a fulfillment of prophecy in Hosea.  But the context of the passage in Hosea is looking backwards to Israel being delivered from Egypt, not a forward looking prophecy about the future messiah.  Matthew appears to be quoting out of context.  But he is merely using similar methods that were used at that time, the Second Temple period.  The writers in the New Testament are showing how passages in the Old Testament point towards Jesus, even if they are not direct prophecies.  Enns introduces the word christotelic, in that the history of Israel in the Old Testament is leading towards and is fulfilled in Christ.  My version of the book (the second edition) had a helpful postscript that reiterated his points and dealt with some of the reactions and arguments that his book elicited when it was first published ten years ago.  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.
Standard
book reviews, comics, history, literature, science

Book Reviews, February 2016

February’s reviews start off with three (!) comic books of varying quality.  I read lots of comics, mostly from the library, but I don’t always review them.  One reason is that because of the serial nature of much of comics storytelling, I don’t want to comment on and/or recommend a volume that is in the middle of a story.  But I’ve decided to try reviewing more of the comics that I read so that anyone interested in the medium can possibly find something new to read.  Or maybe I’ll make something sound so good I’ll convince someone to try their very first comic.  It’s worth a shot.  But it’s not all comics this month.  There’s also a novel by a Nobel prize winning author and science writing from a New Yorker staff writer.

  • Batgirl Volume 1: Batgirl of Burnside, written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and illustrated by Babs Tarr, is a smart, fresh take on an old character.  This volume collects individual comics #35-40 of the series, but it begins a new start for Batgirl with a new creative team and a new outlook for the character.  Batgirl is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Jim Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department, but she hasn’t always been Batgirl.  She was the original, but after the Joker shot her in the classic Killing Joke storyline, she became a paraplegic and became Oracle, a whiz at computers who provided assistance to other superheroes such as Batman and Black Canary.  Others took up the mantle of Batgirl in the meantime.  When DC Comics relaunched all of their comics a few years ago in an event called New 52, they decided to have Barbara the beneficiary of an experimental surgery that restored her ability to walk, a controversial decision because many found Oracle to be an inspirational hero with a disability.  This latest version of the character is starting over at college in Burnside, a borough of Gotham.  She is still a super genius with computers, which comes in handy against the villains she faces who use social media and celebrity to further their aims.  I appreciated that with this incarnation, the creators revamped her costume into something practical.  All too often, women superheroes have had costumes that were about the male gaze and not about the character herself.  This Barbara wears a leather coat instead of spandex and boots instead of heels in a chic DIY look.  Though not wowed, I enjoyed this new beginning, and I’ll probably read the next installment from the library when it arrives.
  • Magneto Volume 1: Infamous, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Javier Fernandez, is the beginning of a chilling and brilliant anti-hero story.  If you’ve read X-Men comics or seen the films, you know that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor: this collection includes a flashback to the Warsaw ghetto.  He’s determined to prevent another genocide, the extinction of mutants.  This version of Magneto is very much like the one at the beginning of X-Men: First Class.  Instead of killing former Nazis, though, he is working alone to take out threats to mutant-kind.  In the tradition of other anti-heroes, Magneto’s actions repulse the reader, but still his motivations are understandable and ultimately we end up sympathizing with him.  Volume 1 collects the first six issues of the story, and I’m looking forward to continuing.
  • Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever, written by Rick Remender with artists Matteo Scalera and Dean White, is a pulpy sci-fi comic that unfortunately falls into the traps of its forebears.  It’s published by Image Comics, which is home to a host of creator-owned comics series that are inventive and interesting (such as Saga and Wytches). The premise is solid: it’s an adventure story featuring a device that allows travel to alternate timelines within what the story calls the Eververse (basically all of the infinite possible universes).  The cast of characters include the team of inventors who built the device, the two children of the team leader, the financial backer of the project and his partner, and a security guard.  After an accident, the group gets stuck jumping from place to place, unstuck in time, with no apparent way to get back.  I thought it could be fun, and it sometimes is.  But I was extremely bothered by the portrayal of Native Americans in one of the alternate worlds.  In that particular world, the indigenous people of North America are visited by some other group of spacetime travelers and they gain use of the device.  They use it to find superior technology with which they first fight back against white invaders first defensively and then offensively as a sort of inverse Manifest Destiny.  I get that Remender wanted to show the evil of the device.  But it’s an alternate reality so he could have made the Native American tribes superior in the first place without outside help (the device works as a deus ex machina).  Besides this, the portrayal of the tribes is that they are barbaric in spite of their advanced technology.  In their first appearance, they are massacring German soldiers, who appear to be in World War I uniforms and defending trenches.  In their next appearance, an indigenous soldier is vividly scalping an enemy soldier.  The stereotype has been set, and unfortunately the characterization never gets much better even as we get to know one.  The team leader sustains an injury so they need the help of a shaman to heal him, so they kidnap one.  He effectively joins the group.  Why he bothers to help them and go along after they have left his timeline is not made clear.  Nearly every other character has clear backstory and motivation, but his reasoning is mysterious.  Eventually in volume 2 of the series we do discover the backstory of his world that I already described, and we learn that he has a family; in fact, he is a grandfather, but it’s not much to humanize him.  He’s still paper thin as a character; he’s mostly used as someone who has powerful technology to heal and to fight, not as a person.  All in all, it’s an extremely disappointing portrayal of Native Americans.  It could have been interesting and forceful (i.e. a world where Native Americans came out on top has potential as a premise), but the execution was abysmal.  It played into all of the worst tendencies of the pulp tradition from which it came by playing to stereotypes.  If you enjoy swashbuckling fantasy or sci-fi, look elsewhere.  Black Science isn’t worth your time.
  • Sula by Toni Morrison is a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  I’ve kept this incomplete summary rather vague so as not to give away any particular details for anyone who hates spoilers.  I was pleasantly surprised at how straight forward and easy the narration was to read.  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.  I’d highly recommend this novel.  Now for a little anecdote.  I was reading this at the dentist, and one of the assistants/hygienists asked me what I was reading.  I told her the title and then said that it was by Toni Morrison.  She stared at me blankly.  I was momentarily surprised that she wouldn’t have heard of the Nobel Prize winning author, but then I began to think why would she necessarily know Morrison?  Would she know the names of other famous authors who have won the Nobel like Alice Munro and Saul Bellow?  Why would I assume people outside of my set of friends would know who these people are?  Half of all American adults read four or fewer books in a year.
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert is a sobering look at the effects humans are having on life on this planet.  There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.  In chapter after chapter, Kolbert details how species or larger groups have gone extinct or been threatened because of humans.  The megafauna (such as mastodons, mammoths, and sabretooth cats) died out soon after contact with humans, possibly from overhunting.  Large land animals to this day do poorly when in close proximity to humans because they reproduce so slowly and cannot make up for any population losses.  Other chapters deal with the killing off of auks (similar to a penguin) or the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is not yet extinct but barely holding on (in fact, the rhino Suci who is highlighted in book died at the Cincinnati Zoo soon after the book came out).  Still other chapters deal with how humans have made such an impact on different species.  Habitat destruction, especially in diverse environments like rainforests, has led to untold numbers of extinctions of insects and larger animals in the foodchain.  Ocean acidification, caused by global warming, is killing off corals and the many species which rely on coral reefs to survive.  Humans also transplant species around the globe, sometimes unwittingly, which can cause all sorts of unintended consequences.  The book opens with the fungus that is killing off many frogs and other amphibians.  All sorts of invasive species are able to thrive in new environments when they have no natural predators.  They disrupt their new ecosystem, outcompeting and/or killing the native species they encounter.  The final pages offer up the possibilities of all of the mayhem humans have caused: either we will also succumb to the vast disruptions we have wrought to the planet or we will through our ingenuity overcome the looming disaster.  It’s a bleak picture.  Despite how depressing it can be, I still would highly recommend this book.  Kolbert is a fantastic writer (the book won a Pulitzer Prize), and it’s important to think through the implications of human interaction with nature.
Standard
book reviews, history, literature, poetry

Book Reviews, January 2016

A new year of books and book reviews!  I’m hoping to match my reading and reviewing goals from last year and do them one better (i.e. 51).  These three books were a great start to the year.

  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is an enthralling fictionalized account of the history of a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah.  The story starts in 1996 after the ceasefire in the Bosnian War when a rare book conservationist is brought in to restore the illuminated Haggadah, the book Jews use for the Passover seder.  While taking apart and then re-binding the book, Hanna Heath finds a few clues that might shed light on the remarkable history of the book that spans 500 years of European history.  Interspersed between the main narrative of Hanna’s sleuthing are short pieces from the book’s history such as when it was saved from destruction at the hands of the Nazis during WWII.  Other moments give glimpses into Vienna in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Spain at the time of the expulsion of Jews in 1492.  It’s all rather riveting as the moments are about people—Jews, Muslims, and Christians— who have some connection to the book.  I’m kind of a sucker for books about loving books, at least if they are done well (e.g. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose).  It’s not very deep, but I enjoyed it a great deal.
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is a book I’ve read before and hope to read again someday.  In other words, it’s a classic, and deservedly so.  It’s a novel that somehow encompasses so much of life even though the main action only takes up a day.  Periodically we hear the tolling of the bells marking the hours of a day in London of 1923.  It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  The guest list includes the Prime Minister, revered physicians, pompous bureaucrats, a poor cousin, an old suitor of Clarissa’s, and one of her oldest friends who, though living in Manchester and thus uninvited, happened to be in town and came anyway.  Running parallel to the story of the events leading up to the party is the story of Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I who is suffering from shell shock (what we would now call PTSD).  Through the use of flashbacks we find out some of the backstory of how Clarissa chose Dalloway instead of her old suitor, and how Septimus is haunted by the memory of his officer who was killed in the war.  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.  It’s not an easy read despite being a tad under 200 pages, but it’s totally worth it.
  • Our List of Solutions by Carrie Oeding is a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.  There’s Sandy who says “No more!” before being introduced to the concept of Beauty by a neighbor and finally closing the book with her own list of solutions.  There’s the neighborhood barbecues where people eat meat and someone is always on the edge of the group, where there’s gossip and someone disappointing someone else.  And then there’s the way the world works, first its prelude and then its understanding.  It’s an understanding that’s really a curse.

    Some who curse knowing the world, punch who we love saying, This can’t be

    how the world works!

    And some of us cursers learn

    to just watch those in the world who don’t know how it works.

    Of course those aren’t the only two options, and that’s not the only way to curse.  It’s a complicated book, and these are intricate poems that don’t follow the same narratives or structures I’ve seen before.  A speaker in one of these poems is just as likely to imagine a lengthy discourse on a new enemy before fumbling towards complete stasis as imagine that an old high school band mate had the key to beauty and freedom in a great bike metaphor, but that it was now lost.  The poems do new and interesting things like revise themselves as they go along as in “Ruby, Give Leo One More Chance”: “You can know a person […] You can know a person too well.  You can know a story. / You can feel nothing at all. // I can walk up to a stranger and, and I— / who cares what I could say. / This isn’t about talking to strangers.”  It’s intriguing, and it’s a neighborhood I’d like to visit again, even if all the deer have left.

    [disclosure: Oeding and I were in grad school together, but I didn’t know her very well.  I actually decided to read her book because of a review by Angie Mazakis, another grad student and mutual friend.  Angie’s review is much better.  You should probably read that one instead of this one.]

Standard
book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read a lot of great books in 2015, and I would recommend many of them to interested readers.  But I thought it might be helpful to narrow it down to a smaller list of titles for a year end wrap up.  So here are the five books I would most recommend to anyone, followed by ten more that were also great (and I feel bad leaving off books I liked by Anne Lamott, Patrick Hicks, Marilynne Robinson, and Brian Turner, among others—it was a good year of reading).  I’ve put them in the order that I read them with a brief quote from my original reviews (and a link to the review if you want to see more).  First, the top five.

Complications (Atul Gawande)

“a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.”

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

“a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.”

Get in Trouble (Kelly Link)

a book so good I reviewed it twice!

“It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.” (blog review)

“It’s this quality of the fantastic, when in the best hands like Link’s, that helps the reader to get out of the ordinary world and see something different, all while shedding light on some part of the ordinary that we often overlook. Plus, it’s fun.” (Rock &Sling review)

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

“And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.”

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

“a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.”

And the runners-up

Gulp (Mary Roach)

“the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

“The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.”

God and the Gay Christian (Matthew Vines)

“Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.”

Carver: A Life in Poems (Marilyn Nelson)

“In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.”

Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)

“a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.”

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

“Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.”

Neurotribes (Steve Silberman)

“a comprehensive and important history of autism […] it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition”

Davita’s Harp (Chaim Potok)

“another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.”

Killing and Dying (Adrian Tomine)

“is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.”

March, Book One (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell)

“This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.”

I hope 2016 brings at least as many good books my way!

Standard
book reviews, comics, history, literature

Book Reviews, December 2015

This is my final installment of book reviews for the year, soon to be followed with a year end wrap up of the best books I read in 2015. Watch this space!  In the meantime, listen to this song from Hamilton, the musical about the founding generation of America, as you read a relevant book review (the first one, anyway).

  • Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is a look at six episodes of the early days of the American Republic.  One advantage of the episodic structure is that it allows Ellis to advance the thesis he mentions in the last chapter, namely that “all seamless historical narratives are latter-day constructions” (216).  In fact, “Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible” to those who have been designated Founding Fathers.  Ellis prefers the designation “brothers,” presumably because while the various players came together on certain matters, there was an inherent “messiness” to the founding of a new country, and they fought each other on many issues, even the very meaning of the revolution.  In telling the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, or the composition of Washington’s Farewell Address, or the correspondence of friends and rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Ellis highlights the conflicting ideas that animated the early tenuous years of the country.  There was nothing that they could all agree on, except perhaps the need for freedom from Britain.  But the nature of freedom was certainly something that they still disagreed on.  In the chapter called “The Silence,” Benjamin Franklin in 1790 lent his support to ending the slave trade, even though the Constitution had provisions that it would not be ended for at least the first 20 years after ratification.  The congress hotly debated whether they should even discuss the matter since it was supposedly already a settled question in the Constitution.  But how could the same ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration live together with the enslavement of large portions of the population?  The congress managed to put off the question for decades, leading to compromises as the country expanded until it all came to war in 1861.  I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the American Revolution and the early days of the country (or who likes the musical Hamilton).
  • Killing and Dying: Six Stories by Adrian Tomine is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.  Tomine explores the themes of identity and unrealistic dreams.  The title story tells of a father’s love and grief, and his difficulty with being supportive of his daughter’s desire to do stand-up comedy.  It’s a haunting story of perceptions: who is dying and who is killing keep changing throughout.  The collection leads off with a farcical tale of a misunderstood artist who dreams of a new artform called “hortisculpture,” a combination of plants and sculpture that is as ugly as its portmanteau namesake.  Tomine plays with the presentation, telling the story in four panel chunks as if it were a newspaper comic, complete with full-page Sunday installments on schedule.  The format and the subject matter let him poke fun of himself for the self-seriousness of an artist.  Two of the shorter pieces, “Translated, from the Japanese” and “Intruders,” are very meditative and text-based.  The former never even shows its characters, instead showing the settings as we read a letter from a mother to her son about a transitional moment in their lives.  The latter narrates the inner monologue of a soldier on leave coming to terms with his past, but this time using a nine panel grid to tell the story.  It’s a fantastic collection of stories; every one stuck with me.
  • March: Book One, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, is the powerful first part of a trilogy of comics based on Lewis’s life and the civil rights movement.  The story concerns Lewis’s early days in rural Alabama and his start in the civil rights movement in Nashville while he was in college.  He was involved with the nonviolent sit-ins at the downtown stores in Nashville that protested segregation.  All of this narrative is framed by the contemporary Lewis reminiscing about his past while he gets ready to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama in January of 2009.  This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.  By being able to see faces and settings, the story came alive in the same way that a documentary would, but there wasn’t footage of many of the scenes he was telling.  I would highly recommend this to anyone wanting to learn about the civil rights movement.  One word of caution: the book does not shy away from the harsh language used against African Americans.  The n-word is used multiple times, so use discretion if giving the comic to a younger reader.
  • File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler) and illustrated by Seth is a fun collection of mysteries in the kids’ series All the Wrong Questions.  Snicket is also the author of the previous A Series of Unfortunate Events, and this one features a similar humorous style of writing, full of wordplay and literary references.  All the Wrong Questions is narrated by the young Snicket who is trying to solve a mystery in the spooky town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, but File Under departs from the larger mystery to have Snicket solve some smaller conundrums that he stumbles upon or that are brought to him.  Many of the familiar denizens of the town including Jake Hix, the Bellerophon brothers, Moxie Mallahan, and his clueless chaperone S. Theodora Markson, as well as many others, make appearances in the various suspicious incidents.  The answers or conclusions to the mysteries are provided at the end of the book much the same as they would in an Encyclopedia Brown or similar mystery book, and the clues aren’t so difficult that a young reader couldn’t figure out the solutions to at least some of them (confession: I only figured out a handful myself).  Snicket’s style is educational as it entertains.   The characters provide useful definitions of difficult words throughout the stories, such as inane (“pointless and dull”) and preternaturally (“extra”), and phrases like “shadow of its former self” (“not as good as it used to be”) and “well-bred” (“doesn’t mean anything at all, but which some people use to make themselves feel better than others”).  The literary references were also fun, especially for an English major like me.  In one story alone, “Twelve or Thirteen,” there were mentions of a stolen portrait of Gary Dorian, an Ethan Frome Festival sled race, and hidden within the list of sledders the name of the poet William Carlos Williams.  This is a good kids’ book and series, one that even an adult can enjoy.
Standard
book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, November 2015

November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker).  You might find something you like.

  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism.  He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations.  Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.”  Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades.  It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift.  In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.”  The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987.  One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis.  It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years.  Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it.  Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it.  There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side.  One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it).  Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom.  Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself.  Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.  The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with.  The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb).  I could barely put it down.  The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop.  The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation.  Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before).  He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research.  What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway?  Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290).  I can’t recommend this book enough.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history.  It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting.  First, she knows a lot about history and literature.  Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience.  It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect.  There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful.  For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm.  I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93).  Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need.  It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading.  I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading.  She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written.  I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
  • My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran.  The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir.  To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed:  “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo.  Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time).  I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book.  It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized.  The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time.  Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse.  One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army.  He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person.  In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life.  He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone.  It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century.  I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war.  Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not.  Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well.  [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
  • Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time.  I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base.  Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development.  These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection).  For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done.  Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill.  But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men).  I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
  • Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.  Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist.  Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.  Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from.  They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place.  Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937.  Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party.  Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better.  She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past.  It’s all quite mysterious to Davita.  As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists.  There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one.  I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).
Standard