book reviews, comics, faith, history, humor, literature, nature, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s hard to narrow down a year’s worth of reading to a manageable list of the cream of the crop, but I’ll try.  From the books I read in 2016, here are the fifteen books I would most recommend.  First are the top three essential books that I would most enthusiastically recommend to anyone.  The other twelve were also great, and I recommend them heartily, too.  If you want to check out last year’s list, click here.  Like last year, I’m putting them in the order that I read them.  Unlike last year, I’m including longer excerpts from my reviews to give a fuller recommendation.  But if you’d like even more, click on the title of the book for the complete review.  Now to the books!

The Top Three

Evicted (Matthew Desmond)

“an essential book.  Please, please, read it.  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  […]  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.”

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

“a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  […]  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.”

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

“an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  […]  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.”

And all the other great ones

Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

“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 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.”

Our List of Solutions (Carrie Oeding)

“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.”

Sula (Toni Morrison)

“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 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.”

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

“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.”

This One Summer (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki)

“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.  […]  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.”

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)

“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.  […]  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.”

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

“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.”

Does Jesus Really Love Me? (Jeff Chu)

“a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  […]  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.”

Thunder & Lightning (Lauren Redniss)

“an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)

“a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book.”

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

“a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  […]  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.”

Julio’s Day (Gilbert Hernandez)

“a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.”

I mentioned in my last set of reviews for 2016 that I don’t plan on doing my monthly roundup of mini book reviews anymore. However, I’ll still do a best books of the year feature of the books I liked and would most recommend. I’m already working on that list. I hope I find as many good ones as this year.

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book reviews, education, history, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2016

This post is a little late.  Sorry for the handful of you who actually read my reviews.  I read a lot in July, but only managed to finish two books.  Fortunately they were both quite good.  One is a fine collection of poems and the other a history of education in America.

  • New and Selected Poems (1992) by Mary Oliver is a solid selection of poems from the early career of a great poet.  I picked up this collection years ago because a friend of mine told me he really liked Oliver’s poetry, but it languished on my shelf.  More recently, someone shared “Wild Geese” on Facebook and I realized I had to read more of her poetry after coming across lines like “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.”  I discovered many more poems I liked as well or better as that one, from an early poem about Theseus and the Minotaur to the many nature poems later.  Interestingly, this collection puts the poems in reverse chronological order, starting with the newest ones first and going backwards to the earliest poems.  I liked being able to track the growth and changes in a poet in a collection like this that spans more than 25 years.  There’s something similar in a collection like this to a greatest hits package for a musical artist versus going through a back catalog album by album.  Sometimes I prefer to experience an individual album (or poetry collection) and see it as a whole unit.  But sometimes an artist’s offerings lend themselves to selections plucked from the field and placed in their own vase to be admired as their own bouquet.  This set of wildflowers are beautiful.
  • The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein is a helpful and even-handed look at education in America.  By tracing the history of teaching, Goldstein is able to show how many ideas that seem new have been tried in the past as the country continually tries to improve our educational system.  For instance, ideas like merit pay and complex teacher evaluations have been used in the past without seeing much improvement.  Merit pay has been tried numerous times in the past 100 years, but the programs failed because of “excessive administrative paperwork, low funding, disagreement about how to judge good teaching, and strong opposition from teachers themselves” (174).  Merit pay programs were often implemented as a way to cut overall teacher pay.  Too often the programs pit teachers against each other, causing acrimony instead of harmony.  Teaching should be a collaborative job, where teachers mentor each other and share materials that work.  But most merit pay systems only reward a few top teachers, creating an incentive not to work together.  The chapters each focus on a different time period or type of reform from the first common schools to the beginning of teachers unions to our own day of high stakes testing and charter schools and programs like Teach for America.  Goldstein attempts to give the history straight, showing what teaching was like at the time and how it changed over time.  But she does interject with what the research shows, like when she points out in a discussion about teacher quality (a current hot topic in school reform discussions) that “the current achievement gap is driven much more by out-of-school factors than by in-school factors” and that teacher quality differences amount to about seven percent of the equation.  She withholds her own policy prescriptions for the end, where she recommends some commonsense ideas like focusing on principals as much as teachers because the work environment matters, or that testing is more useful as a diagnostic tool to let teachers know what they need to teach to students, not as a tool to evaluate the teachers themselves.  Above all, teachers should be part of the equation whenever it comes to reform projects because they are the ones doing the job.  Too often, outsiders with business experience or some philanthropist tries to impose strictures on teachers without their input.  This is a useful book for anyone who is invested in the public education of the children of our country, which is basically everyone.
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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.]

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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!

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book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature, poetry, politics, science

Book Reviews, October 2015

I’m trying something new with October’s batch of book reviews.  The first review is twice as long as usual so that I could go into more depth on the important history of voting rights in America.  I think I’ll try doing this again when the subject warrants it.  As for the rest, it’s more poetry, science, and faith stuff, which is pretty typical for me.  [edit: I’ve added another review at the bottom of a scary comic book I read on Halloween but didn’t have time to review until a few days later]

  • Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman is a vital look at the history of the Voting Rights Act from its passage in 1965 until today.  It traces the many challenges to the law, the Supreme Court decisions that defined how the law could be interpreted, and ultimately how the law has been rendered mostly toothless by the recent Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013.  It’s easy to think that when constitutional amendments or major legislative victories pass that they have solved the problems, but it’s not like those who were on the losing side of the argument suddenly give up at that point.  The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited all levels of government from denying the vote to any citizen based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  But after Reconstruction ended in 1877, the south passed numerous Jim Crow laws that essentially denied the vote to African Americans through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like.  For nearly one hundred years, the constitution was not enforced.  The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 with bipartisan support and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson after the dramatic march from Selma to Montgomery illustrated the extreme lengths that the state of Alabama was willing to go to deny the vote to blacks (the recent film Selma does a fantastic job showing the efforts of civil rights protesters).  But again, those who lost the battle of the VRA did not give up the war against minority voting.  For instance, say a city had 60% white people and 40% black people and had heretofore always elected a white city council by suppressing the black vote.  But now that blacks could register to vote because of the VRA, they had the opportunity to elect, say, two black city council members because two of these hypothetical districts were majority black.  In such a case, many cities switched from having district voting to citywide at-large voting so they could continue voting in an all white city council.  This type of effort to dilute or further suppress the black vote continued to happen in the southern counties covered by the VRA after it was passed.  Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan courted southern states by promising to water down the VRA in what has been termed the southern strategy.  Reagan even went so far as to fill the Justice Department with lawyers who were not eager to enforce the VRA, including some who were outright hostile towards the law such as future Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.  Other methods of suppressing minority voting include voter roll purges (where voters are removed from the registration list in an effort to update the rolls, but often leads to errors where lawfully registered voters are removed for no good reason) and voter ID laws (promoted to prevent in person voter fraud, a problem that does not in fact exist, but which hurts minority, student, and elderly voters who may not have the required identifications).  In the 2000 election, the Florida recount made famous the confusing butterfly ballots and hanging chads that made it difficult to determine who received more votes in the presidential election.  What got less attention was the voter roll purge that took place before the election.  Florida purged the names of ex-felons (because by law in FL they did not have the right to vote), but they did so even if the names were a 70% match.  That means that even if voters had a different middle initial or suffix or even their race or sex data didn’t match, they might be purged.  The company that did the work for FL later went through the names again using stricter criteria and found 12,000 names that shouldn’t have been purged.  Some of those people definitely tried to vote but were not able to because when they showed up at the polls, they were turned away since they were no longer registered based on mistakenly being identified as a felon.  More recently, Indiana’s 2008 voter ID law was found constitutional despite zero instances of in person voter fraud in the state.  After the Shelby County decision in 2013, which struck down section 4 of the VRA, numerous states that had been under the VRA rushed to try and pass voter ID laws.  Section 4 of the VRA used a formula to stipulate which counties in the country would be subject to preclearance by the Justice Department of changes in election laws.  With no formula, the preclearance portion of Section 5 was rendered inert.  The Republican controlled Congress, despite overwhelmingly reauthorizing the VRA in 2006, has made no effort to rewrite the formula since the Shelby decision in 2013.  In general, Republicans do not come out looking great in this book based on their actions, with a few exceptions like Everett Dirksen, Bob Dole, and James Sensenbrenner, who respectively each played a role in passing the VRA and renewing it in 1982 and 2006.  However, I did not care for the few times Berman took cheap shots at Republicans based on irrelevant details or issues not involved in voting rights (e.g. mentioning that John Ashcroft spent taxpayer money to cover a statue of Lady Liberty at an event or insinuating that Hans von Spakovsky has a sinister sounding name).  It didn’t happen often, but it hurts his credibility in telling the vital history of voting rights in America.
  • The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean is a fascinating tour through the elements.  True to its title, Kean’s book includes interesting stories and anecdotes for every entry on the periodic table, from the probable zinc mixed with King Midas’s bronze (itself an alloy of tin and copper) that made it a much shinier brass and perhaps mistaken for gold to the effects of lithium on the brain of a poet like Robert Lowell (e.g. resetting the circadian rhythm).  Kean goes out of his way to include humor and arcane tidbits as he tells his stories.  It’s partly a history of science, but it also touches on other historical events when an element plays a prominent role.  I never took a chemistry class in high school or college, so I feel a little behind in my scientific understanding, but this is the kind of book that goes down easy.  It’s science for the rest of us.  I found myself dipping into the book frequently, and having a hard time putting it down as each new story sounded alluring.  I’d recommend this grab bag of chemistry to anyone who finds science interesting.  My only (admittedly minor) complaint is that there isn’t really an overall theme or point to the book beyond being a delightful collection of diverse stories about or related to the elements.  The title of the book refers to gallium, a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees, so that a teaspoon made of gallium would literally melt in a hot beverage as a nerdy prank.  Oh, science!
  • Transformations by Anne Sexton is an off-kilter poetry collection retelling familiar fairy tales. The stories from Grimm may be familiar, but the tone and the telling are decidedly fresh and exciting. Take the scene in “Cinderella,” where the sisters are trying on the slipper:The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
    but her big toe got in the way so she simply
    sliced it off and put on the slipper.
    The prince rode away with her until the white dove
    told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
    That is the way with amputations.
    They don’t just heal up like a wish.
    The other sister cut off her heel
    but the blood told as blood will.
    The prince was getting tired.
    He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
    But he gave it one last try.
    This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
    like a love letter into its envelope.But it’s not long before the lovely image of the letter and envelope are undercut by Cinderella and the prince living happily ever after “like two dolls in a museum case” with “their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.” (read the whole poem here)  Many other tales such as “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “The Frog Prince” get the same sardonic treatment. I especially enjoyed some of the tales that I wasn’t already familiar with like “One-eye, Two-eyes, Three-eyes.” It’s a deeply weird meditation on parenthood and disability in which three sisters each have a different number of eyes. The odd-eyed sisters are favored by their mother, and the normal two-eyed girl is an outcast. Of course, in the usual manner, that means she will come out on top through magic and the love of a knight. But Sexton frames the tale with the deeply conflicted thoughts of parents dealing with children with disabilities. Parents can see their child as a gift from God, a cosmic mistake, a cause for martyrdom, or a millstone around the neck. The tale ends with Two-Eyes taking in her sisters out of pity and because they are like magic talismans. She can’t help but have them. It’s a poem that I’ll be returning to again and again out of sheer fascination. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes fairy tales.
  • The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers is a provocative look at church.  The main problem with the church, as Meyers sees it, is that it has been co-opted by Empire (first the Roman Empire under Constantine, today the American church by the government and/or political parties).  He outlines ways in which the church should disentangle from Empire and get back to its roots as a countercultural force.  Meyers envisions followers of Jesus from all denominations and theological beliefs coming together to live the faith that we profess.  To him, faith is not a list of beliefs, but radically embodied trust, or “an orientation toward the mystery of God [… b]ecause we trust in spite of what we cannot know” (118).  Another key element for Meyers is that the Underground Church he envisions is nonviolent: we are called to peace and to love our enemies.  It’s something that has been lost from many Christian traditions outside of the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish (and perhaps a few others).  He has lots of other ideas about how the church can be true to its roots: by making communion an actual meal that is shared with not only the congregation but also with any who may be hungry and in need, by budgeting as much money for outreach as for keeping the lights on and staff paid, by standing up against injustice wherever it may be, and by taking care of God’s creation and not exploiting it out of greed and selfishness, among many others.  I felt convicted by some of his exhortations.  I really liked his sense of shared mission in living out unconditional love no matter what church background.  For myself, I’ve found a home in the Episcopal church.  But just recently my mom was telling me about the wonderful after school program for inner city kids that her evangelical church (the one I grew up in) has been running for close to 15 years.  We may not see eye to eye on every bit of theology, but she and her church are showing the love of God to those kids.  My only complaint about the book is that I wanted Meyers to provide more depth to some of his historical analyses.  I appreciated what he did say about the early church and the time of Constantine, but I wanted more.  I thought the idea of church being co-opted by Empire important so I wanted even more analysis.  His book read more like extended sermons, though, which makes sense since he is a pastor.  He comes from the United Church of Christ, so though he wants to find common ground with Christians of all stripes, it might be harder for those who are more conservative to overlook some of his more liberal statements.  But I think it’s worth the effort in trying to find common ground with other Christians if we truly want to love God and our neighbors. [Disclosure: I received the book from the Carol Mann Agency via a Goodreads giveaway in the hopes that I would give it an honest review.]
  • Wytches Volume 1, written by Scott Snyder and penciled by Jock, is a pretty terrifying horror comic book.  Primarily, it’s the story of a family who has moved to a small town in New England in an attempt to start over.  The mother is still recovering from an accident that confines her to a wheelchair, the father needs time and space to work, and their daughter Sailor is trying to start over after a terrible confrontation with a bully in her old town.  But the past cannot be outrun.  And there is something evil in the woods, something old that preys on human greed and selfishness.  These aren’t the witches of Oz or Macbeth, but something more primal and awful.  But it’s not just a story of confronting evil, but a story of confronting limits, the limits of a parent in protecting a child, or the limits of a teenager’s control of anxiety.  The story is well paced, divided as it is in six parts (originally it was published in single issue comic books, each with an effective cliffhanger).  It was hard to put down.  Also, I was glad I read it during the day so I didn’t have to think about the scary parts in the dark.  The artwork by Jock has two modes: during daylight it is fairly realistic, but when it is dark or there are supernatural elements, the artwork becomes more jagged and exaggerated, like it is more about the sensation of the characters or setting rather than their literal presentation.  The art is a perfect match for Snyder’s story.  The book also contains some extra material at the end that allows the reader to see some of the process of the artwork from penciling to the finished product.  From this material it becomes clear that the colorist Matt Hollingsworth is also a vital member of the team to make this story work.  Though Wytches is an ongoing work, this first volume can be read as a standalone story with a clear climax and ending to this part of the story.  Having said that, I’ll be eager to find out where it goes next.  I’d recommend this to anyone who likes scary stories.

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book reviews, history, literature, poetry, politics

Book Reviews, September 2015

My September book reviews include the latest from a recently announced MacArthur “genius” award winner, a memoir by a very funny woman, a rollicking sword & sorcery adventure, and a powerful book of poems

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a necessary book.  Written as a letter to his son, it addresses the issues of race and the American Dream. There are important themes and concepts that occur throughout the book, some of which are a culmination of his writing for the past few years.  It seems like a reader who is not familiar with the questions he’s been asking, who enters the book with no prior knowledge might be at a disadvantage (like a kid reading Marvel’s Secret Wars back in the day).  But maybe getting lost in the concepts could be good.  Sink or swim.  I know there have been plenty of books where I didn’t know the first thing that I figured out along the way.  In this case, it’s important to understand the idea of race as a social construct (i.e. racial categories only have meaning because we as a society have given them meaning).  Over and over again, Coates refers to “people who believe they are white” (a paraphrase of James Baldwin).  It’s a belief, not something innate to who we are.  It’s easy to see how mutable the categories are, how they change over time and from place to place.  Another theme is “the Dream,” an unreal fantasy of a perfect life in the suburbs, safe from all harm.  It’s a dream that is built on lies and false consciousness, turning a blind eye to history.  Coates implores his son: “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (108).  I took this to be the overall message of the book, too.  To live in the Dream is to deny that housing discrimination has damaged black people, to accept that the criminal justice system is applied fairly in this country, and to believe that poverty is always the fault of the poor.  In short, it is to look at the world uncritically with no sense of history.  Coates tells his own story to his son of how he grew up on the streets of Baltimore and then attended Howard University.  He left college before finishing a degree, noting that he “was made for the library, not the classroom” (48).  He was and is a voracious learner.  I’ve been reading his blog at The Atlantic for years now as he has wrestled with ideas, culminating in recent articles on housing and incarceration, and this moving book.  I mentioned way back in the introduction to this blog that 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.  He always makes me think.  I highly recommend his book and his other writing.
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler is a funny memoir, full of funny stories and observations about her beginnings in improv comedy, her friendships with Tina Fey and Seth Meyers, bad jobs, bad drugs, parenting and family, technology, and life in show business.  Any fan of Poehler will find a lot to like and laugh about/with.  I liked the funny bits, but I think I liked some of the more serious parts best.  At the beginning she talks about how hard it was to write a book.  I started to write out a quote about writing, but then I took a picture with my phone of the paragraph because it was easier (despite my often writing longhand, with pen and a legal pad).  The gist of it is that writing is hard work.  Using a shortcut to writing out the quote also fits with the last chapter of the book where she talks about how phones (as a stand-in for all technology) will kill us all.  It’s a funny bit on dystopian Skynet handwringing, but it’s true how technology can take us out of the moment and put barriers between people even as it is supposedly connecting us via social networks.  I also liked her story of apologizing for an SNL sketch that crossed the line (it had made fun of a young woman with cerebral palsy).  In retelling the incident, she reveals her pride and anger when she tries to justify herself (she didn’t write it, she didn’t know beforehand that it was about a real person, etc.), but also her willingness to make things right years after the fact by apologizing.  It’s a very hopeful and real story.  Unfortunately, I didn’t care as much for her story of her Haiti trip to visit orphanages after the earthquake.  She doesn’t say anything wrong, but it still made me uneasy.  She was in the aftermath of her own divorce, and despite her goodwill and intentions, the story feels self-indulgent.  It’s about her and how it affected her, but maybe there’s no escaping that.  Maybe that’s the only window we can use sometimes to see the tragedies outside our narrow view.
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is a tremendously fun fantasy novel set in a world like that of the Arabian Nights.  It’s a world with sword-wielding dervishes, an evil manjackal, a portly ghul-hunter, and a Robin Hood type fomenting revolution in the capital city.  It might sound a little hokey, and it might be if you don’t care for sword and sorcery fiction, but the plot is tight and the characters interesting (if rather flat, given the nature of the story).  The narration takes turns examining the points of view of the various main characters, and they have reasonably interesting if predictable back stories: the ghul-hunter is the world weary ready to retire type, and his sidekick the dervish is young and a bit of a religious zealot.  They’re soon joined by a shape-shifting young woman (she can take the form of a lion) from one of the nomadic tribes outside of the capital city.  Later they are aided by a foreign born magus and alkhemist  husband and wife duo.  The motley crew is trying to figure out a new evil the likes of which the ghul-hunter has never seen before, all while negotiating the politics of a religious city-state.  I liked that the religious aspects weren’t just an add-on to the culture that had been created.  The characters clearly had real religious beliefs and quoted scriptures to each other, though they each had a different take on God and belief.  Overall, it was a very fun and quick (only 273 pages!) fantasy novel in a genre that can often take many huge volumes to tell a story.  It does say on the inside jacket that it is Book One of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, but the story has a clear ending at the end of the book.  I can easily imagine Ahmed setting more future stories in the exciting world he has built.
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a searing and thought provoking, although sometimes frustrating, book of poems, largely about life in America as a person of color.  The first thing I noticed is that these are prose poems, often one paragraph of text on a page, each a little scene.  I haven’t read many prose poems before, but it worked for much of the book.  The second thing I noticed is that the poems are written in the second person, addressing the reader as “you,” which has the effect of drawing the reader in and making it a conversation with the speaker.  It places the reader into the situation.  The brief scenes or situations are little moments that communicate negative messages against the speaker or the person addressed (the reader, or “you”).  These are commonly referred to as microaggressions.  They might be entirely unintentional, but the snub or insult can still hurt.  A few examples include accidentally being called the name of someone’s housekeeper or having a little girl not want to sit by you on an airplane.  It’s not necessarily any one incident that does all the damage, it’s that they happen with regularity.  If it were a onetime occurrence, you could shrug it off.  But it wears a person down.  There’s a whole section of the book that deals with the many racist incidents Serena Williams has had to deal with over the course of her career in tennis.  The speaker is amazed that she holds back anger as well as she does.  The first half of the book is strong, but I was frustrated by much of the second half.  Many of the sections in the second half deal with recent events such as Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, and the Jena Six in a somewhat oblique manner.  My frustration is probably my fault as a reader because I don’t know the history of some of these events well enough to understand her poems.  I’m reminded of how little I understood T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land the first time (probably more like first dozen times) I read it, but that my understanding grew the more I grappled with it and its allusions.  I feel like the same would happen with the later sections of Citizen, but they haven’t happened for me yet.
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book reviews, faith, history, poetry

Book Reviews, August 2015

The August installment of brief book reviews includes the work of a southern poet, John Hersey’s classic on the devastation of the first atomic bomb, and a meditation on church.

  • Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans is 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.  In her earlier memoir she talked openly about her doubts with Christian faith that led her to adapt; in this new memoir she details how she left the evangelical church she grew up in, struggled to attend any church for a time, tried and failed to start a church, and then found solace in the Episcopal church.  As I said in my earlier review, I could relate in the broad strokes with her experiences (I, too, have found solace in the Episcopal church).  But I really appreciate that Evans doesn’t repudiate her evangelical upbringing.  For her, it’s the community that introduced her to Jesus and still part of the universal church, so she can’t turn her back on it.  I also appreciated her honesty when talking about her judgmental attitudes about churches she would visit.  She talked about how she would intellectualize everything and remain aloof in her pride.  Her awareness was welcoming and a reminder of my own judgmental attitudes.  Later, when discussing the incident in the gospel of John where Jesus refuses to condemn a woman caught in adultery who the Pharisees bring to him ready to stone, Evans discusses judgmental attitudes within the church.  She had been talking about sin-sorting: the habit of classifying some sins as worse than others in order to feel better about our own sins.  She points out that some use this story of Jesus and the woman and what he tells her at the end (“Go and sin no more”) when they think the church is being too soft on sin.  She counters that kind of thinking: “I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when, of all the people in this account, we decide we’re the most like Jesus.  I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when we use his words to condemn and this story as a stone” (94).  To me this is a strong reminder of the example of the grace Jesus gives that Christians are supposed to emulate.  I thought this book was stronger than her first.  I’d definitely recommend it.
  • Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of those classics that I always knew I should read, but never did until now.  I was prompted to pick it up by seeing articles and blog posts on the 70th anniversary of the devastation.  I can see why it is a classic.  In a plain reportorial style, Hersey tells the stories of six survivors.  It begins a few hours before the bomb hits, and then follows the six individuals through the rest of the day and the ensuing aftermath.  Hersey never interjects his own thoughts, letting the details of the injuries and deaths and wreckage and destruction and sickness and weariness inform the reader.  We see the other burned survivors wandering around the streets (many of whom died later of wounds or radiation sickness); we see the destruction of homes, hospitals, factories, and churches; we see the shadowy outlines of those vaporized in the initial blast.  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.  Now some argue that it was necessary, that there was no other way to end the war with Japan, that it was a psychological weapon as much as a physical one.  But even if we grant all that, allowing the dropping of two atomic bombs as the least of all evils, we still must look at the evil those bombs wrought.  (And this says nothing about the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities before the final two bombs.)  I did not read the fifth and final chapter called “The Aftermath,” where Hersey revisits Hiroshima forty years afterwards and tells what has happened to the six survivors in the meantime.  My copy appears to be a first edition from 1946, though the story itself was published first in The New Yorker a few months before being rushed out separately as a book because of great demand (the original New Yorker article can be read at the link).  This is a book everyone should read.
  • We Almost Disappear by David Bottoms is the most recent poetry collection from a southern poet I’ve liked for a while now.  Here’s a quick taste: “[O]ther than gratitude / so little survives the world’s chronic revision—a boss line, maybe, / from a poem you’ve forgotten, a penny / you picked up in an alley / for luck, / a voice that blessed you in passing.” (from “Romanticism I”). It’s a collection that is concerned with the passage of time and the themes of aging and family.  Early poems recollect the poet’s early days and memories of his grandfather.  One whole section later in the book concerns the poet’s aging father, with many of the titles describing him as “my old man,” as in “My Old Man Loves Fried Okra.”  That particular poem shows the painful moment when someone loses a defining characteristic to age: the speaker’s father is too tired to thank the church lady for bringing over fried okra, and even too tired to eat it.  Another section takes up the poet’s relationships with his wife and daughter, and it had my favorite poem in the whole book: “My Daughter Works the Heavy Bag.”  In this poem, the speaker observes his fifth grade daughter in karate class as she negotiates the physical movements of the martial art and the social movements of being the only girl in the class.  The images at times are perfect: “Again and again, the bony jewels of her fist / jab out in glistening precision.”  I discovered Bottoms, the former poet laureate of Georgia, from the recommendation of a friend in grad school.  He told me to read Under the Vulture Tree, and after I did I was hooked.  The collection was full of boss lines; see for yourself in the poem “Under the Vulture Tree.”  This latest collection isn’t quite as good, but it’s still worth checking out.
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book reviews, faith, history, literature, parenting, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2015

In July I read a wide variety of books.  Let’s get straight to the reviews!

  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link is a collection of strange and beguiling stories.  The stories feature pyramids and ghosts and pocket universes and automaton boyfriends and superheroes and my brother.  Yes, I was shocked to find my older brother named in the third story, an epistolary tale about secret identities.  So maybe it wasn’t my brother after all, but someone pretending to be him.  Either way, it was unnerving to find his name there.  It’s not like I have a common last name like Smith or Jones.  The first story “The Summer People” was one of my favorites (and can be read here for free online).  In it, a girl in the country takes care of a mysterious and magical cottage behind her house that is home to playful strangers (sprites? elves?) that no one can quite see. When she comes down sick, she ropes a friend from school into helping her.  It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.  Another favorite came near the end called “Two Houses,” in which a group of astronauts tell ghost stories to each other while they travel to distant stars.  The central story within the story features an art installation of two houses, one a house transported piece by piece from the southwest United States to the English countryside (in a twist from the castles or bridges disassembled and transported to America) and the other an exact replica of the same house.  Terrible murders had taken place in the first house and there were bloodstains on the carpet, and these stains were copied in the second house.  It was impossible to tell which house was the original and which the copy, which was haunted and which had imagined ghosts.  It was a great story.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Neil Gaiman and anyone who likes stories that are a little strange and exciting.  It was another book I found from the Girl Canon list.
  • The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber is a useful book for parents.  Lieber’s main argument is that kids need to learn about money from parents before they are on their own and making decisions about student loans and everything else, and he has lots of ideas on how to go about it.  How we handle our money is a reflection of our values, so talking to kids about money is a way to teach them about patience, generosity, and perspective.  One idea I found especially interesting was that he advocates separating allowances from doing chores.  He thinks kids should get an allowance even at an early age (by 1st grade, which seems pretty early to me), and that it is a way for kids to practice with money.  The cover of the book shows three jars with the signs “Give,” “Save,” and “Spend,” which is his idea for what kids should do with the allowance.  This allocation system sounded familiar from my upbringing that involved a set of envelopes.  Lieber likes clear containers so that a child can see the money accumulate as they save money to give away or to spend on a larger item.  The act of waiting is hard for a kid, but a crucial lesson to learn.  He argues that kids should still do chores because they are part of the household and everyone is responsible for its maintenance.  Parents don’t get any money for doing the dishes or cooking or vacuuming, so neither should the children.  He says that if kids have trouble doing their contribution of chores, there are plenty of privileges that can be taken away to help motivate them instead of withholding an allowance.  Another area that he advocates parents involve children is in charitable giving.  He provides lots of ways that kids can be involved in the conversation, including their own giving.  The main drawback to the book is that it is clearly written for people at the median of wage-earners and above.  Many examples are from affluent families, though often the principles could be applied across the spectrum.  I suppose that is the audience for a book about teaching kids about money.  I found out about the book from an article in Slate.  It was worth checking out of the library.
  • God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case for Same-Sex Marriage by Matthew Vines is an important argument for Christians and churches to consider.  My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, recently decided to allow same sex marriages at their General Convention, a move that came soon after the Supreme Court decision that declared all states must recognize same sex marriages.  But many other denominations and churches will continue to wrestle with what to do about LGBT individuals and same sex marriage.  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.  He takes the Bible seriously, stating early on that he believes “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for [his] life” (2).  One thing I especially appreciated about the book is that he never presents strawmen to knock down.  The book is thoroughly researched, and he’s read the books of non-affirming scholars and teachers (especially Robert A. J. Gagnon, among others) and presents their arguments fairly when disagreeing with them.  Here’s a quick summary of his arguments.  He first presents a utilitarian question: does the church’s current stance produce the good fruit that Jesus says a good tree will?  Then he provides a history lesson showing that sexual orientation is a modern concept that the biblical writers were not addressing when they wrote about same sex behavior.  Next comes a look at celibacy in scripture and history where he notes that it has always been a voluntary decision, not forced on an individual.  A large portion of the book is devoted to understanding the six passages in the Bible that concern same sex behavior, focusing especially on the historical context.  After that, he examines marriage and shows that its essential feature is the covenantal bond, not the sex or gender of the partners.  Lastly, he writes about how everyone, including LGBT individuals, are created in the image of God, without dismissing the doctrines of sin and grace.  All in all, it is an impressive and comprehensive argument on same sex marriage.  I would highly recommend this book to all Christians, especially evangelicals.  Even if they read it and still disagree with his conclusions, they will still come away knowing that those who are affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians and same sex marriage have good reasons for their beliefs. [see comment below for my discussion of the “refutation” of Vines’s book]
  • Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson is exactly what its title would make a reader expect: a biography of George Washington Carver in poetry.  And it works.  While I would be unlikely to pick up a prose biography of Carver (not because he led an uninteresting life, quite the opposite, but because there are too many biographies of interesting people that I will never pick up), I decided to read this volume because I knew and liked Nelson’s poetry (her much anthologized sonnet “How I Discovered Poetry” is a particular standout).  By telling his life story in brief moments told from many different points of view allows the reader to enter the scenes and the thoughts of Carver and the people in his life.  Though it is marketed for children (my used copy is a Scholastic school market version), there is nothing about it that is only for children.  Carver was a generous man, giving away formulas and secrets that he could have kept to get rich, such as a blue pigment that was deeper and richer than any known for thousands of years (“Egyptian Blue”).  He received “[o]ffers to pay / for answers the Creator gives / him for nothing” (“The Year of the Sky-Smear”).  He is, of course, famous for his work with peanuts and crop rotation, but he was interested in most everything in the natural world.  The poem “Ruellia Noctiflora,” spoken from the point of view of woman who meets Carver unexpectedly in the woods, shows how he could see the world differently than others: “Where he pointed was only a white flower / until I saw him seeing it.”  In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.  It reminds me of Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices, which I enjoyed more than the prose history of David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard (both tell the stories of those who lived and died during the horrific blizzard of 1888 on the Great Plains).  I would recommend Nelson’s volume of poems for anyone who is remotely interested in Carver and anyone who likes good poetry.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier is a good, but not great, gothic romance from the same author as Rebecca.  It shares a similar setting as Rebecca, a large estate in Cornwall, the southwestern peninsula of England, and it also shares a similarly mysterious woman at the center of the story.  In  Rebecca the mysterious woman was the absent title character: she haunts the novel from beginning to end.  In My Cousin Rachel, the title character Rachel is very much present throughout the novel, but her thoughts and motivations are unknown to the narrator, her cousin Philip Ashley.  Rachel is Philip’s cousin by marriage.  Philip is a young man who lives with his older cousin Ambrose Ashley as a ward since his parents died at an early age.  Ambrose, himself a bachelor at the beginning of the novel, raised him as his own son.  But soon after those first pages of the novel, he travels to Italy for his health during the winter and meets and marries Rachel.  Not long afterwards, Ambrose dies under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that he had a brain tumor, but Ambrose had sent cryptic letters back to Philip that point to Rachel somehow being the cause of his illness.  Philip begins by hating Rachel because she has taken away Ambrose, but when he finally meets her (still quite early in the novel), he finds her very difficult to hate.  As readers, we worry for our naïve narrator Philip until we eventually pity him.  I was worried that I might end up disliking the book, but du Maurier wraps it all up satisfactorily by the end.  She uses the technique of foreshadowing rather explicitly in the first chapter, but it wasn’t clear to me until the end what she had done, so I had to reread the first chapter afterwards to see how she had done it.  It was rather like a Möbius strip, circularly leading back from the end to the beginning.  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Rebecca or gothic romance in general, with tempered expectations.
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personal, poetry

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Lilacs closeup image

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

[…]

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”

(Walt Whitman, from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”)


In our backyard the lilacs are in bloom. Their sweet smell is one of the best things we inherited from the previous owner of the house (the thistles we could do without). I don’t remember noticing the smell of lilacs before, whether because of ignorance or inattention, but now I don’t think I’ll forget their scent. The sense of smell is strongly associated with memory and can stir up strong thoughts as they did for Whitman. For me, cigarette smoke always brings my grandma and her house on the lake to mind.

Last month was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln is a mythic figure in American history. Every politician wants to claim his mantle: he’s someone that everyone, Republicans and Democrats, can agree on. It’s so easy to put Lincoln on a pedestal. Heck, we’ve already done that right here in South Dakota when we carved his 60 foot visage in rock. Normally I’m not much interested in “great man” history; that is, I’m not interested in studying merely the rulers and elites of the past as if they are all that shaped what happened. American history is so much more than the lives of the 43 men who have been president. I’m not opposed to biographies, but they by and large don’t interest me (says the person who recently read a biography of Malcolm X—my reasons in that case were more personal, to compare it with his autobiography which I had read and been impressed by many years earlier. Also, it told a lot of the history of the era, especially how his life intersected with the Civil Rights movement and the Nation of Islam.)

But Lincoln is a different matter for me. He does interest me, probably because of the unique period of the time, a time when the country was at declared war with itself. The country was built and prospered because it enslaved millions of Africans. But the Civil War was a turning point in the ongoing story of our nation as it relates to African Americans. It’s a story that is still unfolding, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement to mass incarceration and the Drug War of today (with many other aspects of the story that I’m leaving out).

I wonder how the post-bellum years would have turned out if Lincoln hadn’t been killed. His vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, was the worst person to be in charge of putting the country back together after the war. How successful would Lincoln have been? Would he still be beloved as the savior of the Union if he had presided over the tough conflicts of Reconstruction? In some ways, his murder froze him in time right after the war ended. The Union had been saved, the slaves had been freed, and it was all because of Lincoln. The narrative had been fixed for all time.

I’m also interested in Lincoln because we named our third child Abraham, in part because of the positive associations with the 16th president (we had other reasons, too). Perhaps I’ve burdened him with the association. I can see the appeal of inventing a new name for a child so that he has no expectations to live up to, no weight to live under. He only has to be himself. But I’m going to continue to read about Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, while striving to let my son grow up and be himself.

The lilacs have already begun to droop, and the petals are falling to the ground. I’ll have to wait until next year to smell their sweetness again.

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poetry

Two poems and an explanation

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

(James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”)


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” trans. Stephen Mitchell)


Last week I received a mysterious call from Pine Island, MN. After listening to the voicemail, my confusion cleared. It was the basement waterproofers calling to confirm the dates of the work crew coming. But the mention of Pine Island on my phone’s caller ID made me think of the poem by Wright, which in turn made me think of its cousin, the poem by Rilke. Both poems turn on their last line and go big. Definitely ending with a bang and not a whimper. One a pronouncement of regret, the other a call to arms. It’s the kind of trick a poet can only pull off once; to try it again would be to negate its effect. I almost feel that putting them side by side like this does the same thing, canceling each other out. So why put them together? Their differences are interesting. One is an encounter with nature, the other with art. In one, the viewer is ignored by the surroundings; in the other, the viewer cannot escape the gaze of the sculpture. In the first, the speaker despairs; in the latter the speaker compels the listener to transform.

While I like these two poems very much, the bold pronouncements they end with don’t appeal to me as much as they did when I was younger. It’s not that I’m immune to the warning of wasting my life and the exhortation to change, it’s just that I’m more likely to listen to a quieter voice now. Does this mean that I’ve grown complacent, settling into middle age? I don’t like to think so, but it’s hard to rule out. Now I’m a homeowner who has to call specialists to help us keep water out of our basement.

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