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, 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.
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humor, personal

Mystery Science Theater 3000

I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 at the right time.  I was in junior high, and it hit the right funny sweet spot, weird and wacky and nerdy all at the same time, that made it irresistible to me.  Plus, it came on right after American Gladiators on Saturday evening, so I didn’t have to miss beefed-up body builders smashing peons with foam pugil sticks.  Win-win.

I loved many things about the show: the cheesy movies they skewered with hilarious one-liners and non sequiturs of course, but also the concept and characters.  A mad scientist and his henchperson send a worker drone to outer space to see what the effect of bad movies will be on his psyche (it’s all explained in the theme song embedded above).  The jumpsuited everyman creates some robots to keep himself company, and they riff on the bad movies together.

There was something about Joel, the guy in a jumpsuit with the bots, that endeared him to me.  Maybe it was his sleepy eyes, or his laid back persona, or his seeming discomfort at being in front of the camera.  I could relate to his awkwardness, but he seemed to take it all in stride.  Whatever it was, I liked Joel.  I liked him a lot.

And then suddenly, with no forewarning, he left the show in the middle of the fifth season.  His character found a way to escape the Satellite of Love, and poof, no more Joel.  He was replaced by another worker drone named Mike, but it wasn’t the same.  After he left, I didn’t watch the show anymore, except reruns that starred Joel or, more likely, the beloved episodes I had taped to VHS. (In hindsight, my response was unfair to Mike.  But, in my defense, I was a teenager at the time.  I’ve been assured by a few trusted MSTies that the Mike seasons were also great.)

I wrote about it at the time in my journal in an over-the-top and melodramatic way with tons of references to the show, here reproduced exactly with a few comments sprinkled in (two things to note: for some reason I used to write in all caps, a weird stylistic choice, but it does convey the earnestness of my cri de coeur, though the journal entries before and after are also in all caps so that kind of diminishes the effect in context, and also Joel’s last episode, Mitchell, aired on 10/23/93).

10/24

IT’S  TRUE.  THE AWFUL RUMOR IS TRUE.  WHEN I FIRST HEARD IT I THOUGHT “NO WAY,” AND I WENT INTO A STATE OF DENIAL.  BUT NOW IT HAS COME TO PASS.  THE PROPHECY OF DOOM AND UTTER MORONICY HAS COME TO PASS.  JOEL IS GONE.  HE LEFT.  JUST LIKE THAT.  GONE.  IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT HIM.  SOME LOSER NAMED MIKE NELSON IS TAKING OVER.  [Mike was the head writer on the show.]  NO MATTER HOW FUNNY HE IS IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.  JOEL, HOW COULD YOU?  I WAS A MSTIE THROUGH AND THROUGH.  I HAD MEMORIZED THE LOVE THEME THREE TIMES.  I WAS THERE DURING CLASSICS SUCH AS THE SIDEHACKER AND CATALINA CAPER AND EEGAH AND DURING SHORTS LIKE HIRED AND JUNIOR RODEO DAREDEVILS AND THE PHANTOM CREEPS.  WE LAUGHED TOGETHER, CRIED TOGETHER, PLAYED HIDE-AND-GO-SEEK WITH THE BOTS ON THE SATELLITE OF LOVE TOGETHER, ATE CHEESE BALLS TOGETHER , I COULD GO ON AND ON.  YOU MEANT THE WORLD TO ME, I LOVED YOU LIKE A BROTHER AND NOW YOU GO AND TREAT ME LIKE THIS? [I wasn’t actually a creepy stalker; this is a paraphrase of lines from aforementioned MST3K classic “The Sidehacker.”]  WHO’S GOING TO TAKE CARE OF GRETCHEN THE SLINKY?  WHO’S GOING TO CARRY TOM?  WHO’S GOING TO BE GYPSY’S BEST FRIEND?  WHO’S GOING TO WASH THE WINDOWS DURING THE MOVIE?  WHO’S GOING TO INITIATE HEALTH CARE REFORM?  [It was 1993, and somehow I had absorbed something about what was in the political conversation of the day, though I didn’t know anything about health care reform or what I thought about it at the time.  It was a joke, my own attempt at a non sequitur, which now that I’ve explained it, it’s not at all funny, if it ever was.]  WHO’S ON FIRST? [The famous Abbott & Costello routine was also a favorite of mine.] JOEL, DON’T YOU SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO ME?  I THINK I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GET GAMERA [a kaiju turtle, sort of like a lovable Godzilla in shelled form]  TO KNOCK SOME SENSE INTO YOU.  YOU HAVE TO COME BACK.  YOU JUST HAVE TO.  YOU’RE FROM MINNESOTA, DOESN’T THAT MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU?  [My parents are from Minnesota, and we traveled there every summer to see family.  I was pulling out all the stops, even personal connections.]  YOUR PLACE IS BETWEEN TOM AND CROW CRACKING QUIPS LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW.  I BET YOUR SEAT IS STILL WARM.  JOEL, I’M GOING TO LEAVE YOU WITH THE COLD TRUTH: A COW HAS FOUR STOMACHS.

P.S. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING. [A reference to the classic episode “Lost Continent,” though in that episode they said “rock climbing” over and over.  Oops.]

I’ve been thinking about MST3K lately because Joel recently launched a Kickstarter to revive the show (it’s still ongoing, as of this writing, so if you’re a fan of the show and hadn’t heard yet, go ahead and contribute).  I think it would be great if the show can continue with new characters filling the familiar roles having fun riffing on bad movies.  A new generation could discover the joy it brought me, and the old fans could make more memories.

MST3K has a way of bringing people together; it’s not really a solitary experience, at least it wasn’t for me.  Back in junior high when I first started watching it, I would trade all the best lines on Monday morning at school with a good friend who also liked the show.  In college a friendship started my freshman year with another MSTie who had his own VHS tapes of episodes I hadn’t seen yet.  We would get a whole group of friends together to watch the antics of Joel and the bots on a Friday night (it was at Bible college—there wasn’t a whole lot else happening on a Friday night in rural Georgia).  Later, when I was in grad school, which was often an isolating and lonely experience, another friendship deepened over watching episodes of MST3K.  That friend even made me copies of dozens of Joel episodes for me to take to North Dakota, where I started another grad program even though I knew no one there, so I wouldn’t be too lonely.

I hope it can continue to bring people together and make them laugh.

Long live movie sign.

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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).
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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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Hospital Stories (7)

A few years ago I worked at a hospital as a constant observer.  It was a transitional job as I tried to figure out the next step of my life. What exactly is a constant observer?  one might reasonably ask.  A constant observer is basically a nurse’s aide who stays in one room to be with patients who might be a harm to themselves or others. Hospitals try very hard not to tie people down on their beds anymore.  There are a lot of reasons I might be assigned to a patient: dementia, adverse reaction to medication, brain injury, detoxing, or suicide watch, to name some.  I saw people at their most vulnerable state.  This is the seventh in a series of vignettes on my experiences in the hospital.  I did this one a little differently in honor of Native American Day.


Despite only having one leg, he had ripped down a television from the wall the day before.  He was a Native American, older, maybe in his 60s or 70s, and he had had his leg amputated.  Many of the patients on the Renal floor are diabetic and have dialysis once or twice a day if they have chronic renal failure (damaged kidneys).  Some patients have to have feet or legs amputated because of a combination of numbness/insensitivity and vascular damage which can lead to skin ulcers and infection and ultimately necrosis and gangrene.  They had replaced the TV in his room but wanted someone in the room with him now—just in case, I guess.  In the morning he needed to be bathed, but couldn’t take a shower with his sutures and bandages, so that meant a towel bath.  The nurse helped me wash him for which I was grateful.  His scrotum was extremely swollen—he was in a lot of pain as she washed his genitals.  It was probable that he hadn’t been washed properly before, but she insisted that he allow her to clean him thoroughly.  I doubt I could have done it by myself.  I washed other men in my job, but it was generally rather quick and they were cooperative.  This man intimidated me.  He rarely spoke.  When he did it was usually in a quiet voice.  Except later when I followed him to occupational therapy and he pointed his finger at me and nearly yelled, “Quit following me!”  I tried to explain why I was with him but he repeated “Go.”  The therapist told me to go ahead and take a break.  After the break he was okay with my presence in his room.  He spent most of his time looking out the window in silence.

***

She wanted to be released immediately.  I think the woman, a Native American, was given a room in critical care because she had been difficult on a regular floor.  There they could keep a closer eye on her.  And I was there at all times for the rest of the night.  She was so angry that they wouldn’t let her leave the hospital.  She was tired of people sticking her for IVs.  So a nurse specialist put in a more permanent tube in the crook of her elbow.  It had to be completely sterile.  Early in the evening, she didn’t want me in the room when she peed in the commode, but after a while she stopped complaining.  I assured her that I wouldn’t look.  I’m not sure if that made any difference or if she simply resigned herself to my presence.  Sometimes I ignored her when she tried to get a rise out of me.  Sometimes I couldn’t help responding with pointless objections and explanations.  She dozed during programs on Lifetime.  In the morning, when my shift was nearly over and I thought she had warmed up to me a bit, she started demanding to see the doctor.  He was making his rounds, but not fast enough for her.  She threw the TV remote at the wall, smashing it to bits.

***

Both of these patients had a moment of rage.  They were probably hours away from home—Sioux Falls has two major hospitals so patients from all over the state end up here.  What was at the root of their anger?  Something personal?  The weight of generations?  Their treatment at the hospital?  Their treatment every day?  I didn’t know, and couldn’t.  I felt bewildered and awkward.  The barriers between their lives and mine felt insurmountable.  They had no reason to trust me.

One of the things we learned in training was that we shouldn’t look Native American patients in the eye because it showed a lack of respect in their culture.  It was hard to fight against my own cultural norms.  Did I do anything to make their hospital stay worse?  Patients in the hospital are usually at low points in their lives—sick, injured, possibly dying.  Here they were in the hospital, surrounded by white walls and white people.

Before moving to South Dakota, I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee because I wanted to have an idea what had happened on the plains in the clash of cultures.  I wanted to know the damage that had been caused: the treaties made and broken, the massacres perpetrated in the name of destiny.  There are many things that white South Dakotans don’t do right regarding the Native Americans in their midst, but changing Columbus Day to Native American Day twenty five years ago is a notable exception.  It’s a nice recognition, but it’s only a start.

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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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