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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book reviews, history, literature, personal, writing

Book Reviews, April 2015

April was not a “cruel” month, as T.S. Eliot put it, but it was a month where I had a lot of trouble finishing any writing projects.  I did some writing on a few posts I hope to finish soon, but also had some false starts and days where it was hard to get anything down.  Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was both reassuring and inspiring.  She talks about the doubts and difficulties that writers face, but that you have to go on and do the work of writing anyway.  It’s no use merely thinking about writing.  I have to sit in the chair and do it.

  • Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable is a monumental biography of an important and fascinating figure.  I read Malcolm X’s Autobiography when I was in college and was deeply impressed by it.  While reading his Autobiography I felt very connected to his story, but a biography is a very different beast.  It is meant to put someone in context and evaluate his or her life.  Marable spends a lot of time explaining the Nation of Islam and its position in relation to other branches of Islam.  Later, he is put in the context of the various factions of civil rights organizations.  There is also the matter of different focus between the two projects.  In the Autobiography Malcolm tells many stories of his youth and his wayward years of crime where he was known as “Detroit Red.”  Marable quickly dispenses with these stories in the first two chapters, the first placing Malcolm in the history of race relations and the different approaches of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey, and the second mostly to debunk the exaggerated accounts of criminal activity Malcolm gave in the Autobiography.  Reading this biography is like getting cold water splashed in the face when my main knowledge of Malcolm X came from the Autobiography.  It is a life under the microscope.  Marable especially gives lots of detail concerning Malcolm X’s last two years of life.  During this period he went from being the national minister of the Nation of Islam to being disciplined and silenced by the Nation, which led to his leaving to start his own organizations.  After his break with the Nation, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca and changed his beliefs towards orthodox Islam as well as his stance on civil and human rights.  Marable also gives a lot of attention to Malcolm’s travels in Africa during his last year that show his standing as a world leader, not merely for civil rights in America.  Finally, he gives a definitive account of Malcolm’s assassination from all of the available sources (though many FBI and NYPD documents are still kept secret or heavily redacted).  I would highly recommend this book to anyone even slightly interested in the life of Malcolm X or civil rights in America.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (with decorations by Ernest H. Shepherd) is a classic of children’s lit, but it sadly wasn’t really my cup of tea.  I didn’t grow up on Pooh, so I had no nostalgia for the characters, but about six months ago my kids saw the original Disney version of the stories.  I watched part of it and thought it was sweet.  Since then, we’ve read many picture books about the characters from the Hundred Acre Wood, but not the actual original stories, mostly because I wasn’t sure my kids were old enough to handle a chapter book.  But it seemed like a good chapter book to start with since they knew the characters so well already.  My oldest (4 going on 5) seemed to enjoy it, but I have to say that I was disappointed.  The narration is puzzling at the beginning as it speaks to the reader and to Christopher Robin (here the son of the narrator, not the Hundred Acre Wood character), with Christopher Robin frequently interrupting the first story.  The narration becomes more straightforward in later stories.  I’m not saying I was confused, but it made it more difficult to read aloud.  Not much happens in the stories, but that’s fine because it’s the characters that make the stories so beloved.  The dialogue was less clever than I was expecting, which I based on seeing bits of the movie.  It was slightly pleasing in places, but often tedious as well.  Oh well. I think I read this too late in life.  I hope my kids find it as charming as many others have.
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is a book that every writer should read at least once.  A few chapters, such as “Short Assignments” and “Shitty First Drafts” should be consulted again as often as necessary, which might mean frequently.  The title of the book comes from “Short Assignments,” where Lamott describes her brother experiencing paralysis at the prospect of writing a long research paper on birds that he had procrastinated until the day before it was due.  Their father encouraged him by telling him to “Just take it bird by bird.”  It’s good advice for any big project, but works especially well in the context of the blank page.  The daunting prospect of writing overwhelms me all the time, but it helps to break it down to a smaller, manageable task.  It’s one reason I’ve taken to writing these reviews of the books I read.  It helps me practice my writing, forcing me to sit down and write my thoughts on the latest book I’ve finished.  And that’s all writing is, sitting down and putting words one after the other, but sometimes the thought of it is so overwhelming.  And the doubts creep in, but I have to keep sitting down and composing a few more words.  Which brings me to perhaps her most important piece of advice, writers write shitty first drafts (well, most of them, anyway).  It’s the work of revising that first draft where a large portion of the work of writing gets done.  This is a concept that both reassures and shatters me.  For most of my writing life I never revised my work.  I almost always wrote my assignments for school at the deadline and turned in what was a first, and final, draft.  The sad thing, for me, is that I managed to do this over and over without repercussions.  I didn’t learn to do the next step of writing, the work of revising.  It’s what I’m learning now.
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