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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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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