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, literature

Summer Reading

I have a short piece up at the Rock & Sling blog called “Summer Reading: The Perfect Time to Get in Trouble.”  Though I did already write a review of Kelly Link’s book of short stories titled Get in Trouble in my July roundup of reviews, this one is all new material.  No repeats!

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book reviews, faith, history, literature, parenting, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2015

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

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

He-Man Woman Haters Club?

I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books (all six of them), and I’m sad that there are no more.    The Earthsea books have magic and dragons, but what really impressed me is the depth of the female characters.  As much as I enjoy Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it’s really a story about dudes.  Sure, you have Eowyn disguising herself as a man and killing the witch-king, but by the end of the story she’s given up fighting to settle down as a healer and wife.  I’ve also enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has many well-rounded female characters, but the world in which they live is so brutal.  You wouldn’t wish it on your ex-girlfriend (I hope!). Thus it was a welcome change to read Le Guin’s series, especially the books in the series that treat the roles of women as interesting.

The first and third Earthsea books have familiar quest narrative plots, the kind of thing Tolkien made famous and has been copied time and again in the fantasy genre [e.g. a young man, raised by his uncle, growing up on a farm, always dreaming of the world beyond the horizon and feeling different from the other kids, meets a mysterious stranger and suddenly his life is an adventure with elves and magic and stuff].  That’s not to say that Le Guin doesn’t do a good job with the quest trope: the narrative in the first book follows naturally out of the main character’s personality and motivations (his name is Ged, by the way, a deliciously ridiculous fantasy name).  By the third book he is older and wiser, but again on a typical fantasy quest to the land of the dead.  However, it’s when the series departs from the exploits of Ged and focuses on women, especially Tenar, that it really shines and stands apart from the fantasy that I’ve read.

The second and fourth books focus on the lives of women and the options that they have in the world of Earthsea.  The stories are about the daily lives of women instead of merely writing another quest with a woman in the role of protagonist instead of a man.  The second book focuses on the childhood of Tenar when she is groomed to become the high priestess in a mysterious religion on the outskirts of Earthsea.  As a priestess she is isolated from everyone, especially men.  She has nominal power, but two old priestesses really run the show at the temple.  None of them have actual power anyway.  The fourth book is primarily a domestic novel.  Years later Tenar is a widow living on a small farm by herself.  Her children are grown, but she takes in an abused and abandoned girl and adopts her.  Their life together constitutes much of the book.  The contrast to the male quest narratives is stark.  Ultimately, the climax of this mostly quiet and excellent book is the most important revelation of the entire series.  It turns the patriarchal world of male wizards and monarchs on its head, setting up a conclusion of ultimate reconciliation in the sixth book.

The series can be described as feminist in a genre not known for its progressive attitudes towards women.  And it’s good, too.  The writing is strong and economical (the books are short compared to the usual heavy tomes associated with the genre).  It definitely deserves its place in the Fantasy Hall of Fame.  But its respect for female characters definitely makes it an outlier.  And it got me thinking about my enjoyment of other genre fiction.  When I’m not reading serious books, I enjoy getting swept up in a spy novel, a hard-boiled mystery, or some super-hero comics.  I try to be discriminating and find out which are the best of the best in these genres and stick to those.  But it doesn’t change the fact that these genres by and large have trouble with their depictions of women.

The A.V. Club had a feature up yesterday about the state of superhero comics in regard to gender and minority representation.  The panel discussion highlights some positive steps the comics industry has made (like a new teenage Muslim Ms. Marvel), while also talking about how much better it could and should be in the area of in its representations of women and minorities (seriously, check out the Hawkeye Initiative to see how ridiculous the representation of women can be).  Some of my favorite superhero stories of the last decade or so involve female characters (e.g. Renee Montoya in Gotham Central and later in Fifty Two, Batwoman first introduced in Fifty Two and then later getting her own series, and the most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello).  But all of these stories were still written by dudes.  Not that dudes can’t write good women characters (but they usually don’t), but there should be options.  DC and Marvel need to hire more women writers (and editors, artists, and colorists, etc.), not just to write women characters, but to tell good stories.

So what does that say about me?  Looking at the rows of comics on my bookshelf, I suddenly have the urge to trot out my feminist bona fides.  Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather are two of my very favorite authors.  My wife works while I stay home with the kids.  I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer (thanks to my wife).  I believe pay inequality is a real issue that needs correcting.  I listen to Lucinda Williams and Cat Power.  I think we’re long past due having a woman president.  I accept influence! Really!  But I can’t shake off my disturbed feeling at how much enjoyment I have derived from literature that does not treat women with adequate respect.  Just reading Ursula Le Guin doesn’t make up for it.

Often the only role a woman plays in a spy or detective novel – another of my (now guilty) pleasure genres — is the love interest.  Or the femme fatale.  And I usually gloss over the sad representation of women as I try to figure out who committed the murder or if the hero will get the intel out from behind enemy lines.  Sometimes I’ll notice how cliché or predictable the women characters are, but I forge on, even relishing the sad loner-ness of our anti-hero protagonist in his fight against the injustice of the world.  But mostly I sleepwalk through the stories, turning pages to find out what happens.

I’m waking up to it.  A lot of this escapist reading goes back to the type of reading I did as a kid.  Reading cold war spy novels or X-Men comics in my room.  It’s comforting to try to return to that seemingly simpler time.  A few years back I reread some of the authors I liked in high school and I was embarrassed for myself.  That’s nothing new, I suppose, but it was like cold water on the face.  The stuff I read now, more highbrow than what I read then (spy novels by le Carre or mysteries by Benjamin Black), still can hardly be called feminist lit.  It’s a good thing it’s not a large percentage of my literary diet.

Maybe reading is like the food pyramid.  It’s important to have a diverse and wide-ranging diet of authors and genres.  And it’s okay to have dessert, but not too much, or I’ll get sick.  Or to try another food analogy, maybe sexism in literature is like MSG.  It’s not good for me, but it’s in lots of yummy foods so I eat it anyway, hoping it won’t harm me.

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