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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literature, personal

10 Books

Not too long ago on Facebook, there was a meme making the rounds of 10 books that made an impression; basically an excuse to list one’s favorite books. I’m a sucker for lists and list-making. No one asked me to make a list, so I figured I’d do one for the blog, with explanations. I’m following the guide of books that made an impression, rather than my ten favorite books (which would be hard to figure out). I’m putting them in the approximate order that I read them.

Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
Perhaps the first book I read by an African American, and considering I was a freshman in college when I read it, that is very sad. Given to me by my sister, a beat up paperback held together with a rubber band. I remember being struck by many moments in the book, first of which was young Malcolm being told by a teacher that he couldn’t be a lawyer when he grew up, instead he should plan on something more realistic. Another moment was his descriptions of getting a “conk,” a lye treatment to straighten his hair. It opened my eyes to a cultural experience that I had never imagined (and later learned even more about when I saw Chris Rock’s Good Hair). I hope to have a lot more to say about Malcolm X soon as I’d like to read the recent biography by Manning Marable.

A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking)
I’ve talked about this book previously and how it changed my views on the universe. Until I read it, I felt comfortable in my insulated worldview of a young universe created approximately 10,000 years ago. It shook everything up.

Rose (Li-Young Lee)
This collection of poems, Lee’s first, is important to me personally for two reasons. I can’t remember reading a contemporary poet’s collection before this one. I was drawn in by the poems about memory and inheritance. It’s a lovely collection. But even more importantly, it was the first gift I gave to my future wife (that and a mix CD—ha! remember those?)

The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
Searing Vietnam stories that show the power of storytelling in the aftermath of trauma. That doesn’t make it sound nearly as good as it actually is. Memory shifts, unbalancing the reader. And the stories accumulate and adhere and echo, and the fiction all becomes more true.

The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)
Layers of fiction where a novel within a novel is more true than the story the narrator of the main novel tells. I’m not sure if I still go for that kind of book, but at the time I read it, I was fascinated by the slipperiness of truth, and how we tell ourselves stories (even bold fictions) to make sense of our lives.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Kathleen Norris)
This book came at an important time in my life. I had recently moved to North Dakota as a grad student and didn’t know anybody there. I was looking for a different church experience and found comfort in the Episcopal service. I also found Norris, first The Cloister Walk and then Amazing Grace. She talked about Christian community that was rooted in history, tradition, and literature. Her books, too, were comforting.

So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell)
When I first read So Long, See You Tomorrow, I didn’t imagine Maxwell would become my favorite author. I read it too quickly for a class assignment. But I read it again on my own, and then his other novels and stories. I don’t think I’ve come across a writer with so much empathy and compassion for other people. And he writes such beautiful sentences.

Virtually Normal (Andrew Sullivan)
This book (along with What God Has Joined Together by David Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni) made me rethink gay marriage. I realized that disallowing gays and lesbians from traditions and social institutions and then condemning them for not conforming to traditions and social institutions makes no sense. And I’m not the only one. Public opinion on gay marriage has changed quite a bit since he wrote the book in the mid-90s.

My Antonia (Willa Cather)
This is a beautiful coming of age story set on the American prairie, tinged with sadness. The title character is only seen at a distance, through the eyes of the narrator Jim Burden. It’s a story told in episodes, much the way our memory works. I supposedly read it in high school, but I had trouble reading for class back then. I read a lot on my own, but I didn’t like being told to read a book. I rediscovered the book shortly before moving to South Dakota. I wanted to read a novel of the prairie, and I ended up falling in love with Cather’s books.

My Name Is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)
It was hard to choose which Potok book for this list. I’ve only read three of his so far, but I’ve loved each of them (and I just started a fourth). This was the first one I read, and our oldest son’s middle name is Asher. What I love about Potok is that he takes religious belief seriously in his characters. Though his characters live in the world of Hasidim and Orthodox Judaism I can see the similarities and parallels in the fundamentalism I grew up in. Purity and piety are prized above all else. There is no room for art because it is dangerous. Asher Lev wrestles with the twin pulls of God and artistic expression in this beautiful novel. Perhaps I’ll manage to have something worthwhile to say about the current book I’m reading in the near future. I hope not to take so long between posts in the future.

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