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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personal, writing

New Year’s Day

“Nothing changes on New Year’s Day”

Dear stranger, I am a writer.  I’ve decided to self-identify as a writer for the first time in my life.  I’ve always been too scared that writing is something that I couldn’t succeed at, or that it’s not something that I could ever do as a job or vocation, though I could do it on the side as a hobby.  But not owning it means that I never have given writing my full concentration and effort, not even when I was a grad student.  Back then I was still aiming to be a professor or teacher, not a writer.  This identity is going to take some getting used to.  I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer, but I think it’s a necessary step.

Part of this change in orientation means that I am planning to devote more time to writing this year than I did last year.  I hope that means that I have more content for the blog in the coming year.  It’s a struggle to find time as a stay-at-home parent.  Even when the kids are napping or in bed for the night, it’s so much easier to sit back and stream a TV show or waste time on the internet.  But I’m making the declaration of my identity as a writer and my goal to write more here on the blog so that it’s public and it forces me to live up to my aspirations.

I meant to have this post up on January first, but I’ve been busy painting our basement.  Our basement flooded last summer, and we’re still putting it back together six months later.  It’s a split level home, so the basement is half the living area of the house.  It’s been an adjustment, to say the least, not to have use of half of the house when three little kids want to play, play, play.  When the weather was warmer, that wasn’t as much of a problem.  But today, for example, we were house bound because of below zero temperatures and even colder wind chill.

I’m not one who usually makes resolutions for each new year.  It’s not that I think it’s a bad practice.  On the contrary, self-improvement is a great goal to be renewed every year.  And it’s not that I have no areas of my life to improve either.  There’s plenty that I should be working on.  When I was in high school and college I used to set reading goals for the summer vacation.  I would make a list of books that I wanted to read during the break.  I was always overambitious and unrealistic.  Usually I only read one or two books from the list, if any.  Sometimes I would read other books not on the list, but often I ended up not even reading all that much.

The last few years I’ve made informal goals to read approximately 50 books a year, or about one per week.  Looking back over my records (because I like to make lists), I read 44 books in 2009, 55 books in 2010, 40 books in 2011, neglected to keep records in 2012 (or lost the file), 36 books in 2013, and 29 books last year.  So I made my goal once in the past six years, and, as I recall, I was able to read a lot that year while holding our first child as he napped.  I’ve gone ahead and made my 50 books a year goal more formal this year by posting it on goodreads.com (feel free to friend me at goodreads.com under the name Andy Zell).  I’m also planning on writing short reviews on most/all of the books I do manage to read this year, and I’ll collect them monthly and post them here on the blog.

As for the song embedded above, I used to be a huge U2 fan back when I was making those reading goals for the summer.  I would try to listen to this song on New Year’s Day, although I’m not even sure why.  Perhaps because I liked the line quoted above so much.  Nothing changes.  There’s so much continuity from year to year.  I’m still the same person on January first that I was on December thirty-first.  Except things do change.  I’m not the same person I was 15-20 years ago.  I still enjoy some old U2 tunes now and then, but they’re no longer my favorite band.

In 2015, I’ll continue writing about the change and continuity of my life.  I am a writer.  I am a stranger.

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personal

Introduction

So, I’ve started a blog.  Not quite sure what I’ll do with it.  I’d like to share and examine things I like and that I’m interested in.  Talk about books mostly (lately I’ve been reading more American history, but I read widely: classics, genre fiction, poetry, comic books, etc).  Post poems or songs that I like.  A major thing I would like to do is explore my identity in its many facets: as a white American in 2014, as a man not conforming to typical gender roles, as a Christian who grew up in conservative Evangelicalism, etc.  The blog is selfish in that way.  I want to understand myself and my place in the world.  But I would hope that is interesting to others, whether they are in a similar position as me, or merely curious about another perspective.  I also have always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve never put in the hard work.  This blog is my attempt to start the work of being a writer.

One of my goals for this blog is to foster dialogue.  There’s a lot I don’t know or I might know only a little about a subject; I feel that I have a lot to learn.  So feel free to school me.  I may not always agree with you, but I’ll still learn by having to formulate my response.  I hope that any dialogue can remain civil.

My model for this type of blog is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of a recent cover story at the Atlantic on reparations (that everyone should read).  He followed up the magazine piece with an autopsy of the key books that he read that lead him to the conclusions he reached in the article (here’s the first one).  I’ve been reading his blog for a number of years, so I’ve seen him wrestle with some of these books in public as his ideas formed.  It’s been challenging to me personally to watch him think out loud and in public.  I imagine it in terms of watching someone learning to walk a tightrope.  I have no illusion that my blog will be anything like his, but it’s an inspiration and aspiration.

I should probably explain the blog’s title and my reason for posting the poem.  First and foremost, it’s a poem I like.  It expresses the desire for human connection, but also the difficulties in communicating to another.  It’s easy to feel like a stranger, both online and off, at least for me.  Out of place, different than expected, unrecognized.  Since I plan to write about books frequently, “extant” felt appropriate as a word usually reserved for old manuscripts.  But it nicely fits our condition much of the time, “still existing” and “surviving.”  Many days that fits me well.

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