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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Melanie Benjamin, THE AVIATOR'S WIFE

I enjoyed this book about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh; but I felt it was uneven in several respects. It is told in the first-person, and for the first thirty pages, it felt to me that the author didn't quite have a handle on Anne; I can understand the mixed feelings and uncertain identity of early adulthood, but Anne's psychology felt incoherent. Fro example, she repeatedly refers to herself as "tongue-tied and shy," uncomfortable with her siblings, the "second" sister in the Morrow family, in the "shadow" behind her older, blonde sister. (I kept thinking of Glinda and Elfaba; Elfaba is, of course, the quieter and smarter one, the one who ends up with the man.) But she's buoyant and chatty with her two siblings on the train all the way down to Mexico: "I can't wait to see Con! ... And Mother, of course. But mainly Con!" At one point, she almost seems to try to excuse the inconsistencies in her attitudes and feelings with "Before I could sort out my tangled thoughts ..." However, by page 100, her voice and her psychology emerges as more consistent. And from that point on, I was swept up into the story.

Some of the other reviewers seemed to dislike the book because Charles Lindbergh was a philanderer, a narcissist, tyrannical, and anti-Semitic. The episodes about his response to Hitler's Germany are chilling; there is almost a too-easy line drawn between his loveless childhood, his hard-nosed parenting style, and his appreciation for the Nazis. Others took issue with Anne's inability to stand up to him, or her own unfaithfulness. But I have no problem with characters who are neither heroes nor outright villains, who are struggling, inconsistent in their behavior, or lying to themselves and others. I feel it's to an author's credit if she is able to make us feel for the protagonist(s)--even if it's frustration or revulsion. I also appreciated the way Benjamin was able to suggest how the popular press, as well as the American desire for masculine heroes and for particular versions of supportive wife/motherhood, participated in constructing both Charles and Anne's public personae.

Having written historical fiction myself, I appreciate all of Benjamin's work to wrap her hands around the vast amount of material and to provide in a way that doesn't involve periodic "info dumps." Her handling of the episodes--the kidnapping, the fights with the press, the travels, the final discoveries--are, overall, well-done. I enjoyed.

Friday, April 21, 2017

William Deresiewicz, EXCELLENT SHEEP: THE MISEDUCATION OF THE AMERICAN ELITE & THE WAY TO A MEANINGFUL LIFE

This is an important book about a disturbing trend: high school students are jumping through hoop after hoop to reach college, only to find themselves disaffected, depressed, and disconnected from their own emotions and psychological selves, including their interests and passions, after they arrive. They have tremendous intellectual horse power, a great work ethic, and no clue of what fascinates or engages them. He holds the system accountable--primarily the college admissions process which, in the face of record numbers of applications, focus on the "easy" measures--the GPA, the SAT, the ACT, the number of APs, the number of extracurriculars--instead of how a student learns, thinks, and participates in meaningful ways in the world. He also has suggestions for how to change it ... but it's not an optimistic ending. This does, however, help parents and educators support students in resisting the NOISE and in trying to develop their authentic passions in ways that ultimately lead to fulfilling lives and careers. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Book Lover's Quiz for Historical Novel Fans

11 openings from 11 historical novels. It’s like name that tune. Only more fun.

(1) The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

(2) A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.

(3) I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a world I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.

(4) Lieutenant William Bush came on board H.M.S. Renown as she lay at anchor in the Hamoaze and reported himself to the officer of the watch, who was a tall and rather gangling individual with hollow cheeks and a melancholy cast of countenance, whose uniform looked as if it had been put on in the dark and not readjusted since.

(5) [The heroine] was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tartleton twins were.

(6) When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. The sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can’t help but stop what you’re doing—pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps—to stare up at it.

(7) The last time I saw Laurent Jammet, he was in Scott’s store with a dead wolf over his shoulder.

(8) He’s writing when they come for him. He’s sitting at his metal desk, bent over a yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her—as always, to her. So he doesn’t notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars.

(9) In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten.

(10) I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came.

(11) The sun poked out briefly, evidence of a universe above them, of watchful things—planets and stars and vast galaxies of infinite knowledge—and just as suddenly it retreated behind the clouds. The doctor passed only two other autos during the fifteen-minute drive, saw but a lone pedestrian even though it was noon on Sunday, a time when people normally would be returning home from church, visiting with friends and family. The flu had been in Timber Falls for three weeks now, by the doctor’s best estimation, and nearly all traffic on the streets had vanished.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Yaa Gyasi, THE HOMECOMING

This was a very ambitious, very strong debut novel, that spans 300 years. It begins with two half-sisters in Ghana, and takes us through their lives and then the lives of their descendants, in parallel, in Africa and America, through the generations. Naturally, there are many lacunae; we pick up a new character not at birth but at age 50, for example. However, I didn't mind that; the narrative always orients us quickly, with a few important details, and brings us to the Important Moment in that character's life. This book is about race, yes; but also gender, power, silence, secrets, travel, displacement, laws, violence, education, drugs, memory, and family.

I have only two quibbles with it, and they're pretty minor. The first is the ending, which to me felt like it tied things up far too tidily for a book that otherwise suggests the roles of chaos, chance, and injustice in people's lives. Second, at times I felt a bit "preached to," through the characters. I'm not saying that the points aren't valid, and beautifully written. And I tended to agree with all of them. But here's an example:

"We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture."

However, those are quibbles. This is a beautifully written, big-hearted book. I will definitely be on the lookout for her next!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hope Jahren, LAB GIRL

I liked this very much. In the vein of Elizabeth Gilbert and J.D. Vance, this bridges the genres of memoir and social-comment essay. Jahren writes about botany--the ways, for example, a parent tree supports a sapling by channeling water to it underground at night; the reasons the makeup of soil matters; the way trees communicate danger across miles; the way plants remember their beginnings. But she is also talking about herself, her own rather stark childhood, human communication, and parenting. The metaphor never becomes heavy-handed because, as she says at the end, plants are not people. She writes frankly about the difficulties of being a female academic in a male-dominated field and made me think also about the way gender inflects the stories that get told, the narratives that scientists produce in response to data. I think this book is brave, insightful, intriguing (I learned all kinds of interesting factoids about plants) and often amusing. Would definitely recommend.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Barbara Kingsolver, THE LACUNA

I think this might be my new favorite book of 2017. Beautifully written, epic, big-hearted, wide-ranging. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or Forrest Gump, the story features an engaging, curious protagonist and spans years. It's told through journals, letters, scraps of paper, newspaper reviews, and official documents, and is assembled and framed by a woman who is nameless at the beginning ("VB") but later is revealed to be Violet Brown, who serves as the protagonist's stenographer (and friend). The protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is first shown as a young man, born in America but relocated as a teen to Mexico with his peripatetic and unstable mother; he takes a job as plaster-mixer for Diego Rivera, and befriends Rivera's wife, Frieda Khalo, and their friend Lev Trotsky; he eventually becomes a successful novelist, writing about ancient Mexico. His voice is thoughtful and often very clever and wryly amusing. I found myself scribbling smile faces in the margins.

The villain that evolves in this book is the irresponsible press, which possesses a rabid craving for gossip, sensationalism, and fear-mongering about communists in the late 1940s and '50s, and which invents outright lies about Shepherd to satisfy the public. The accusations mount against him; his trial devolves into farce. (The "noose around his neck" is some words spoken by one of the boy characters in his second book, which a book review presents as the views of Shepherd himself; this is reprinted in 61 magazines worldwide, becoming solid proof of his communist leanings.) But the furious energy for persecution of people perceived as Other made my heart ache.

Themes range widely: art, love, homosexuality, the power of the written word, war, politics, what it means to be seen and known by another person, what is missing from a story and why it's important, what it means to be betrayed, and then saved again. Kingsolver even manages a happy ending, like the ones Harrison's readers want from him. Gratitude to my friend Mame for giving me a signed copy a while back; and to my bookclub for picking it, which meant I pulled it off my "to read" shelf.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

D. Watkins, THE BEAST SIDE: LIVING AND DYING WHILE BLACK IN AMERICA

Part of a new series called "Hot Books," edited by former editor-in-chief of Salon David Talbot, this collection of essays was written by a young man, D. Watkins, who once dealt crack on the east side of Baltimore but eventually found his way to Johns Hopkins where he earned a master's in education. His essays outline the many reasons blacks in Baltimore, and other cities, are struggling to escape the cycles of drugs, poverty, poor education, and violence. The writing is raw and heartfelt; the statistics about literacy rates (e.g., only 7% of black 8th-grade boys in Baltimore read at grade level) and murders alarming; his observations shrewd; and his descriptions of his experience are variously poignant, heartrending, and infuriating. He describes people so poor they eat cereal with a fork to make sure there's enough milk for the last bite. The schools have metal bars on the windows, metal detectors, classes of up to 50 students, and subs that sit on their phone the whole time while chaos erupts around them; is it any wonder the schools are seen by some as feeders the private, for-profit prison systems? The drug-dealers work 80-90 hours a week, hustling; in fact, there's a lot of hustle going on, mostly illegal, but these people know how to work. Poverty is not the same as laziness, he insists. What's easy and hard are completely flipped around in this environment: "It's easier to get a gun than a job in east Baltimore. I went to Fat Hands's and Naked's crib with $300 and came out with a two-toned .45 ..." But he has antidotes, the first one being: "Simple communication, which I perfected at Hopkins, was the key Underneath it all,  found, the privileged whites and Asians at Hopkins were the same as the black dudes in my neighborhood. We all wanted love, success, purpose, and opportunity. ... Learning how to communicate with people so far removed from my reality made me smarter. ..."
This is a very quick but important read. I'd strongly recommend for anyone who is thinking about race, education, and public policy in America.