Review: The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do was just released last week. Bui was born in Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War. She was only a few months old on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell. She begins her narrative with the difficult birth of her son, then flashes back to her own mother’s difficult birth of her younger brother in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Bui’s family eventually settled in California, and with beautiful artwork on every page, Bui movingly details her family’s story, starting with her parents’ childhoods contrasted with her own. Unflinchingly honest, Bui’s memoir is a must-read.

I grew up hearing what Bui calls the “oversimplification and stereotypes in American versions of the Vietnam War.” My father was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay when I was born, but he was in the Air Force, and as far as I know (and I think he’d have told me), he didn’t engage in combat. It was some time before a body of literature about this war started to published, and I think most people are guilty of listening to and perhaps even believing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story”—that incomplete story of a people based on few examples in literature.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

But at Bui says, we tend to forget—to our peril—that “[e]very casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover.” Many times in history, as we know too well, the voices of the casualties have been silenced. Their narrative has not been heard.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

And I think one big thing we forget is that the Vietnam War continued after America decided to stop fighting. America’s involvement was on the wane when my father served in 1971. America withdrew from the war in 1973, a full two years before the war ended.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

Bui is at her best in this memoir when she puzzles over contradictions and tries to make sense of her past and her family’s past, which is also how she explains why she needed to write this book.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

The Best We Could Do will surely draw comparisons to Maus and Persepolis. I also recently read Vietnamerica, and while GB Tran’s story is entirely different from Bui’s, reading both of them gave me more stories about what Vietnam and the Vietnam War were like through the eyes of a family who were just doing the best they could do. The arresting images coupled with the narrative make for a gut-wrenching read. The book is gorgeous, as well. The paper is high quality, and the dust cover is thick, heavy paper. I didn’t try to read the electronic version, but my gut tells me this book needs to be experienced in print to be enjoyed fully. A remarkable read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

My first book of 2017 was Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of his ascent of Mt. Everest in May 1996. There are several accounts of the disaster surrounding the May 10, 1996 Everest expeditions, but Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is arguably the most famous.

Krakauer climbed Everest at the behest of Outside magazine, mainly to cover the guided expeditions that were gaining popularity at that time. These expeditions were controversial because many in the climbing community felt that inexperienced and possibly unfit people were attempting the dangerous climb and putting their lives (and those of their guides and sherpas) in jeopardy. In addition, concerns had been raised about the commercialization of Everest. For instance, the mountain became littered with the debris of climbers, from discarded oxygen canisters to other belongings, and frankly, even the bodies of those who did not make it back. It’s an absolutely riveting book about the dangers of hubris in the face of what is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Krakauer describes the events leading up to a storm that approached as the expedition teams led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall summited the mountain, and before all the members of the expeditions were able to descend, they were embroiled in a dangerous blizzard and a fight for their lives.

Krakauer has been criticized for parts of his account, and he has included a postscript to address some of this criticism. I found he was remarkably fair, though I freely admit this is the only account I’ve read. The reason I think he is fair is that he admits he feels partly responsible for the deaths of two the members of his team, Adventure Consultants, which was led by Rob Hall. He is fairly open and critical of his own lapses in judgment. He might even be hard on himself, given he was suffering from the effects of the altitude and the storm. He states he wishes he had never climbed Everest, but he admits in his introduction that “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument” (xvii). He wrote the book in part to attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that resulted from his experience on the mountain. Whatever culpability he ultimately has (which is debatable), it’s clear he has examined the events from as many angles as he could, including interviewing other survivors about their memories. He has done as good a job as it is probably possible to do, given the way the altitude, which made clear thinking virtually impossible, as well as the trauma of the event. Establishing the truth was difficult.

If I had the slightest notion I ever wanted to try anything like climb Mount Everest (and I assure you I didn’t—I am nowhere near fit enough to try climbing any mountain, let alone that one), this book would have cured me of the desire. Once the mountain had been conquered in the 1950’s, perhaps it was easy to forget the dangers it still held. Over 280 people have died trying to climb the mountain. In fact, 1996 was not even the deadliest year. English Mountaineer George Mallory has famously been quoted as saying, after being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He perished in his attempt in 1924. His remains were found about three years after Jon Krakauer’s ill-fated summit of Everest.

This book has been on TBR list for a while. I actually accidentally bought two copies of it in my zeal to make sure I read it. I thought it was even better than Into the Wild, perhaps because of the personal nature of the story and very real anguish that Krakauer clearly feels. This book is personal. Krakauer is an excellent writer of narrative nonfiction.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This book is my first selection for the Backlist Reader Challenge 2017. I can’t recall how long I’ve wanted to read it, but I put it on my Goodreads to-read list on December 14; I’m pretty sure I bought both copies I own before then (I am sending one back!). I know I had plans to read it sometime last year after a conversation with a fellow teacher who had read it, but I was being lazy about adding more books to Goodreads for a while. It was originally published in 1997.

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Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula

Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

John Lewis’s graphic memoir March was released in three parts. You can read my reviews of March: Book One and March: Book Two. March: Book Three was released just last month, and it concludes Lewis’s story of participating in the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in his involvement with the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. and President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act. Woven through the story is also an account of John Lewis’s experiences on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated.

March: Book Three picks up Lewis’s story with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Lewis recounts how violence escalated as the movement drew closer to its goal of achieving voting rights for all. He tells of the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, the subject of the film Mississippi Burning. He recalls visiting Africa and meeting Malcolm X. In addition, he recounts his own beating as he crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma.

One of the things I love about this series is it preserves an important episode in American history, told through the voice of one who lived it, in an accessible and engaging way. I personally think the series is indispensable for teaching the Civil Rights Movement to teenagers. The story is interesting enough on its own, but with the hook of the visuals of Nate Powell, which has almost the same immediacy as film, the story really comes alive. Lewis is often called the Conscience of the House. Few have forgotten how he led a sit-in this past summer to attempt to convince the House to vote on gun safety legislation. I can think of few living people I admire more than John Lewis. At the age of 76, he is still actively working—peacefully—to preserve human life and dignity. He is an amazing human being, and his tireless work on behalf of others—all of his life—is just about unparalleled in public service.

The entire March series is a must-read for everyone, especially in these times when some states are engaged in voter suppression tactics. Alabama, for example, recently began enforcing a voter ID law and promptly closed DMV offices in predominantly black communities, making it difficult for African-Americans to obtain the ID’s they need to vote. It’s amazing to read this memoir and think, “these things really happened.” What’s more amazing is that they still do. Black men still have every legitimate reason to fear they will be killed when they are pulled over for minor infractions. Meanwhile, young white men can be caught in the act of rape and get away with very little in the way of repercussions.

In the spirit of John Lewis’s struggle, you owe it to your country and your community to go vote this November. There is a lot at stake in this election. Maybe your first choice of candidate didn’t make it through the primaries. Go vote anyway. Too many people died for your right to vote and to have a say in the way your country is governed, no matter what your background is.

[rating;5/5]

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Review: Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon

After Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced they were divorcing after about 30 years together, I remember reading a great deal of speculation about the subject online. How could this happen? And if Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore divorce, what does that mean for the rest of us? They were supposed to be the great success story, the one that proved a lifelong marriage was possible in rock.

A few years after the divorce, Kim Gordon published her memoir, Girl in a Band. Of course, it was dissected. She was very honest about every aspect of her life. It might be a bit less about being in Sonic Youth for 30 years than the reader might expect, but I actually found I liked that Gordon wrote a true memoir about her entire life, from childhood to the present. If I have one criticism, it’s that she does blow through the band history very fast. I felt as I was reading that perhaps she didn’t really want to write about it at all but had been told to do so by her publisher. She offers only the barest glimpse into the many albums and songs she recorded. As such, the title is a bit misleading as the focus isn’t really on what it was like to be a “girl” in band so much as about the world of music and art she inhabited and her relationships with family and friends.

Gordon is understandably not very charitable toward Thurston Moore, who, as far as I’ve read, hasn’t said anything negative in response (though I admit I didn’t dig very hard). She is equally not very magnanimous toward Courtney Love, but given the very public ways Love has displayed her crazy for everyone to see, I suppose it’s probably accurate. The one thread that runs through the entire book is how true it seems. It can’t have been easy for Gordon to write, to put herself out there in that way. She describes herself as someone who liked to fly under the radar, to keep the peace, to acquiesce. It sounds like she is working on it, from the tone of the memoir, but it struck me as fundamentally honest to share that side of herself.

One might accuse Kim Gordon of name-dropping a bit in the memoir, but the fact is that she did know all these people, and if anything, she downplays her own influence and importance to the Riot Grrl movement, fashion, and Third Wave Feminism. I can’t say I am particularly a fan of Sonic Youth. I have a couple of their songs in my iTunes library. I have always, however, thought that Kim Gordon exuded cool. She always gave off the impression that she was unapologetically being herself. Who knew that she struggled with the same insecurities and worries a lot of women do? And why shouldn’t she? Perhaps the more casual fan of the band—someone like me—might appreciate this memoir more than a super Sonic Youth fan might because they probably won’t get the book they are looking for.

One thing I found as I kept reading the book is that I liked Kim Gordon. I could see hanging out with her outside the guitar classroom, if she had gone to my high school. She seems fairly down-to-earth, no nonsense. She is a good writer, and I actually didn’t know that she had done so much writing prior to this book, either. She discusses some of the rock journalism she has done, as well as her other art, which I didn’t know anything about prior to reading this book.

Perhaps because Gordon was working through a great deal of emotional turmoil as she wrote this book, there is a great deal of distance, even though she strikes me as real and honest, between her and what she writes about in the book. She sounds almost detached. It feels like she is processing a great deal, and because she’s processing it, she is looking at it from arm’s length. It’s not a criticism because memoir is tricky. I would assume if you are writing a memoir, it has to be the memoir you really want to write in that moment. Otherwise, why bother?

Was it healthy to vent so much about Thurston Moore? Maybe, maybe not. It was her truth, though. Her anger is certainly understandable. However, if you plan to read it, you should know going in that this memoir is not so much about what it was like to be in Sonic Youth as what it was and is like to be Kim Gordon. That seems pretty fair to me.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Review: The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat is not subtitled “Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” for nothing. I had already planned to read this on the recommendation of some fellow teachers when my book club also decided to pick it up. I wasn’t quite finished with it when we had our book club meeting about it, but I finished it this afternoon.

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s varsity crew team, working class men, the “sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers” who achieved the impossible and rowed their way all the way to the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Meanwhile, in a side storyline, the Nazis see the Olympics as an opportunity to show their superiority to the world, and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl are hard at work putting Berlin’s best face forward to the world in an effort to deflect attention from the Nazis’ true plans, at least for a few more years.

I need to explain that I am not an athlete. I don’t know anything about crew, except that it’s on a boat (which I now know is called a shell), and I couldn’t have possibly been less interested in a book about crew before I picked this up. The fact that Brown was able not only to interest and educate a reader like me and make me invest in this book is a huge accomplishment. I suspect people with a passion for crew would love this book even more. The heart of this book is in the nine young men in the Husky Clipper, and especially in Joe Rantz. I connected to his background because like Joe Rantz, my grandfather came from Spokane, Washington and had a complicated and fraught childhood which in many ways resembled Rantz’s own experiences. The race scenes are riveting, and even though the outcomes are a matter of historic record, Brown still manages to write on the very edge of his seat, and the outcome seems uncertain and even bleak. Brown captures the special nature of the relationship these young men had—their sense of camaraderie, their friendship, the way they worked together as one unit. Not having been an athlete, I can only compare it to being a member of a band. Some of the moments Brown describes as everything looks certain to be lost remind me of one time in particular when we were playing at a Festival competition, and things looked like they were about to go off the rails. The music was coming unglued, and our band director turned beet red. His eyes bulged. He was sweating. He looked frantic. Then all of a sudden, the music clapped back together again, and it sounded brilliant. As a matter of fact, it sounded better as it was about to fall apart and came back together than it would have sounded if we’d kept it together the whole time. It’s a moment I have never forgotten because it involved such tight teamwork, much like the rowing descriptions in Brown’s book.

I have to admit I shed a few tears at the end of the book. All of the men who won that gold medal race have passed on. In the epilogue, Brown describes the various roles they played in World War II and their lives afterward, which included gatherings with family, culminating in rowing at least until 1986, the 50th anniversary of their stunning victory in the Olympics. Brown has a true heart for his subject, and he will persuade you to fall in love with these men, too—from scrappy coxswain Bobby Moch to coach Al Ulbrickson (a man of few works and scant praise) to George Pocock, boat-builder and crew guru. In fact, this book would make a brilliant and inspiring movie. I’m sure Hollywood is already on that. Truthfully, though, it has all the elements of fantastic drama and managed to keep me biting my nails even though I knew the outcome. The story is gripping. A fantastic read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey inspired a film starring Kirsten Dunst in the role of the queen some years ago. Essentially, Fraser’s portrayal of the queen is sympathetic. Not well educated or especially groomed for a role of greatness, Marie Antoinette found herself packed off to France at the age of fourteen to make a political marriage. It seems the French never really warmed to her, and in the end, she became a scapegoat for the entire French Revolution. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and Fraser clearly wants the reader to feel sympathy for the woman whom history misremembers as suggesting, upon hearing of the lack of bread and subsequent starvation of her people, “Let them eat cake.”

I started reading this book over a year ago—on February 8, 2015, to be exact. I have been picking away at it here and there, but I never found it so engaging that I couldn’t put it down until the Revolution started and Marie Antoinette’s tribulations truly began. I think, and I’m probably not alone in this, that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette is her death. It sounds terribly cold and callous to put it that baldly, but as a queen she was fairly similar to most aristocrats. A little vain, a bit frivolous, and not terribly smart. She seems to have been devoted to her children. She also seems to have had genuine great affection for Louis XVI. Antonia Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, they were great friends, but Fraser really seems to want this affair to have happened, and I think her treatment of that particular aspect of the biography suffers as a result—too much conjecture, and not enough real evidence, especially given how carefully Fraser describes the queen’s utter lack of privacy from the moment she entered France. The whole story just doesn’t hang together well.

On the other hand, the portrait Fraser paints of the imprisoned Marie Antoinette as pious, stoic, and forgiving is admirable and seems to square well with other historical evidence I’ve read. In her last days, her treatment was much harsher than her husband received prior to his own execution. She was separated utterly from every aspect of her former station in life, from her children and other family to her comforts and even occupations. In the end, she emerges as an admirable figure through the fortitude she displayed as she faced death. There is a horrible sentiment expressed by the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after he shoots and kills the Grandmother: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a horrible thing to say, I suppose, but Marie Antoinette was undeniably a brave woman at the end of her life. Whatever she may have been in life, she didn’t deserve for her life to end the way it did.

Fraser’s biography is, in the end, not without its faults, but it is certainly thorough and the reader senses the affection the author feels for her subject. Perhaps because this book is Marie Antoinette’s story, and not a story, necessarily, of the Revolution that killed her, one will not learn a great deal about many of the other movers and shakers in the events of the time, though Fraser did clear up a few issues I had difficulty understanding—why Marie Antoinette was so reviled, for one thing, and on a more minor point, the difference between the Girondins and Jacobins (I was quite fuzzy on that point, thought I admit I haven’t read widely on the Revolution, and that confusion may easily have been cleared up elsewhere as well). Robespierre, for example, is mentioned only a handful of times. While he never seems sympathetic in anything I’ve read about him, I can’t deny he’s a great deal more interesting to me than Marie Antoinette.

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’ve been quite fair to Marie Antoinette in this book review, but the truth is that I didn’t quite find her fascinating enough to merit the comprehensiveness of this biography, however fascinating her death might have ultimately been. In a way, I sort of felt like one of those gawkers passing an accident on the side of the road. Still, I can’t deny that Fraser does her best, and Marie Antoinette comes to life and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic person in the pages of this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am going to count this for the Mount TBR Challenge because I’ve been meaning to finish it for a long time, but I’m not sure about counting it for the Shelf Love Challenge because it hasn’t really been neglected on my shelf if I’ve been picking away at it for a year.

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Review: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

I can’t believe it took me this long to finally pick up Between the World and Me. I’ve wanted to read it for months. I finally purchased it for my Kindle back in November, and it sat there on my Kindle for two months before I finally read it today.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t explain what this book is about because I feel like the last person to have read it, but in the event I’m not, and in the event you haven’t bumped into this book yet, Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his teenage son, but beyond that, it is a meditation on the history of race relations in America, a stark condemnation of the American Dream, and a powerful narrative of the current (and historical) climate of police brutality. In the Goodreads description:

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I don’t often say this about a book because I think reading is often intensely personal, and what we like and don’t like doesn’t always translate to others, but I think everyone should read this book. They probably won’t. In fact, the people who most need to read this book probably won’t read it. I’m intensely glad that I did. I learned a lot, and this book has made me think more than most of the books I’ve read. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been waking up to some hard truths about the world and specifically about America, and as a teacher, I feel responsible for my role in helping students make sense of the world around them. One feeling I had as I finished this book is a sense of failure. I know, especially early in my career, that I was not a good teacher (because I was green, mainly), but more specifically, I was a terrible teacher for the young black students in my classes because I didn’t know and didn’t understand so much.

Of this book, Toni Morrison, a writer I respect a great deal, says:

I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.

I can’t make a stronger point than Toni Morrison. If you haven’t read this book, you should, but be prepared to have your world shaken. It is one of those books that might make you measure your life in terms of before you read it and after you read it. It is beautifully written essential reading.

Rating: ★★★★★

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m chipping away at both of these challenges at a clip. I may need to up my participation level. It’s been good motivation to clear out some items on my TBR list and my shelves.
 

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Review: Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel

The day before yesterday, I posted my review of Alison Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home. That memoir focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father. Are You My Mother?, naturally, focuses on her relationship with her mother. I picked it up as soon as I finished Fun Home. Bechdel’s relationship with both parents is complicated. Bechdel’s mother in particular is a complicated individual. She’s talented and beautiful, but she lives in an age when it’s difficult for a woman to pursue much beyond being a wife and a mother, and it’s not clear that Bechdel’s mother wanted to be either a wife or a mother very much. Frequent allusions to the works of Virginia Woolf, in particular, A Room of One’s Own, underscore the ways in which Bechdel’s mother was held back by her times. Bechdel also weaves in her readings of the work of psychologist Donald Winnicott, and the memoir that emerges is part self-psychoanalysis. Bechdel frequently describes and interprets her dreams and weaves in memories of her therapy sessions.

Perhaps every woman’s relationship with her mother is somewhat fraught. I was particularly touched by a question Bechdel asks her mother near the end of the memoir: “What’s the main thing you learned from your mother?” I won’t give away her mother’s answer here, but it struck me that in some significant ways, women repeat the experiences they have had with their own mothers. We establish cycles. Our mothers socialize us to be women, and their ideas of what is acceptable for women are passed on to us. It took me a long time to grapple with some of these ideas. In some ways, it might be a kind of conditioning that we undergo. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it. I’m not sure if men experience the same things with their fathers or not.

I am definitely a fan of Bechdel’s work. I’ll read any future books she writes for sure. She’s a smart writer, and the way she connects ideas is fascinating. I envy her mind quite a lot. As an English teacher, I especially appreciate the way she looks for connections in literature. She strikes me as a person who truly sees literature as a way for us to understand ourselves. Reading her makes me want to ask her for a recommended reading list so I can immediately go out and read everything on it.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Year of Lear, James Shapiro

James Shapiro’s new book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 explores the period in which William Shakespeare wrote three of his greatest and most well-known plays: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Beginning with the Gunpowder Plot’s discovery on November 5, 1605, Shapiro explores the ways in which the political events of 1606 shaped the plays that Shakespeare wrote. Shapiro has turned the microscope on a year in the life of Shakespeare in the past. His book A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 explores the year in which Shakespeare finished Henry V, and wrote Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It. The Essex Rebellion and aging Queen Elizabeth figure large in that previous book as King James, the Gunpowder Plot, recusant Catholics, and the quest to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland figure in this new book.

As I am currently finishing up a unit on King Lear, I was most fascinated by the connections Shapiro made between the intrigues of 1606 and that particular play, but I also gained a great deal of insight into Macbeth, a play I have taught more times than any other save perhaps Romeo and Juliet. Shapiro’s research is meticulous. When he doesn’t know or where the records are patchy, he speculates, but his educated guesses make a lot of sense in the context of the times and the plays. I haven’t actually read Antony and Cleopatra in many years, and if this book has a weakness, it is perhaps that it doesn’t explore that play in the same detail as it does the other two; however, this book is not meant to be literary criticism as much as an exploration of history’s influence on literature.

James inherited both the kingdoms of England and Scotland. Having been king of Scotland since infancy, he was eager to see his two kingdoms united and spent much of the year attempting to convince Parliament to approve the union. The division between Protestants and Catholics was at a peak, as Catholics were urged to take the Oath of Allegiance and to take communion at church. Shakespeare’s own home in Warwickshire was a hotbed of conspiracy and recusancy, and his own family was not immune. Shakespeare seemed to be at the heart of all the most important political events of the year—even a fresh outbreak of the plague touched him and influenced his plays in ways that modern audiences have difficulty appreciating.

I will read anything Shapiro writes about Shakespeare. He’s one of the most interesting Shakespearean scholars writing today. He manages to stimulate and challenge even those who think they know Shakespeare and have a thorough understanding of a given play, but he also manages to write accessibly and engagingly enough for the lay reader.

Rating: ★★★★★

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