TLC Book Tour: Strange Contagion, Lee Daniel Kravetz

Strange Contagion coverLee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves was born out of tragedy. A series of teen suicides among students and alumni of Palo Alto’s Gunn High School suggested an epidemic was underway. Kravetz, a new father and resident of Palo Alto, was concerned about his community. What was causing these students to commit suicide? Could the epidemic be stopped? How? These questions prompted Kravetz to explore the way emotions and behaviors are communicated in a society.

Kravetz learns that emotions are not terribly different from communicable diseases. We are highly suggestible creatures, and the emotions of others are easily transmitted. We catch everything from the goals of others around us to courage or bravery or fear to the host of feelings, positive or negative, that others around us bring into the room.

In fact, we are so susceptible to the spread of viral emotions that we don’t really even need to come in contact with individuals to be influence by them. Their emotions can be communicated through others who bring them to us or even through social media. As Kravetz says, “role models are so influential that oftentimes we don’t even know whom we’re modeling—or that we’re modeling them at all. And that at once enthralls and frightens me” (118).

Given our current social and political climate, the concepts that Kravetz discusses are frightening, but they also explain a great deal about the collective mood on both sides of the political spectrum. Kravetz doesn’t have solutions because the problem is too complex. Navigating viral emotions means we need to be aware of our own feelings and what is causing them, and we also need to be aware of our susceptibility to the emotions of others. We also need to accept that others influence us. Kravetz concludes, “Beneath the surface, we are all connected” (220). This idea might not be new. After all, Emerson explored in his writing about the concept of the oversoul. But Kravetz’s psychological and sociological exploration of the way we are connected offers more explanation of how we are all connected. If social contagion is a part of the human experience, we need to learn how to live with it and fight it (when it’s negative) in the best way we can, just as we have done with communicable diseases.

This book gave me a lot to think about, especially as I teach high school students like those who go to Gunn High School. Though we do need to be on guard for negative social contagion, such as the suicides that prompted Kravetz to explore the topics in this book, we can also channel social contagion positively to spread love and care for each other. In a discussion of the communicability of bravery and courage, Kravetz writes that “the trick to passing along lasting courage is one of overwhelming the system with examples of it, flooding the environment with models of generosity, authority, demonstrations of personal responsibility, and examples of calm in the heat of battle” (114). In the end, perhaps the best way to combat negative social contagions is to be what Kravetz calls the interrupter. We can do what we can to be the model of courage, bravery, kindness, compassion, and happiness. As Stephen King says, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.”

Rating: ★★★★★

From the Publisher

About Strange Contagion

• Hardcover: 288 pages
• Publisher: Harper Wave (June 27, 2017)

Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.

In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.

A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?

The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicable—from mirroring someone’s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a “strange contagion”: a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.

Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one community’s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Lee Daniel Kravetz AP Photo by Ian TuttleAbout Lee Daniel Kravetz

Lee Daniel Kravetz has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a graduate of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and children.

Find out more about Lee at his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Harper Collins provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can catch the reviews of other readers on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, June 27th: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, June 28th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, June 29th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Friday, June 30th: Books & Tea
Tuesday, July 4th: Wining Wife
Tuesday, July 4th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, July 5th: Based on a True Story
Thursday, July 6th: Readaholic Zone
Thursday, July 6th: she treads softly
Friday, July 7th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Monday, July 10th: StephTheBookworm
Tuesday, July 11th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, July 12th: Books on the Table
Thursday, July 13th: Library of Clean Reads
TBD: Sapphire Ng

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Review: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge

John T. Edge’s book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South explores a culinary history of Southern food from the Civil Rights era to the present day. What is potlikker? According to Edge,

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. (6)

What Edge sets out to do in this book is explain how the cuisine we think of as Southern food emerged from black cooks. Edge also explains the ways in which Southern cuisine has changed over the years and discusses some of the major movers and shakers in the world of Southern cooking. In addition, he discusses issues related to access to food and poverty as well as movements in fast food and farm-to-table cooking and the gentrification of Southern food (and restaurants), ending with discussion of the influence of immigrants to the South on Southern cooking.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South” (read more here). He was recently featured, as was Michael Twitty, whose book The Cooking Gene comes out later this year, on the Gastropod podcast.

I found this book fascinating from start to finish, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I gained a lot of insight into Southern food, and I also learned quite a lot of history that I didn’t know. One really interesting story that Edge shares early in the book concerns President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. I had always assumed that he really had to be prodded quite a lot to sign the Civil Rights Act, and probably to an extent, he did, but he as he tried to garner support for civil rights, he often told the story of his cook, Zephyr Wright, being unable to use the restroom during a stop on a cross-country trip. He varied the story to suit his audience, but like many of the people who heard the story directly from Johnson’s lips, I found it to be quite moving. As Edge explains, “The Zephyr Wright story reduced a national issue to a personal one. It moved the argument from the senate chamber to the cloakroom and then to the kitchen” (27).When Johnson signed the Act, Zephyr Wright was there, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. He handed her one of the pens he used, saying “You deserve this more than anybody else” (28).

I think it’s hard not to see things differently when you hear someone’s personal story. It’s one of the reasons politicians bring up everyday Americans during conventions or on the floor of Congress. We are moved by stories. To a certain extent, this book stitches together the stories of Southern cooks from Georgia Gilmore, who fed Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in her home/restaurant to Michael Twitty, who recently attempted to engage Paula Deen in conversation after her infamous declaration that she had used the n-word. Twitty invited Deen to learn “why so many people were so upset by her comments” (278). He wanted her to know that “the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform, is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy” (279). As far as I understand, Twitty never received a reply from Deen. It’s a shame because it might have gone a long way to repairing the damage she caused.

Edge’s main point, I think, is captured when he says “The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South. Those limited categories failed the people of the region. The South was never monochromatic” (2). As Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, says “Who can lay claim to the South?… I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too” (309). That South included black barbecue pit masters and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Stephen Gaskin’s commune the Farm and chefs Paul Prudhomme and Nathalie Dupree. It included grits, boiled peanuts, fried chicken, okra, hoppin’ john, biscuits, cornbread, and yes, pot likker. I think anyone interested in food history would enjoy this book, but I think it will speak especially to anyone who has called the South, with all its messy contradictions, home. As Edge says, “In this modern South, the likkers at the bottoms of those vessels sustain many peoples. And they remind Americans of the vitality that drives regional foodways” (308).

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

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Review: Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice, Alexandra Stafford with Lisa Lowery

Bread Toast Crumbs
Image via Alexandra Cooks blog

I have not reviewed cookbooks on this blog before, though I have been collecting cookbooks for a few years, and I have some really good ones that I should share with you all.

Cooking is not really something I have a ton of time to do, but I actually do like cooking. I am a very slow cook, and I make a great big mess when I cook, but I enjoy the process.

Bread, however, is something I have always shied away from, especially after some failed attempts. I tried to make a pie crust for my pumpkin pie and failed. I made a white bread recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, and it was okay, but certainly nothing to write home about. The only bread successes (discounting breads like zucchini bread and pumpkin bread, which didn’t use yeast and did not need to be kneaded) were my Thanksgiving dinner rolls. I credit the really excellent instructions for that success.

Everyone knows bread is picky. You have to knead it just right or else it will not turn out well. You have to have to fuss with the yeast, and everyone knows how finicky yeast is about how it’s handled. So, like many people, I was always a bit afraid to experiment with bread. A few weeks ago, that changed when I found Alexandra Stafford’s mother’s famous peasant bread recipe at her blog Alexandra Cooks. I read over the recipe. I watched one of the videos. It didn’t look hard. So I tried it with all wheat flour, not knowing (because I am not a bread baker) that I was going to get a denser loaf of bread. But you know what? It was still amazing. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I hit on Alexandra’s advice to keep the flour weight at 512 grams, and the next time I made bread, I used about two cups of wheat flour and made the rest of the weight up with unbleached white flour. It was perfect. Measuring by weight was the trick. The consistency was just like Alexandra’s pictures, and the bread was not too dense. That’s how easy the recipe is. No kneading. The time you spend actually fussing with the bread is maybe five minutes. The rest of the time is just letting it rise. It’s a very forgiving recipe in that even if you mess up on a step, it still seems to turn out just fine.

My family loved the bread, too. The recipe makes two loaves, and twice, I’ve come into the kitchen to find my son has taken half a loaf before I could even cut it. I knew I wanted to try the variations on the recipe in Alexandra’s book Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice. I have read through the book, though I haven’t made many of the recipes yet. The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. Alexandra offers some tricks and advice for those of us who don’t often bake (for example, toast nuts before using them in breads—this is a trick I had picked up from a friend of mine at work, but it was nice to see it validated in the book). The book has many variations on the peasant bread recipe in the Bread section. In the Toast section, Alexandra shares recipes for spreads, jams, soups, sandwiches, entrées, and desserts that use the various bread recipes. In the Crumbs section, she shares salads, soups, side dishes, pasta, entrées, and desserts that use crumbs made from the various breads. Each section has its own introduction with more tips.

The photography in the book (like most cookbooks) is beautiful and serves as a nice guideline for bakers. I can’t wait to try more of the recipes. I’m especially eyeing the Roasted Garlic Bread. Today, I tried out the Oatmeal-Maple bread on p. 41. Here are some pictures of one of the loaves I made today. It’s already been eaten, by the way.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple

Emily Dickinson declared, “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.” Brenda Wineapple not only takes on the monumental task in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson of writing a biography of the enigmatic Belle of Amherst, but also of her friend, now (unfortunately) mostly unknown except for his connection to Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Dickinson sent her poetry to Higginson along with her query:

Mr. Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

So began a friendship and correspondence that would last until Emily Dickinson’s death, after which, Higginson, along with the mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin, Mabel Loomis Todd, would edit and assist in the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death. Dickinson personally sent Higginson over 100 of her nearly 1800 poems.

After the introduction describing Emily Dickinson’s first letter, Wineapple’s biography is divided into three major parts, titled “Before,” “During,” and “After,” which describe the lives of Dickinson and Higginson in alternating chapters before they began their correspondence, during their correspondence and friendship, and after Emily Dickinson’s death, respectively.

Emily Dickinson first wrote to Higginson while he was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is my home. I had to look him up on the 1860 US Census, and I was not disappointed.

1860 Census

Take a look at his occupation: “Literary Man.”

Emily Dickinson Letter
Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson via Wikipedia

What Wineapple so expertly brings to light in this extraordinary biography is just how important Higginson’s contribution not only to preserving for posterity the poetry of one of the greatest American poets but also to history. Over time, he’s been accused of heavy-handed editing and of not understanding Dickinson’s genius. Both accusations may be true. One can hardly blame him for not understanding her. She was unlike any poet he had read before. Higginson himself claimed that “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy” in an essay he wrote about Dickinson for The Atlantic, a magazine to which he was a frequent contributor. As to whether he was too heavy-handed an editor, Wineapple claims that it’s almost impossible to tell today whether it was Higginson or Mabel Loomis Todd who is more responsible for the edits. Thankfully, after the scholarship of Thomas H. Johnson and Ralph W. Franklin, we have editions of her poetry that more likely capture Emily Dickinson’s intentions. However, Wineapple does note that Higginson implored Todd on several occasions to “alter as little as possible, now that the public’s ear is opened.” Wineapple claims Todd “did not listen” (292).

In any case, Higginson’s reputation foundered with the advent of Modernism in the twentieth century, and while appreciation for Dickinson soared, Higginson was nearly forgotten. It’s a shame, too, because he was an admirable man. He was an abolitionist whose house was always on the Underground Railroad. He was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. It was he, not Robert Gould Shaw (now memorialized in the movie Glory) who led the first black regiment in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. He suffered an injury that would leave a scar he carried all his life in an attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns and prevent his return to the South.

Wineapple’s triumph in this biography is not only that she is able in some way to offer a peek into the lives of the Dickinson family, but also that she resurrected Higginson from “the dustbin of literary history” (12). As she explains in her introduction,

Sometimes we see better through a single window after all: this book is not a biography of Emily Dickinson, of whom biography gets us nowhere, even though her poems seem to cry out for one. Nor is it a biography of Colonel Higginson. It is not conventional literary criticism. Rather, here Dickinson’s poetry speaks largely for itself, as it did to Higginson. And by providing a context for particular poems, this book attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incomparable friends. It also suggests, however lightly, how this recluse and this activist bear a fraught, collaborative, unbalanced, and impossible relation to each other, a relation as symbolic and real in our culture as it was special to them. (13)

Wineapple’s book is not only one of the most interesting books about Dickinson to be found, but it is also one of the most well-written. I have rarely read a biography that swept me up in quite the same way this one did. I found myself both eager to pick it up to read, and reluctant to read too fast so that I could savor it and stretch out my experience of reading it. I came away with renewed appreciation for Dickinson and a newly acquired appreciation for Higginson. It’s definitely worth the read for anyone curious about Emily Dickinson, but I imagine even those who aren’t sure about Dickinson would enjoy this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I bought this book in September 2015, I think right after I visited the Emily Dickinson Homestead the first time. I just now finally picked it up. It was published in 2008. I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

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Review: Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, Chrissie Hynde

Before I discuss the contents of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, I need to get two things out of the way: 1) I am kind of a sucker for rock memoirs, which is something that started in my teens when I checked several books on the subject out of the library, and 2) I really like the Pretenders. I started really listening to them in college. I especially liked earlier records—their first two eponymously titled albums and Learning to Crawl. I once got a haircut I really hated, but then someone told it made me look like Chrissie Hynde, and I didn’t hate it anymore. Enjoying Chrissie Hynde’s music, however, didn’t mean I thought she walked on water. Quite the contrary. Before I picked up this book, I had certainly read enough about her and read enough of her interviews to know she isn’t someone I’d necessarily like very much. I don’t need to like someone’s personality to enjoy their art. I read an interview with Martin Freeman, for example, that left me scratching my head and wondering if he is truly a jerk or was just in bad mood. But I love him on film.

Hynde quite literally begins her memoir at the beginning, with her early years living in Akron. She loved listening to music, and living near Cleveland, which has always been a big rock and roll city, gave her easy access to the music she loved. She describes her misadventures attempting to please her parents and matriculate at Kent State—she knew one of the young men who was killed in 1970. She left Ohio for London just as the punk scene was starting and knew many of the major players, including Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (she worked in their shop), the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned, among others. She seems to have spent most of her twenties focused on getting into a band and taking drugs. She does mention that the memoir would focus on her drug abuse, and it does. Caveat emptor for those looking to learn more about the Pretenders. Aside from the first two albums and the early years of the band, she does not tell that story in these pages. One wonders if something of her passion for the band and its music died with James Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders’ first guitarist, in 1982. Neither of her spouses even gets a mention, and her relationship with Ray Davies rates only a few pages. Hynde waxes most lyrical at the end, when she discusses how “Jimmy’s” death affected her.

I can’t say I really disliked this book, but I didn’t like it, really, either. Hynde’s cast of characters was hard for me to keep straight, and I could have used a glossary of names or something. Hynde has certainly had some interesting experiences, and she is unflinching in her description, even if her story puts her in a bad light. She has said a couple of controversial things about possible rape (and certainly some kind of sexual assault) she experienced, namely, that she blames herself for getting into the situations in which she has been abused.

Now, let me assure you that, technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t fuck around with people, especially people who wear “I Heart Rape” and “On Your Knees” badges. (119)

Hynde may indeed have been under the influence of drugs, and she may have made some poor decisions, but it makes me sad that she comes across as feeling like she somehow deserved to be assaulted because of these decisions. She was raised in an era when women were often blamed for their own rapes (Just how short was your skirt?), but she would, one hopes, be more enlightened now. Or maybe not. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which instead of minding ourselves and doing what we can to avoid being raped, men just didn’t, you know, rape people. Victim-blaming seems to be worst when it comes to these kinds of cases, though, and sometimes even the victims blame themselves. I have ready Hynde’s interviews on this topic, and she is quite heated, even insisting people don’t buy her book if they don’t want to read her story as she wants to tell it.

I can’t really figure her out. She comes off in interviews as brittle, and her frequent digs at people who choose not to be vegetarians are also off-putting. But I can’t deny she has swagger, and she did create some good music. I am glad she was able to stop taking drugs. I’m sad it took the deaths of two bandmates to determine she needed to get clean. I wish she had talked more about her experiences after 1982 as well. I also wish she didn’t feel the need to insult teachers every time it’s necessary to her memoir to mention teachers or education. I have read reviews calling this memoir “well-written.” I wouldn’t go that far. It’s not badly written. The prose is passable, with the exception of Hynde’s fondness for exclamation points. It’s also really not well organized. She flits around in time in a way that’s not easy to follow, and individual chapters can be anything from focused on a single event to wildly chaotic romps through years of time. If only she had paid a bit more attention to those teachers she finds it necessary to denigrate. Ah well. She didn’t need to, in the end, because she had a brilliant career in rock. I just wish I’d been able to read more about it. Unless you’re a big fan, I’d recommend skipping this book and listening to the Pretenders’ music instead. Even if you are a big fan, it’s still not too bad of an idea to skip this one in favor of of the music.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Beat the BacklistI no longer remember how long this book’s been on my backlist, but it’s been a while. Maybe even when it first came out. I decided to count to for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

I am also counting this one toward the Wild Goose Chase Challenge for the category of a book with a word or phrase relating to “wildness” in the title. You can’t pass up pairing “wild” with “reckless,” and one thing I can say for sure: Chrissie Hynde is wild.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017

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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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