Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian Black

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian BlackA Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN: 1616209119
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

“Raw, intimate, and true . . . A Better Man cracked me wide open, and it’s a template for the conversation we need to be having with our boys.”Peggy Orenstein, bestselling author of Boys & Sex

A poignant look at boyhood, in the form of a heartfelt letter from comedian Michael Ian Black to his teenage son before he leaves for college, and a radical plea for rethinking masculinity and teaching young men to give and receive love.

In a world in which the word masculinity now often goes hand in hand with toxic, comedian, actor, and father Michael Ian Black offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them. Part memoir, part advice book, and written as a heartfelt letter to his college-bound son, A Better Man reveals Black’s own complicated relationship with his father, explores the damage and rising violence caused by the expectations placed on boys to “man up,” and searches for the best way to help young men be part of the solution, not the problem. “If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability,” he writes, “how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness?”

Honest, funny, and hopeful, Black skillfully navigates the complex gender issues of our time and delivers a poignant answer to an urgent question: How can we be, and raise, better men? 

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This is an important book for our current moment. I found it helpful to understand the messages men receive about how to be “correctly” masculine, and I think we can lay many of our current societal problems at the feet of these dangerous messages. Readers looking for Black’s characteristic humor will find the subtitle accurate: the book is mostly serious, and I really appreciated the vulnerability and honesty of its seriousness. The book serves as a contemplative memoir, a poignant letter of love and advice, and a meditation on our world. I walked away from it feeling that Michael Ian Black is a good husband, father, and most of all, a good man.

I recommend this book most highly to men, but I learned a great deal from it, too. Most importantly, it gave me an understanding. I don’t believe all men are alike, and I don’t believe they are all horrible, but I freely admit I was reaching a point of despair over the ability of men—White men—to recognize their privilege and work on unlearning some of the most damaging messages they have received. If I had to pick a moment when this feeling started to take shape, it was when Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed. I recognized that man. I am pretty sure I went to high school and college with a lot of guys like him. And I was pretty sure Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth. I was also pretty sure that Kavanaugh thought he was telling the truth, too. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but I think he felt entitled to do as he pleased, and I think he felt pressured to prove his masculinity through sexual conquest, and I think a lot of the boys in his friend group were doing the same things, which normalized and maybe even celebrated treating women as less than people, only useful as sexual objects. Because I remember what it was like to be a girl in the era in which Kavanaugh allegedly raped Blasey Ford. Black devotes a whole chapter to consent, and he explains the messages both girls and boys receive about consent and how they warp our ability to communicate sexual desire.

I admit things seem hopeless right now. We have a racist, misogynist person in the White House. He operates out of the most toxic and dangerous aspects of masculinity. Our civil rights champion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has completely upended our lives and taken the lives of a number most of us can’t fathom. The ending isn’t in sight. We are in the darkest part of the tunnel, or maybe the belly of the whale, and it is hard not to be resigned to despair. This book gave me a little bit of hope. It’s going to take some backbreaking work, but I’m comforted to know people like Michael Ian Black are doing their part for us.

five-stars

August Reading Update

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I haven’t had much time to blog lately, but I am finding more time to read (finally). I successfully defended my dissertation proposal in late July, and since then, I have been working on a piece of writing for my action step—I’m writing a dissertation in practice, which means I have to actually DO something and write about how it worked out. In any case, I thought I’d share a list of the books I have read since my last book review along with short reviews of each. I have been trying to read more library books and not buy a lot of books. I am lucky that my local library has Overdrive, so I can read a lot of library books using my Kindle app. It got me through this quarantine, I can tell you.

  1. Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, Ken Forkish: This is a great book about baking bread, and I learned a few things I didn’t know. I appreciate Forkish giving recipes in grams. I think it’s strange that Forkish’s recipes are almost always for 2 loaves, however. It seems like an odd choice. I also think he’s wrong about a few things (I know he’s more experienced than I am, but I haven’t found keeping instant yeast in the freezer kills it—it actually makes it last longer, in my experience). Still, I think it’s a great addition to my bread-baking library, and the one recipe I have tried so far turned out great. I initially checked this out from the library but then bought it. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★½.
  2. Notes from a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi: I listened to this on audio, and Onwuachi reads it. I thought this was an excellent memoir. Onwuachi has a really interesting story. I heard recently that he is now leaving Kith and Kin, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★★★
  3. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: This book is an excellent introduction to several key historical figures and how they represent ideas about racism or antiracism in their times: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. I learned many things from this book. If I have one quibble, it’s that Kendi cites some secondary sources, and I think going back to the primary sources whenever he can would strengthen his arguments (not that I disagree with him, just that I think people who do will find his use of secondary sources a reason to poke holes in his arguments). Owned. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  4. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid: I really enjoyed this book about old Hollywood. I know Reid was partly thinking of Elizabeth Taylor, but Evelyn Hugo seems owes a small debt to Marilyn Monroe, too. The author hints early on that there will be a twist at the end, and yep, it’s a pretty good one. I really need to thank Taylor Jenkins Reid for getting me out of my reading rut. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  5. Passable in Pink, Mike Sacks: This book is a spoof on John Hughes movies of the 1980s. You will recognize Pretty in PinkSixteen CandlesThe Breakfast Club, and maybe a few more films in the plot. The joke wears thin after a bit. I think the beginning is kind of funny, but then it starts to drag. Definitely listen to the audiobook with its great cast if you decide to read it. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  6. The Leavers, Lisa Ko: OMG, this book is still in my head. I loved this book. It’s one of the best ones I read this year. It will have you thinking deeply about how the US treats undocumented immigrants and what happens to children adopted outside of their race as well. There are so many issues to think about. Well-meaning White liberals would do well to read this book. It’s incredible. You will think about the characters for a long time. Owned. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  7. Dear Martin, Nic Stone: I think teens will really enjoy this book. It tells the story of a teenage boy who goes to prep school but has to contend with the racism of police officers. It will inevitably be compared to The Hate U Give and may be found wanting in that comparison (which probably isn’t fair), but it tells a different story and is worth a read. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆
  8. The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline: This book is set about 25-30 years in a dystopian future in which climate change has wreaked havoc on the world. People stop dreaming, and it makes them go insane and die. Somehow, they discover aboriginal people can still dream, and if their bone marrow is consumed, it can save the lives of non-Native people. The main character in this book is Métis, First Nations, and the book is set in Canada. It’s an interesting read, but I didn’t think it was as amazing as my teacher friends seemed to think. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆
  9. Heart Berries, Therese Marie Mailhot: Tommy Orange said this book was good, and parts of it are really poetic. I understand Mailhot is writing from the perspective of a person with bipolar disorder, but I had a hard time with her. She is married to the man she was dating in this memoir, and he seems like an asshole, so I guess to each her own, but he came off like a fuckboi in this book. This is a book I can appreciate on the one hand, but that I didn’t much like on the other. I can’t figure out how Roxane Gay gave this book 5 stars and only gave There There four. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  10. Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson: This a great little book about all the common kitchen implements and cooking tools we use. The fork is only one. Wilson talks about everything from plates to refrigerators. I learned a lot from this book, and the audiobook is charmingly narrated. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★★½
  11. When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, Laban Carrick Hill: This crossed my radar the other day, and I have to admit I learned from it. I felt like the author could have been more thorough in covering what happened to DJ Kool Herc later on. I know it’s a kids’ book, but leaving it out felt like a cop-out (spoiler: he had problems with drug addiction and sort of receded into the background of hip hop). Owned. Paperback. Rating: ★★★★☆
  12. Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman: I read this as part of some research I was doing. Feldman and I cited many of the same studies in our research. This is a great book, and I’d highly recommend all teachers read it. Owned. Paperback. Rating: ★★★★★
  13. The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones: I picked this up because Tommy Orange blurbed it. It is an interesting book, and I admit I’m not a huge fan of horror, but this book was pretty good, and I was able to handle the horror parts. I am still kind of wondering what happened. I have a theory, but I am not sure I’m right. Anyway, there is something under the surface about being a good steward of the land and empathy for all creatures that I’m still trying to unpack. I liked the writing, and I would read more by this author. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆

Books I re-read:

  1. Daisy Jones & the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid (I read this book twice this year!)
  2. 1919, Eve L.Ewing
  3. Counting Descent, Clint Smith (I guess I have never reviewed this, but it’s amazing)
  4. Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly
  5. There There, Tommy Orange (I also read this one twice this year, too.)

Review: Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid

Review: Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins ReidDaisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Published by Ballantine Books ISBN: 1524798649
on February 4, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six: The band's album Aurora came to define the rock 'n' roll era of the late seventies, and an entire generation of girls wanted to grow up to be Daisy. But no one knows the reason behind the group's split on the night of their final concert at Chicago Stadium on July 12, 1979 . . . until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock 'n' roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.

The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

I have been having a lot of trouble reading, and as it turns out, that’s completely normal during a global pandemic. I had started a few books, but I didn’t get too far into them (although I’m doing better with audiobooks as I find them less taxing). It finally dawned on me that the topics I was picking were too heavy and not escapist enough. What I really needed to do was immerse myself in a different world and time with something “light” (not necessarily in terms of subject matter, but definitely in terms of complexity). Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid came to my rescue.

The main reason I responded to this book is that I spent a good chunk of my high-school and college years immersed in 1960s and 1970s music—especially 1970s music. On my heavy rotation at that time were Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones (particularly Mick Taylor-era Stones, which is the BEST Stones), the Beatles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Pretenders (more 1980s, but their late 1970s-very early 1980s stuff is my favorite), the Who, Elton John, Rod Stewart (actually, just Every Picture Tells a Story), and the Allman Brothers Band. I grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac, too, because my parents were fans. When Stevie Nicks released her album Bella Donna, I remember picking up my parents’ copy and staring at the vinyl sleeve, thinking that Stevie Nicks was possibly the coolest woman I had ever seen.

Bella Donna

I thought the way she dressed was magic. Her heels were impossibly high, and everything she wore simply billowed and floated. I definitely tried to dress up like her in my room with the door closed and dance in front of the mirror. The first full album I got on vinyl was Fleetwood Mac’s album Mirage. It wasn’t the first album I bought on my own, but it was the first full album I received as a gift, and I had asked for it for Christmas. I was in fifth grade. I had no clue about all the romantic intrigue and substance abuse Fleetwood Mac (or perhaps, more particularly, Stevie Nicks) were involved in when I was that young. All I knew is I liked them, and I always have. I named my oldest daughter after their song “Sara,” though I added the “h.”

It’s clear, and Reid doesn’t deny it, that Fleetwood Mac was a major inspiration for Daisy Jones & The Six; however, the novel captures more than a veiled retelling of the story of the making of Rumours. It’s really the story of the whole Laurel Canyon sound, the Southern California music produced by the likes of the Eagles, CSN, Joni Mitchell, and so many others. I have read and watched so many rock documentaries that reading this book was almost like an Easter egg hunt: which artist’s story inspired THIS incident? A good example is Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne communicating through their performance. If you watch this version of the Fleetwood Mac song “Silver Springs,” especially if you know that Lindsey Buckingham not only contributed some great guitar parts to the song (Spotify link), a post-mortem of Stevie Nicks’s and Lindsey Buckingham’s breakup, but he also fought to have it removed from Rumours. It was released as a B-side to “Go Your Own Way,” Buckingham’s own response to their breakup. “Silver Springs” didn’t really receive its due until this recording for The Dance in 1997. You tell me Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham aren’t working through some stuff during the climax of this song:

There are moments when Reid describes Daisy and Billy’s chemistry in the same way. Don’t you wonder why Buckingham put so much work into that guitar part only to insist the song be practically buried for nearly 20 years? What about the fact that Nicks had to sing backup on “Go Your Own Way,” knowing it was about her and feeling what he claimed in the lyrics was untrue: “Packing up / Shacking up is all you want to do”? Honestly? They’re STILL feuding. Buckingham claims that Nicks had him fired from Fleetwood Mac in 2018. I personally believe that he’s one of the greatest and most underrated guitarists—no one tends to think of him when compiling their listicles. Rolling Stone ranked him 100 out of their 100 Greatest Guitarists. I have many problems with their ranking; this is only one of them.

Some of the sniping, particularly on the part of Eddie, recollects the relationships among members of the Eagles (they did call their reunion concert “Hell Freezes Over”) and, to a certain extent, Styx (if you have seen that episode of Behind the Music—wow—Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw hate each other). Even more modern groups like the Civil Wars and perhaps the Black Crowes inspired Reid. I haven’t seen Reid mention Chris and Rich Robinson in interviews, but they do remind me of Billy and Graham Dunne. Daisy Jones may owe a little bit to Janis Joplin and Bette Midler’s character in The Rose, too.

Knowing these stories was part of the fun of reading it for me, but I think folks who don’t have knowledge of the Southern California music scene in the 1970s could still enjoy this book. The book captures the scene so well that no previous knowledge is needed. I particularly enjoyed the passages describing photography for the band’s album cover and the final concert and drama in the hotel. I also think Reid’s documentary format worked well. I have heard the audiobook is great. I am looking forward to the miniseries that is set to air through Amazon’s streaming service. I have seen some reviews that didn’t like that format, and others who quibble with the notion that the band is fictional, which requires more imagination when they are discussing their music, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I liked that aspect of the book.

The publisher made a playlist on Spotify which is really good, though the last song doesn’t work for me. There is a mix of more modern music that seems to fit the mood of the book. I’m thinking about making my own playlist with strictly 1970s tunes, but here is what Random House came up with:

five-stars

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha AckmannThese Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393609308
on February 25, 2020
Genres: Poetry, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

An engaging, intimate portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most-mythologized poets, that sheds new light on her groundbreaking poetry.

On August 3, 1845, young Emily Dickinson declared, “All things are ready”—and with this resolute statement, her life as a poet began. Despite spending her days almost entirely “at home” (the occupation listed on her death certificate), Dickinson’s interior world was extraordinary. She loved passionately, was ambivalent toward publication, embraced seclusion, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.

In These Fevered Days, Martha Ackmann unravels the mysteries of Dickinson’s life through ten decisive episodes that distill her evolution as a poet. Ackmann follows Dickinson through her religious crisis while a student at Mount Holyoke, her startling decision to ask a famous editor for advice, her anguished letters to an unidentified “Master,” her exhilarating frenzy of composition, and her terror in confronting possible blindness. Together, these ten days provide new insights into Dickinson’s wildly original poetry and render a concise and vivid portrait of American literature’s most enigmatic figure.

I have been waiting to read Martha Ackmann’s biography of Emily Dickinson, These Fevered Days, for a few years. Ackmann was one of my instructors at a weeklong workshop on Emily Dickinson’s life and work sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, she read the second chapter of this book to us during one session. At that time, she was contemplating calling the book Vesuvius at Home.

The conceit of this book, that ten days changed Emily Dickinson so that she was “different, say, at ten o’clock at night from how she was at ten o’clock that morning” (xviii), is novel and works well, especially considering Dickinson’s life has been the subject of much biographical writing (in spite of her more interior existence). While Ackmann engages in a bit of speculation about what her book’s subjects were thinking or doing, it rings true, and I know for certain that Ackmann’s conjecture is based on solid research. For example, she obtained permission from the Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum to go into the attic of the Dickinson home so that she could ascertain the “certain slant of light” in the room and read Shakespeare aloud, as Dickinson did, in order to determine what that experience was like so that she could render it properly. Dickinson proclaimed that “the rafters wept” at her own reading. Ackmann has also taught a course at Mount Holyoke on Emily Dickinson for years—even bringing her students into the Dickinson home to study her work. Having been a student of Ackmann’s for only week, I’m still not afraid to say she has lived and breathed the poet’s life and work for years, and that knowledge shines forth in this book. The final chapter on Dickinson’s final day of life is rendered especially poignant. Rather than witnessing the passing of a great poet, Ackmann made me feel like I had witnessed the passing of an old and great friend.

Even if you’ve read biographies of Dickinson before, you’ll want to read this book for its intimate portrait of the moments that changed Dickinson’s life. As Ackmann acknowledges, other Dickinson scholars might choose different days, but Ackmann focuses on the following:

  1. The day Dickinson decided to write.
  2. Dickinson’s decision not to commit herself to Christ at the behest of Mary Lyon, principal of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson was attending school.
  3. Emily Dickinson’s first publication (despite popular belief, she did publish a few works anonymously in her lifetime).
  4. Dickinson’s decision to bind her poems together in fascicles and preserve them (Christanne Miller’s book Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is a wonderful resource for more on this).
  5. Dickinson’s work on F124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s advice.
  6. Dickinson’s remarkable decision to write to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was living in my home city of Worcester, MA at the time) after reading his article “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly and begin a lifelong correspondence and friendship.
  7. Dickinson’s brush with blindness.
  8. The first meeting of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  9. The publication of Dickinson’s poem F112 “Success is Counted Sweetest” in the No Name series after much cajoling by her friend Helen Hunt Jackson.
  10. The day Emily Dickinson died.

Reading this book was extra special for me because I had the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home on several occasions, and I was even permitted to take photographs. I was able to visualize the moments Ackmann describes with greater clarity—I felt like I was there, and not only because of my memories of the Dickinson homestead but also because of Ackmann’s precise description.  Check out Ackmann’s article at The Paris Review for some exquisite photos of Emily Dickinson’s dress. Even though the dress on display at the museum is a copy, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was visiting Amherst for my birthday, and we were touring the Dickinson home. Our guide led us upstairs, and the dress was there on the landing. The light streamed in through the window and illuminated it. It truly took my breath away. One might almost have thought Emily Dickinson herself was standing there. After that thought, my second thought was, “She was so tiny!”

Emily Dickinson means a lot to me. Her poetry brought me comfort after a very difficult loss. Martha Ackmann’s book is well worth your time if you’d like to indulge in a delightfully intimate portrait of the poet in some of her most momentous events.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom © Dana Huff
Emily Dickinson's Grave
Emily Dickinson’s Grave © Dana Huff

Note: Please do not reproduce these images. I am permitted to share them as long as I do not seek to profit from them, but I am not able to control what happens to them once they are stolen, and I have pursued websites with DMCA takedown notices for taking these images without permission or credit.

five-stars

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing1919 by Eve L. Ewing
Published by Haymarket Books ISBN: 1608465985
on June 4, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 76
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Poetic reflections on race, class, violence, segregation, and the hidden histories that shape our divided urban landscapes.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the most intense of the riots that comprised the “Red Summer” of violence across the nation’s cities, is an event that has shaped the last century but is widely unknown. In 1919, award-winning poet Eve L. Ewing explores the story of this event—which lasted eight days and resulted in thirty-eight deaths and almost 500 injuries—through poems recounting the stories of everyday people trying to survive and thrive in the city. Ewing uses speculative and Afrofuturist lenses to recast history, and illuminates the thin line between the past and the present.

I had been wanting to read 1919 for a while and finally picked it up at the Harvard Book Store recently when Steve and I went to Cambridge to hear Katherine Howe discuss her new book. Ewing weaves together passages from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922) with poetry inspired by the passages and photographs from the era. If you hadn’t heard about the 1919 race riot in Chicago, you are not alone. I hadn’t heard of it either, and you have to wonder how much this tragic event influenced race relations in Chicago in the decades that followed up to the present day. Did it influence redlining, for example? Redlining isn’t unique to Chicago, but it’s the city people think of when they think of redlining. What about the school system? The way in which that city can still be quite segregated, though again, it’s not alone among northern cities in that regard. The book weaves together reimagined passages from Exodus with a wide variety of poems (including haiku, haibun, two-voice poetry, and erasure poetry).

The collection includes several poems that stood out for me. “I saw Emmitt Till this week at the grocery store” imagines an Emmitt Till who survived to old age. Till would turn 78 later this month, had he lived, lest anyone think that the kind of racial violence that resulted in his murder happened a long time ago. “April 5, 1968,” an allusion to the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, includes some gorgeous language, some of which alludes to King’s speeches. “Countless Schemes” riffs on a chilling passage from The Negro in Chicago that suggests the only solution to eliminating racial strife in the country is the elimination of African Americans, either through deportation, the establishment of a segregated state, or the hope [their word] that African Americans would die out. “Jump/Rope” evokes a jump rope chant, similar to “Miss Mary Mack” in structure and recounts the death of Eugene Williams, which sparked the 1919 riots.

1919 is an excellent poetry collection. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class. It gave me the idea that my students might be able to create a poetry project based on a social justice issue they research.

I’m so glad my poetry friends clued me in on Eve Ewing. Check this book out if you are interested in poetry, race relations, and racism, society, history, Chicago, or all of the above.

five-stars

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Doubleday Nan A. Talese ISBN: 0385475713
on November 2, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 468
Format: Audio
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five-stars

From the number one New York Times best-selling author of The Handmaid's Tale

Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes listeners into the life of one of the most notorious women of the 19th century.

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

The miniseries Alias Grace is a Halfire Entertainment Production made for CBC and Netflix.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

five-stars

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: ★★★★★

Summer Reading: Greek and Roman Myth

ancient greece photo

I have been taking an online course in Greek and Roman Mythology offered by Penn State through Coursera. I have just two weeks left, and most of my reading this summer has been for this course. I have fallen a bit behind in documenting my reading as well, which is something I hope to fix. I thought, however, that I would share the texts we have read, along with my brief reviews.

First, we read Fagles’ translation of [amazon_link id=”0140268863″ target=”_blank” ]The Odyssey[/amazon_link]. As I had so recently listened to Ian McKellen read Fagles’ translation, I opted not to re-read it, and I seemed to do just fine with the coursework.

The next text was Hesiod’s [amazon_link id=”019953831X” target=”_blank” ]Theogony[/amazon_link]. I had never read the Theogony before, and I admit I found parts of it quite interesting, at least in terms of origins for some of the popular myths with which I was familiar, including the displacement of Cronus by Zeus. This particular translation renders Uranus and Gaia as Heaven and Earth, respectively, and I admit because of unfamiliarity with the myths, I had to look that up. I think I would have liked it had their names not been translated. I found it interesting to learn, through the lectures, that the translation of “Chaos,” rendered in this translation “Chasm,” is not disorder so much as a void, which seems much more in line with the concept of the Big Bang and a move increasing toward entropy rather than away from it. In all, however, Theogony reads a little more like the “begats” in the Bible, and is not nearly as interesting as the other texts we read, though I can see why we read it.

Next we read two [amazon_link id=”0872207250″ target=”_blank” ]Homeric Hymns[/amazon_link]: the Hymn to Demeter and the Hymn to Apollo. The Hymn to Demeter recounts the story of Hades and Persephone, and the Hymn to Apollo recounts both Apollo’s birth and establishment of his Oracle at Delphi. For some reason, I didn’t get the requested translation, and I think the translations I used were a bit flowery and probably not as good. I don’t remember finding them to be all that gripping. To be honest, I can’t remember what I read much at all, which is probably not a good sign.

Afterward, we moved into Greek tragedy and read Aeschylus’s [amazon_link id=”0226307905″ target=”_blank” ]Agamemnon[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0226307913″ target=”_blank” ]Eumenides[/amazon_link]. When I was in high school, I got my hands on a list—I think I found it in a book—of texts all high school students should read in order to prepare for college. I knew my high school reading was sorely lacking, partly because I had moved so much that I went to three different high schools, and partly because we just didn’t read much. I read a lot of the books you probably remember reading in high school on my own. At any rate, Agamemnon was on that list, and I tried to read it back then and gave up. Reading it now, I think I can see why. For a play in which some interesting stuff happens, we sure don’t get to see any of it. It’s mostly some back-and-forth between Clytemnestra and the Chorus. I liked Eumenides better, mainly because it was an interesting look at jurisprudence, which was also how the course’s professor approached the play in his lectures. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Orestes must avenge his father’s murder, but in so doing, he must kill his mother, invoking the wrath of the Furies.

After this point in the course, I fell behind. I was supposed to read [amazon_link id=”0226307905″ target=”_blank” ]Oedipus Rex[/amazon_link] (which I have actually already read and taught before) and [amazon_link id=”0226307913″ target=”_blank” ]The Bacchae[/amazon_link], but I haven’t finished either one yet. Reviews to come once I do. I has been a long time since I read Oedipus Rex, but I am enjoying it great deal more than I liked either of the Aeschylus plays. However, I have had to put these readings aside in order to try, as much as possible, to catch up because this week, I was supposed to have read Books 1-5 of [amazon_link id=”0679729526″ target=”_blank” ]The Aeneid[/amazon_link] translated by Robert Fitzgerald, and I have to read Book 6 for next week as well as Books 3, 12, and 13 of Ovid’s [amazon_link id=”014044789X” target=”_blank” ]Metamorphoses[/amazon_link].

I think the texts were well chosen in terms of a good introduction to Greek and Roman myth, and I have to say I have learned a great deal from the lectures. I do happen to think that the pace of the course is too fast and the demands are too high for a Coursera course. I think a lot of people take Coursera courses to dip in a learn a little bit, and honestly, this one is as demanding as a normal college course in terms of time. However, it is a great course, and no one is twisting your arm making you take the quizzes or write the essays—you only do that if you want a certificate. But you know me. I have to be Hermione Granger about it. As a result, I don’t think I’ve had a chance to really savor what I’m learning. In fact, I can’t keep up.

Photo by uzi yachin

The Trouble with Amazon Reviews

Amazon reviews can be helpful. I find them particularly valuable when I’m buying an appliance I’m not too sure about, but I admit that there are some aspects of Amazon reviews—of all types—that I find problematic. I never rely on Amazon book reviews, for instance.

In order to present my case, I selected a book I read in the last few years, Jude Morgan’s [amazon_link id=”B004P5OPAW” target=”_blank” ]Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës[/amazon_link]. You can read my review of this book here. For the record, I loved it.

Charlotte and Emily by Jude MorganForgive the apostrophe error in the title; it’s not mine. Note that the book is rated at 4.5 stars with only 12 reviews.

On Goodreads, the same book:

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan The rating is 3.76 stars with 120 reviews and 471 ratings.

To be fair, this book’s title in the UK is The Taste of Sorrow (much better title, but the publisher likely thought Americans wouldn’t get it), and Goodreads compiles reviews for both titles. Amazon does not, so I searched for that book and found only 5 more reviews (all 5-stars). Amazon UK’s site has 58 reviews for The Taste of Sorrow averaging 4 stars.

The first issue I see is that literary fiction, especially from authors who are not as well known (especially in the US), don’t receive a lot of reviews on Amazon. Compare the number of ratings for each book. The novel was rated only 12 times by Amazon reviews, but it received 471 total ratings, 120 of which also had written reviews, on Goodreads. As a result, one review, either direction, makes a big difference. With books that receive a large number of Amazon reviews, the ratings tend to even out to numbers that resemble those on Goodreads more closely, but for niche books that don’t have a wide audience, Amazon isn’t often that helpful for readers trying to decide whether or not to read a book.

Amazon requires written reviews; readers cannot simply rate a book on a star system without writing an explanation of their rating. While I find that requirement helpful, as often understanding the reason for the review helps me more than a simple star-rating, I can understand why some people might not want to bother.

On the other hand, I find Amazon reviews often focus on the packaging or some other insignificant detail of the book when what I want to know is whether it’s a good book or not. I find it maddening that so many Amazon reviewers still do not understand this concept: the review is for the product itself, not for the service, the packaging, or any other element. I don’t care if it was packaged well and arrived promptly.

One recent trend I’ve noticed on Amazon is for reviewers to write amusing, over-the-top reviews for products that it’s clear they haven’t used, but that they find funny. A case in point is the product page for Sugar Free Gummi Bears, which has pretty much devolved into TMI toilet humor. It’s so bad that the same kind of reviews are being written on the product pages for regular Gummi Bears, which, to my knowledge, do not seem to have the same purported laxative effect as the sugar-free ones. Amazon doesn’t do anything to prevent these kinds of reviews. I don’t want to be a downer, as I actually do think these kinds of reviews can be fun (maybe not the Gummi Bears in particular, but you have to admit the reviews for the Mountain’s Three Wolf Moon tee-shirt are classic). I like amusing reviews. I just want to know that people who are reviewing a product are familiar with it and not just writing reviews to be funny. There is a way to write funny reviews that are also helpful.

A final issue I have with Amazon reviews is that you can rate reviews as either helpful or not. A lot of people use this function exactly as it’s supposed to be used: to upvote reviews that are particularly helpful and downvote reviews that are not helpful. However, a significant number of Amazon users use this feature to downvote reviews with which they disagree, especially if you didn’t like a book they loved or if you loved a book they hated. Or perhaps because they’re capricious and/or ignorant. Who knows?

One of the reasons I started a book blog many years ago is that I didn’t like reviewing my books on Amazon, for all the reasons I’ve shared here. Had Goodreads existed back when I started this blog, the blog might not exist, as I still find Goodreads very helpful and probably would have decided to write books reviews there. Barnes and Noble, with its focus on books and more literary bent, is also helpful, though it suffers from the same issues with literary fiction as Amazon: Charlotte and Emily has only 7 reviews on their site.

I very rarely write Amazon reviews, but at this stage, I think I’m giving up on writing them completely. Any authors who share books with me with the hopes of seeing them reviewed on Amazon have a right to know so that they can decide whether they want to share books if they will be reviewed only on my blog, Goodreads, and Shelfari. I think Amazon’s review system is broken, and I believe sharing my reviews in these other venues is ultimately more helpful, even if fewer people will read them.

None of my concerns about Amazon reviews prevent me from purchasing products from the site, but they prevent the site from being as useful as it might be.

Book Trailer: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Via Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Like Carl, I haven’t paid much attention to book trailers. Well, to be more precise, Carl says that he “poo-poo[ed] the concept.” I didn’t poo-poo the concept, but I often forget about their existence altogether, and some of them are pretty good vehicles for generating interest in a book. Like the one above. I know after reading Carl’s glowing review of the book and viewing that trailer, I decided to read it.

Social media is great for sharing reading. I decided to read this book soon based on a blog post and YouTube video. I have my Goodreads account publish books I add to my to-read pile on my Facebook profile. My mother-in-law bought Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children after seeing my post on Facebook that I intended to read it.