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

Review: She Lies in Wait, Gytha Lodge

Review: She Lies in Wait, Gytha LodgeShe Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge
Published by Random House ISBN: 1984817353
on January 8, 2019
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 368
Format: E-Book
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

On a scorching July night in 1983, a group of teenagers goes camping in the forest. Bright and brilliant, they are destined for great things, and the youngest of the group—Aurora Jackson—is delighted to be allowed to tag along. The evening starts like any other—they drink, they dance, they fight, they kiss. Some of them slip off into the woods in pairs, others are left jealous and heartbroken. But by morning, Aurora has disappeared. Her friends claim that she was safe the last time they saw her, right before she went to sleep. An exhaustive investigation is launched, but no trace of the teenager is ever found.

Thirty years later, Aurora’s body is unearthed in a hideaway that only the six friends knew about, and Jonah Sheens is put in charge of solving the long-cold case. Back in 1983, as a young cop in their small town, he had known the teenagers—including Aurora—personally, even before taking part in the search. Now he’s determined to finally get to the truth of what happened that night. Sheens’s investigation brings the members of the camping party back to the forest, where they will be confronted once again with the events that left one of them dead, and all of them profoundly changed forever.

With the caveat that I don’t read mysteries often and am not generally a fan of the genre, this book is a good representative of the genre. The hardboiled DCI has an interesting backstory, and his new recruit DC Hanson is also interesting. I thought for a bit that the book might have a Murder on the Orient Express vibe, but a) I suppose it is hard to top the master at her own game, and b) it would have felt a bit like cheating anyway. Lodge leaves the reader guessing sufficiently until the end, though the climax of the novel didn’t hit me right. I don’t like to give away mysteries, but let’s just say it is better placed in some Romantic novel Lord Byron might have cooked up than in a 21st-century mystery. Also, why is it that the villain unmasked always loses all their nuance and complexity and is just evil? Part of what makes villains interesting, at least to me, is that complexity. It’s why, for example, I think Voldemort is a sort of boring villain, whereas the Malfoys are more interesting. The other characters managed to be more complex and interesting.

I read this thinking it would be light and kind of entertaining. I am finding it hard to read during the pandemic, though that problem is easing up a bit for me as the school year ends. I never felt the urge to give up on this book, and it kept me entertained. I suppose you can’t ask for much more than that, but I don’t think I was invested enough to read the next DCI Jonah Sheens book. However, I must admit this is probably mostly me and my own reading proclivities. Mystery lovers might really enjoy it.

three-half-stars

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

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan WrightFrankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0143128795
on January 23, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 281
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he's created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by "Baghdad's new literary star" (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

I read this novel at the suggestion of some friends on Twitter. While I didn’t finish it in time for our online book discussion, I resolved to finish it before I had to return it to the library.

I found the book’s premise intriguing, and I appreciate the fact that it is one of the few books by an Iraqi author that captured the attention of Western readers—which is a shame. However, if I’m being honest, I had no trouble putting the book aside for days at a time. I wouldn’t say I wanted to stop reading it because I did want to finish it. I am also contending with being in graduate school and all the extra time that it takes to finish work for my classes. I also believe the book was engaging and well-written, but perhaps just not for me. I liked a few of the characters, especially Elishva and Hadi. In all, however, I found the book’s various threads a bit disjointed.

three-half-stars

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew Blaney

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew BlaneySay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
Narrator: Matthew Blaney
Published by Random House Audio on 2019
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.

In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past. Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

I read this book on the recommendation of an English teacher friend, Carol Jago. She is one of the most voracious and widely-read people I know, and she has never recommended a book that wasn’t brilliant. This book is no exception. If you are like me and do not know much about The Troubles, this book is a great introduction that will leave you wanting to know more. I know, for example, that I want to read Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland. If I’m being honest, even though I understand why Ireland was partitioned, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the island is still divided, and I have a feeling it won’t be for too many more years.

I first remember hearing anything about The Troubles as a child, when the Irish Republican prisoners’ hunger strike in the early 1980s was in the news. I remember being really confused by the whole thing. Further, I remember feeling horrified that it was happening. The Troubles were mostly out of the new in the U.S., however. It was easy to know nothing about what was happening in Northern Ireland. Every once in a while, a story about some action or other by the I.R.A. would show up on the news. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The High Ground” centered on the struggles of the Ansata rebels against the Rutians—it was a very thinly veiled allusion to The Troubles. The Ansata rebel leader’s name was even Kyril Finn. Finn is not only a common surname in Ireland, but it’s also potentially a reference to Fionn mac Cumhaill, a mythological figure in Ireland and the inspiration for the Fenian Brotherhood, a precursor to the I.R.A. Commander Data makes a reference to terrorism effectively achieving the reunification of Ireland in 2024. The episode aired in 1990. At that time, it seemed unlikely, but Brexit will change the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic—as Keefe wonders in his book’s conclusion, I can’t help but speculate if, after years of bloodshed, it will be the politics of Brexit that finally prompt the reunification of Ireland on the same timeline, more or less, as Star Trek predicted. The idea is so incendiary that RTÉ has never aired the episode, and it only aired on the BBC in 2007.

Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams does not come off well, and his repeated insistence that he was never in the I.R.A. strikes me as a bald-faced lie. The Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, are written in their complexity: at the same time as you know they engaged in terrorist acts, and you want to condemn them, they also come off as, well, kind of badass, and you want to admire them for that. I mean no disrespect to their victims in saying so. The descriptions of their force-feeding during their hunger strike are harrowing, and Keefe makes a fairly good case for the lifelong aftereffects seriously impacting the sisters’ health. Above all, Jean McConville emerges as a poignant victim. Whether or not she was a “tout,” as the I.R.A. claimed, she can’t have been providing much useful information, and if she was spying for the British, one can hardly blame her for trying to take care of her ten children, whose lives were irrevocably destroyed by their mother’s murder.

My husband and I listened to this on audio together. Matthew Blaney is an actor from Northern Ireland, and I have to say, it’s something else to hear this story narrated by someone who sounds like the people Keefe is writing about. I would definitely listen to Matthew Blaney read again, even if I have to put up with Steve mimicking an Irish accent into the bargain. His reading is an interpretation of the text—where he emphasizes, the listener learns to pay attention. As much as I recommend the audio, I know I missed some details (as well as the Notes), so I downloaded the book on Kindle for a re-read when I get the chance.

Definitely one of the top nonfiction books I’ve read in some time. It’s gripping, and it is told almost like a mystery novel (especially if you don’t know as much about The Troubles). The book’s final revelations will leave your head spinning.

I made a Spotify playlist about music inspired by The Troubles.

five-stars

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya KaminskyDeaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Published by Graywolf Press ISBN: 1555978312
on March 5, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 80
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

Ilya Kaminsky's astonishing parable in poems asks us, What is silence? Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—they all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language. The story follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence: a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya's girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain. At once a love story, an elegy, and an urgent plea, Ilya Kaminsky's long-awaited Deaf Republic confronts our time's vicious atrocities and our collective silence in the face of them.

Finalist for the T. S. Eliot Prize
Finalist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection

The conceit of Deaf Republic is interesting, especially given that Kaminsky is deaf. This collection is described as a commentary on our times, and it’s true we are living in an era when a lot of people don’t seem to be listening. They don’t seem to be seeing either, but that’s another issue.

Yesterday, I saw a tweet by Kaminsky that feels appropriate to share.

This tweet is in response to the rash actions of the person currently occupying the White House, which many speculate may lead to war. I suppose that remains to be seen. I admit to feeling some unease, which is a reason I picked up this book. Unfortunately, the book didn’t do much to make me feel better. The closing poem makes it clear—whether we are living through a time or war or peace, the U.S. lumbers along, blind to the damage it causes its own citizens, never mind what it does to other countries. It’s a fairly pessimistic collection, and yet, there is also the fact that the citizens of the town continued to fight, even as the soldiers began killing them. Always a dedicated few who want their freedom will risk everything to achieve it.

I appreciate what Kaminsky was doing, and the collection coheres well. The first (above) and final poems stand out for me. I am not sure how many of the individual poems stand up on their own, but I think that’s my personal response. Most of my poetry-loving friends adore this collection. Still, I admire what Kaminsky attempted and achieved, especially because the commentary about human nature is fairly spot-on.

three-half-stars

Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer

Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David TreuerThe Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 0399573194
on January 22, 2019
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
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five-stars


A sweeping history—and counter-narrative—of Native American life from the Wounded Knee massacre to the present.

Dee Brown's 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was the first truly popular book of Indian history ever published. But it promulgated the impression that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee—that not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry but Native civilization did as well.

Growing up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, training as an anthropologist, and researching Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, David Treuer uncovered a different narrative. Instead of disappearing, and despite—or perhaps because of—intense struggles to preserve their language, their culture, their very families, the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented growth and rebirth.

In The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, Treuer melds history with reportage and memoir. Beginning with the tribes' devastating loss of land and the forced assimilation of their children at government-run boarding schools, he shows how the period of greatest adversity also helped to incubate a unifying Native identity. He traces how conscription in the US military and the pull of urban life brought Indians into the mainstream and modern times, even as it steered the emerging shape of their self-rule and spawned a new generation of resistance. In addition, Treuer explores how advances in technology allowed burgeoning Indian populations across the continent to come together as never before, fostering a political force. Photographs, maps, and other visuals, from period advertisements to little-known historical photos, amplify the sense of accessing a fascinating and untold story. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is an essential, intimate history—and counter-narrative—of a resilient people in a transformative era.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is the first book I finished in 2020, and it’s a fitting start. I’m really glad I read it. Treuer’s book is based, in part, on ethnography he did in the last ten years. In addition to capturing the lives of a broad, diverse, and numerous (though not as numerous as it should be) people, he captures the stories of individuals—everyone from a cousin involved in MMA and another living off the land, collecting pinecones, leeches, and cranberry bark in addition to ricing, to Indians* at the forefront of a new movement in indigenous food and fitness. Treuer explains in his epilogue that his goal in writing this book was “to catch us not in the act of dying but, rather, in the radical act of living” (453). His call to action is for all of us to consider what kind of country we want to live in and to work in our ways to build that country.

Treuer’s writing is beautiful. I did not realize he had written fiction, as this was my first of his books, but I was not surprised to learn it after seeing his way with words in this book. Many nonfiction writers tend to dispense with pretty prose in favor of utilitarian fact-telling—the writing is a means to an end but not necessary to the journey itself—but Treuer’s writing is a meld of poetic storytelling—at times harrowing and other times funny. I appreciated his voice and thorough research.

The book is structured in seven parts:

  1. Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE-1890. If this seems like a lot of compression, remember that Treuer’s goal is to discuss the history since Wounded Knee, and this part was necessarily compressed to allow for the space to do that.
  2. Purgatory: 1891-1934. This part covers the period of the Dawes Act, Allotment, Indian boarding schools, the institution of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
  3. Fighting Life: 1914-1945. This part covers not only Indian involvement in both World Wars but also the Meriam Report that investigated the state of Indian affairs and the government’s Indian policy.
  4. Moving on Up—Termination and Relocation: 1945-1970. This part covers the migration of Indians to urban areas, where the majority of Indians live today, and the Termination Act of 1953, which “proposed to fix the Indian problem once and for all by making Indians—legally, culturally, and economically—no longer Indians at all” (250).
  5. Becoming Indian: 1970-1990. This part discusses the reclamation of indigenous culture as part of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and also the sort of pan-Indianism that resulted when people of different nations and tribes joined forces as well as the beginning of US policy that favored Indian interests.
  6. Boom City—Tribal Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century. This part covers the rise of casinos and other capitalist ventures that have enabled some nations and tribes to become successful and even wealthy.
  7. Digital Indians: 1990-2018. This part describes the efforts of modern Indians to reclaim culture (including language and foodways) and be Indian in the modern world.

One thing I appreciated as a fellow Gen-Xer was what I would describe as a uniquely Gen-X take on history, particularly on AIM. I don’t mean Treuer is cynical because he is anything but cynical, but he is honest. I think many civil rights movement leaders tend to be lionized rather than seen as flawed people who did some very good things but who also were not perfect and even did some very wrong things. It might just be me, but I feel like that is a particularly Gen-X take on civil rights movements because we were the generation after Boomers, who thought they were idealistic and would change the world—they protested the Vietnam War, they attempted to open up America’s puritanical views on sex, they fought for rights for Black people, women, and (to a much lesser extent) Indians. But the 1980s seems to have wiped out their remaining idealism. Ronald Reagan’s ideas won the day, and they voted for that country, so they must have wanted it. So when people want to accuse Gen-Xers of being cynical, remember what we saw with our older siblings and parents who were Boomers. Treuer’s view of the leaders of AIM was much more balanced. Yes, they drew attention to Indian concerns and united people from diverse Indian backgrounds toward a common goal. They also sidelined Native women and engaged in a great deal of violence. I appreciated this nuanced point of view. Part of this Gen-X so-called cynicism is actually a core of realistic optimism I feel like some Gen-Xers have (some folks might argue with me about that), and Treuer has that realistic optimism. It is possible for us all to improve our country, but it will take active participation in shaping that future, and we have to understand why we are where we are today.

*Treuer uses this term for indigenous people in the United States, and I understand it is one of many preferred terms, hence my use of it in this review.

Note: I purchased this book for research for my Social Justice course and have not been compensated by anyone for this review.

five-stars

Review: Obsure, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Read by Michael Ian Black

Obscure by Michael Ian BlackThe last episode of Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure (the premise of which is that Michael Ian Black reads Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure and comments on it as he goes) dropped a few weeks ago, but graduate school hasn’t left me with a lot of time. Now that I’m on break, both from graduate school and work, I have been able to catch up.

I will be honest. I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles a couple of years ago and found it so bleak that I wasn’t sure about listening to Michael Ian Black read Jude the Obscure. Hardy can be really bleak. In that respect, Jude the Obscure doesn’t disappoint. However, the communal experience of listening to this book and hearing Michael Ian Black’s reactions to what he was reading transcended the actual text itself and made for one of the most enjoyable “reads” of the year for me.

For those not familiar with the story, the protagonist Jude is born in obscurity to a family with a history of bad luck. He is raised by his aunt, who makes it clear he is nothing but a burden. He dreams of being a scholar one day, and he shows an aptitude for learning. However, he is living in Victorian England and finds it impossible to rise in the world. He winds up married young to a grasping, scheming woman, finds a brief period of happiness and love with his cousin Sue, and suffers devastating loss. The plot is typical Hardy. However, there is something moving and transcendent about Jude’s experience. Jude might be any of us. Jude is any one of us. Michael Ian Black’s reading brought home that point in a way I’m not sure I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read the book in this way.

One thing I loved about Michael Ian Black’s reading is that it started with curiosity, and he remained curious throughout the reading. He frequently brought on guests who might help illuminate issues raised by the book, and when he didn’t know a word or a reference, he looked it up. I felt like I went on a journey with him as a fellow reader. Michael Ian Black doesn’t position himself as an expert. He makes it clear he is reading and reacting to the text based on his own experiences and understandings, and that is probably what is best about Obscure. I found listening to the podcast by turns laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly sad, particularly towards the end as Michael Ian Black connects his reading of the book to losses of his own. His interpretation always struck me as spot-on and very honest.

The podcast is worth your time, and if you fall behind, it’s great for bingeing. I really, really hope that Michael Ian Black reads other books like this.

Edited to add: The novel underscored for me again, as if I need more evidence, that literature reflects the human condition. We can find ourselves in it if we take a look, and Michael Ian Black’s reading of this classic novel definitely allowed for that kind of reflection. My friend Robin writes so much more eloquently than I can about literature’s power to show us ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

five-stars