Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill BrysonA Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Published by Broadway Books ISBN: 0767902521
on May 4, 1999
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 9 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

Back in America after twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes—and to a writer with the comic genius of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings. For a start, there's the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the walk. Despite Katz's overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants, he and Bryson eventually settle into their stride, and while on the trail they meet a bizarre assortment of hilarious characters. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud hike. Bryson's acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America's last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration, A Walk in the Woods has become a modern classic of travel literature.

After finishing and enjoying Bill Bryson’s book about traveling Australia, In a Sunburned Country, I wanted to read A Walk in the Woods. I have taken up walking myself, and while I harbor no desire to walk the Appalachian Trail, I understand the joy a good walk can bring. This book really brings together a few different elements. On one level, it’s the history and ecology of the AT. It’s also a travelogue, which I expected after reading In a Sunburned Country. However, what I didn’t expect (not having read reviews) was that this would be a buddy story. Bryson is accompanied on his journey—his old friend Stephen Katz joins Bryson’s hike and threatens to walk away with the whole narrative. I’d love to know Katz’s reasons for wanting to walk the AT with Bill Bryson, but I’m glad he went.

My largest problem with the book was the narrator wasn’t Bryson. He also mispronounced a few proper nouns, which always bothers me. There are more than a few Deliverance references meant to be jokes, as well. That old stereotype wears very thin after a while, but I felt Bryson was attempting to rationalize some of his anxiety; I’m not sure to what extent he really believes those stereotypes.

This book was particularly fun to listen to as I walked, and I especially enjoyed hearing about some of the places I was more familiar with—the segment on Mount Greylock was interesting to me, as I have visited it and remember seeing everything he described. I imagine it would be fun to read this book while hiking the AT. I learned a great deal about the AT, and I also learned more about ecological concerns facing conservationists today.

five-stars

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill BrysonIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by Random House ISBN: 1415920737
on January 4, 2000
Genres: Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 11 hours 54 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars

Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiosity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

After an aborted attempt at reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North* by Richard Flanagan for the Book Voyage Challenge (a book set in Australia or New Zealand), I decided to check this title out from the library. I had previously read Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue with mixed results, but I had heard this book was pretty good, and it was. I learned a lot about Australian history and natural science, none of which I knew. Bryson makes the point that we forget about Australia, and I think it’s a valid point.

I found his chapters on the indigenous population to be most interesting. Is there a place in the world where an indigenous population has been treated with a modicum of respect? I’m sincerely asking. What happened to Australia’s Aboriginal population is very similar to what happened to the indigenous population in the United States.

I was also fascinated by Bryson’s description of Australia’s natural features and wildlife. I’m not sure if he has convinced me to visit Australia or steer clear! Of course, Bryson’s characteristic wit makes for a fun read. It made me want to read more of his books, especially those that deal a bit with travel (I checked A Walk in the Woods out from my library). Bryson makes an effort to see as much of Australia as he can—even places that it sounds like many Australians don’t necessarily see. He has a deep curiosity and a wonderful way of drawing the reader into that curiosity.

Bryson narrates this audiobook, and he is a good narrator—many writers are not necessarily good at reading their work. If you do read it, I recommend the audiobook with the caveat that you might find you want to look up some of the text. It was a much more enjoyable read than I was expecting. My only concern is that at times, Bryson seems a bit glib. It was hard to read his concern for the Aboriginal population summed up like this:

If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues, all I could write would be “Do more. Try harder. Start now.”

So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.

No one is asking Bryson to solve a problem that is centuries in the making. Obviously, no one person can resolve systemic racism alone, especially as a visitor to another country, but deciding not to see it is remaining complicit. This book is now about 20 years old, and I wonder if Bryson would write that last sentence again if he wrote this book now (not that we can excuse him for writing it then). I am glad he spent some pages discussing Aboriginal issues and history, but this book is not the book to really learn about Australia’s indigenous population. Bryson’s curiosity only went so far.

Where he shines is in his self-deprecating description of his traveling fiascos (not being able to find a room, staying in bad hotels, getting an egregious sunburn, freaking out over the local fauna). As long as he keeps it light, this is a fun read. Bryson’s gift is making the reader feel like they’re traveling right along with him, and this was a pretty good trip.

*I was really hating this book. I disliked every single character, and the story was not grabbing me. I feel a little bad since the author was basing it on his father’s experiences in World War II, but there it is.

four-half-stars

Canning and Preserving Books

I have been wanting to try canning and preserving for a long time, but I was intimidated and also didn’t have enough time to devote to learning a new thing. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might remember that I have made soap pretty often in the past and also taught myself how to make bread. I learned both of these home crafts, for lack of a better term, through reading books (my preferred medium for learning). One of my students told me that’s really weird because she, like many other people her age, prefers to learn by watching YouTube videos.

Shrug Gif

I bought myself two canning and preserving books. I figured I’d have time to read them and try out some recipes now that it’s summer (a perfect time to learn to preserve) and I’m all done with grad school. I did a bit of research to find out which books most people were recommending on blogs, and I wound up buying two.

Canning and Preserving BooksFoolproof Preserving: A Guide to Small Batch Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Condiments, and More by America's Test Kitchen
Published by America's Test Kitchen ISBN: 1940352517
on April 5, 2016
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Canning perfected the America’s Test Kitchen way. The art of preserving produce by canning and preserving has come full circle from grandmother's kitchen to a whole new generation now eager to learn it. This detailed guide to home preserving is perfect for novice canners and experts alike and offers more than 100 foolproof recipes across a wide range of categories, from sweet jams and jellies to savory jams, vegetables, condiments, pickles, whole fruits, and more. Let the experts at America's Test Kitchen show you how to do it right with detailed tutorials, troubleshooting tips, equipment information, and insight into the science behind canning.

What I loved most about this book is that all the recipes are small-batch, and the book is geared toward novices. One reviewer on Goodreads criticized this book for having a lot of recipes that cannot be processed for long-term storage. That’s a fair critique. One example I noted was their recipe for onion jam; however, the Ball book below has a similar onion jam recipe that can be processed. I thought their instructions were very clear. I have learned to trust America’s Test Kitchen books and recipes online/in magazines after trying so many. They all just work because, well, ATK tests everything (hence, their name). It’s nice to know what pitfalls to avoid. Their ingredient and equipment reviews were really helpful. On their advice, I bought the canning pot, jar lifter, and pectin they recommended.

Canning and Preserving BooksThe All New Ball Book Of Canning And Preserving: Over 350 of the Best Canned, Jammed, Pickled, and Preserved Recipes by BALL
Published by Oxmoor House ISBN: 0848746783
on May 31, 2016
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 368
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

From the experts at Jarden Home Brands, makers of Ball canning products, comes the first truly comprehensive canning guide created for today's home cooks. This modern handbook boasts more than 350 of the best recipes ranging from jams and jellies to jerkies, pickles, salsas, and more—including extender recipes to create brand new dishes using your freshly preserved farmer's market finds or vegetable garden bounty. Organized by technique, The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving covers water bath and pressure canning, pickling, fermenting, freezing, dehydrating, and smoking. Straightforward instructions and step-by-step photos ensure success for beginners, while practiced home canners will find more advanced methods and inspiring ingredient twists. Thoroughly tested for safety and quality by thermal process engineers at the Fresh Preserving Quality Assurance Lab, recipes range from much-loved classics—Tart Lemon Jelly, Tomato-Herb Jam, Ploughman's Pickles—to fresh flavors such as Asian Pear Kimchi, Smoked Maple-Juniper Bacon, and homemade Kombucha. Make the most of your preserves with delicious dishes including Crab Cakes garnished with Eastern Shore Corn Relish and traditional Strawberry-Rhubarb Hand Pies. Special sidebars highlight seasonal fruits and vegetables, while handy charts cover processing times, temperatures, and recipe formulas for fast preparation. Lushly illustrated with color photographs, The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving is a classic in the making for a new generation of home cooks.

This book is a comprehensive compendium that includes instructions and recipes for everything from jams and fruit preserves to dehydration and smoking and curing meat. I think many of the recipes and techniques are within reach of beginners, but whether or not beginners would want to invest in them is probably another issue; for example, I’m not sure I have an interest in curing my own bacon. Still, that’s just me. Most of the book is dedicated to canning in many forms, from jams to pickles. There is a chapter on pressure canning. I’m not sure I feel like I want to invest in a separate gadget just to try pressure canning, but some of the recipes in that section do look good. There is an intriguing recipe for mustard in the fermenting section that I want to try, and their dill pickle spears look like they’d be interesting to try as well.

Both of these books are great in terms of instructions, advice, and recipes, but I give the nudge to the Ball book in terms of range. I haven’t tried any of its recipes yet, but I made some of the ATK book’s blueberry jam and preserved some cherries in syrup. I’m hoping to try dill pickles next. I took some pictures to chronicle this journey.

Blueberries on the Bush
Photo credit Steve Huff

My husband and I went to our local pick-your-own farm and got four quarts of blueberries. There was something really satisfying about pulling the fruit off the bush and hearing it plink as it fell into the bucket or cardboard box. I’ve never picked blueberries before, but I have gone to this farm to pick strawberries and apples.

Blueberries

I decided to make the America’s Test Kitchen book’s Blueberry Earl Grey jam because I love Earl Grey tea. Also, it was a small two-jar recipe that would give me a chance to try out processing, a technique for preserving jam for long-term storage—up to a year.

Blueberries Cooking

The blueberries don’t need to cook very long before they start to release their juice. After you add the pectin and sugar, it seems like a really quick process. Even though I was just making two jars

Blueberries Becoming Jam

I tried out my new canning pot, which is the one America’s Test Kitchen recommends in their book both in terms of value and durability. When I was done I had two jars of blueberry jam. I can’t taste the Earl Grey tea at all. A friend told me you need a lot more tea than five teabags to impart flavor, so I’m not sure what the folks at ATK were tasting, but it didn’t come through for me. Lesson learned. I’m not going to bother adding the tea in the future.

Jars of Blueberry Jam

Our local pick-your-own had a few tart cherries in their farm store, but the season is pretty much over, and if they grow sweet cherries, I missed it. I bought some sweet cherries from my grocery store. Making the cherries in syrup was a process because I had to pit all the cherries, and I don’t have a cherry pitter. I’m not sure I should get one because I don’t think I’ll be preserving cherries in syrup a lot. They are extremely delicious, but the cherry season is so short. It seems like something I might do once a year. I did a search online to see how you go about pitting cherries if you don’t have a pitter. I found a video that recommends pushing a metal straw through the top of the cherry so the pit comes out the bottom. This might be a fine idea if you only have to pit a few cherries, but if you have to pit three pounds, it’s a bit tedious. Some of the cherries fought pretty hard to hold onto their pits. My hands were covered in cherry juice, and I made a big mess, but I got it done. I followed some additional advice in the ATK book about cutting a vanilla bean in half, scraping out the seeds and putting them in the syrup, and then cutting the bean in fourths and putting one section in each jar. Now, that did make the cherries have a hint of a vanilla flavor that was really delicious, but I don’t want to tell you what I paid for vanilla beans. It was shy of sacrificing my firstborn. I don’t know if the same effect can be achieved by using vanilla extract or not. In any case, I processed the cherries to practice using the canner again.

Cherries in Syrup

I tried some on vanilla ice cream, and they were delicious. They were not overly sweet—just the right amount of sweetness and that yummy hint of vanilla. Fruit in syrup can be cloying, but these were excellent. Perfect for vanilla ice cream.

Cherries on Ice Cream

I really enjoyed starting my canning adventures, and these two books are both highly recommended for anyone looking to try it.

Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith

Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint SmithHow the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
ISBN: 0316492930
on June 1, 2021
Genres: History
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Poet and contributor to The Atlantic Clint Smith’s revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave-owning nation.

Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader through an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.

It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving over 400 people on the premises. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola Prison in Louisiana, a former plantation named for the country from which most of its enslaved people arrived and which has since become one of the most gruesome maximum-security prisons in the world. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

In a deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view-whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods—like downtown Manhattan—on which the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought alive by the story of people living today, Clint Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark work of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in understanding our country.

This is a fascinating book and a must-read for, well, everyone. In the pages of this book, Clint Smith embarks on a journey to several sites associated with slavery and racism and shares the stories of those sites and how their past is either reckoned with or isn’t. For a taste, you might consider reading Smith’s recent article in The Atlantic: “Why Confederate Lies Live On.” For another, more poetic taste, check out this poem:

In the book’s Epilogue, Smith writes that we are not as removed from the history of slavery and racism as some of us would like to pretend. Recalling a story his grandmother told him about White children throwing food at her from their bus as she walked, he writes, “The children who threw food at my grandmother and called her a n***** are likely bouncing their own great-grandchildren on their laps” (288). I know for a fact that they are because I was raised by them, as hard as it is for me to say. I love some of my family and they have been and in some cases still are deeply racist. Part of the reason that racism persists is ignorance. So much of the truth of what really happened was not taught in schools. I know I didn’t learn it. I do think more efforts are made now to try to right that wrong, but many states are also engaged in a fierce battle—at this very moment—to prevent teachers from teaching students the truth about slavery and racism.

Learning the truth about this country could be cleansing and freeing, but there is so much fear. As Smith argues, students “knowing their history helps them more effectively identify the lies” they are told about their history and their present (262). Ultimately, Smith’s thesis is that if we know the truth, we can heal and move forward, but if we continue to remain ignorant, then our societal problems due to racism will persist.

Smith’s writing is lyrical and beautiful at times. Smith’s background as a poet is on full display in some of the language he uses. He begins the book by calling on readers to listen. In his Prologue, he uses language such as “congregation,” “crowd,” and “gathered” to call his audience together to hear what he has learned in his travels to Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston, New York City, and Gorée Island (Senegal), finally ending with his grandparents’ stories. Smith makes the clear argument that history is us; we caused it to happen, and we can change its course.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

five-stars

Review: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds.

Review: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds.Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi, Keisha N. Blain
Published by One World ISBN: 0593134044
on February 2, 2021
Genres: History
Pages: 528
Length: 14 hours and 2 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An epoch-defining history of African America, the first to appear in a generation, Four Hundred Souls is a chronological account of four hundred years of Black America as told by ninety of America's leading Black writers.

Curated by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the number one bestseller How To Be an Antiracist, and fellow historian Keisha N. Blain, Four Hundred Souls begins with the arrival of twenty enslaved Ndongo people on the shores of the British colony in mainland America in 1619, the year before the arrival of the Mayflower.

In eighty chronological chapters, the book charts the tragic and triumphant four-hundred-year history of Black American experience in a choral work of exceptional power and beauty.

Contributors include some of the best-known scholars, writers, historians, journalists, lawyers, poets and activists of contemporary America who together bring to vivid life countless new facets to the drama of slavery and resistance, segregation and survival, migration and self-discovery, cultural oppression and world-changing artistic, literary and musical creativity. In these pages are dozens of extraordinary lives and personalities, rescued from the archives and restored to their rightful place in America's narrative, as well as the ghosts of millions more.

Four Hundred Souls is an essential work of story-telling and reclamation that redefines America and changes our notion of how history is written.

In spite of what the information above indicates, I actually listened to the audiobook, and let me tell you, it’s an incredible audiobook. This is a book you need in multiple formats. I am going to purchase the hardcover. I almost don’t know where to start except to say that I think people should read this book. You’ll learn a lot. Some of it might surprise you. I consider myself fairly well versed in history, and there was much I didn’t know. The structure of the book is interesting. Each chapter covers a five-year period in Black American history. Some chapters are written as straight nonfiction while others are poems. I liked seeing the various genres. I recognized and have read many of the authors whose work is found here.

I wondered a bit about the recording of the audiobook and came to the conclusion that the various narrators may have recorded their chapters using home equipment. I noticed some variable audio quality. None of that is to say there was any poor quality audio, but some sounded more professionally produced than others. It would make sense if narrators couldn’t travel to record due to the pandemic. If you have a chance to listen to the audio, I highly recommend it, but you’ll want the paper book, too.

In the novel Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s character Yaw tells his students,

“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on… We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

The novel Homegoing was a way to capture the stories that are missing. This book is, too. It belongs on every shelf.

five-stars

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Length: 16 hours and 52 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

five-stars

Review: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Review: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong DunbarNever Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Narrator: Robin Miles
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1442394501
on February 7, 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Length: 6 hours 45 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

A startling and eye-opening look into America s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington s runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation's capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn't get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire. Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one cold spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property. Impeccably researched, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.

The subject matter of this book is utterly fascinating; however, because so little is known about Ona Judge, the author, unfortunately, has to engage in a lot of speculation. To be sure, it is well-researched speculation and certainly rings true. I am grateful for Dunbar’s attention to detail and meticulous research. I was able to round out my understanding of quite a few historical issues on the topic of slavery I had not understood before. For example, Dunbar explains why Washington was unable to free people enslaved by Martha Washington’s first husband and why he chose not to free people he enslaved. I already felt the entire practice was reprehensible, but reading this book only underscored the inhumanity of slavery. It boggles the mind that people engaged in this practice and felt like it was acceptable, never mind the fact that many of them thought they were doing enslaved people a favor.

In addition to Ona Judge, I learned about Hercules Posey, Washington’s chef who also escaped to freedom. If I had one suggestion to round out this book, it might have been to write about several people enslaved by the Washingtons. It might have helped the author avoid the speculation she had to use. I think Ona Judge is a fascinating person, but we just don’t know enough about her to fill a book. I was interested to see a children’s version of this book has been printed. It’s entirely possible that a children’s version would have been just perfect—I think there is enough known about Ona Judge to fill a children’s or even YA book.

So why only 3.5 stars? Well, I think Dunbar missed an opportunity. I think Ona Judge’s story would have made excellent historical fiction. If Dunbar had opted for historical fiction, she wouldn’t have had to use the speculative voice that overwhelms the story. She also might have been able to include more details. As it is, I think Dunbar was constrained by the sparse details available about Judge’s life.

I would love to see more books like this one, but this story serves as a stark reminder of the many lives that are not recorded for posterity. Their lives mattered then, and they matter now.

three-half-stars

Review: Cooked, Michael Pollan

Review: Cooked, Michael PollanCooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Narrator: Michael Pollan
Published by Penguin Audio on April 23, 2013
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Pages: 14
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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four-half-stars

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.

Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan's effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse-trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos" (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The listener learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far-reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume huge quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

Cooked is the first of Michael Pollan’s books that I’ve read, though I know he has written a few other books about food. I’m not sure I would have found Cooked nearly as interesting about ten years ago as I did this year. I liked the organization of the book into the four ancient elements. The section on barbecue (fire) was fascinating, though to be fair, I devour pretty much anything about African-American and Southern foodways. I am also a bread-baker, so the section about bread (air) was probably my favorite, and it convinced me to go back into Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, which I’ve had on my Kindle for some time and started reading a while back and never finished. Stay tuned for a review on that book because I’m nearly done with it (yes, I read cookbooks cover-to-cover on occasion).

I wasn’t as fascinated by the fermentation or braising sections. I’m not sure why because everything about sourdough starter fascinates me. I think it’s just that a lot of the food in the fermentation section isn’t really the kind of thing I like, so I wasn’t as interested to hear how to do it, and braising is a technique I just don’t really use in my own cooking. However, the organization of the book was interesting, and Pollan’s reading is engaging and entertaining.

I agree with Pollan’s conclusions that it’s a shame so few people really cook anymore. I really enjoy cooking, but it does take time. However, what we eat for dinner has drastically improved in quality since I started cooking more seriously. Honestly, I credit a meal subscription plan called Home Chef with teaching me a lot, and Samin Nosrat’s book Salt Fat Acid Heat was also really helpful. The main reason we stopped subscribing to Home Chef is that we received spoiled vegetables a few too many times, and I decided that I needed to be able to select ingredients myself from the store. The actual recipes provided were pretty great, and I still use them all the time to cook meals.

Pollan argues that we’ll eat less processed food and connect more with family (eating together is communion—that’s my argument, not Pollan’s). My husband usually sits in the kitchen while I cook, and we listen to audiobooks and podcasts together. He’s not really a cook, though I think he’s interested. In any case, I think we enjoy these evening respites. I know that regularly cooking dinner has meant we better and saved money, not to mention the time to connect. (We are currently listening to Anna Karenina.)

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in how cooking works—you’ll get a dose of science and history along with some fascinating cultural education.

four-half-stars

Review: Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Review: Born to Run, Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Narrator: Bruce Springsteen
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1508224234
on December 6, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Length: 18 hours and 12 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“Writing about yourself is a funny business… But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” —Bruce Springsteen, from the pages of Born to Run

In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The experience was so exhilarating that Bruce decided to write about it. That’s how this extraordinary autobiography began.

Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs.

He describes growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey, amid the poetry, danger, and darkness that fueled his imagination, leading up to the moment he refers to as “The Big Bang”: seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He vividly recounts his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With disarming candor, he also tells for the first time the story of the personal struggles that inspired his best work, and shows us why the song “Born to Run” reveals more than we previously realized.

Born to Run will be revelatory for anyone who has ever enjoyed Bruce Springsteen, but this book is much more than a legendary rock star’s memoir. This is a book for workers and dreamers, parents and children, lovers and loners, artists, freaks, or anyone who has ever wanted to be baptized in the holy river of rock and roll.

Rarely has a performer told his own story with such force and sweep. Like many of his songs (“Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Rising,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” to name just a few), Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is written with the lyricism of a singular songwriter and the wisdom of a man who has thought deeply about his experiences.

I’m really behind on writing reviews. I actually finished listening to this book some time back, and if you choose to read it, let me highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Springsteen himself. Here’s a teaser, courtesy PBS.

 

This memoir is a master class in the genre. In fact, I plan to order a paper copy of it so that I can use it in teaching narrative writing. It’s that good. In fact, it’s the best memoir I’ve read. I don’t say that lightly either, as I have read quite a few.

What makes this particular memoir a standout is its unflinching honesty and its poetic sensibility. Though we know Bruce Springsteen is a great songwriter, that kind of writing talent doesn’t always translate to other forms. I am a bit embarrassed to say how surprised I was that Springsteen’s memoir was so well-written.

I picked this up on Audible using one of my credits a long time ago, and I decided to listen to it at long last after enjoying Warren Zanes’s biography of Tom Petty so much. I like Bruce Springsteen’s music, but I must confess I was not what I’d call a fan. I would never change the station on one of his songs, but I also didn’t own a complete album, and the only album I had listened to in its entirety before reading this book was Born in the USA—my mom had that one when I was a kid. To be fair, I listened to that album a lot. One thing I tried to do as I read this book was go back and educate myself about Springsteen’s music, and holy hell is he amazing. I can’t believe I never listened to Born to Run all the way through. I have to say, “Jungleland” is probably my favorite of his songs.

Springsteen is also a voracious reader, and it shows in the allusions he makes to other books in the memoir itself. As an English teacher, catching those references was a real Easter-egg type of pleasant surprise. I often tell my students that if they want to be better writers, they need to read more. They need to observe what great writers do, what moves they make in their writing. Clearly, Springsteen understands the importance of reading for his writing, but I sense he just enjoys reading for its own sake.

Bruce Springsteen Writing
Bruce Springsteen Writing by Pamela Springsteen, the artist’s sister

When I reached the point in the memoir when Springsteen discussed the death of Clarence Clemons, I admit I cried a little, in spite of knowing very little about Clemons prior to reading this book. Springsteen’s ache over the loss of his friend and collaborator (and sometime co-conspirator) is palpable in his reading. I appreciated Springsteen’s frankness about his struggles with depression as well. It’s tragic that mental illness carries such a stigma, which prevents people from getting help. Springsteen talks about this stigma as well.

I highly recommend this wonderful memoir to anyone, especially music fans. If you are not a fan of Springsteen’s before you read, you will still enjoy this book—and you will probably be a fan afterward. I’ll close out with a playlist of my favorite Springsteen tracks, more or less in order.

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
Narrator: Warren Zanes
Published by Audible Studios on December 15, 2015
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Length: 13 hours 57 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An exhilarating and intimate account of the life of music legend Tom Petty, by an accomplished writer and musician who toured with Petty

No one other than Warren Zanes, rocker and writer and friend, could author a book about Tom Petty that is as honest and evocative of Petty’s music and the remarkable rock and roll history he and his band helped to write.

Born in Gainesville, Florida, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood, Tom Petty was a Southern shit kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis, to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, to producing Del Shannon, backing Bob Dylan, putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, making records with Johnny Cash, and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s story has all the drama of a rock and roll epic. Petty, known for his reclusive style, has shared with Warren Zanes his insights and arguments, his regrets and lasting ambitions, and the details of his life on and off the stage.

This is a book for those who know and love the songs, from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Free Fallin’" and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," and for those who want to see the classic rock and roll era embodied in one man’s remarkable story. Dark and mysterious, Petty manages to come back, again and again, showing us what the music can do and where it can take us.

What a great loss to rock and roll. I think I might first have become aware of Tom Petty because my copy of Chipmunk Punk, featuring Alvin and Chipmunks squeaking out songs that were decidedly not punk music, had “Refugee” on it. Later, the video for “You Got Lucky” seemed to be on heavy rotation on MTV, and I admit it was interesting. You couldn’t get away from “Don’t Come Around Here No More” later. Rewatching that video recently, I was struck by how good Tom Petty’s acting is in the video.

However, I’m not sure I appreciated Tom Petty, truly became a fan, until college. I bought his back catalog and listened to the albums on repeat. I listened to them all again as I was reading this book, and I still remember each note. The first four albums, Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersYou’re Gonna Get It, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises, were on particularly high rotation, along with Southern Accents.

What I appreciated most about this biography was that Warren Zanes is an insider of sorts. In the 1980s, he was in the Del Fuegos and opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on tour. He spoke to many of Petty’s friends and associates, and the biography is unflinching in its honesty. Petty seemed like a reflective type of person, and he owned his mistakes. I particularly appreciated the reflections of fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch as well as Petty’s long-time friend Stevie Nicks.

The part of the biography I found most compelling was Zanes’s account of Petty’s youth and adolescence, followed by his early days in Florida bands, such as Mudcrutch. His incredible work ethic was another interesting thread that ran through the book. It struck me that Petty enjoyed his English classes and didn’t consider them to be “studying” in the same way that his other classes were; you can hear that in his song lyrics. However, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how school crushes the spirits of so many creative people like Tom Petty. I think it was Benmont Tench who said in the book that Tom Petty was really good at convincing people to quit school and join his band.

When I heard Tom Petty died, I was crushed. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I’m grateful I was able to see him in concert once in 1992, for his Into the Great Wide Open tour. It was a great show. He was a consummate performer.

I put together a highly subjective list of my favorite Tom Petty tunes, more or less in order of preference. Some are deep cuts. I hope you enjoy it.

five-stars