Mid-April Reading Update

I finished a couple of books this week and decided to roll the reviews together.

Mid-April Reading UpdateA Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
Published by Random House on January 12, 2021
Length: 14 hours 44 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.

In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.

My husband and I listened to this on audiobook. He has been trying to get me to read George Saunders since an aborted attempt at Lincoln in the Bardo. I just couldn’t follow that one on audio, but I do want to try to read it in print. I see this book as a companion to Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Essentially, it’s a master class in how literature works using short stories by several Russian authors as a focus for analysis. If I had to pick a favorite short story, it would probably be “The Nose” (Chekov) or perhaps “Alyosha the Pot.” The book has a wonderful cast of narrators, including Rainn Wilson, B. D. Wong, Glenn Close, Phylicia Rashad, and Nick Offerman. Saunders narrates the analytical parts. I bought a print copy for use in my classroom. I’m not yet sure how I might use it, but I can see the potential.

Mid-April Reading UpdateThe Familiars by Stacey Halls
Published by MIRA on February 19, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 335
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-stars

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Gray, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Gray and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women.

I love reading books about witches, “real” or not, and I wanted to like this book more. It was compelling enough for me to finish; however, some of the author’s choices were perplexing. I didn’t find the protagonist, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, to be all that engaging, and I kept thinking about how much more interesting the story might have been if the protagonist had been one of the accused witches. It seems like a missed opportunity to me to have a relatively privileged outsider tell the story of the Pendle Witch Trials. Also, Fleetwood rides a horse all over Creation while hugely pregnant. I’m not sure how she got on the horse, never mind rode it, in that condition. Granted, I’m not a horsewoman, so what do I know. Another issue I had was that Fleetwood discovers early in the book, within the first few pages, that her husband is secretive, and she finds he’s hiding even more important information. They have a falling out, and it seems implausible when they reconcile. The author didn’t really lay the groundwork for that reconciliation to make sense. Still, I did learn some things about this interesting historical event.

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Narrator: Michael Boatman
Published by Penguin Audio on August 20, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 14 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually, Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride s meticulous eye for detail and character, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

I absolutely loved this book, and I think listening to the audiobook was a major reason why. Michael Boatman’s narration is excellent. I loved his characterization of John Brown and Owen Brown in particular. In style, this book reminded me a great deal of Mark Twain, particularly Huckleberry Finn. McBride’s portrayal of John Brown is sympathetic yet realistic. Through the voice of his narrator, Henry, we have a full picture of a complicated man: a religious zealot called by God to end slavery and a man who truly believed all people are equal. I honestly haven’t read enough about the real John Brown to know if the characterization is completely accurate, but it definitely rings true.

I love it when historical fiction asks me to research, too, and this book had me checking out other sources so I could learn about John Brown. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said that what he feared was “thousands of John Browns.” It’s interesting to ask what might have happened had John Brown not conducted his raid on Harper’s Ferry or engaged in the skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas. Would the war have happened later? Would the South have organized in the face of ardent abolitionism? In any case, it’s difficult for me not to admire his dedication to the cause of freedom for African Americans at a time when that was not just unpopular but illegal. His tactics were violent, but it’s probably true that nonviolent protest would have accomplished nothing. After all, it took a bloody war to resolve the question of slavery, and the question of racism is still open.

I appreciated McBride’s invention of Henry as a narrator. He offered an opportunity to interpret John Brown’s actions through the lens of one of the enslaved people Brown was attempting to free and also to offer an outside perspective that is both sympathetic and critical of Brown. This balance makes it easier for McBride to draw a more complex picture of Brown and his followers than if he had chosen a narrator from among them or even a further outsider.

There is a chunk of the story in the middle when Henry is separated from Brown that I didn’t find as enjoyable. During this section, Henry is working in a hotel/whorehouse and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. However, he is disguising himself as a girl, so it’s complicated. I’m wondering now, as I finished the book, if that section added to the story or not. I suppose it depends on whether the reader sees this as a story of John Brown or a story of Henry Shackleford. I tend toward the former, and I will admit that part of the book slowed down the story’s momentum a bit for me, but not enough for me to dock any stars.

One literary aspect I appreciated was McBride’s clever use of motifs. For example, on several occasions, Brown wants to stop and pray when the group is in danger, and his son Owen is often the one to tell him to wrap it up so they can get out of danger. Another example is Brown’s directive to Henry to “hive the bees,” or try to rouse support for Brown’s cause among the Black population. He brings both motifs back touchingly at the end of the novel. We know how John Brown’s story ends, but McBride managed to make it satisfying and true to the characters he created. The first thing I did upon finishing this book is to check out Deacon King Kong, another of McBride’s novels. I wanted more. I can’t wait to watch the film!

five-stars

Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’Toole

Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’TooleWe Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole
Published by Liveright ISBN: 1631496530
on March 15, 2022
Genres: History, Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 624
Format: E-Book, eBook
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Goodreads
five-stars

A quarter-century after Frank McCourt’s extraordinary bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, Fintan O’Toole, one of the Anglophone world’s most consummate stylists, continues the narrative of modern Ireland into our own time. O’Toole was born in the year the revolution began. It was 1958, and the Irish government—in despair, because all the young people were leaving—opened the country to foreign investment. So began a decades-long, ongoing experiment with Irish national identity. Weaving his own experiences into this account of Irish social, cultural, and economic change, O’Toole shows how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a Catholic “backwater” to an almost totally open society. A sympathetic-yet-exacting observer, O’Toole shrewdly weighs more than sixty years of globalization, delving into the violence of the Troubles and depicting, in biting detail, the astonishing collapse of the once-supreme Irish Catholic Church. The result is a stunning work of memoir and national history that reveals how the two modes are inextricable for all of us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a great deal. As O’Toole argues in the Acknowledgments (and also in speaking engagements), his “life is too boring for a memoir and there is no shortage of modern Irish history” (587). So he combined the two and described the changes Ireland has undergone while sharing his personal stories and anecdotes as well as connections to and recollections of those events. The result is a thoroughly engaging read.

I appreciated O’Toole’s facility with a turn of phrase as much as his skill with organizing his ideas. I was glad I read the book on Kindle, as it’s a hefty tome at more than 600 pages, but I also felt freer to highlight and otherwise markup the text. O’Toole’s central argument is that Ireland has attempted to operate under a “doubleness… [a] permanent state of contradiction” (33) that O’Toole describes throughout the book as “a society that had developed an extraordinary capacity for cognitive disjunction, a genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time” (168). This capacity, O’Toole argues, prevented Ireland from progressing socially until the 1990s and from progressing economically until roughly the same time. The abuses of the Irish Catholic Church came to light in the 1990s, and O’Toole sees this as no coincidence. As I read, I kept thinking of how Sinéad O’Connor tried to cast light on these abuses and was ostracized and criticized for telling the truth. Ireland’s capacity to both know abuses were happening and pretend they were not resulted in mass emigration and trauma, but O’Toole believes Ireland may have “reached the point of accepting that half-knowledge—the ability to see clearly what is, while also acknowledging what is dark—is better than the swinging between the pretence of knowing everything and the denial of what you really do know” (569).

O’Toole thoroughly covers many major events in Irish history over the last 60 or so years, and I was especially interested in reading about the Troubles. One of my earliest memories of a news story that captured my attention was the hunger strikes in the early 1980s. I just couldn’t fathom how someone might stop eating to protest. I had a very simplistic understanding of the Troubles until recently. O’Toole argues that at least in part, admiration for martyrdom prolonged the Troubles. O’Toole explains that the hunger strikes were a part of this mindset: “We sacrifice ourselves. By doing so we show that life itself—including your life—is not the ultimate value” (325).  Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t get a pass. O’Toole criticizes the UK’s lack of understanding and treatment of the prisoners during the hunger strike. O’Toole says if the British government had allowed the IRA prisoners to wear their own clothes “a year earlier, dozens of people, inside and outside the prison, would not have died” (335).

I first heard about this book from a book review by Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic. The review intrigued me, so I purchased the book for my Kindle. I had a feeling I’d want to own this one and mark it up well. I have been on spring break for the last two weeks, and I wanted to go into Boston and get a library card from the Boston Public Library, so I visited their website to find out the requirements. The website advertised that Fintan O’Toole would be giving a talk about his new book at the library on Friday, March 18. It seemed like kismet. My son and I rode the train into Boston and enjoyed a great day wandering around the city, culminating our visit with a library visit to hear O’Toole speak. I was fascinated to hear him discuss his frustration with Brexit. He said that no consideration had been given to Northern Ireland in Brexit at all, but as he explained it, citizens of Northern Ireland are free to define themselves as Irish, English, or both. I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know that they can rejoin the Republic of Ireland any time a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland decide they want to. I think it will be very interesting to watch how Ireland’s future unfolds, especially now that Brexit means the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is an EU border as well.

five-stars

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous Authors

This week, I finished two books, both by indigenous authors. Postcolonial Love Poem is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz believes her mother was Native American but assimilated when she married Dunbar-Ortiz’s father. I highly recommend both books, which take on America’s history as a colonizing country—something the U.S. frequently pretends not to be.

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous AuthorsPostcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Díaz
Published by Graywolf Press ISBN: 1644450143
on March 3, 2020
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 107
Format: Paperback
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Goodreads
five-stars

Natalie Diaz’s highly anticipated follow-up to When My Brother Was an Aztec, winner of an American Book Award. Postcolonial Love Poem is an anthem of desire against erasure. Natalie Diaz’s brilliant second collection demands that every body carried in its pages—bodies of language, land, rivers, suffering brothers, enemies, and lovers—be touched and held as beloveds. Through these poems, the wounds inflicted by America onto an indigenous people are allowed to bloom pleasure and tenderness: “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden.” In this new lyrical landscape, the bodies of indigenous, Latinx, black, and brown women are simultaneously the body politic and the body ecstatic. In claiming this autonomy of desire, language is pushed to its dark edges, the astonishing dunefields and forests where pleasure and love are both grief and joy, violence and sensuality.

Diaz defies three conditions from which she writes, a nation whose creation predicated the diminishment and ultimate erasure of bodies like hers and the people she loves: “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. // I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.” Postcolonial Love Poem unravels notions of American goodness and creates something more powerful than hope—a future is built, future being a matrix of the choices we make now, and in these poems, Diaz chooses love.

My favorite poems in this collection were “American Arithmetic,” “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” “The First Water is the Body,” and “exhibits from The American Water Museum.” I liked them all for different reasons. I was familiar with “American Arithmetic” already. I think someone on Twitter pointed me in that poem’s direction a few years ago. It’s a clever use of statistics to make a point. “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You” plays with lyrics from “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I wanted to teach that poem this year, but we had a snow day, and I had to move some things around. I liked the two water poems for the messages about water and life. This collection was an excellent read on the train to and from Boston yesterday.

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous AuthorsAn Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (ReVisioning American History, #3) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Published by Beacon Press ISBN: 080700040X
on September 16, 2014
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 296
Format: E-Book, eBook
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Goodreads
five-stars

The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.
Today in the United States, there are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the fifteen million Native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the US settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the US empire. Spanning more than four hundred years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history radically reframes US history and explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative.

I read this book in fits in starts. I first started to read it some time back, I forget how long ago, but I had to set it aside for reasons I no longer remember (probably grad school). I picked it up again recently as I was teaching a unit in my Social Justice class on Native history and literature. As advertised, this book examines the history of America through the eyes of indigenous people. I was looking for a bit more about more recent history, including activism on the part of the American Indian Movement and more recent strides such as the Indian Child Welfare Act (which is under threat) and cultural revival efforts. Still, this book was an interesting introduction to the many ways the United States’ genocide and war against indigenous people have impacted today’s events. For instance, I happened to note a politician on TV using the term “Indian Country” to refer to a country/territory hostile to Americans, and it was right after I had read in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book that the military still uses this term. The legacy of the horrible racism and greed perpetrated against indigenous people is still very much a part of our country today.

Mid-March Reviews

I’m in spring break for school and catching up on some recent book reviews.

Mid-March ReviewsKeep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by Maggie Smith
Published by Atria Books ISBN: 1982132078
on October 6, 2020
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

Perfect for fans of Anne Lamott and Cheryl Strayed, this is an inspiring and uplifting collection of essays and quotes on creativity and resilience by the award-winning author of the viral poem Good Bones.

When award-winning poet Maggie Smith started writing daily Twitter posts under the title “Keep Moving” in the wake of her divorce, they unexpectedly caught fire. People around the world connected to her short, inspiring quotes which brilliantly captured the complexities of the human heart. Funny, wry, and profound, Maggie’s writing has been and continues to be a form of healing for herself and countless fans.

Now, you can experience her outstanding and healing prose with this powerful and evocative collection. Featuring some of her most popular posts and essays, Keep Moving also includes new and never before published writing. Gorgeously and lovingly wrought, this is the perfect gift for anyone looking for a daily dose of optimism and spiritual nourishment.

This book is mostly encouraging aphorisms and short meditations. I found some of it helpful, hence four stars, but I prefer Maggie Smith’s poetry.

Mid-March ReviewsDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Narrator: Richard Armitage
Published by Audible Studios on February 9, 2016
Genres: Classic
Length: 36 hours 30 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

David Copperfield is the story of a young man's adventures on his journey from an unhappy and impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr Murdstone; his brilliant, but ultimately unworthy school-friend James Steerforth; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble, yet treacherous Uriah Heep; frivolous, enchanting Dora Spenlow; and the magnificently impecunious Wilkins Micawber, one of literature's great comic creations. In David Copperfield—the novel he described as his 'favourite child'—Dickens drew revealingly on his own experiences to create one of the most exuberant and enduringly popular works, filled with tragedy and comedy in equal measure.

My husband and I listened to this one. First, it’s completely easy to understand why this novel has always been popular and remains a classic. It’s a delight from start to finish. Betsey Trotwood has to be one of the most brilliant characters ever conceived, and David’s old nemesis Uriah Heep is horribly realistic (surely Charles Dickens knew a guy like this, right?). Richard Armitage’s narration is amazing. His acting talent is on full display in the various voices; his Uriah Heep is entirely unctuous. Every time he says “Uriah writhed,” you can feel it. Gross. To be fair, Dickens’s writing suffers a bit from the addition of an annoying-young-damsel-who-is-supposed-to-be-attractive-for-some-reason-no-one-can-figure-out. I noticed it in A Tale of Two Cities and to an extent in Great Expectations, but Dora takes the cake. I thought she was stupid and annoying and completely incompatible with David. What a cast of memorable characters. What a great book. I’m glad I finally read it.

Mid-March ReviewsSongs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
Narrator: Kristen Sieh
Published by Random House Audio on June 22, 2021
Length: 10 hours 45 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

A scintillating debut from a major new voice in fiction, Songs in Ursa Major is a love story set in 1969, alive with music, sex, and the trappings of fame.

Raised on an island off Massachusetts by a mother who wrote songs for famous musicians, Jane Quinn is singing in her own band before she's old enough to even read music. When folk legend Jesse Reid hears about Jane's performance at the island's music festival, a star is born—and so is a passionate love affair: they become inseparable when her band joins his on tour. Wary of being cast as his girlfriend—and haunted by her mother's shattered ambitions—Jane shields her relationship from the public eye, but Jesse's star power pulls her into his orbit of fame. Caught up in the thrill of the road and the profound and lustful connection she has with Jesse, Jane is blind-sided by the discovery she makes about the dark secret beneath his music. Heartbroken and blackballed by the industry, Jane is now truly on her own: to make the music she loves, and to make peace with her family. Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?

I wanted to like this book more. It suffers from the fact that Daisy Jones & The Six and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev exist and it’s not as strong in comparison. This novel is sort of a thinly-veiled story of James Taylor and maybe Joni Mitchell set mostly on a fictionalized version of Martha’s Vineyard. I think there are some anachronisms to start with. For example, “What Would Jane Do” based on “What Would Jesus Do?” might be a bit out of time. While the WWJD saying goes back to the 1800s, its resurgence only dates to the 1990s. It felt out of place for Jane Quinn’s fans to pick it up. At one point, Jane’s record label guy (I forget what exactly his role was, but he discovered Jane) had an answering machine. I guess they existed prior to the 1980s, but they were not widely used. The fact that things DID exist doesn’t mean they were WIDELY USED, hence the feelings of anachronism. These were the two most glaring issues, but they were not the only ones. The other issue was a spoilery plot point. I won’t divulge it, but it felt like a cheat when it was revealed because the author used third-person limited and focused on Jane. It’s one thing for Jane to keep something from Jesse, but it’s another for her to keep it even from the reader. I understand why the author felt the need to save the secret, but I didn’t like the way it was handled, and it was at that point that the book lost me. If you’re going to have a protagonist lie to the reader, you need to pull it off with a bit more finesse. I finished it because I’d become invested, and I did enjoy part of the journey, which is why it ultimately landed on 3.5 stars.

February Reviews

I fell a little behind in reviewing books. It seems like January and February are always the busiest months at my school. I finished three books in February and early March, some of which I counted for reading challenges.

February ReviewsCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Published by Random House ISBN: 0593230256
on August 4, 2020
Pages: 496
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

While Wilkerson’s analogy between caste and race has been criticized, I found this book very interesting and illuminating. I agree with some of Charisse Burden-Stelly’s arguments in the article I linked. I don’t know enough to argue either for or against thinking of the U.S. as a race-based caste system, but it was interesting to see the ways in which the Indian caste system, the Nazi regime, and America’s racism were similar in construction. I will also add that it’s important to be cautious about comparing any system to Nazi Germany. The Nazis killed 11 million people. I would never argue that American racism or India’s caste system haven’t been deadly. Of course they have. As Sunil Khilnani argues in an article for The New Yorker, “Applying a single abstraction to multiple realities inevitably creates friction—sometimes productive, sometimes not. In the book’s comparison of the Third Reich to India and America, for example, a rather jarring distinction is set aside: the final objective of Nazi ideology was to eliminate Jewish people, not just to subordinate them.” In spite of these valid critiques, I found the book interesting, and I recommend it to people who want to understand racism.

February ReviewsJohn Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
Published by Yale University Press ISBN: 0300124651
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Pages: 446
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats's entire life, from his early years at Keats's Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats's poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.

Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats's childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats's father, his mother's too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats's doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

I checked this book out of my local library, and as I was writing this post, I discovered I must have purchased it about nine years ago. At any rate, Amazon says I did. I have no memory of buying it, and I could not tell you where it might be. However, I’m glad to learn that I have a copy of this book somewhere because I really enjoyed it. Nicholas Roe is extremely thorough. I have to admit I was really waiting to get to the part when Keats met Fanny Brawne. I have a girl crush on Fanny Brawne. However, I enjoyed meeting the Keats who emerges from the pages of Roe’s biography. The biggest scandal stirred up by this particular book was Roe’s speculation that Keats was an opium addict, or at least that he dosed himself with laudanum. I didn’t find that particularly shocking. If it’s true, Keats joined a great number of other people living in his era (and for that matter, our own, as we’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic). One aspect of Keats’s story that really struck me was that he knew immediately that he was dying when he contracted tuberculosis because of his medical training. He identified the blood sputum as “arterial blood.” How horrible it must have been to be a young man, just discovering his genius as a writer, only to understand he would not live. No wonder he wrote this remarkable poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I’d love to read more literary biographies like this one. My one quibble with the book is that it had two image collections, including pictures of many people and places important to Keats, but no pictures of Keats. I mentioned this complaint on Twitter, and a writer acquaintance of mine said it might be true that Roe couldn’t afford pictures of Keats. When I asked if his press couldn’t have helped with that, she said maybe not. I find that to be puzzling, if true, especially as Roe describes some of the more famous images of Keats. I would think he’d want to have copies of those images, at least, in the book.

February ReviewsIreland by Frank Delaney
Narrator: Frank Delaney
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0060838833
on February 1, 2005
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 19 hours and 29 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

From a land famous for storytelling comes an epic novel of Ireland that captures the intimate, passionate texture of the Irish spirit.

One evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller arrives unannounced at a house in the Irish countryside. In exchange for a bed and a warm meal, he invites his hosts and their neighbors to join him by the wintry fireside, and begins to tell formative stories of Ireland’s history. Ronan, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the storytelling that, when the old man leaves abruptly under mysterious circumstances, the boy devotes himself to finding him again.

Ronan’s search for the Storyteller becomes both a journey of self-discovery, long unspoken family secrets, and an immersion into the sometimes conflicting histories of his native land. A sweeping novel of huge ambition, Ireland is the beautifully told story of a remarkable nation. It rings with the truth of a writer passionate about his country and in full command of his craft.

This book was utterly charming! I put out a call on Twitter for books set in Ireland, and everyone was recommending Tana French. I am not opposed to mystery or thrillers. I read them sometimes. But I was looking for this book, which no one was recommending—I found it on my own. I wanted to read something that captured the place and its people. Delaney was a fantastic narrator, and the book was shot through with humor. When I initially saw how long the audiobook was, I was nervous about finishing it before it was due to the library. I was only able to borrow it for 14 days, and it’s over 19 hours long! But I needn’t have worried. I was looking for excuses to listen to it. Part travelogue, part history, part myth, and all story, Ireland is highly recommended for anyone who wants to travel to Ireland through a book. It’s one of the most delightful books I have read in a long time. I won’t give away the ending, but I appreciated the direction Delaney took it.

I’m going to make an effort to finish writing reviews a bit more quickly, but we’re all caught up for now.

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob Spitz

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob SpitzLed Zeppelin: The Biography by Bob Spitz
Narrator: Rob Shapiro
Published by Penguin Audio on November 9, 2021
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Length: 21 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

From the author of the definitive New York Times bestselling history of the Beatles comes the authoritative account of the group Jack Black and many others call the greatest rock band of all time, arguably the most successful, and certainly one of the most notorious. Rock stars. Whatever those words mean to you, chances are, they owe a debt to Led Zeppelin. No one before or since has lived the dream quite like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. In Led Zeppelin, Bob Spitz takes their full measure, for good and sometimes for ill, separating the myth from the reality with the connoisseurship and storytelling flair that are his trademarks.

From the opening notes of their first album, the band announced itself as something different, a collision of grand artistic ambition and brute primal force, of delicate English folk music and hard-driving African-American blues. That record sold over 10 million copies, and it was the merest beginning; Led Zeppelin's albums have sold over 300 million certified copies worldwide, and the dust has never settled. Taken together, Led Zeppelin's discography has spent an almost incomprehensible ten-plus years on the album charts. The band is notoriously guarded, and previous books shine more heat than light. But Bob Spitz's authority is undeniable and irresistible. His feel for the atmosphere, the context—the music, the business, the recording studios, the touring life, the radio stations, the fans, the whole ecosystem of popular music—is unparalleled. His account of the melding of Page and Jones, the virtuosic London sophisticates, with Plant and Bonham, the wild men from the Midlands, into a band out of the ashes of the Yardbirds, in a scene dominated by the Beatles and the Stones but changing fast, is in itself a revelation.

Spitz takes the music seriously, and brings the band's artistic journey to full and vivid life. The music is only part of the legend, however: Led Zeppelin is also the story of how the 60's became the 70's, of how playing in clubs became playing in stadiums and flying your own jet, of how innocence became decadence. Led Zeppelin may not have invented the groupie, and they weren't the first rock band to let loose on the road, but they took it to an entirely new level, as with everything else. Not all the legends are true, but in Bob Spitz's careful accounting, what is true is astonishing, and sometimes disturbing. Led Zeppelin gave no quarter, and neither has Bob Spitz. Led Zeppelin is the full and honest reckoning the band has long awaited, and richly deserves.

Oof. Okay, this book. I will start with the caveat that when I was in high school, Led Zeppelin was my favorite band. This was post-breakup, several years beyond John Bonham’s death, when Robert Plant had a flourishing solo career. I was 15, I think, when I first heard them on the radio, and I started buying up cassette tapes of their back catalog. I listened to them so much that when I put on one of their albums today, I still know them note-for-note. Over the years, I admit my interest waned, and I did not seek out many of the posthumous releases that have come out over the last 20 years or so. I don’t even own all of their albums in iTunes (something my 17-year-old self probably would have thought unthinkable). I haven’t read some of the books and memoirs, but I had read enough of them to know they’re generally hagiographic and fawning in nature. I had heard good things about this biography, so I decided to listen to the audio version.

This is a great biography. Spitz wasn’t able to interview the band, who (probably wisely) opted not to talk with him in the wake of #MeToo. However, he did interview many people I’d never heard from before. As a result, I learned many things about the band that I didn’t previously know, especially about Jimmy Page’s childhood, adolescence, and early music career. Even as a big fan of their music, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which the group was really Jimmy’s band with some hired musicians (essentially), or that they really weren’t friends with each other, or that their drug problems were that bad. On a surface level, I knew some of these things, but Spitz helped me understand these things and how they impacted the band. I had a pretty thorough knowledge of some of the groupie stories, but they were disturbing in the extreme in Spitz’s telling. I think other books tend to gloss over the stories or cast them in a different light, but Spitz shines a great big spotlight on them. These men did not believe women were fully-fledged human beings worthy of any sort of respect. That’s it. Led Zeppelin definitely suffers under the microscope. In particular, their manager Peter Grant, tour manager Richard Cole, and drummer John Bonham were thugs and should probably have done prison time—all three of them—for the violence they committed. Multiple assaults, rape, arguably attempted murder. The only shocking aspect of John Bonham’s death is that it didn’t happen sooner. In fact, it’s pretty shocking Jimmy Page didn’t die, too. I didn’t realize how close the band was to breaking up anyway when John Bonham died, either.

Spitz’s background in music is also handy when he’s describing their performances and recorded output. He takes a fresh look at their music, as he was not a fan prior to writing the book, and as such, he avoids some of the fanboy flattery that so many other books and articles engage in when discussing Led Zeppelin. In his hands, the music feels fresh and new. I consider it remarkable restraint that he didn’t excoriate “Hot Dog,” arguably the worst song they recorded. He mentioned the song just once. The last two albums were definitely a letdown after Physical Graffiti, which is probably my favorite of their albums. I caution Led Zeppelin fans about reading this one. Spitz is unflinching, and he may take them down a few notches in your estimation (he certainly did in mine). It’s hard to look away from the worst of their excesses with your respect for the band intact. Still, I thought it was a fascinating examination of the group’s stories and music.

five-stars

Review: In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende

Review: In the Midst of Winter, Isabel AllendeIn the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Published by Atria Books ISBN: 150117813X
on October 31, 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

New York Times and worldwide bestselling “dazzling storyteller” (Associated Press) Isabel Allende returns with a sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that journeys from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil.

In the Midst of Winter begins with a minor traffic accident—which becomes the catalyst for an unexpected and moving love story between two people who thought they were deep into the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story that moves from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil, sparking the beginning of a long-overdue love story between Richard and Lucia.

Exploring the timely issues of human rights and the plight of immigrants and refugees, the book recalls Allende’s landmark novel The House of the Spirits in the way it embraces the cause of “humanity, and it does so with passion, humor, and wisdom that transcend politics” (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post). In the Midst of Winter will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

In the Midst of Winter is my first Isabel Allende, and I enjoyed it. The story kept me turning pages, wondering what would happen next. It was a deceptive book in that it reads like a cozy mystery, to a certain degree, but it tackles some fairly important issues, such as the Disappeared in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s and the plight of Guatemalans living with violence in the present day. It also touches on depression, cancer, alcoholism, and human trafficking. There is a surprising amount of humor in the novel, but I never felt Allende wasn’t treating the subjects with seriousness. Some aspects of the ending will not surprise, but others might keep readers guessing.

I read this book because Twitter friends and founders of the hashtag #THEBOOKCHAT are planning to discuss the book on January 23, and I wanted to be able to participate in the chat—talking about books with other adults is always fun for this high school English teacher. Otherwise, I would likely never have read it, and I’m glad I did. It was a nice way to start off the reading year. It examined some serious social justice issues but included some dark humor and warmth. The characters were fully realized and well-drawn. I’m excited to participate in the chat with my Twitter friends in a couple of weeks.

four-stars

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo IshiguroKlara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sura Siu
Published by Random House Audio on March 2, 2021
Length: 10 hours 16 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

'KLARA AND THE SUN' IS A MAGNIFICENT NEW NOVEL FROM THE NOBEL LAUREATE KAZUO ISHIGURO - AUTHOR OF 'NEVER LET ME GO' AND THE BOOKER PRIZE-WINNING 'THE REMAINS OF THE DAY.'

'KLARA AND THE SUN,' the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

'KLARA AND THE SUN' is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: What does it mean to love?
In its award citation in 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro's books as "novels of great emotional force" and said he has "uncovered the abyss of our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Kazuo Ishiguro seems to me, more than any other author living, to be writing to explore what it means to be human. Where does our humanity reside? How do we remember? How are we remembered? Or, as Josie’s father asks Klara in one of the most profoundly moving parts of the book, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you believe there is such a thing?” That passage was the first part of the book to cause me to burst into tears—it was not the last—and as I explained to my husband, it reminded me of this essay, “Joyas Voladores” by Brian Doyle, adding more dimension to the essay (which, honestly, didn’t make me cry the first time I read it but now makes me cry because I associate it with this passage). Ron Charles argues in his review of Klara and the Sun that ” the real subject, as always in Ishiguro’s dusk-lit fiction, is the moral quandary of the human heart.”

I have yet to finish an Ishiguro novel without bawling, and this book was no exception. As with his other novels, in Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s narrator has a compelling voice. Her childlike propensity to hope, her belief in the healing power of the sun, is simply heartbreaking. It’s hard not to draw parallels to both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and both of those novels also have memorable narrators who struggle to make sense of the mysteries of the human heart as well. There is something different in Klara’s struggle to please, to understand. She has the lack of agency of Kathy in Never Let Me Go and the outsider observational perspective of Stevens in The Remains of the Day, but she’s somehow more innocent. The ending of the book just wrecked me.

This book is one of the best I read this year. It has me thinking about what it means to be human and how much of our humanity we have lost over the last several years. Prepare the tissues if you read it. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Superb.

five-stars

Review: Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies, S. D. Nelson

Review: Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies, S. D. NelsonCrazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies by S.D. Nelson
Published by Harry N. Abrams ISBN: 1419731939
on November 9, 2021
Genres: Biography, Childrens, History, Nonfiction, Young Adult
Pages: 144
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

With photographs and stunning illustrations from acclaimed author-artist S.D. Nelson, this thrilling double biography juxtaposes the lives of two enemies whose conflict changed American history: Crazy Horse and George Custer.

In 1876, Lakota chief Crazy Horse helped lead his people’s resistance against the white man’s invasion of the northern Great Plains. One of the leaders of the US military forces was Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. The men had long been enemies. At the height of the war, when tribalism had reached its peak, they crossed paths for the last time.

In this action-packed double biography, S. D. Nelson draws fascinating parallels between Crazy Horse and Custer, whose lives were intertwined. These warriors were alike in many ways, yet they often collided in deadly rivalry. Witness reports and reflections by their peers and enemies accompany side-by-side storytelling that offers very different perspectives on the same historical events. The two men’s opposing destinies culminated in the infamous Battle of the Greasy Grass, as the Lakota called it, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as it was called by the Euro-Americans.

In Crazy Horse and Custer, Nelson’s gripping narrative and signature illustration style based on Plains Indians ledger art, along with a mix of period photographs and paintings, shines light on two men whose conflict forever changed Lakota and US history. The book includes an author’s note, timeline, endnotes, and bibliography.

This book approaches the biographies of Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer by drawing parallels between their lives. It is striking that the two men who would face each other at the Battle of Little Bighorn were born a year apart and died a year apart. I appreciated that Nelson did not engage in the hagiography of either man but instead demonstrated their humanity, flaws and all. Truthfully, though, it’s hard for Custer to come across well to a modern reader, revered as he might have been at the time of his death. The author even points out that in our current time, Crazy Horse is largely admired while Custer is reviled.

I first became interested in this history when I saw the film Little Big Man as a middle schooler. It’s a great film and one of the first (if not the very first) revisionist Western. Though the main character is a White man who is kidnapped by Cheyenne as a child and assimilated into the tribe, some (though admittedly not all) of the Cheyenne characters are played by Native actors, and indigenous people are shown in a more sympathetic light than Hollywood had traditionally depicted them. After seeing this film, I started to read about what happened with Custer, who is a character in the movie.

This book seems to be pitched to late middle-grade readers. I admit I learned a lot I didn’t know about both men. I had no idea Custer and his father were pro-slavery, for example. I knew next to nothing of Crazy Horse’s biography. The book is organized into short chapters that alternate between the biographies of both men. The author explains that he feels uniquely qualified to tell this story as the descendant of a Lakota woman who married a White man who had served under Custer in the Army until being honorably discharged before the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Though the intended audience for this book is probably middle schoolers, anyone with a passing interest in the history of the so-called Indian Wars might enjoy reading this book. I appreciated the author’s artwork as part of the storytelling as well. Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer both come alive in the pages of this book.

four-stars