Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category
Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison During the Vietnam War, by Bruce Dancis (Cornell University Press)
Bruce Dancis was at the heart of the anti-draft movement at Cornell University during the war in Vietnam—and Cornell was one of the hot spots of that resistance. This memoir tells the story of those times in remarkable detail: recounting not just what happened, but how things happened, not just the moments of exhilaration, but also the difficult struggles and dialogues within the movement. As a man of principle, he recalls his ethical wrestling at that time without becoming pompous.
I was in grade school during the war in Vietnam, so I have a strange sort of nostalgia for that period. I wasn’t really old enough to be a part of the war resistance movement, and I didn’t actually know that much about it, but I was convinced of its rightness and wished I could contribute to it. My nostalgia is a sort of sidelines thing, a longing not for what I once did, but for a time I just missed participating in. As a result, I’m always glad to find memoirs from the period, particularly ones like this that combine narration and reflection so effectively.
Because of the level of detail, this isn’t a quick read, but its thoroughness adds considerably to its value. Dancis did extensive research, among his own papers, in traditional academic venues, and via interviews before he wrote this book, so it’s a particularly precise memoir that reads as history as well as personal story. If you’re a reader like me, who tends to “graze” from several books at once, this makes an excellent addition to the pile, a book to turn to when the truths of fiction don’t seem quite true enough.
March 10 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
A Death-Struck Year, by Makiia Lucier (HMH Children’s Books)
I read my electronic review copy of A Death-Struck Year this winter while I, like a great many other people, was suffering from this year’s round of flu. I managed to avoid spiraling hypochondria, but reading about the 1918 flu epidemic while dealing with this year’s version of the virus brought things home.
A Death-Struck Year is a coming-of-age novel, written for young adults, but with plenty of substance, so I’d recommend it for adult readers as well. Seventeen-year-old Cleo Berry lives in Portland, Oregon, and is being raised by her significantly older brother and his wife, since she was orphaned as a child. Her guardians take the train on a business/pleasure trip, and Cleo becomes a temporary border at the school she usually attends as a day pupil.
People on the west coast have been reading about the “Spanish” Flu (it probably originated in Kansas, despite the name), which is terrifying, but seems distant. That distance collapses as several soldiers with the illness arrive at an army base outside of Portland and the disease quickly spreads into the population at large. Public gatherings and unnecessary travel are cancelled; Cleo’s guardians cannot return immediately, so she’s quarantined at her school. Until, that is, she decides she’d rather face the terror of the flu in her own home, even if it means living alone during an epidemic, than remain at her school.
The rest of the action of the book results from this first decision. Cleo sees a call in the newspaper for female volunteers to nurse flu victims and, unaware of what she’s about to get herself into, steps up. Her education—in life, mortality, courage, class, even reproductive rights—is swift and shaking.
This book contains a few tropes common to its genre: Cleo is well-off, knows how to drive a car, and has access to her brother’s vehicle; there’s the inevitable love interest; we also see scene after scene in which Cleo faces up to challenges of the moment that threaten to derail her. The thing of it is, these tropes work. Cleo’s experiences feel genuine and vivid, even if they aren’t novel for the genre. Her independence and wealth are counterbalanced by a strong awareness of what’s expected of a girl of her station. The love interest (this isn’t really a spoiler, but stop here if you want) doesn’t end in a fairy-tale match transforming her life; Cleo remains a schoolgirl, but one whose horizons have broadened.
Makiia Lucien appears to have done her research well. She knows the pace at which the disease coursed through Portland, the emergency measures that were put into place during the epidemic, and the technology of the time (could you check the gas level on a tin Lizzie?). The etiology of the disease is rendered in appropriate detail. We see, again and again, a clear picture of how the epidemic would have been experienced by a young woman on her own for the first time.
When you’re hungry for story, this is a great book to turn to. The narrative arc is clear and sure, the central character is engaging, and events are both riveting and plausible.
March 07 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey (Bloomsbury USA)
The Man Who Walked Away is not so much a novel as a series of meditations within the minds of two characters: Albert, the walking man of the title, who suffers from what will eventually be labeled “fugue states,” and the Doctor, who treats Albert and invents the label the condition is given. Instead of a narrative arc, we watch the developing sense of self within the two main characters.
Albert and the Doctor have more in common than might be expected: each has lost his parents and is haunted by the worry of not having properly fulfilled his duties as a son; each has a self-concept that is fettered by the rigid class structures of the society in which he lives. For Albert these similarities aren’t significant. He shares his story with the Doctor, but the exchange is one way. For the Doctor, Albert poses a puzzle both external and internal. In trying to help Albert, the Doctor is forced to wrestle with questions at the heart of his own identity as well.
The language of this work is beautiful: trance-like, abstract, repetative. Though the book is relatively brief (240 pages), it is not a quick read. One has to slow down while reading, treating each word as a footstep and the reading process as a journey that cannot be rushed. In a sense this is a book about being, not doing, and being is a difficult status to articulate—not necessarily action-driven, a stillness as much as movement. Once the reader can embrace this state, The Man Who Walked Away offers a great deal of satisfaction.
March 05 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant by Jose Angel N. (University of Illinois Press)
Illegal, like its author, doesn’t fit into any of the usual categories. Because the author is undocumented, the book is being published without his full name, but it is being published—and by a university press at that. Jose Angel N., the author, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990s. He’d had a ninth grade education up to that point, came from an impoverished community, and was eager for hard work and regular pay. He wound up in Chicago, working first as a dish washer, then slowly making his way up to waiter.
While working as a dish washer, he pursued a GED. After the GED, he entered university. Once he’d graduated, he went on to graduate school. His major? Philosophy. Ultimately, he became a professional translator, married, began to raise a family,and lived what from he outside would look like the American Dream.
As American immigration laws tightened, he quit his job, rather than risk being identified and deported. Presently he’s a “house husband,” watching the ongoing bluster and stasis that is American immigration policy.
In a way, Illegal frustrates because it isn’t the “typical” story of an undocumented life. If one is looking for a narrative that can serve as an exemplar of the experiences of thousands, Illegal isn’t it. But “typical” is a label that rarely applies on the individual level. The label tells us more about those using it, ourselves, than it does about those we might apply it to. The fact is, as Jose Angel N. demonstrates, the U.S. undocumented population is hugely diverse, contributing to our communities and economies on multiple levels.
This book is as much meditation as autobiography, not surprising coming from a philosophy major. We are offered carefully examined snapshots of the intellectual and emotional experience of a life lived “in the shadows” (as one other reviewer rather dramatically put it). On a day-to-day basis, the author faces small events that, because of his immigration status, represent real dangers. Want to buy a beer at the ballpark? You can’t if your state doesn’t issue driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. Having a conversation about the current Presidential election with workplace colleagues? Think carefully about how not to reveal that you cannot vote; don’t get too engaged, so that others wonder why you aren’t wearing that “I’ve Voted” sticker come election day; remember your story, so it remains consistent.
Illegal gives testimony to both the promise the U.S. still holds for those outside its borders and to the contributions made by those often berated as “illegals.” Reading it will leave you, like the author, mourning the lack of a real national dialogue and policy on immigration, one that moves beyond political posturing and serves both immigrant and nation alike.
March 03 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, by Kelly Cogswell (University of Minnesota Press)
Eating Fire opens in 1992. The Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization is fighting for the right to march in New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade; anti-gay violence is prevalent; the AIDS epidemic is underway; mainstream gay and lesbian activist groups are rejecting their fringes in an effort to present themselves as normal and “framing their campaign as a question of abstract equality and civil rights, and not about those creepy flesh-and-blood homos.”
The author, Kelly Cogswell has arrived in New York from Kentucky, having abandoned her Southern Baptist faith, ready to live a life full of art, words, and action. She is one of the founding members of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct-action group determined to keep the fringe at the heart of things, celebrating and empowering this part of the community, rather than sweeping it under a (very tasteful, I’m sure) rug.
Cogswell’s voice is sure, brimming with passion and intelligence. She drops readers into the middle of this historical moment, taking them on a wild and wide-ranging ride. She builds a home for herself in the Lesbian Avengers, whose organizing includes the principle that “Butch, femme and androgynous dykes, leather queers, drag kings and queens, transsexuals and trans-genders will not be thrown to the wolves so that straight-acting ‘gay people’ can beg for acceptance at our expense.”
One of the most valuable messages of Cogswell’s book is that direct action is an essential tool for political change: “Everybody should know how to use it. Especially dykes who rarely have lobbyists or representatives or cultural power…. Every time the Avengers pulled off an action, we weren’t just making lesbians visible or trying to change society. We were changing lesbians. Creating a new kind of dyke who saw public space as hers, who could step out into the street and make noise, be herself, feel at home in the world. In some ways, we were the last utopian group of the millennium, aiming not only for justice, but for pure freedom.” This mix of celebration, self-affirmation, wicked humor and outrage is all too rare in the U.S.’s current political discussions, and our current era is lessened by this fact.
Eating Fire captures the way that the internet transformed activism, allowing groups and individuals to produce low-cost, high-quality reporting, argument, and education. At one point in her book, Cogswell, whose lightening-quick mind has her offering claims and rebuttals one after another, gives the role of technology in the more recent “Arab Spring,” a nod, while reminding us that revolution requires much more than a strong on-line presence and regular tweets: “the triumph of nonviolent organizing [that was the Arab Spring] was getting called a revolution by the internet despite crowds in the street day after day, despite years of activism.”
Reading this book can remind us to be our own bravest, weirdest selves: “Visibility isn’t change itself, but a kind of wedge others can follow.” In a time when the politics of visibility seems much more about obstructionism than creativity, we need this book, this reminder of what we have done—not because we need to return to the past, but because of the necessity of working towards a transformative future.
February 28 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
The Daring Ladies of Lowell: A Novel, Kate Alcott (Doubleday)
My love for historical fiction focused on the labor movement began with Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven. Since reading that novel (almost twenty-five years ago now!), my bookstore radar has led me to other novels treating similar themes. The newest such novel I’ve encountered is Kate Alcott’s The Daring Ladies of Lowell, and it’s a lovely addition to the genre.
You may or may not be familiar with the Lowell textile mills. As a quilter with a love of reproduction textiles (fabrics based on swatches from different historical periods), I know about the Lowell girls and the textiles they produced. Henry Cabot Lowell was a U.S. “entrepreneur” who visited British textile mills, memorized their layouts and the construction of their machinery, then returned to the U.S. with a head full of trade secrets and went into business for himself. The first U.S. textile mill was built in 1823 and more followed quickly, with most of them located alongside New England rivers that provided the power that ran machinery.
Early on, these Mills began hiring female employees. They became an important source of employment for young women who wanted to leave the demands of farm life and who dreamed of a more independence than had heretofore been possible. Still, the opportunities the mills provided came at a price—the labor was demanding, with thirteen-hour work days, dangerous equipment, and pay that was half what the men working for the mills earned. Mill girls lived in dormitories and had their behavior closely monitored by employers who worried about the public reputations of “their” girls. Any perceived “loose” behavior was grounds for immediate firing.
The Daring Ladies of Lowell is set in such a mill and one of its main plot lines focuses on the murder of a mill girl that’s based on incompletely documented press reports from the time. Alcott has used the historical information available, filling out the story with her own imagination. This is a work of fiction, but it reads true.
Two other key plot lines focus on the burgeoning labor movement and a problematic romance between a son of the mill owner and one of the mill girls. These different themes are interwoven effectively. Much to my relief, this novel never degenerated into romance, which I feared it might. Not that I have anything against romance—but I do object to the way it often operates in deus ex machina fashion to deliver individual women from the injustices of their time, while glossing over the lives of the many other women in similar straits, who don’t catch the eye of the wealthy landowner or the earl or the industrial baron or whomever.
This novel makes for engaging reading as we share the lives of these young women and watch their autonomy and courage increase as they’re granted the opportunity to be self-supporting. It’s worth reading both for historical context and narrative. It won’t teach you as much as a larger non-fiction work on the same topic and, despite the author’s best efforts, may minimize some of the challenges the mill girls faced, but it brings the era to life in a way that will move you to further reading, both fiction and non-fiction.
February 26 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager
Eric Jager’s Blood Royal (in bookstores beginning tomorrow) offers a fascinating look at a key moment in French history and its aftermath: the 1407 murder of Louis of Orleans. If this tale were historical fiction, I might dismiss it as unbelievably convoluted, but this is non-fiction, drawing particularly on a lengthy (30 feet!) parchment roll documenting the work of Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris, in investigating this murder. Forget Eugene Francois Vidoq—Guillaume is the original French detective and rather a good one at that.
At the start of the 15th Century, France was unstable, to say the least. Partway through the Hundred Years’ War, the country was ruled by Charles VI, whose sobriquets included both “the beloved” and “the mad.” Prone to lapses in sanity that could last for a few weeks to more than a year, Charles apparently ruled well when he was able, but when he wasn’t his brother Louis of Orleans ruled in his stead. As one of a group of Valois brothers, cousins, and uncles who made up the nobility of France, Louis was a not-undeserving lightning rod for discontent among the masses and his fellow nobility.
Once Louis has been murdered, Guillaume has the unenviable task of finding those responsible. His methods included techniques we would find familiar: depositions, searches for physical evidence. They also included methods that are no longer in use: the chaining of streets and rivers to slow traffic, the locking of city gates, and (though he seems not to have resorted to this on the case of Louis’ murder) torture.
I don’t want to offer any spoilers here (though if you want them, you can easily consult the historical record). In its best moments, this book reads like an exquisitely crafted detective novel, with rich, precise prose and pacing that make it hard to stop reading. Near the end, the book becomes slightly less engaging as it moves from Guillaume’s story to a tale of in-fighting among French noble factions (all of whom were willing to make temporary alliance with the English enemy), with just a bit of Joan of Arc and her defense of the Dauphin thrown in. Without Guillaume’s character, who with his erudition and critical thinking seems to bridge the gap between his medieval era and the reader’s modern one, the book feels less solidly structured and loses its narrative momentum. But even in its weaker moments (and what’s weak here is stronger than the bulk of popular history on the market) the book remains compelling.
One of the delights of this book is that it depicts of ordinary lives along with those of the nobility that are usually better documented. Guillaume and his staff take depositions from a landlord, several barbers, a nursing mother, and other common citizens, leaving a record that is remarkable not only for its rarity, but for its detail.
This is a book that will appeal to a wide readership: fans of historical fiction, of history proper, and of mystery and detective novels. Rather than spreading the narrative too thin in melding these genres, Jager offers pleasures, and fascinating information, for everyone.
February 24 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit (Bloombury USA)
I expect that most reviews of Tarashea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos will begin as this one does, by noting that the entire work is written in the first person plural. The Wives of Los Alamos doesn’t contain a number of individual characters; instead, it is people by a single, plural “character,” a chorus singing in unison. This plural voice is the central fact of the novel, and it shapes the reader’s experience. Let me give you a quick sample from the opening:
We were European women born in Southampton and Hamburg, Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio, or Southern women from Mississippi or Texas, and no matter who we were we wanted nothing to do with starting all over again, and so we paused, we exhaled, and we asked, What part of the Southwest?
Reading the first chapter, I found the “We” unsettling, not knowing of whom it was comprised.
Reading the second chapter, I found the “We” exhilarating, a stylistic device that felt almost musical in the way it simultaneously documented multiple experiences.
Further in, I found it alienating. While individual names were mentioned, the plural voice had no name besides “We,” so the central figures of the novel remained strangely disembodied. I could not, as I usually do, feel that I was getting to know them, building my own relationship with them.
And after a while, it became tedious: a clever idea that had been taken too far, an effect that wasn’t worth its cost in terms of plot and characterization. I felt I wasn’t reading a novel so much as a hugely overgrown, kudzu vine of a prose-poem. I mourned the lack of an editor who put her foot down, who insisted on content as well as style.
But then the bomb is made. The bomb is made; it is dropped on Hiroshima; it is dropped on Nagasaki. Photos come back from the blast area: shadows where people were instantly incinerated, others of individuals dying quickly from radiation burns or more slowly from radiation poisoning. And at this moment, the “We” became absolutely essential.
The “We” became essential because the scale of the bomb was beyond individual experience, because it evoked a multitude of responses that could only be embodied in a plural voice. As a reader I needed that simultaneous chorus of shock and fear and self-justification and weariness and horror and, even, indifference. I became deeply grateful that this story hadn’t been trusted to the voice, the perspective of a single narrator.
The Wives of Los Alamos is a brilliant piece of work. Yes, the voice wearies after a while, but once it becomes essential it remains essential. I feel deeply grateful that Tarashea Nesbit understood that fact and let it shape her work and my experience as a reader.
February 20 2014 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments »
A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger (William Morrow)
I spotted A Burnable Book early on Goodreads and was absolutely itching to get a review copy. A story set in the 14th Century with a plot that features heretical literature and Geoffrey Chaucer—what reader in her right mind could resist that?
The publicity likens A Burnable Book to An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Name of the Rose. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s certainly no insult to the latter two to put them in the company of the first. Like those books, A Burnable Book is a delightfully “chewy” read: generous in length and filled with period detail.
Bruce Holsinger is a scholar specializing in medieval literature, and I trust him to get the details right. He ends the book with a long letter to the reader discussing his research and sources. The transsexual (my label here, the term didn’t exist in her own time) prostitute is based on 14th Century legal records of an interrogation of just such an individual. And I expect that the novel’s Gropecunt Lane had its real-world counterpart, likely with the same, rather arresting name.
Driven by political manouvering, the novel follows multiple paths of betrayal, abuse of power—even attempted regicide—all of which seem to result from the burnable book of the title, a prophecy of the deaths of England’s first thirteen kings.
A Burnable Book is the sort of piece you want to pick up when you have plenty of time for reading and the mental energy to follow a complex plot with a large cast of characters. It needs to be read, if not in one sitting, then over the course of a few days. That’s partly so one can keep the many details fresh in one’s mind—but even more an acknowledgement of what a compelling reading it is. Regardless of what one’s intentions are, this is the sort of book that can’t be easily put down.
February 19 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (Scribner)
Turn of the 20th Century Coney Island. A young woman trained to impersonate a mermaid. A Jewish photographer, refugee from Ukrainian pograms, fleeing his own cultural heritage. A former mob boss turned horse-whisperer. A highly cultivated wolf-man, whose life has been transformed by Jane Eyre. A hermit with a pet wolf. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. A mysterious disappearance. What more do I have to tell you to get you to reach for this book?
Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is an extraordinary thing itself. Yes, it has all of the above elements, any one of which would make me pick it up in a bookstore and think about making a purchase. What it also has is a rich storyline, with engaging, complicated characters, and a trio of narrative voices that leave one hungry for more.
The first two characters I mentioned, the mermaid and the photographer, provide two of the narrative voices. The third is a traditional omniscient narrator. Each chapter opens in one of the two character voices, then transitions to the omniscient narrator. In odd-numbered chapters we get the mermaid. In even-numbered chapters we get the photographer. And each of the three voices sings, distinct and true, creating a story that lets us move in and out of the hearts of its characters, seeing events from multiple perspectives.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things balances dark and light. It’s full of menace, but never becomes hopeless. This is one of those novels that’s worth purchasing while it’s still only available in hardback.
February 18 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments »