Archive for the '2014 Books' Category

“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

Thursday, September 4th, 2014


Holy cats, people, why didn’t anyone tell me how awesome David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was?

Oh, right, everyone did, including my husband. He doesn’t urge books on me often, thus he gets really annoyed when I put him off. Cloud Atlas I put off because it’s over 500 pages and looked dense and intimidating. Imagine my surprise when I tore through it in less than a week, a busy week at that. It’s the kind of book that makes me resent anything and everything that makes me put it down

There are five novellas that stop mid-story on cliffhangers, with a sixth one in the middle before returning in reverse order to the previous five, taking up where each left off. I could begin to detail the many connections and overlaps, but I’d be here all day. I have a whole list of sites to visit to nerdishly obsess over this book once I get various deadlines met. I don’t nerdishly obsess over just any books, you know. If you, like me, have started it before and put it down pick it back up, and keep going. Once you get going, it’s hard to stop.

The novellas are written in different styles, with different but overlapping characters. This book is clever, thoughtful, intelligent, and a great, great read. Which means I’ll want to go back and read everything he’s written, because apparently all his books together overlap, just like this novel.

Oh, this is going to be a fun ride. And Cloud Atlas has earned a spot on our “books we like so much we own multiple copies” shelf. Because we are obsessive nerds.

“Seconds” by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Thursday, September 4th, 2014


Seconds is a standalone graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, author/illustrator of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. Scott Pilgrim was about a twenty-something Canadian slacker boy. Seconds features Katie, a 29-year-old chef on the verge of opening her own restaurant.

Katie has a gorgeous ex named Max, a weird server working for her named Hazel, a money pit of a new restaurant, and a hot affair going with the new chef at Seconds. Katie starts having weird dreams, and after a rough night, she finds something weird in the dresser that came with the house. If she eats a mushroom and writes down something she regrets, she gets a second chance to make it right. Then things get really weird.

Seconds is funny and charming, with manga-influenced art and its Japanese folk mythology.

One of my favorite aspects was when the narrator of the story would argue with Katie, and the words would clash with the pictures. From page 11, which you need to see to get the full effect:

Narrator: Katie was stressed out.
Katie: I’m perfectly fine.
Narrator: She was sleeping too little, worrying too much, feeling old.
Katie: She was in her twenties and young and totally great.
Narrator: At 29, she felt like everything was slipping away.
Katie: Um, no.
Narrator:…and she was talking to herself more than usual.
Katie: [scribbly ball of frustration or cursing]

It’s also a lovely coming-of-age tale about that liminal time of 29 when big, scary things often happen in life, and an entertaining, sometimes scary meditation on the old adage of “Be careful what you wish for.”

“Fortunately, the Milk” by Neil Gaiman

Friday, August 29th, 2014

See my most recent post on The Ocean at the End of the Lane for my complicated reader “relationship” with Gaiman. I’m not anti-Gaiman. I’m just anti-pedestal-i-zation of Gaiman. And Fortunately the Milk illustrates why.

It’s a charming, lovely little book. Little in size, little in scope and ambition. A family is out of milk, Dad runs to the store, comes back long hours later to tell a tale fantastic. The illustrations by Skottie Young are funny, though they don’t always match the text. And the story the dad tells is also funny. Both my 8 and 11 year-old sons read and enjoyed it, as did I. But we don’t feel moved to add it to our permanent collection. An entertaining diversion. That is all.

“We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart

Friday, August 29th, 2014


E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is a young-adult mystery novel. Every review of it mentions its twist of an ending (see, and now this one has, too). As I read, there were many times I thought I knew exactly what was coming. I didn’t.

The book is narrated by Cadence Sinclair, a privileged girl who spends her summers on her family’s private island off Martha’s Vineyard.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure.
The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.

The novel moves back and forth in time, but does a good job of grounding the reader in the when. We know immediately that Cadence had an accident, and the rest of the book is both Cadence and the reader piecing together what happened. My theories changed as I went along, and I dreaded being right. But hats off to Lockhart. All my guesses were wrong, and the answer not only surprised me, but held up supported by all that had gone before. My one tiny quibble was the absence of an explanation about the name “Liars” for Cadence and her cousins.

In any case, it’s a heck of an ending, and a thumping good read, with some nice meditations on white privilege to make it more substantial that just a beach read.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Friday, August 29th, 2014

I have a complicated reader “relationship” with Neil Gaiman. Gaiman authored Sandman, my gateway title into comic books, where I’ve been romping happily for the last 24 years. Over the last 24 years, his status has a geek icon has grown. While I appreciate some of his later works, I think the comics writing was better, and the praise far outstrips the work its heaped on. I’m not anti-Gaiman, just anti-pedestal-i-zation of Gaiman.

The first time I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was soon after I’d read Julian Barnes’ Man Booker prize winnerThe Sense of an Ending. The books share a common theme of a middle-aged man with a bad memory looking back on an encounter with a vibrant female in his youth whom he grievously harmed. Gaiman’s book is full of magic and myth but only serviceable prose. But for two scenes, it could fit with his works for children. Barnes’ is meticulously crafted, with stop-in-your-tracks prose; it is decidedly adult both in theme and craft. Reading the two together made me like Ocean less.

On a second read for one of my book groups, I found The Ocean at the End of the Lane compulsively readable, even though I knew the end. It has a terrific need-to-know-what-happens-next factor. I think people misidentify it a fantasy. I find it contains more elements of horror. In the end, though, it felt like empty calories, spent with one of my least favorite character types, the regretful middle-aged white man. I was glad to leave behind the book and its narrator, though I’d happily spend time with the Hempstock women again, which I tried to do by re-reading Gaiman and Charles Vess’ Stardust graphic novel. It does contain Hempstocks, but not the interesting ones.

I end this entry no less conflicted than when I began.

Draw your own conclusions. And please comment if you’ve read it.

“Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014


I read Marjane Satrapi’s two comic-book memoirs, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, years ago when they were released in the US. I recently selected them for one of my book groups, as some members had never read a graphic novel or memoir. Not only do I think they are accessible and compelling, but I think they’re great examples of the comics medium, showcasing how deceptively simple black and white art can convey a story with multiple layers and meanings.

Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood, is about Marjane’s youth in Iran, where her parents are wealthy intellectuals. She provides history of the country, as well as numerous small but telling details of her life, and her parents lives, under the increasingly repressive religious regime of the Ayatollah after the Shah was deposed.

Satrapi and I are nearly the same age. Some of my first political memories are of the hostages in Iran, and the US media’s portrayal of heroes and villains in the uprising. I only wish I’d had a book like this when I was younger, but it’s better late than never.

Persepolis 2:The Story of a Return, is harder to like, but a more complicated book. In the first book, Marji is a charming child, and a pawn of the history happening around her. In book 2, she grows to adolescence, and adulthood, making flawed and human mistakes while still portraying the evolving political environment and oppression, as well as her and her friends and families small rebellions within it.

The volumes are available separately, or together in a collected version. Additionally, there is an animated film for which Satrapi was a collaborator. It is lovely and evocative, both similar and different to the books, but leveraging motion and sound to tell the story in different ways. If you haven’t read the books, do so, then see the movie.

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014


A friend invited me to a book discussion of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic historical novels Boxers and Saints, so I figured I’d finally seize the synchronicity and pick up Yang’s highly acclaimed, award-winning first graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

The stories of three beings interweave: the ancient Monkey King of China, a boy named Jin Wang moving to a new school in the US, and an American white boy named Danny whose cousin, Chin Kee, visits and embarrasses him on a regular basis.

I enjoyed the exploits of the monkey king and Jin’s story. Less clear to me, and far less enjoyable (though not intended to be) were the episodes with boring Danny and his offensively caricatured cousin Chin Kee, embodying numerous American stereotypes of Asians, and set to a visual laugh track. These sections were discomforting, deliberately confronting racist stereotypes, and felt less balanced than the other two storylines when all three intersected.

I wanted to really like this book, I can see why it’s so highly praised, I question my reasons for merely liking it but in the end, that’s what it was: I liked it.

“Sex Criminals: One Weird Trick” by Matt Fraction

Monday, August 25th, 2014


As I try to catch up on my book blogging, I keep an eye out for opportunities to condense and collapse, two books by an author, or graphic novels. Should I pair a graphic novel with the novel that spurred me to re-read it? Or should I pair it with the other graphic novel I read near it, which was superficially very different, yet perhaps lurkingly the same. As I type this, I’ve gone with the latter, but we’ll see how things end up. I may have to give each of them their own entry.

Let’s just get this out of the way, then, especially for you kind readers who visit from Semicolon’s Review of Books. One of the graphic novels is a collection of the series Sex Criminals: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. It was recommended by a friend who leads a local book group. I had passed on it because of its title both when I saw the comic coming out monthly and when I saw it collected, but my friend was adamant that it was great, so I gambled the $9.99 (well played, Image Comics marketing) for the collection, and ended up glad I did. While it is definitely weird, and about sex, it isn’t depraved. In fact, it’s often kind of sweet. Really!

Suzie is an average young woman who works in a library about to be bought by a large corporation. There is one weird thing about her, though. When she has an orgasm, time stops, and she can wander around in it while others are frozen. One night at a party, she and a guy named Jon hit it off, and she is startled to learn he has the same ability. Jon is a book-loving geek, and he and Suzie are quickly fascinated and infatuated with one another. With their rising passion, they conceive the idea to rob the bank that’s destroying the library and buy back the books with what they steal. They’re like Robin Hood, with orgasms. Unfortunately, they’re alarmed to find there are some sort of sex police who can also move in stopped time, intent on stopping Suzie and Jon, no matter how well intentioned.

Sex Criminals is one weird trick, indeed. Suzie and Jon are so charming, though, and the questions about who and what the time police are, have me waiting eagerly for the next collection. So eagerly, in fact, that I am now reading it monthly, not waiting for the trade.

OK, well, there you go. Apparently, I think Sex Criminals deserves its own entry.

“Rat Girl” by Kristin Hersh

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014


Every once in a while, my husband urges a book on me. He doesn’t do it often. This might be to his credit, but he admitted recently it’s a comparative scale. He really wants me to read Cloud Atlas so he can re-read it and we can watch the film together. So everything he reads that he wants to recommend, he asks, do I want her to read it more than I want her to read Cloud Atlas? In rare cases, the answer is yes, as with Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh.

If Americans thought music and art belonged together, they wouldn’t have the Grammys.

Rat Girl is Hersh’s memoir of 1985. She was enrolled in college but homeless by choice, and a member of a rising band in the Boston punk scene. She also had increasing mental difficulties tied to a childhood car accident.

She refers to her half sister, Tea, who in real life is her stepsister Tanya Donnelly, who went on to The Breeders and Belly. We also get to meet Betty, Kristin’s classmate at college before she moves to Boston with the band. Betty is older and claims to have a colorful Hollywood past. The reader, like Kristin, wonders throughout if Betty is crazy, a liar, or telling the truth.

Two significant things happen in the last part of the book. Unfortunately, I found them detailed on the book cover, and would much rather have been surprised by them unfolding. So if you read the book, try not to read about it.

With its evocative prose-poetry, detailing of the rising punk scene, and magical realism, the book reminded me strongly of Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels series of young-adult novels, which began with Weetzie Bat.

I am abashed to say I dragged my feet when my husband suggested it. I didn’t particularly care for the music of Throwing Muses, or Hersh’s voice. So it was interesting to read that Hersh doesn’t think she has a good singing voice, and is surprised by the band’s success. They wrote songs for themselves; that other people liked them too was a bonus.

I enjoyed getting insight into Hersh’s post-trauma brain, and her lovely and disturbing creative process.

“Playing with Fire” by Dani Shapiro

Friday, August 8th, 2014

After I read and admired Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, I wanted to read her fiction, to see the works she referred to in that book. I had to resort to an inter-library loan to get my hand on Dani Shapiro’s first novel, Playing with Fire, which is out of print and not available electronically.

Lucy Greenberg leaves for Smith College, and meets Carolyn, her assured and mysterious roommate. Lucy grew up in an observant Orthodox Jewish home. Carolyn’s mother is glamourous, and her stepfather is wealthy and powerful. As the two families intersect, Lucy’s world gets blown apart. Then something truly terrible happens. The format, in which Lucy writes her version of the story to Carolyn, didn’t always work for me, but the story itself utterly enthralled me.

There are many versions to this story, Carolyn. You have yours, I have mine, he has his. I never meant to hurt you, but this, of course, is a moot point.

You are somewhere in New York City. You are in restaurants, at the opera, in seedy Irish bars, on the subway Even though I am thousands of miles, light-years away, I imagine I see you on every street corner

Carolyn, if I never ask you anything else, I must ask you this: is this what you wanted, perhaps from the very beginning?

I tore through this book. It reminded me of a female version of Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It’s a coming of age novel about a girl whose world goes from small to huge to unimaginable in a short space of time. There are so many things touched on here: family, religion, sex and sexuality, education, loss, and finding oneself. I’m sorry the book is out of print, because I wanted to give a copy to my sister, to whom I had recommended it. I look forward to reading Shapiro’s later book, Slow Motion, her memoir about many of the things she fictionalized in Playing with Fire.

“Just Let Me Lie Down” by Kristin Van Ogtrop

Saturday, July 19th, 2014


A friend recommended Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom by Kristin Van Ogtrop. I hesitated, because Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple magazine, of which I’m not a fan.

I call it Fake Simple, because it purports to make life easier by recommending things that either cost a bunch of money (buy a bunch of organizers from The Container Store!), are actually work intensive (clean your bookcases in 12 easy steps!), or are lame (5 different uses for a dryer sheet!).

To its credit, Real Simple has some good articles, and it’s pretty to look at. Similarly, while I had some problems with the book, there was also some stuff that made me laugh, or want to shake my fist in the air and yell, “Yessss!” Structured as a dictionary of terms like “Ignore the Tray”, and “Que Sera Sera-ism”, it’s really a series of short essays. It would be an ideal bathroom book.

The main problem I had is Van Ogtrop is clearly conflicted about working and parenting. It reminded me of that line in Dead Again, where Robin Williams says

Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.

Parenting cannot be the either/or that smoking can. She wants to be a parent with a job? Great! Be that. Don’t waver among celebrating your accomplishments, envying what you imagine the opposite is, then sour-graping that it wouldn’t work for you anyway.

Here’s my advice: Life is complicated. Make your choices and the compromises they entail, live with them, and embrace the messy rich life that results.

On the positive side, there were many things that worked for me, and I could relate to. I gave up the corporate rat race when my elder son had three ear infections in five months of daycare, before he was nine months old. I’m not a “working mother” by most people’s definition anymore, since I am a freelance writer who works from home. But every parent is a working parent, whether they have the luxury to choose to have a job or not, so there’s lots of empathize with and appreciate.

I love that in her entry on “Having it All” which is appropriately in quotes, she says it would include:

Coworkers who never use “reply all”

I also love that her entry to First Do No Harm begins:

What you must constantly remind yourself when you’re tempted to kill one of your children.

Because, while I know there are some parents out there who are horrified by that sentence, I am not one of them. I say, Amen, sister.

every boy between the ages of five and fifteen thinks that putting the clothes next to the hamper is the same thing as putting clothes inside it.

I have a 42yo in my house who also can’t always quite get the clothes in the basket.

List Paradox: The Catch-22 of managing your life. You make a to-do list because it enables you to feel as if you are in conrol of your life and helps you see what you can accomplish. Therefore it boosts your self-esteem. However there will always be more items on your list than you can actually cross off, which makes you feel worse.

I periodically swear off lists. Currently, I’m off the list wagon, but I sense a renunciation coming soon.

Mission Statement: The explanation you are forced to provide to children or coworkers whenever you want the group to do something that is meeting intense resistant. Examples include family trips to museums, budget cutting.

This exactly describes my attempts to institute No-Screen Sundays in our house.

Vanishing Act: The fantasy-life maneuver in which you suddenly disappear.

When I was expecting, a new-dad friend of ours, a stand-up guy with a steady job and a suit, told us about his Vanishing Act fantasy. It was useful advice to know that even someone like him struggled with parenthood and the non-Hallmark-Card-ness of it.

In the end, the best part of this book was it made me look hard at my own choices, and embrace them all over again.

“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014


Earlier this year I visited Walden Pond with my family. It was early April, there was still ice on the pond, and the day was quiet, cool, and lovely.

In the adjoining bookstore, the standing contradiction to Thoreau’s own “Simplify, Simplify,” which you can get on a T-short or a mug, my husband G and I decided it was long past time to actually read Walden, so we hemmed and hawed and finally bought the lovely Everyman’s edition.

G tried to read it. Gave up. Said it was boring. I chose it for one of my book groups, determined to read it.

G was not wrong. There are parts that are really boring. In fact, I had trouble reading this and staying awake. Given that my two key reading times are after lunch and before bed, that became a problem.

I was also surprised to find him often braggy and insufferable, especially in the opening long section “Economy” as when he said

I have lived some thirty days on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. (8)

The passage in which he exhorts a young farmer to not work so hard and buy less food was also irritating.

In his defense, he was 28 when he began this book, and it’s easy to feel superior when you’re young, white, male, healthy, and can dinner at your mom’s or your friend Emerson’s all the time. A sobering fact was realizing that I’ve lived a few years longer than he did. And his book was full or some beautiful nature writing, as in the ant-war passage in Brute Neighbors, as well as stunning sentences that made me stop to chew them over.

One of my favorites of all: Beware of all enterprise that require new clothes. (21)

There the usual suspects:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (7)

and of course,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (80)

Part of the beauty of the book is getting a fuller picture of what he means by this, but also knowing that his 2 year experiment was just that–he didn’t (couldn’t?) live his life that way.

Some more worth pondering:

In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high. (24)

the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it (27)

Our life is frittered away by detail. (81)

this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxtury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while but what we have to stand on tip to to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to (93)

rather as I had to do to read Walden.

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good. (187)

and, expanding on this a few pages later:

We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own that we may be well, yet not pure. (195)

As for why his nature writing has endured, this passage spoke to me:

I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlour of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. (252)

This combined both nature and philosophy:

our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it, and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. (278)

And of many parts of the conclusion, I’ll select this, though there are many more I flagged:

if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. (286)

In conclusion of my own, Walden is not an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one. If you can sift through the dross and stay awake, there are treasures aplenty.

“Boxers” and “Saints” by Gene Luen Yang

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

boxers saints

As if I don’t have enough book groups–I attend three on a regular basis–a friend asked if I wanted to attend a graphic novel discussion of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints.

Oh, wait, and I’m doing a readalong of Moby Dick, does that count? And reading a string of books along with my boys this summer. So I probably shouldn’t have said yes but did anyway. Story of my life. I set aside Moby and Walden (which, frankly, aren’t that hard to put down, though they kind of put me down–to sleep that is) and picked up Yang’s graphic novels, which are companions and meant to be read together, ideally with Boxers (the big one) first.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, a boy in 1898 China who sees his family and village devastated by the effects of foreigners and Christianity. He and others join together, harnessing the power of Chinese gods to defend against the “foreign devils.” But what happens when the tenets of kung fu clash with their attempt to preserve their culture and beliefs?

Saints is the story of Four-Girl, befriended and taken in by Christians. She sees visions, first from Chinese myth and later from Christian myth. She is a pleasingly complex character, and I was more drawn in to her story than to Bao’s. The stories intersect, and I was glad to still have Boxers at hand to refer back to.

Like Yang’s autobiographical American Born Chinese, these contain history, personal stories, and magical realism. I knew little about the Boxer rebellion, and was glad to read about it.

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

Thursday, June 26th, 2014


A friend invited me to a book discussion of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic historical novels Boxers and Saints, so I figured I’d finally seize the synchronicity and pick up Yang’s highly acclaimed, award-winning first graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

The stories of three beings interweave: the ancient Monkey King of China, a boy named Jin Wang moving to a new school in the US, and an American white boy named Danny whose cousin, Chin Kee, visits and embarrasses him on a regular basis.

I enjoyed the exploits of the monkey king and Jin’s story. Less clear to me, and far less enjoyable (though not intended to be) were the episodes with boring Danny and his offensively caricatured cousin Chin Kee, embodying numerous American stereotypes of Asians, and set to a visual laugh track. These sections were discomforting, deliberately confronting racist stereotypes, and felt less balanced than the other two story lines when all three intersected.

I wanted to really like this book, I can see why it’s so highly praised, I question my reasons for merely liking it but in the end, that’s what it was: I liked it.

“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


Neither Wolf nor Dog is another one of those, “I probably wouldn’t have read it on my own and only did because of book group and I’m glad I did” books.

Nerburn, a Minnesota writer with a wife and kid, is summoned peremptorily to a distant Native American reservation where an old Lakota man asks him to help write a book. This is that book. It could have been a cringe-worthy cliche of a white-man telling a Native’s story. And since that’s what it is, it always has that obstacle to overcome. As much as it can, it does.

To do that, Nerburn narrates the whole of things–not only the sermons and talks Dan delivers, but the behavior of the hound who travels with them, plus commentary from Dan’s friend Grover when they go on “a little trip” across country. Nerburn also includes an often unflattering narrative of his own comments and thoughts on the trip, as well as his constant desire to transcend the problem of a person of privilege narrating a person of poverty’s story.

Think of that Thoreau fellow. I’ve read some of his books. He went out and lived in a shack and looked at a pond. Now he’s one of your heroes. If I go out and live in a shack and look at a pond, pretty soon I’ll have so many damn social workers beating on my door that I won’t be able to sleep.

They’ll start scribbling in some damn notebook: ‘No initiative. No self-esteem.’ They’ll write reports, get grants, start some government program with a bunch of forms. Say it’s to help us.

That’s what happened with allotment. They said they were trying to help us. They cut up our reservations into chunks and told us we had to be farmers. When we didn’t farm, they said we were lazy. I don’t remember anything about Thoreau being a farmer. He mostly talked about how great it was to do nothing, then he went and ate dinner at his friend’s house. He didn’t want to farm and he’s a hero. We don’t want to farm and we’re lazy. Send us to a social worker…

White people don’t know what they want. They want these big houses and all kinds of things, they they want to be close to the earth, too. They get cabins, they go hunting, they go camping, they say it makes them close to the earth. But they really think it’s okay only because they have all these other things. We Indians, we lie in cabins and hunt, but it’s not okay because we don’t turn around and go back to big houses and big jobs. We don’t need two lives like white people. The only reason that Thoreau fellow is a hero is because he lived two lives, otherwise he just would have been a bum. They would have sent social workers to his house…

For white people there are only two types of Indians. Drunken bums and noble Indians…

The ones who see us all as wise men don’t care about Indians at all. They just care about the idea of Indians. It’s just another way of stealing our humanity and making us into a fantasy that fits the need of white people.

You want to know how to be like Indians? Live close to the earth. Get rid of some of your things. Help each other. Talk to the Creator. Be quiet more. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.

Don’t blame other people for your troubles and don’t try to make people into something they’re not. (183-5)

I loved spending time with these people. I often wanted to tell Nerburn to shut up and listen, which is what Dan said to him often. Reading this book made me want to shut up and listen. It made me aware of and uncomfortable in my white privilege. It’s one of a string of non-fiction memoir-y books I’m reading now, not a deliberate choice, but one whose surfacing in my life at this point is probably not random.

“Lit” by Mary Karr

Monday, June 16th, 2014


A friend of mine recently read an excerpt of something I’m working on. Her response was “Go read Lit by Mary Karr and then get to work.” I’d been intending to read Lit for years (sound familiar? how often do I say this?) and had hesitated because while I liked and admired Karr’s first memoir, Liar’s Club, I hadn’t read the second one, Cherry, and because I’m more than a little compulsive about these things, I didn’t want to jump to #3. But when I found a copy of Lit at the bookstore and not Cherry, I decided to make the jump.

This book hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s a continuation of Karr’s history with her crazy family, but also of her first marriage, early motherhood, and how alcoholism soaked into all of that. It’s also about her struggles to learn and write and earn her way into the things that seem to keep falling into her lap.

But I’m not ready to stop listening to the screwed-up inner voice that’s been ordering me around for a lifetime. My head thinks it can kill me… and go on living without me.

Karr is a terrific chronicler of her life, and I especially appreciated her obvious attempts to play fair in describing a deteriorating marriage. I did feel sometimes her prose was a little too much, e.g. a “snail” of blood on the floor” stopped me and made me debate in my head the pros and cons of the usage, when I really always just wanted to keep reading and find out what happened. I was especially reading to get to the part where she becomes friends (and more) with poor, dead, David Foster Wallace.

I stopped drinking when I was relatively young–21. I’m fortunate to have avoided a lot of the wreckage that Karr details here. But I could relate to enough of it that it was a sobering reminder (not a pun, a deliberate double entendre, as is the title of the book: Lit for drunk, and for Literature) of why I stopped drinking, and why I still don’t. Interesting to me is how many people, including those who knew me back when I was the drunk one, ask me whether I think I could start drinking again, and wonder why I don’t.

This book. This is why I don’t.

Review: “Blessed Are the Dead” by Kristi Belcamino

Friday, June 13th, 2014


Disclaimer: Kristi is a friend and I got to high-five her when she got her book deal for this and its sequels so I’m biased, but trust me, this is a good book.

Blessed Are the Dead by Kristi Belcamino is thumping good read about a serial killer and the newspaper reporter who becomes the Clarice Starling to his Hannibal Lecter. Gabriella is a great main character: flawed, relate-able, hard-nosed and Italian Catholic.

I have some crack sources–cops who call me, and say, “Hey, there’s a dead body in Civic Park, try not to beat the homicide detectives there.

I loved the details of the newsroom and her Catholicism. The killer, based on a real-life one, is chillingly credible. Plus there’s humor, romance, and family drama throughout that elevates this well beyond a by-the-numbers thriller. I can’t wait for the sequel, Blessed Are the Meek!

Blessed Are the Dead
is only available electronically for now, but it’s only $1.99, and a fast, fun read with heft. Go, buy, read, andsupport a writer!

“The Wisdom of Yoga” by Stephen Cope

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Stephen Cope’s The Wisdom of Yoga is another book I was prompted to read after appreciating Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing and Devotion. Cope is a yoga teacher and a writer with a background in counseling. The book is a reading of some parts of the ancient Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, interspersed with case studies of Cope and other yoga practitioners he worked with.

The Yoga Sutra is about yoga the life pursuit, not yoga as we commonly understand it in the west, a form of fitness. It describes ways to be, think, and act. Cope’s investigations into the text are balanced with the real-world life issues of the people he describes and this makes the book read-able and enjoyable, where an examination of only the text would have been too dry and esoteric. I’m hard pressed to come up with a good excerpt of this book. Much of its loveliness is in its interweaving of quotes by thinkers, dreamers, and mystics through the ages. Perhaps it’s best to use the quote he starts with, because Cope’s book is looking back to the 3000 year old tradition of yoga through a 2000 year old text, but using it as a lens to examine the modern struggles of a handful of people. Past and present meet and merge.

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time– or even knew selflessness or courage or literature– but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. Quote from Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being

I would say this is not for beginning yogins or as a starting point to learn more about yoga, but for those who have been on the mat a while and are interested in learning about the other 7 of 8 branches of yoga, and comparing and contrasting them with other traditions of meditation and practice in Buddhism and Christianity.

Edited to add: one thing I noticed about Cope and the other yogins he writes about on their path to learning. I don’t think any were currently married, and none had small children. It is easier, perhaps only possible?, to actively seek when one is less attached in the world.

“Skim” and “This One Summer” by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

Friday, June 6th, 2014

I picked up the graphic novel This One Summer by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki at the comic book store, flipped through it and thought it looked good. Then I flipped it over, and something about the range of blurbs sold me. Hope Larson and Craig Thompson are graphic novelists whose work I admire. Sheila Heti wrote a critically acclaimed book that a few of my friends really hated. Daniel Handler is Lemony Snicket. The range of blurbers, as well as their sincere sounding blurbs, made me put it in the weekly to-buy pile. I devoured the book, and thought it would have held its own among some of the young-adult classics from The Summer of Shelf Discovery I did a few years ago.


This One Summer is told from Rose’s view. She and her parents go to Awago Beach every summer. But this year, as she’s stepping away from childhood and dipping her toe into moody adolescence, her parents are fighting, her friend Windy is provoking, and everything seems to be changing. As the book progresses we learn more about why Rose’s mom is so distant, and get insight into a drama the local teens are enmeshed in. We discover, with Rose, lovely things, sad things, disturbing things. The book deftly evokes that awkward age, and the push/pull between teen and adult weirdness and longing for childhood innocence and fun.


After I finished, I sought out the cousins’ first book, Skim. The main character is also a young girl’s coming-of-age novel. Skim is the unkindly bestowed and stoically endured nickname for Kim, a not slim girl in Canada who is interested in Wicca and the tarot. She also has to manage well-meaning but unhelpful parents, a new crush, and school society after a tragedy intrudes. Her friendships at the girls’ school she attends ebb and flow, with mean girls and cliques and other slices of life.

This is the thing about school dances. They make like it’s supposed to be this other-worldly thing, but really it’s just the people you see every day dressed up, standing in the gym in the dark with Red Hot Chili Peppers playing.

Both books are lovely to look at and well written. They touch on sexuality, sexual orientation, friendship, and parents, the often fraught battlefields of the pre-teen and teen years. I’m glad to have read them both.

“Devotion” by Dani Shapiro

Saturday, May 24th, 2014


I was so moved and engaged by Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, that I sought out books she referred to in it by Jane Kenyon, and her earlier memoir, Devotion, about her tangled quest for clarity in spiritual matters.

Shapiro skillfully weaves together pieces of her past and present. Her observant Orthodox Jewish father, her atheist and difficult mother, her own practice of yoga, her son’s infant near-death experience, and her own attempts to…I’m not sure what to put here. Figure it all out? Make meaning of it? Because really, her spiraling, back-and-forth, round-and-round memoir does not acknowledge the kind of meaning or comfort usually found in devotional memoirs. Her memoir is ambivalent, in the true meaning of the word, pulled in many directions.

We can’t see what’s coming. We can’t know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won’t always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge. (239)

I loved this book, the writing, the stories of her life, and her struggle to make meaning and acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of any meaning that does become clear. I think I’ll be going back to all Shapiro’s books, from the beginning, and working my way back up to these. If a mark of a good book is one that makes me think, and want to learn, these two short books pack a substantial emotional and intellectual wallop. (I may come back to edit this last poorly constructed sentence. It’s not elegant and mellifluous, but it says what I mean.)