Tuesday, September 11, 2018

2018 0911: Reading 9/11

"No day shall erase you from the memory of time." - Virgil
This is what greets visitors as they enter the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Each square represents one person's memory of the sky on September 11. Incidentally, the choice of this quote engendered heated debate. Read one view here.

It was seventeen years ago that the Twin Towers fell.  I remember kneeling, stricken, in front of the TV in my then-living room, watching Peter Jennings trying to make sense of what was, in the moment, incomprehensible.  I remember standing outside of my little house in Colorado; just like in NYC, the sky was a sheet of bright blue, and just like all across America, that sky was strangely, utterly silent.  The world was silent, it seemed - holding its breath as it watched catastrophe unfold in America. I was 26 and my front yard felt like an awful kind of church. 

Today, that moment - that day - is history. It is both so far away and so intimately a part of American culture, politics, power, and identity.  I spent my professional academic life devoted mostly to teaching about 9/11 - why it happened, what happened, and how what came after related back to that fateful day, and why it all mattered.  It is vitally important that we as a society educate ourselves and our children about this event and this era. That we resist falling into stereotypes to explain away what happened. That we take ownership for how we responded and continue to respond to the cataclysmic terror that fateful morning unleashed. It is our civic duty.

With that in mind, here are a few of my handbooks and hymnals, as it were, for introducing and explaining 9/11 to those who want to learn. Please note that it's never too early to talk about 9/11, and there are very gentle ways to introduce the anniversary to even the youngest children. Frankly, I am of the opinion that we should get the stories that resonate most with us in front of kids as early and often as possible, because in so doing, we seize control of the narrative not just of 9/11, but of American identity, what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century, how even the most horrific of moments hold deep and meaningful opportunities for expressing love and solidarity, both within our own communities and around the world. Never forget that 9/11 happened - and never forget that the world rose up and spoke as one in the aftermath, saying, "We are all Americans." 

Okay, I'm climbing down from my soapbox and talking books for you. Please note: these are all works of non-fiction. If you're interested in post dedicated to fiction and poetry related to 9/11 and the War on Terror, please let me know in the comments!  This is a topic I can - and will - easily go on about for months! 

Required Reading

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
Generally agreed to be the classic foundational work on how and why 9/11 was able to occur. Journalist Lawrence Wright masterfully weaves together biographies of bin Laden and Zawahiri and the modern histories of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel with the modern foreign policy history of the US in the Middle East. He also shines a spotlight on the failures of domestic policy and the interagency turf wars that contributed to the catastrophic intelligence failures that culminated with the 9/11 attacks. Highly readable.  Wright's work won the National Book Award, is required reading for anyone writing or lecturing about 9/11, and recently was made into a mini-series. If you read only one book about Sept 11, read this one. 

The Longest War by Peter Bergen
Bergen picks up roughly where Wright leaves off - he offers a couple of (heavily indebted to Wright) chapters on the genesis of 9/11, but spends the majority of the work neatly summarizing and analyzing the broad array of actions taken by the Bush administration in the years that followed the attacks.  A remarkably tidy and well organized read that manages to cover both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the adminstration's decision to use torture on detainees, the tempestuous relationship with Pakistan, the ways in which the War on Terror affected America's international policies and power, Al Qaeda's massive ideological and tactical failures, and more. Excellent, concise starting point if you don't remember - or weren't around for! - what happened when after 9/11.

On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal  by Tom Barbash
On September 10, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald was an international brokerage firm with an extraordinary pedigree and a massive amount of financial power, responsible for transacting over 50 trillion dollars in securities a year (that's more than the NASDAQ and the NYSE combined!). The next morning, nearly 700 of its 1,000 NYC-based employees were at their desks 8 floors above the jet that struck One World Trade Center. No one survived the aftermath. This intensely personal book recounts the events of that day and tells the stories of what happened afterwards to those who did survive, from CEO Howard Lutnick to the spouses and children of the lost. It's a difficult book to read, but an important one, touching as it does not only on the overwhelming grief and loss that so many thousands suffered but also the ways in which the very public nature of the attack affected the private lives of the bereaved. That Lutnick was able to rebuild his company speaks as well to the power of community and the resilience of the human spirit.  

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spigelman
If you can find this book, snap it up.  Spigelman, best known for Maus, his searing graphic literature dedicated to retelling his father's experiences in the Holocaust, penned this oversized, (he)art-soaked, letter of grief, anger, and anxiety to New York as he struggled to recover the events he witnessed on 9/11 and the actions taken by the US government in the years that followed (the book was published in 2004). It's a sobering and remarkable piece of history, as much for the illustrations of a very specific time as for the raw emotions that it presses between its heavy cardboard pages.

New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers
Magnum Photographers are known for being the best in the business. This book stands as evidence for such a reputation. It is, without a doubt, the most elegant and harrowing visual commemoration of the events of the day itself.   

Required Reading For the Younger Crowd - and the Young at Heart

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernest Colón
Having read the 9/11 Commission report (you can, too! All 449 pages are right here!), I can say with authority that you miss nothing by reading this condensed and illustrated version - which was approved for publication by the chairs of the 9/11 Commission themselves - instead. As a matter of fact, the unique layout and graphic approach sometimes allows readers to better absorb what was happening in multiple places at the same time, and gives faces to names that are, for most Americans, unknown and difficult to remember.  I also believe that it's our civic duty as American citizens to read this report, understand what happened and how, and contemplate what recommendations the commission made to ensure that such an attack never be repeated, so why not enjoy the format? But that's just me. 

14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a small Maasai village in Kenya blessed and offered 14 cows to America as a symbol of their heartache for our nation's losses. "Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort." Lush in its illustrations and gentle in its telling, this work manages to frame the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity for sharing emotions and building community. 

Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman
This cute book - and it is very cute, with bright illustrations and a cheerful, adventurous voice - tells the true story of the fleet of ships, yachts, and boats that convened at the southern tip of Manhattan to transport the thousands and thousands stranded there in the wake of the Twin Towers' collapse. Its star is a feisty little fireboat, the John J. Harvey. Built in 1931 and retired in 1995, the Harvey was indeed brought out of retirement to help chivvy people to safety on that day in 2001. This book does recount the events of 9/11 more succinctly and graphically than the previous book I mentioned, but that's to be expected within the context of the story, which tells the history of the fireboat, lingering  on the bravery of those who manned it and on its specific contributions during World War II. Personally, I wouldn't use it as the first introduction to 9/11 to children due to the level of specificity and a tendency, as I see it, to make 9/11 seem a bit more exciting than terrible.  But it does provide general details of the attacks when you're ready to share those with your little people and keeps things moving along in an upbeat and very engaging manner. Fantastic illustrations, too!

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein
I'll end with my favorite introduction to the events of 9/11, which really isn't much of an introduction at all. As a matter of fact, the only reference to the attacks is an evocative drawing and simple sentence: "The towers are gone now..." But this tells the story of the building of the Twin Towers and the extraordinary actions of French aerialist Philippe Petit, who snuck to the top of the towers in 1974, while they were still under construction, managed to sling a cable between them, and, as the sun rose on a gorgeous NYC morning, spent an hour walking, dancing, and playing on that tightrope  - without harnesses, and without apologies. The best part? The judge who heard his case gave him the sentence of providing a free show to the people of New York, and so he did. A story that celebrates the beauty of New York, the audacity of innovation and artistry, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. I think it's a perfect introduction. Ironically, it's the only book I don't have in the stack pictured below, because we read it so many times when the kids were little that it was grubbily loved to pieces. Guess I need a new one.

I hope this post inspires you to read about 9/11 and discuss it with your friends, family, and, especially, the young people in your life.  We continue to shape the legacy of that terrible day, and we can shape it with love or weaponize it with hate. It's up to us. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

2018 August: Emergency Update

I just finished reading this book, and it is gnawing its way through my heart and my mind, and so I'm just dispensing with any of the normal niceties and posting my review here. Now someone PLEASE go and read this book so that I can discuss it with you, or at least know that I'm not the only one who is sitting around astonished and horrified but really, so very, very glad that the world continues to turn and I am in it, reading amazing new writers as if it were my job. Which it kinda is.

My Absolute Darling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ho-leee F*ck. 

This book...It is gorgeous. It is intensely violent. It is dazzling. It is excruciatingly difficult to read, and you won't be able to put it down. You might throw up a little, at least a couple of times, and you probably should be ready to weep, and then to scream loudly enough in your mind to urge the child at the center of this work to keep going on, and on.

The story revolves around the 14 year old Turtle Alvertson, only child of Martin, who is a widower and a survivalist. They live along the Mendocino coast, and as we follow the gaze of the narrator, we see her life as it is lived, beginning at her house and then slowly extending, streaming, slipping its way outward, almost like the ripple of water on a pond, or a creeping tide. Her homelife is, of course, not a good one, which Tallent makes abundantly clear as he pans across the landscape and zeroes in tightly on the house, its structure, its shortcomings, its master and protector, and the child that it shelters, however imperfectly: he spills specifics, lush and gothic details that are so precocious that to be honest, I nearly didn't read the book because it the opening pages were so...grandiose in their language and the almost unbelievable setting Tallent creates. But then I saw that Stephen King called this book a masterpiece, and I kept going. He's never let me down before, after all. And this is a debut novel, and I try to have patience with those.

I'm glad I kept reading. Because this book gets going and then runs on a furious, evocative, almost beautiful fuel all the way through. IF you can white knuckle through the first truly, utterly horrifying violent action, you'll be hooked, and this book will take off and your mind will follow it and you'll read and read, fascinated and impressed as hell, and your heart will be in your throat for the next 400 pages and your brain will teeter between thinking, "OMG, the guy who wrote this is brilliant" and "Holy Hell, this author is one super f*cked up cookie." But that's a big "if."

I don't want to give much away, so I won't tell you the plot or the key points, but I will tell you that this book combines elements of The Highest Tide, Lolita, Educated, and Black Hearts, and those are four books that have never stayed in my mind since I cracked their respective covers, and this book, it will haunt you. It is pitch black in many places but wow! what a view. 


And there you have it.  Tune in next time, when I will share with you all the Greek stuff I've been reading lately. Happy reading! 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Midsummer Night's BOOKBAGGIN IT Update!

Hi, book friends and fellow bibliophiles! Wow, it's been a while, huh? I have no excuses, other than the usual kids/life/books to finish and then another book to finish and still another book and THEN I'll update the blog... ones. So, I won't waste your time with all of those. I'll just get right to my book bag, because WHOA! That baby is really full. Like, splitting the sides of the backpack full.

This actually happened at our house a few months ago - my daughter received what is, to my mind, the coolest backpack of all time for her birthday:

Yes! Of COURSE my daughter is a musical theater kid, and of COURSE she loves Hamilton, because it is the best musical ever! Anyway, she was lucky enough to receive this backpack when she turned 11 in March. At the end of the semester, I noticed it was a victim of its own success. She had packed so many books into it that it had split along the seam.  Since I am not a seamstress and do not want to learn to be one (I'm a KNITTER; sewing is very finicky and hard!), that was the sad end of the Hamilton backpack. I had a similarly loved backpack like this once, when I was just a tiny bit older than my beautiful girl. It was from Culver Academy, where I had spent summer camp after eighth grade with my best friend, Ali, and I carried that bag around to all my freshman year classes very faithfully, especially since I had moved to a new town and was missing my best friend and Culver and all the awesomeness and hilarity and bad decisions that are summer camp. And then my backpack split along the seam, because I was a shameless toter of books, just like I am now! It was navy blue. I can still see it in my bookish mind's eye! Fare thee well, Culver backpack, and I hope you're resting somewhere beyond whatever is the equivalent of the Rainbow Bridge for well loved backpacks, and that everywhere you look, there are girls carrying books galore.

But I digress. Books! I have read many books since we last ran away together! Is there any rhyme and reason to them? Nah, not so much. Although I have binged a little on beach reads. My brain is almost at capacity these days for various reasons and so light reads have been my bread and butter avocado toast these last few months. 

I cannot, of course, regale you with details of every single book. (But I will update my Goodreads reviews over the next week or so with all of my recent reads so if you're REALLY itching for more suggestions and reviews, check here in about 10 days) So I'll just pick a few favorites and hope they're new to you and that you want to run out and find them at the library (or purchase them, of course - I spend much more on books than I do on anything else in the world besides healthcare - and that's only because I'm a cancer patient!)!


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Glitters with Magic and Love

I’ve been waiting for Circe since I closed the endpapers of The Song of Achilles. Miller has the expert’s eye and a storyteller’s touch - a female storyteller at that, which makes her remarkable among the other writers and rewriters of the classic Greek tales. 

Here, her gifts are used in telling the story of Circe, child of Helios and one of the lesser gods, the first witch of the world. She spins a tale of bravery, gullibility, fear and courage; she tells the tale of a goddess who has the heart of a mortal. I don’t want to give anything away and thus ruin Miller’s spellbinding tales, but it’s not a spoiler to say that I was astounded by the ways in which Miller was able to imbue her heroine with the same human frailties and fears as those of us mere mortals: the love of a mother, the burning shame of disgrace, the slow and fast at once finding of ones identity and center, the ways in which we all reach for more than perhaps we know, the giddyness of losing one's fear and with it, the donning of grace and gratitude.

Circe’s tales are big and bold, and they’re writ suitably large here. They also feel so familiar - even as they burn with a strange and lovely fire.  Miller deserves to be mentioned among the greats. Give yourself the beautiful gift of seeing an ancient character and story with new eyes. Miller is a marvel. 

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The plain facts upon which American Fire sits prove that dozens and dozens of buildings, most of them abandoned, were deliberately set ablaze in and around the once bustling but now barely whispering Virginia countryside from Nov 2012 through the spring of 2013. A couple of locals wind up being at fault, as is revealed early in the narrative. 

That Hesse is able to keep readers turning pages long into the night around a story that is pretty cut and dry really speaks to her ability to tune into the beating hearts at the center of the tale: the dysfunctions of families, the unswervingly human tendency to do anything for love, the ways in which the disappearance of local power and prosperity can create a vacuum that destabilizes not just a town's economic prospects but also the local culture and collective identity. Don't be fooled: this isn't another attempt by white liberals to find out why white conservatives voted against their own interests in the fall of 2016 - or, rather, if it does go down that road, it does so in a very low-key and nuanced way, skipping the national political conversation almost entirely. What readers are treated to instead is a tale in which the writer's genuine interest in the place, people, and story creates a kind of narrative magic. It's good old-fashioned storytelling about contemporary America, in other words. No "reality" tee-vee or dystopian rabbit holes; no hyperbole or tricks. Just a journalist with her skin in the game and a town full of people who, it turns out, really have their hearts on their sleeves. 

If you wonder why journalism matters in this day and age, read this book! 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the beginning of 2018, I realized I'd never read much in the way of historical fiction devoted to the experiences of Irish or German immigrants to the US. This gave me pause because I come mainly from German and Irish stock, so I'm slowly trying to remedy that. Sullivan's vibrant and poignant story of several post-World War II young adults who move to America in hopes of a better life offers an illuminating peek into the post-war immigrant experience in and around Boston, MA. And when read against the backdrop of the virulent and shameful anti-immigrant sentiment emanating from the current administration, Saints for All Occasions offers useful insights and surprises.

When Nora and Theresa Flynn leave their 1957 rural Irish home for the United States, they don't leave in a headlong rush due to war or economic catastrophe. Rather, Nora's fiancé, Charlie Rafferty, has already moved to Massachusetts to live with family members, making the logistics of arrival and settling in relatively easy. Each girl is overwhelmed in her own way, however, with the magnitude of change their new lives represent. Nora glimpses a future in which she isn't Charlie's bride after all, and Theresa, meanwhile, gets a taste of falling in love. Will they follow the opportunities that arise? How do they reconcile the complexities of leaving home? How does their conversion from Irish to Irish-American take place, and how does it manifest within the relationships and families they foster? 

Sullivan successfully tackles all of these questions and a number of others even as she evokes the real and messy realities of Irish-American community in 20th century Boston, MA. Children are born, relationships rise and fall, and heartbreaking decisions are made that will forever change the protagonists and their futures. But as all of this unfolds, of course, the characters themselves barely mention any of it. In true Irish Catholic fashion, pain and suffering is hidden and relationships skim along even as dark and complex feelings bubble beneath the surface. This is Sullivan's true sleight of hand: her ability to give her readers a rich, rewarding, deeply felt story that also illustrates the kind of relationships and situations anyone who grew up Irish Catholic herself will recognize with ease. "Don't mention it," is the mantra of the Rafferty family, and such a mandate is upheld thanks to great force of will, fervent faith and prayers...and a lot of alcohol. As in many such families, however, these protections finally falter and then fall. But not until a family tragedy provokes unprecedented situations...

The ties that bind families to each other and those that bind people to their homes (and homelands) are on vivid and beautiful display throughout Sullivan's narrative. It is engaging, heartbreaking, irresistible, and wry creation - truly Irish Catholic to the core. 

Four stars because I did get this book a bit muddled with another Irish immigration story I read, and that irritated me to no end. But a terrific read and set in such an unexpected time (most people think of the late 19th century as the hey-day of Irish influx; situating this in the middle of the Cold War really provides new opportunities for author and reader both)! 


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Intriguing dystopian cult debut

This book exists in a tiny vacuum - is it the story of a super creepy cult living outside the boundaries of contemporary society, or is there some kind of context that somehow gives the horrific practices of this community some kind of understandable context? How long has it existed and why does it continue to flourish? Why and how does Janey make such radical mental connections — and is the only one to have ever done so? Where are all the boys the same ages as the girls who take center stage, and how are they brought up in such a way as to willingly take part in the cultural practices of the community? None of it is explained! 
At the same time, the story is beautifully written, with compelling characters and interesting plot developments. Reads more like a novella than a novel, and clearly is a freshman effort. But I’m curious to see what she does next.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nadia Murad takes Western readers into a world few of them are aware even exists: the settlements of the Yazidi community in northern Iraq. Nadia's people live a simple subsistence lifestyle, farming and raising sheep for local trade, and worship according to the beliefs of their religion, which Nadia explains with patience and grace. She is born and comes of age in a period of war - first the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, and then the subsequent civil war and all that followed. The Syrian civil war further destabilizes her homeland...and then ISIS moves into areas nearby.

As Nadia witnesses the destruction first, of her family's sense of security, and then, of their very home and village, she remains passionate and clear-eyed about the immorality of what she sees. Nadia herself is captured by ISIS, forced into sexual slavery and kept locked away from society. But she does not lose her faith - either in her religion or in her fellow men and women. Her story of living through hellish circumstances, her successful flight to freedom, and her stubborn resilience in fighting the Islamic State even after all that they have done to destroy her and her family is riveting and instructive. Anyone who takes the time to read this will see that the ongoing problems in the Middle East cannot and are not ones that can be understood in stark terms of "good guys" and "bad guys," or "Arabs" versus "Americans" or "Muslims" versus "Christians" -- any of the hysterical and simple-minded explanations for what's amiss and how to fix it pale and fall away once you become beguiled by Nadia and her tale.

This book should be a must-read for anyone curious about the world today, skeptical of the need for American intervention abroad, and lacking understanding about geopolitics. Nadia has much to teach us, and judging from her book and her advocacy efforts, I have few doubts that her young, strong voice is here to stay. 


In addition to these intriguing works, I've also been reading a lot of Elin Hilderbrand, because it's summer and nothing says summer to me like figuring out messed up relationships while luxuriating in  New England beach town. So far, I've read The Perfect CoupleThe CastawaysSilver Girl, and The Identicals. I still have Summerland and A Summer Affair on deck. I can't help myself!

I usually devour at least one big feel-good dysfunctional family story, too - In the past, Spoonbenders, People We Hate at the Wedding, The Nest, Modern Lovers... have all fit the bill, but I haven't wandered across anything this summer yet so far. Maybe I'll check out one of the books here - or maybe you have a suggestion for me? 

In the meantime, I'm finishing the last book of Jo Walton's Thessaly series right now (I've been on a bit of Greek historical fiction bender). I can't wait to share that with you!

What are you reading to keep you cool these days?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

This Week's Bookbag: Never Enough Edition, April 10, 2018


Every time I've gone to update this blog, I've been in the middle of a really good book, and so I've been all...as soon as I finish this one, I'll update it. But then I keep sneaking off and starting another one and here we are, behind schedule. I also decided to add a new section to my offering and make the "Five Things" section a pop-in now and then rather than a must have, but I haven't actually written anything that will fill that new section yet, which has also contributed to my lack of publishing. And then I've been worried that no one is really even reading this blog (knock twice if you're out there...), so I considered letting it just languish in a virtual drawer until everyone forgot about it. But then. Then I learned that I have at least one new, extremely VIP reader: my daughter!  She is voracious reader and wicked smart, plus kind and funny and generous and thoughtful and adorable and...pretty much the most amazing girl in the world. So I can't very well stop writing now, can I?! No. Of course not. Perhaps I'll even ask her to throw down some reviews for us from time to time. She's 11 and reading Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu (at home) and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (at school) and I think her reviews would give us tremendously useful perspectives, don't you? Especially if you're on the hunt for a book that would be of interest to your favorite tween/teen/young adult.  

I'll work on her (so can you - just leave a comment encouraging her and I'll make sure she sees it!) but in the meantime, voilá! I have penned an imperfect and incomplete post that despite its shortcomings I hope will give you a book or two to add to your TBR pile along with some brief entertainment, and maybe even a little joy. *fingers crossed* 

In the Bookbag Last (Coupla) Week(s):
It's been an embarrassment of riches over here. Seriously, I have been hopping from book to book, a little sparrow in the middle of a serious picnic at the park, unable to settle down and finish any single offering in a reasonable amount of time because more delicious offerings keep raining down on me!  And I haven't even been to the library to pick up the books I have on hold this week. (I also haven't read one of the books for book club this month, but shhhh, I think I still have a week or so.) I have several more that I am thisclose to finishing, but alas, you'll have to wait to hear about those next time. For now, though...You know how sometimes when you're reading books that you think are completely unrelated but the more you read of each of them, the more you realize that there are all kinds of synchronicities? Yeah, these books didn't do that at all (*giggle*), so enjoy a little literary potpourri and maybe I'll have overlap next time. 

Anatomy of a MiracleAnatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Southern Lit with that 21st century twist: A Reality Show

Jonathan Miles’s stab at a fictionalized non-fiction project lands like a dart in a bullseye with Anatomy of a Miracle. The unexplained, spontaneous recovery of PFC Cameron Harris’s severed spine of has all the trappings of a true story, complete with a reality tv experience (which, by its very existence, offers truly gothic and cringeworthy developments) - but it offers so much more, too. The unexpected narrative arc, absorbing and well rounded cast of characters, and the author’s lightly applied but heavily considered overarching pronouncements on the meaning of miracles, science, storytelling, and (of course) love all come together to deliver a story that will leave you thoughtful, surprised, and more than a little heartbroken.

Rarely a false note. I felt a little bogged down by the unrelenting recording of the reality show details but I’m not really a tv kinda girl, so your mileage may vary, as they say. Miles’s ability to employ that reality show, however, in the larger cause of de eloping a gothic southern Lit for the 21st century, though - that delighted and impressed me, and made the parts I found a little tedious more than worth their while.

You won’t soon forget the stories of Cameron, his sister Tanya, and the several others who grow to take their place among the principals here. I won’t tell you who they are because that would spoil all the terrific twists and turns that this story holds! And even as you read the fiction, don’t forget that this could very well be some soldier’s story - at least, several aspects of it. Our young vets have suffered more than most of us will ever know or appreciate. And for what? Miles hints at that Gordonian knot, too. 

Truly, a book worth picking up. It covers so much ground, in so many ways, and in such an engaging manner. Southern fiction has a big new name, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.  

Red ClocksRed Clocks by Leni Zumas
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Feminist Dystopia with an Easy Grace
Leni Zumas offers a feminist dystopian vision that has the ability to truly terrify readers, largely because it's not a full-blown dystopian nightmare but rather a future America that is all too possible, tweaked as it is with allowances for climate change and the passage of a law that guarantees the unborn the rights of individuals. Her decisions in this regard allow her - and, thus, her readers - to focus on the interior lives of the book's five female protagonists. It's a refreshing approach. Whether readers pick up this book interested in its dystopian vision or its feminist themes, they likely will find themselves reading a book they did not expect to read. For instance, it's not driven by an audacious plot. The author isn't consumed with an agenda of splashy violence. The women in the book still have agency and freedom of movement. In other words, this is no Handmaid's Tale, and (thank goodness) it's not The Power. Instead, it's a well-crafted meditation on whether and how women would live and be evaluated in a world in which what may or may not be growing in their wombs had the same rights as they themselves did. An unwanted pregnancy, a single woman in pursuit of a child, a stay at home mom, a working mother, a female herbalist living on the margins of society, a high-powered local couple without children - how does pregnancy and motherhood affect these people in Zumas's world?

She interrogates her premise with deliberation and care. Because her world is not so very different from the world in which we all now live, Zumas also subtly encourages her readers to consider the ways in which the lives and fates of her characters differ - and approximate - the lives and experiences of women (maybe even the readers themselves? definitely!) today. The result is an unsettling and provocative read.

I really liked this book. It's a solid read, and it's well-written. There were a few unnecessary tangents, though, and at least one story that didn't unfold as much as I really wanted it to. Why she turned coy on that particular story, I don't understand; it didn't match up with the rest of her editorial decisions or the tone of the work overall. I also wish Zumas hadn't been quite so careful in creating her protagonists: the various women run into the problem of becoming sort of approximations of women, because they're pretty stereotypical. I understand why she made the choices she did in this regard, but it creates serious problems when you're considering the reality and continuity of the novel as a whole. Everything in the book is so believable, so subtly chosen - and then you have these paper doll cut-outs as the key characters. It's not to say that Zumas fails to create believable people. On the contrary: they're so believable that what tips you off to the fact that they're made up is the specificity with which they were created. If it weren't for all of the other realism, I'd be willing to say this was created as a fable. But it doesn't READ as a fable. So when I stepped back and considered how the book was put together, I became quite frustrated! Quirkier characters would have been so wonderful here. I wish we could at least have a few of them sneak in during intermission or something! I know I made up a couple to add to the cast as I was reading and then digesting this work.

But don't let my complaints about her character profiles dissuade you. This book is really worth a read, especially if you're new to feminist fiction, and if I were younger and hadn't read as much as I have, I likely would have given this more stars. I know that I'm really looking forward to the next work Zumas publishes, and I'll have high expectations when I pick it up. A thoughtful and considerate new voice in feminist fiction.  3.5/5 stars.

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death RowThe Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An Important And Accessible Book
Most Americans are not aware of the degree to which our justice system is compromised, racist, and increasingly bent to the will of for-profit corporations. The tragic true story of Ray Hinson’s conviction for a crime he didn’t commit and the subsequent 29 years he spent in a 5x7 cell on death row in Alabama before he proved his innocence and won his release, however, will force society’s eyes wide open. And it will be easy to do so, because Hinson tells an easy to follow, compassionate, shocking tale of what happened to him and how. Whether you come to this book with a curiosity about the injustices Hinson suffered or about the grace that he found and the faith that he followed, you’ll come away impressed and transformed. This is a book of suffering, of violence, of broken hearts - and one of resilience, the power of love, and the meaning of faith as well.

That Hinson was able not only to survive 30 years feet from a death chamber, but also thrive and transform many of the men he met during his incarceration speaks to this man’s great good soul and tenacity. He fights not only for his innocence, but also for the reality that he and his peers are people: men of intellect, emotion, vice, and virtue. He unpacks and reframes the narrative of hate that dominates so many of the lives that end up on The Row. He refuses to judge his fellow inmates, and even his guards. His story speaks to multiple narratives: the experiences of young black men in the post-integration era South, the crippling legacies of racial apartheid and hate, the ways in which even the most open and powerful justice system in the world has been corrupted and repurposed for agendas that have nothing to do with justice. There are subtler stories, too - the difference between the southern black experience in 1985 vs 2015, the ways in which education and loved experience has grown flimsier and more brittle in many ways over the last 40 years, the shifting demographics of death row.

There’s anger and injustice in this book, but hilarity and love and hope, too. Despite spending much of his life in a 5x7 cell, Hinson offers his readers both an unfamiliar story and a thoroughly human one. Everyone should read this book. This is America writ small in 2018: a place of shame, hate, grace, complexity - and legacies that have yet to be decided.


I've read several other books in the last few weeks, but these were the ones I really wanted to share with you. If none of them sound appealing, please take a gander on Goodreads, where you can always view all my reviews

Watch This Space:
In the next installment of Bookbaggin' It, I'll begin my new column (section?): "Beyond Books." I bet I'm not the only one in the world who subscribes to a fair number of magazines and journals...and fail to read them thoroughly even though I've chosen them specifically because I know they have excellent offerings! My subscriptions fall into a couple of categories: global news, art of all kinds, and American politics. When it comes to news, it's all too easy, especially these days, to get sucked into just reading headlines, twitter feeds, news digests, and so on, while true analysis and commentary languishes. But we, the literari, have a responsibility to read the good stuff! The stuff that will help us not only understand what's happening in the world, but how it relates to what's already happened, and why it matters. And when it comes to art, how else are we supposed to keep an eye out for really excellent new books and awesome new artists if we don't know who's out there on the cusp of publication or installation? I don't want to be someone who only reads the big publishers. I don't wnt my ideas and my imagination to be formatted by someone who created a logarithm and decided that such and such book or a certain art display was going to be a hit. I want to find the little diamonds out there, see artists evolving in real time! Don't you? It's one of the reasons that I order books from a couple of small publishing houses, such as New Directions, And Other Stories, and Tin House. I generally love their authors. I want small houses to succeed! I want the 21st century to truly be the most expansive and creative of any that have preceded it. I'll get off my soapbox now, but...ya know. I just want to see what's out there, and I want you to see it, too. So I'm going to start offering brief summaries and reviews of some of the magazines and journals to which I subscribe. I hope you enjoy it. Maybe you'll even be inclined to order one or two of them yourself! Please let me know.

In This Week's Bookbag:
I'm on the verge, finally, of finishing Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (SO many notes on this one. Such an important and of the moment book!) by Rania Abouzeid, and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. I also just started House of Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, and Madeline Miller's Circe just appeared on my Kindle this week - FINALLY! If you haven't read The Song of Achilles by Miller, you truly are missing out. I've been waiting with bated breath for this release since I closed the book on that one a couple of years ago. All signs sort of point to that one winding up at the front of the pack once I finish up Abouzeid and Erpenbeck. Maybe you should pick it up, too, and we can read along! Would anyone be interested in having a little book discussion? We could just pick a book a month and chat about it on my FB page? Let me know your thoughts. 

Happy Reading!

If you're enjoying my blog, please share it with your favorite book-reading friends and neighbors. You can sign up for email notices when a new entry has been posted by clicking the "Subscribe" button at the top of the page, set your calendar to remind you to check in with me on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings (I try to have this out the door by 4pm on Fridays so we can all start our weekends reading!), or you stop by and like Friends of Bookbaggin' It on Facebook, if you're a social media sort. There you'll find my weekly blog updates as well as some fun links and the occasional musing. Hope to see you soon and thanks for reading!  

Saturday, March 24, 2018

This Week's Bookbag: Where The Hell Did March Go? Edition, March 11-23, 2018

You know that old saying, that March comes "in like a lion, out like a lamb"?  Do you think that whoever started it (I'm thinking Aesop, maybe) left the middle of the month out because they didn't know of any animals that were basically tornadoes?

Obviously, news of the Tasmanian devil hadn't made it off of Australia yet when Aesop wrote that saying.  I mean, it's not just me, right? The middle of this month has been a big crazy swirling mass of highs and lows and I have been hanging on for the ride, but just barely.  It has also torn books right out of my hands, and so I am trailing my monthly goal! Luckily, the end of the month does, at this moment, look like smooth sailing. So I am optimistic that I will actually get there.

In the Bookbag Last Week
Despite the insanity of the middle of the month, I did manage to read two books, and they were both intriguing in their own rights, although - why lie? - I completely fangirled out over Hamilton: The Revolution. I was fortunate enough to see the musical this week, and so I am really in the middle of a full-on, Beatlemania sort of crush on the show in general and on Lin Manual Miranda's brilliant mind in particular. Meanwhile, I had a hell of a tough time writing my review for The Immortalists, which is unusual for me, and I'm not really sure why! But I'll stop explaining them and let you read them yourselves: 

Hamilton: The Revolution

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here's the thing: this looks like a coffee table book. It's big and heavy and features tons of pictures, the entire libretto (with footnotes by Miranda!), and paper so gorgeous that you want to slide into the book somehow and take the world's most luxurious booknerd nap. But once you're done admiring all of these details and leafing through it, take it into your lap and read it, because it's a serious book and deserves a close reading (or three). Bonus points if you finish it before you see the show!

The book, written by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, tells the story of the show itself, from the inspiration that struck Miranda as he read a biography of Alexander Hamilton while on vacation, through the seven years of creating and revising and creating and revising, all the way to the Broadway premiere in 2016. Along the way, you'll learn a lot about, among other things, the history of rap music in America, the profound brilliance of Miranda and his "Cabinet," all sorts of tidbits about Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers, the details of the grueling Tech Week before the show opened at the Public Theater, how fashion designers helped solve the problem of what to wear on stage, how "Hamilton" is making its way to the kids who will really benefit most from seeing it, and so much more! It's a pirate's chest chock full of treasure.

As a historian, a writer, a reader, a lover of the arts, a hopeless musical theater kid, a proud and patriotic American, a parent, and a human being, I have been truly swept away by the density of "Hamilton" and its many, many layers of brilliance. This book helped me fall even deeper in love with Lin-Manual Miranda, with the extraordinary stories and ideas that spring to life on his stage, and (to me, most importantly) with the unfinished project that will always be America - that is, its patriots' timeless devotion to the prospect of forming "a more perfect Union." Whether it be through art or assembly, by casting a vote or crafting a tune, Americans always have and will continue to reinvent, reassess, and reaffirm the ideals on which this nation was founded. Hamilton: The Revolution shows us how the vast panoply of actions taken today by those seeking progress and positive change harken back to the actions taken hundreds of years ago by those with similar ideals and energy. Long live the revolution! Rise up!

The Immortalists

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not telling you anything you won't learn by reading the endpapers, so here's the deal: this story begins with a trip. In 1969, four young siblings visit a fortune teller who will tell people the date of their deaths. The prophecies each kid in the Gold family receives, not surprisingly, become the foundations upon which the stories of their lives - and therefore the book itself - rest. Readers experience the lives of each child in turn as the rest of the book unfolds. We travel with youngest two (baby Simon and younger sister Klara) as they flee the confines of New York City for the anonymity and gritty freedoms of late 1970s San Francisco; Simon doesn't even finish high school. The older siblings (Daniel and Varya) stay closer to home as they come of age, but both pursue multiple college degrees and dutifully help their widowed mother.

Benjamin brings some of her characters vividly alive. She begins with Simon, Ma Gold's favorite child and a study in contrasts. He feels smothered by his mother's attentions but also yearns to find a lover who will be as devoted after he skips town. Meanwhile, he also seeks to enjoy the wild pleasures available to a (very young) gay man in San Fransisco and throws himself into a career as a dancer. As his life draws to a close, we learn how his prophecy may have been the source of many of his decisions. Klara, too, has a wild side. She is also deeply troubled and obsessed by her prophecy, which leads to an obsession with magic and a pervasive ambition to become the first truly successful female magician. As magic becomes her lodestar, will it also prove to be her downfall? Only time will tell! The older siblings are not nearly as vibrant as the younger two, but they each have compelling and strange stories that will keep readers engaged.

And here's where it gets disappointing, at least for me: Benjamin's close attentions to each character and his or her individual plots comes at the cost of a clear overall narrative. The love between Simon and Klara and the ways in which their lives are intertwined keeps the plot train on the tracks, but as we delve into the stories of the eldest siblings, those connections fail and thus the larger narrative story fails. It is only when we reach the end of Varya's story that Benjamin finally reveals some of the key deeper connections and details that make each person's story part of one cohesive tale. For me, that came too late in the game, and so I closed the book feeling somewhat cheated even as I remained impressed by the lives that Benjamin created.

Even though it didn't satisfy me on several important levels, I still recommend it. It wasn't until I stopped to really consider the overall story that the chunky and awkward bits stood out. Furthermore,  Benjamin reaches pretty successfully to pursue the larger questions of fate versus free will and what really makes a family a family while also adeptly tracing the social and cultural changes in America from the late 1970s to the 2010s. Not too shabby! Three and a half stars.


See? I told you: one shameless love letter and one awkward explanation. Weird combination but that's just how things turn out sometimes, I suppose. 

I don't have five things for you today because, well, they were all "Hamilton" related and I didn't want to press my luck. But I'll just say that every penny spent on that show is worth it, not only because of the joy and insight and blow to the head that it will give you but also because Miranda et al. have committed to doing great things for millions, including hundreds of thousands of the least privileged teens in cities across the nation, those living with HIV/AIDS, and the many communities of Puerto Rico ravaged by Hurricane Maria last fall. Bravo to the hundreds who have created and continue to create this masterpiece! It truly has the capability to be revolutionary. 

In the Bookbag This Week
Ah! A visual for you today! I actually am almost finished with both of these beauties and cannot wait to share my reviews of them with you ASAP:

Other irons in the fire this week include Jonathan Miles's Anatomy of a Miracle, which I'm really enjoying, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria, which is one of the most recent books to emerge from the catastrophic civil war and is keeping me on the edge of my seat, and, in honor of Women's History Month, the high-spirited She Caused a Riot: 100 Unknown Women Who Built Cities, Sparked Revolutions, and Massively Crashed It. It's about as far from a the mentally dusty women's history textbook of your nightmares as you can get. Take a peek if you have a chance! And in the meantime, "Look around, look around at how/ Lucky we are to be alive right now."  

Happy Reading! 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

This Week's Bookbag: Made it to March Edition, February 27 - March 10, 2018

I've kept lists of books I've read and sporadically written book reviews for most of my life, but it was only last year that I began to go about it in organized fashion. It turns out that I like keeping track of what I've read and when - in part because I'm starting to see some patterns emerge. (It's funny to begin to know yourself better through data.) One that definitely sticks out is that February appears to be my reading hibernation period. Last year, I only read five books all month; this year, I only read four! I was feeling pretty frustrated about my pace until I considered this. I'm not sure why I do this - everything just seems like such a struggle in February. It's cold, and it's bleak, and the holidays are long gone but Spring isn't just around the corner. When I try to read, I usually end up falling asleep. I need bright lights, stimulation, brilliant colors, and lots of compliments if I'm going to make it through the month with my cheery personality intact not in complete tatters. Maybe next year, I'll ditch reading books altogether in February and make it my goal to watch all the Oscar contenders instead. (And perhaps I'll cajole myself into reading the books on which the adapted screenplay nominees are set.) I'll be able to feel like I'm up to date on pop culture for about 10 minutes - it will be grand. Will someone please remind me of this plan next January?! 

In the Bookbag last week 
In all seriousness, the minute March arrived - I began to read again. It was as if some internal switch had been miraculously flipped; my inner penguin turned on my reading light.*  Nothing too long or outside my reading comfort zone, mind you. But reading has restarted. Always a good sign! Here are a few of the books that helped nose me out of my winter snow cave: 

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have no doubt that Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am will receive many (well deserved) accolades for its vivid vignettes of a life lived a little too close to the caution tape. Some of the stories are spectacular events: mountain treks gone horribly wrong, unintentional explorations of the sea, catastrophic illnesses. Others leave you shivering, even sickened, over what failed to manifest. You’re jolted time and again by the recognition that whatever shimmering force keeps O’Farrell tethered to this existence, it’s both remarkably strong and curiously churlish.

It turns out, however, that the stories are the low-hanging fruit. What really drew my attention was the book’s overall architecture. O’Farrell does away with the standard chronological narrative approach to memoir. Instead, she offers readers a nubile set of essays that slip easily from jaw-dropping rushes of activity to evocative backstory to well-placed, nearly holy meditations and back again without missing a beat. Color me impressed.

If you’re an avid reader, a writer, someone living with physical challenges, into philosophy, interested in the human condition - consider picking up this book. You won’t regret it.


The Fall of Lisa Bellow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Unknown Realms of Trauma

Eighth grader Meredith Oliver decided to reward herself with a root beer after she finished her Algebra II test on a sunny October afternoon. But there at the Deli Barn, Meredith is victim and witness to a devastating crime. How Meredith copes with the event and her own role in it becomes the focus of the Susan Perabo’s novel. A number of other themes and subplots wind themselves through the book as well: the pressures of middle school social life, the painful helplessness of parents, the ways in which families communicate love.

Perabo clearly has an agenda and a vision. She lavishes attention on several characters and the relationship she develops between Meredith and her brother is insightful, funny, and natural. In the final analysis, though, the book just didn’t come together for this reader. Too many ideas and distractions and too few moments of clarity or meaningful action left me somewhat befuddled and fairly disappointed in the end result. The author has promise, certainly, but she needs more than a picture or relationship to stand in for the plot; the relationship that’s truly at the center of this book is far too vague and neglected to even begin to do that kind work.


The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dark and Beautiful: A True Fairy Tale

Alice Proserpine has lived a life on the run with her mother, Ella: they relocate and relocate, but the worst kind of luck finds them again and again. But one day...

One day, Ella receives a letter which convinces her that the bad luck is over. That together they’ll be free. Free of rushed exits, free of a mother and grandmother who never contacted them, free of darkness whistling behind the kitchen door. But Ella, it turns out, is wrong - so wrong. The darkness has only just begun...

So starts the story of Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, a story of fairy tales full of broken hearts and cruel magic, of love that can only do so much, of people who move through the world with a kind of electric purpose. None of it is lovely. None of it is grand. Instead, this book is scary, and thrilling, and violent. It’s everything a grownup fairy tale should aspire to be.

Albert writes a hell of a good story, and peoples it with scintillating characters. My favorite aspect of her work, however, is her ability to write original and brutal similes and metaphors. No cliches, but no reaching for an imperfect, tortured comparison either. Each time she gives us a new one, she nails it so completely that I grew a little suspicious that perhaps she’s got some magic of her own. In all seriousness, though, writers should read this just to study her metaphor and simile constructions. They’re tiny little masterpieces, complex as a honeycomb held up to the light.

A tremendous debut by Albert here. If it weren’t for some formulaic plot points in the final third of the book, this would have been five stars. But don’t let that keep you from swiping this book for yourself. You want to have this magic world inside your mind, even if it scares you.


The Monk of Mokha

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

America knows far too little about Yemen - which, due to 21st century geopolitical realities, is really a tremendous failing. Today, right now, Yemenis are dying by the thousands in a war fueled by American weapons and perpetrated by American allies. Society is on the brink of complete and utter chaos. The human toll due to starvation and disease is staggering. Learning more about Yemen may very well help call attention to this international travesty. And so I came to Dave Eggers's book with high hopes. Who better than a high-profile guy like Eggers to call attention to Yemen, and through the profiling of a dedicated and charismatic Yemeni-American activist?

I was wrong, though. This book has some really important and useful information to impart about Yemen, and Eggers does a nice job in attempting to tease together a reliable and convincing narrative about what has happened in Yemen over time, and why. But unless you're intensely interested in the minutiae of very high-end coffee brewing, the global history of coffee, the Yemeni diaspora, and recent Yemeni history, this book may be for you what it was for me: a slog. I couldn't even finish it. And I wanted to! But I don't care particularly about the history of Blue Bottle coffee or the networking necessary to try and create a reliable supply chain across a region and a nation in crisis. I just couldn't keep struggling through all that kind of stuff in order to see how the story that truly interested me ended (I mean, I skipped ahead, of course, but that's neither here nor there).

I really hope there is someone who cares about all of the issues and histories and people I mentioned that compete for attention in this book. Because whoever that person is, they are going to find themselves enjoying the best read of their life when they pick this up. As for me, I'm going to have to keep looking at the newest releases related to Yemen and hope that I find one compelling enough to share with friends and fellow bibliophiles.


Five Things This Week 

1. Smiles for Miles
Someone anonymously sent me this little bottle of essential oils. I can honestly say that I've never enjoyed an essential oil more. It smells like sunshine and it really does make me happy! You should get some if the winter blues are wearing you down. Or if you just want to feel happy. 💛💛💛💛

2.  Hawaiian musical instruments
When our family visited Maui in January, we went to this fantastic little shop and found a million treasures. They included a dear little metal finger harp thing made out of a coconut, a magical thunder maker, an egg that makes rain, and a bamboo mouth organ. We keep them all in a little bronze bowl in our living room, so that we can make music - and weather - whenever we want to. If you want some of these terrific items, that magical shop has an online presence. Click through on my Maui photo caption.
Everyone has Hamilton fever, especially here in Denver, where it has just arrived to kick of its national tour.  My kids and I know all the words to all of the songs on the soundtrack already, but we didn't know about the Hamilton Mix Tape album until this week! Maybe I'm just totally behind the times, but if you haven't heard this, you definitely need to! My favorite songs are #3 and #7.

4.  RBG.
There's a documentary, and it's coming May 4th. Need I say more? 

5. Stack Magazines
Want to read more magazines and journals? Want to support new projects, or just find the perfect fit? Try out the Stack subscription. It sends you two magazines a month. I subscribed in January and have been really loving what they send along. Always quirky and absorbing. Check it out! 

In the Bookbag This Week
I'm about halfway through  Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists (finally!) and have The Mayor of Mogadishu at bat (it's nearly due back at the library, so I need to get a move on there). I'm also flirting with Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, which is translated from German and about the European immigration/identity crisis. And I've really been wanting to sink my teeth into Jeff Guin's The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the People's Temple, but it hasn't seemed like the right time. Until now. Well, maybe. I also have a trip to DC on deck at the end of the week, so who knows what will occupy my brain while I fight against my very real fear of flying (no, this isn't a cheeky reference to Erica Jong!). 

Until we meet again, book friends! May you be blessed in the week ahead with at least one absorbing book and many good times. 

* That probably made next to no sense to you. When I was a kid, some cartoon featured a little vignette where the freezer light was turned on and off by a tiny, silent, industrious penguin.  At least, that's how I remember it. Anyway. I believed it with my whole heart and spent more time than was absolutely necessary loitering around our refrigerator/freezer, opening and closing the freezer door at random, hoping like hell I'd catch that little guy. Never did, although he probably would have pecked me to death if I ever had, because I made his job VERY difficult. Yes, part of me still believes in the penguin. Don't try to convince me otherwise, and shame on you, too, for even considering it.

If you're enjoying my blog, please share it with your favorite book-reading friends and neighbors. You can sign up for email notices when a new entry has been posted by clicking the "Subscribe" button at the top of the page, set your calendar to remind you to check in with me on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings (I try to have this out the door by 4pm on Fridays so we can all start our weekends reading!), or you stop by and like Friends of Bookbaggin' It on Facebook, if you're a social media sort. There you'll find my weekly blog updates as well as some fun links and the occasional musing. Hope to see you soon and thanks for reading!