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.

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