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review 2018-05-13 17:07
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

There they (police officers) stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.

Terrible how much this text is still relevant, might have been written today. This would not have surprised Baldwin--he acknowledges more than once that things may never change in America--though I imagine it might have saddened him.

 

The Fire Next Time contains two separate nonfiction pieces, one a letter to Baldwin's nephew, the sort of message or discussion African Americans have with their younger family members that white people don't. The second is an elegant "Letter from a Region in My Mind" that explores the author's coming to (and leaving) religion as a way to discuss race and racism in America. It is, ostensibly, a solution, though perhaps an impossible one.

 

I couldn't possibly capture Baldwin's argument in a brief synopsis, nor do I want to. His prose is beautiful and crystal clear, unflinching yet humane. He's my favorite kind of arguer, one who acknowledges from where other points of view are coming while advocating for his own position. It's been too long since I first read him, and I won't make that mistake again.

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review 2018-04-21 21:22
Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson
Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition - Paul Watson

This is the first book I've read that focuses on the multitude of searches conducted to find the lost Franklin expedition rather than on the expedition itself, though of course early chapters offer context. As a fellow obsessive, it's worth asking why this lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage has generated so much interest and so many searches over the years. It certainly wasn't the only lost voyage.

 

One answer is Franklin's wife, Jane, whose tenacity and devotion was the force behind many of the search efforts. What I didn't know, and this book details, is that Lady Franklin was an explorer and adventuress in her own right. She'd have gone on a voyage to the Arctic herself if she hadn't been prevented. Her efforts extended to seances and mediums, popular at the time in Britain; a few turned out to be uncannily accurate.

 

However, one of the clearest explanations why it took so long to find the two ships (both recently discovered at the bottom of the Arctic in 2014 and 2016) is that Inuit witnesses were ignored or misunderstood (in fact, Charles Dickens penned an incredibly racist rant once it was revealed via the Inuit that some men of the expedition resorted to cannibalism). Another strength of this book is that it gives these figures and their culture their due. However, I was put off a few times by Watson's language, which could go heavy on the "magical native" trope (at one point there's a "mystical glint" in an Inuit's eye).

 

I appreciated that in addition to citing those who traveled to the Arctic or gave information on the expedition's fate, Watson also highlights those whose inventions and pioneering aided in searches. He also unequivocally connects climate change with the discoveries of the ships; ironically, after many lives lost searching for it in the past, a Northwest Passage is now feasible due to the melting of Arctic ice. Canada, Russia, and the United States, along with Britain, were heavily invested in these expeditions and their recovery because a passage would be so lucrative. So...there's the bright side?

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review 2018-04-09 18:31
Starting National Poetry Month with a bang
Citizen: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine

I'm cognizant of the fact that I don't read enough books by women of color and that I read very few works of poetry. I decided to kill two birds with one stone by reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. (Also, it's National Poetry Month so it was a no-brainer.) This book is especially relevant right now with the state of our world being what it is: a shambles. Citizen is essentially Claudia's exploration of what it is to be a black woman living in America as told through poetic verse. It is beautiful, tender, terrible, tragic, and real. She doesn't shy away from such topics as police brutality or the prevalence of feeling like an outsider. This book is a personal revelation and a public admonishment all rolled into one neat package Coupled with her verses are historical quotes and pencil drawn (I think?) artwork. What better way to begin your foray into poetry than by reading a book that challenges the status quo and speaks from the heart? If you'd like to maybe see the world through a different set of eyes Citizen is your golden ticket with many stops along the way. 9/10

 

I made a note of this quote on page 89 to give you an idea of just how powerful her words are:

 

Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and where we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue.

 

What's Up Next: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

 

What I'm Currently Reading: The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

 

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2018-04-04 05:59
Middlesex -- So much better than I had imagined
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

Edit: I've been thinking about this since, and I've come to the conclusion this book couldn't be written today (in 2018) while it seemed daring and real just a few years ago. There's more to that conversation, but I'm still judging this based on the time in which it was written. And I'm still very glad it was written and I got to read it.

 

Back to your previously scheduled program:

 

I was rather shocked at how good this is. I couldn't wrap my head about the blurbs. The idea of a book about an intersexual person sounded like it would be a political or medical diatribe, or possibly a whiny "poor me" tale falsely disguised as fiction. I realized Jeffrey Eugenides was not writing his personal story, but I did have the idea that this was still somehow a disguised bit of biography -- perhaps it is. If I was a real book reviewer, I'd have to look that up, but I'm not. No matter its origins, it doesn't read like any of these usually disguised things, and it's really very good.

Funny as could be, almost every line is quotable. This is more of an historical novel than just one person's story. It's a family story that is more vital to the man telling it than most. Cal née Calliope Stephanides is proof of a family secret in his very being. It will take a trip across the ocean at the end of the Greco-Turkish War and the accidents of love in the close-knit Detroit community for the secret to reveal itself through three generations of Stephanides. Even then Calliope is a child and hasn't been educated to the multitudinous ways genetics and gender (nevermind sexuality) can play out. So this is a very original coming-of-age story, a medical history, the story of forbidden love and much more in just over 500 pages of stunning prose.

Marvelously detailed, interesting and well-researched, with decent and realistic portrayals of all genders, from the roaring twenties through the twenty-first century, love and marriage, Detroit, and America/Americans broadly, Eugenides is a smart writer with a warm, welcoming voice. The word most likely to describe it would be "charming." While occasionally I got sniffy about some of the ease with which Cal seemed to make his decisions, it would have turned into a fake memoir if we went through every painstaking detail. He seemed a bit naive at times, then Eugenides would have him say something about his upbringing or family to remind me that he, in fact, was naive. Kids were much more naive in pre-internet days, or if not naive, often just plain confused or wrong. Cal is clearly not the type who would pour out his feelings anyway. When I know a character well enough to know why she does or doesn't do things, it's usually a good sign the writer has gotten his story and his characters under my skin.

I can see why Oprah picked Middlesex for her book club years ago. The voices are all supremely individual and Cal is a charming narrator, but Cal - while being the main character - is almost incidental to the overall story in some ways. I wish I'd read this with a group, because the discussion could go on forever. This is one of those books I knew I "should" read, and I didn't really have much interest. It didn't sound appealing, but I passed it on a shelf at the library last week and obviously picked it up. A different copy will find itself in my home soon, because I will certainly want to read it again and urge others to do the same. So, hey you - if you've not read it, take the leap. It's so much better than it sounds.

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review 2018-04-01 18:31
SING, UNBURIED, SING -- a graceful trip through harrowing territory
Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel - Jesmyn Ward

A realistic book where ride-hopping ghosts feel as natural as a toddler vomiting on a long trip is a feat of nature. It simply should not be possible, but Jesmyn Ward achieves it with ease in SING, UNBURIED, SING.

 

And can we just talk about that title? Everything about this book is pitch perfect. I rarely read anything that doesn't stop me at some point to notice that I'm reading. It's one of the horrors of growing up. I used to read everything by just diving in and living in that world for the length of the book. Nowadays, I notice far too often that this is a book. It's either overly clever or overly wordy or overly cute or overly bad or something along the way. That didn't happen here. I didn't notice anything but a story I got sucked into and read voraciously from the first page to the end.

 

There are plenty of great reviews by people who know better than me why this is a good book. I am not going to pretend to know. I just know this is a book I felt intensely and lived inside while I read it.

 

Every scene is impeccable like a well-preserved antique: not in a bright shiny way - just in a refined way, sort of soft and easy, no matter the subject matter. (Maybe this is what "lyrical" means.) Given the subject matter of parental drug use, a son who has taken the world on his shoulders, race relations, the worst prison in the country, family dynamics, poverty, cancer... Those things are not usually written with agility. They are often "important," but not usually graceful. SING, UNBURIED, SING is. There's a light but purposeful touch.

 

This is a book -- and they seem to come along only rarely -- that reminds me exactly why it is so vital, life-affirming and essential to read.

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