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review 2018-06-21 16:13
Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith
Wade in the Water - Tracy K. Smith

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith's Wade in the Water is her most recent collection and the first I've read. I think it makes an excellent introduction to her work and wouldn't be a bad place to start if you're new to contemporary poetry. She does not intimidate, nor does her language obfuscate.

 

The two middle sections engaged me most. The first mines the Civil War era past and makes use of erasure and historical and primary sources in a way that both gives the suffering of African Americans at the time specificity and voice while absolutely illuminating continued injustices in the present. The second also makes poetry out of found materials to focus on contemporary issues such as the environment and racist violence. However, the poems don't attack; they feel like they come from a place of hope.

 

A book I'm sure I'll come back to soon, after I read her other collections, of course. :)

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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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text 2018-05-06 19:08
DNF: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart
Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart

DNF not quite halfway through. In the beginning I was impressed by the fine line this book walks between annoyance and charm. The word I thought of to best describe it was "rambunctious." Then I thought, "Will this 'rambunction' get old?" And it basically did. Or maybe I'm just not in the mood for satire of life 15+ years ago when the present is even crazier. Like, we're living a satire right now. I will say I enjoyed the physicality that Shteyngart revels in; that's rare. On the other hand, I could do without the meta quality, references to an author with a name like Shteyngart's who published a novel that sounds like his debut novel.

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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 2018-03-15 17:29
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

It took me almost four months to read Pachinko. As I read, I began wondering about my slow pace. My fall semesters are busier, yes, but I still manage to finish most books in what's a timely manner for me. It certainly wasn't because I found the book hard to read in terms of comprehension or engagement. As I got closer to the end, I realized: it was because I was so invested in the characters and storytelling I had to take time to process the intense feelings the novel evoked. There are also regular gaps in time that take place between chapters where characters' situations change significantly; I needed mental space before diving into the story again. I can't think of another novel that required this sort of reading from me.

 

In addition to Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, Pachinko has served to establish that "family sagas" can engage me, or at least when another culture is involved. Through the family portrayed here, I learned more about Korea, but it never feels like a history lesson. Everything comes from the characters. The novel also provokes thought about national and racial identity.

 

There were moments I dreaded, as with the return of a less sympathetic character, though not in a way that made me dislike the novel or its author. There were moments that shocked me to the point of gasping. There are many scenes that easily and vividly come to mind when I recall my reading, which I finished more than a month ago.

 

I would love to teach this novel. I have the feeling I may reread it some day, regardless. For me, that's a rarity, a compliment, and a sign of deep gratitude. 

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